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Bowing In A Circle

In every Japanese dojo in which I trained, we began and ended classes with group bows. To begin class, the sensei would sit or stand in front of the class and we would all bow together in the direction of the front of the class (where the shinden would be if we had one). Then the sensei would turn and we would bow to him. To end class, we would bow to the sensei first, and then he would turn and we would all bow again in the direction of the front of the class. In other words, the group bow (including the sensei) began and ended the class.

I don't think I ever asked who we were all bowing to. I was a child when I studied a Judo in Japan. Later, I think that I just followed along. Somehow, I came to understand that we were bowing to the "spirit of the art" and/or "to all the sensei who came before us, an unbroken line going back to the beginning of the art."

When I visited Professor Katsuhiko Shinzato in Okinawa, I noticed that his students started and ended class by forming a circle. Shinzato Sensei was in the circle too. There was only one bow -- everyone bowed to each other. There was not a separate bow to the sensei.

The next year, Shinzato Sensei visited my dojo in Hawaii. We were still bowing the way I described in the beginning of this post. Shinzato Sensei privately asked me, "Why are you still bowing to the Emperor?" He explained that before World War Two, all Japanese budo (martial arts) classes bowed to the Emperor, the figurative head of the Japanese nation (or empire).

He further explained that in Japanese society, each person knows his or her place in a vertical hierarchy from the very lowest person rising to the Emperor himself. Japan was a vertical society.

Okinawa, in constrast, was more of a horizontal society. Even the King of Okinawa (prior to the abolition of the kingdom and the annexation of Okinawa as a prefecture of Japan), needed help during the frequent typhoons that struck the islands. Everyone had to help everyone. While there were social classes in Okinawa, the society was more horizontal.

Thus, Shinzato Sensei's classes did not bow to the Emperor -- they bowed to show mutual respect to each other. Shinzato Sensei did not stand or sit at the head of the circle -- a circle has no head. Each location is equal.

Once I understood this, I immediately adopted this practice in my dojo. I like the idea of bowing out of mutual respect to everyone in the dojo -- from the sensei to the newest student. I also think that it makes the dojo more relaxed. We still maintain decorum and act politely, it just feels less militaristic (particularly in the pre-war in Japan sense).

In the United States, we believe that "all men are created equal." I don't think that you can get more horizontal than that. So this is why we bow in a circle.

See Circle Bowing Part 2.


Charles C. Goodin