The Art of Bowing

Written by Sensei Jon Davis

14 June 2024


In the realm of traditional Japanese martial arts, bowing is far more than a simple gesture. It is a profound expression of respect, humility, and connection. It is deeply embedded in both Japanese culture as well as dojo culture. The bow is much more than a physical action - it is a practice that embodies the spirit of budo. Through bowing, we honor those who have gone before such as our teachers and founders of the art. It shows respect for our classmates and promotes harmonious relationships with them. It also helps reinforce our commitment to the continuous journey of self-improvement. Every bow serves as a reminder of the values we uphold: respect, compassion, gratitude, and the relentless pursuit of excellence. Let's explore bowing's vital role in our training:


Types of Bows

In the dojo, different types of bows are used depending on the context and individuals involved:

  • Formal Standing Bow (Ritsu Rei): Used as a formal greeting and sign of respect. 
  • Informal Standing Bow: Slightly less formal / used in more casual interactions among peers, maintaining respect but with less rigidity.
  • Seated Bow (Za Rei): Conducted when sitting in seiza. Often performed at the beginning and end of a training session.

Bowing Angles and What They Mean

The angle of a bow is very important. The shallower the bow, the more we are connected with the person we are greeting or saying goodbye to. The deeper the bow, the more we want to express deep gratitude - mostly used in formal situations.

  • Eshaku (15 deg. bow): Most common. This is the bow you'd perform if you were passing a classmate in the dojo hallway or someone that you knew on the street.
  • Keirei (30 deg. bow): "Keirei" translates to "bow with respect." This bow is the one you would use if you were greeting your classmates in the dojo, or colleagues / superiors at work. Try to maintain a straight line from your head to your lower back as you bend. Focusing your eyes to the ground 3 feet in front of your toes should get you close to 30 degrees.
  • Sai-Keirei (45 deg. bow): Most formal version and shows the utmost respect to the other person. It is used in situations like greeting very important people, saying sorry, or asking for big favors. Holding this bow for a little longer than you would a shallower type of bow shows respect and sincerity.


Situations Where to Bow

  • Greeting / saying goodbye
  • At the start / end of a class, meeting or ceremony
  • Before / after training with a partner
  • Before / after performing a kata
  • Entering / exiting the taijo (training floor) in the dojo
  • Entering / exiting a martial arts dojo
  • Expressing your gratitude / saying thanks
  • Apologizing
  • Congratulating someone
  • Asking for something
  • Showing sympathy
  • Showing appreciation

Deeper Meanings

The act of bowing in Japanese culture and arts is imbued with symbolism. Bowing can be used to convey emotions, including appreciation, respect, remorse or gratitude, but also:


  • Reishiki (Etiquette): Bowing is part of the reiho, the etiquette that governs behavior in the martial arts. It teaches discipline, control, and respect.
  • Spiritual Connection: Bowing creates a moment of mindfulness, connecting the practitioner to the present moment and to the spiritual essence of the martial art.
  • Acknowledgement of the Art: A bow symbolizes one's recognition of the martial art's philosophy and history, an homage to those who have developed and preserved it through the generations.


Understanding the art of bowing enriches our practice and deepens our connection to the timeless traditions of our art. It is through these small yet significant gestures that we preserve the integrity and honor of our discipline.

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