Why Bow?

by Jenifer Tull-Gauger, 4th Dan, Shihan

Why bow? Many Americans ask this question. The first time I remember being expected to bow was in a Zen mediation group. I asked the instructor why they bowed when they passed the altar. He answered that the practitioners just sort of adopted that practice, which I didn’t think was much of an answer. It seemed to me that the way of Zen is not to give answers.

I have also seen Christians bow to their altars as they pass them, which brings up another question: is bowing strictly a religious practice? The answer is no, as supported by a January, 2002 Federal Court ruling.

Judo practitioner John Holm, and his stepchildren, Lailani and James Akiyama, went to court to try to do away with mandatory bowing in American judo tournaments. (Judo students are traditionally required to bow to the mat before a picture of judo’s founder.) The Akiyamas asserted that mandatory bowing is against their religion and violates their civil rights.

U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik did not see intent to discriminate based on religion. So bowing remained a requirement in international Judo competition. Jim Bregman, president of the U.S. Judo Association, said, “It’s clear the bow in judo is simply a respectful act, like a handshake in wrestling.”

For students beginning martial arts, all the bowing can give a bit of cultural shock. When I started Karate, Newland Sensei explained to me that, “We bow to the training area to show respect to those who have walked that path, or gone before us in Karate.” I liked his answer. Bowing at the dojo quickly became a habit.

I heard from a Japanese source that Americans would never learn to bow correctly, implying that we are culturally deprived of the bow. Apparently, Karate and weapons expert Sensei Tadashi Yamashita (born in Okinawa, Japan) thinks we can learn to bow. When Yamashita Sensei taught a seminar many years ago, he criticized us students for our brief, uncommitted bows. He said when we are going to bow, to do it right: bend at the waist with your hands at your sides, pause for a moment – at least a full second – before straightening up again. He demonstrated and said if you bow this way to a Japanese person, he will take notice, he’ll think you know something about bowing, and he will bow back.

Why bow? -Because it shows respect. It also carries on the tradition of our Martial Arts and shows respect for those who passed it down to us. Bowing, like almost everything in Karate, takes practice to get good at it. So – even if you are an American – keep bowing.

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