” It is said that the martial ways are shown through one’s daily life and behaviour.Namely, through manners and humanity.”

Soke Masaaki Hatsumi.

Studying in the Budo Dojo is as much about understanding culture and tradition, as it is about learning fighting techniques. It is important for people to understand this.

People view the Bujinkan and the manner in which it is taught, as a free art. I think people take this to literally and decide that they can enter the dojo without a concern for understanding the etiquette of Japanese budo and the Japanese culture in general.

This concern has been an on going topic of discussion and has even been reiterated on Joji Ohashi’s website over the years. The problems range from the misuse of the dojo “genkan” and even basic common sence issues regarding rubbish and hygiene. If we cannot respect ” basic societal expectations”, then we have a long way to go in regards to understanding the path of the bugeisha!

To learn budo is to first gain an understanding and therefore an appreciation of the etiquette ( rei ) that is required. This changes depending on the culture of course. We are studying a Japanese martial art from Japanese teachers. We must do our best to familiarise ourselves with what is expected. This is not only from a dojo perspective, but from a general interactive perspective within that cultures society.

Posture for example is one aspect. The way you stand or sit, and the way in which you hold your arms and hands can all signify ( depending on the culture ) various emotions,attitudes or demenours.

After speaking with one Japanese Shihan about this, he pointed out a few things worth considering in regards to hand gesturing and posture in Japanese society, and within a dojo setting.

Firstly, standing with your hands clasped to the front at belt level often represents a ” sales mans”  taijutsu.

Secondly, standing with your arms folded to your front  is observed as being ” suspicious, disbelieving, or questioning”.

The end suggestion was to stand naturally with your hands by your side, or with them behind your back. Of course, these are only suggestions and from only one teacher.

It goes without saying, that the way we stand is not necessarily resembling our thoughts. For example: in the case of folding our arms, we may just be plainly cold! 

The reason for this topic is,  to develop an understanding of how body posture and actions can be interpreted very differently depending on the society, culture, and in times of peace and war,etc. Non verbal communication acts as 70% of the way we interact with people. We must therefore treat it with great importance. As for one day,it may save our lives.

Soke has said ” Feeling alone is not enough .” This is true. We may be in a foreign country and feel danger or be in a possibly life threatening situation. As we do not understand cultural taboos,norms, customs etc, our actions to diffuse the situation may actually be viewed as hostile! This is where soke asks us to study from an Anthropological point of view and recognise the uniqueness of the many cultures of the world.

This also relates to studying budo in the dojo. Often we believe what we are doing is appropriate and not offending people. This is often not the case. Japanese society often avoids conflict or shaming individuals by indirectly dealing with the situation. On many occasions, the person in question won’t know he has done something wrong for a very long period of time. This is the same in the Bujinkan. We must also recognise, in the era of the samurai, ignorance was no excuse and one could be killed in an instant! This often happened to foreign tradesman who reached the shores of Japan, unaware of the strict customs of etiquette.

The budo dojo is no different. However, the manner in which people are dealt with for misdemenours etc, are largely up to the Soke, or head teacher. In the case of the Bujinkan, it seems that “natural justice” and the natural manner of the ” bad being weeded out over time ” is the preferred manner.The bad end up ” killing themselves “, while others use their presence to help them along their Shugyo. 

It’s been said that it is important to have both good and bad within the dojo. From the bad, the good can see how to avoid straying from the right path, and the bad can see how to possibly redeem themselves from the actions of the good. The dojo is often said to be a place where we do pennance. This is important to remember, I feel.

When seated, it is observed in a dojo that unless you are stretching, you maintain a kneeling or cross legged posture. This is basically to avoid showing the “dirty” parts of your body, such as the soles of your feet. This is especially important when seated infront of a superior. We must also recognise the important consideration that the Japanese have in regards to hygiene as well.

Recently, Nagato Sensei instructed everyone on the manner of bowing at the beginning and end of each class. It was obvious that many did not understand the correct process. By raising this observation, people must be now aware that the Japanese teachers are in fact concerned about these aspects of budo. If you ignore this aspect of training, you ignore the very base of the martial arts.

” In the daily practise of Budo, etiquette begins with a bow. The etiquette of Budo is contained within the five confucion virtues of benevolence,justice,etiquette,wisdom, and sincerity.Etiquette is the cornerstone of these values, and it is important to realize this balance. Fully understanding this means you will never stray from the natural path of Bushido.”

Soke Masaaki Hatsumi

There are of course many other important aspects in regards to learning correct etiquette

Bowing is like saluting someone of higher rank than you in the military or Police forces. In the case of meeting with a higher rank, the lower ranks hold there salute until the higher rank has dropped his.

We can see this within business etiquette in Japan aswell. The older, or more superior positioned person bows, but the juniors to him bow lower.

In regards to seated bowing in the dojo, Nagato Sensei told everyone that the students must wait for the teacher to rise first from the bowing posture. Until then, the students maintain both hands on the ground.

When entering seiza, you drop with you left knee first. When raising from seiza, you step up with your right leg first. This is important as a samurai’s sword is drawn from the left. This should be basic kihon for all martial artists, but Nagato Sensei obviously saw that this basic understanding was not understood by some people in the dojo.

The elbows once seated in seiza are kept in. This is to protect against someone entering through the space between your arms and body to take/control you or your weapon.

The hand placement when bowing is left than right. It is then reversed when raising from the bow.

These basic principles must be understood.

As martial artists, we must try to learn from these teachings. Reigi is the line between life and death. Within etiquette lies the truth for knowing how to survive. We can see this in occidental culture with firearms. The ” hand shake ” performed with the right hand is the sign of ” peace” and the ” putting down of arms “. As most men are right handed, the offering of a hand, free from brandishing a weapon is deemed as a gesture of ” friendship “.

      ” It has been said that an armed society is a polite society “.

      The following is for pure interests sake, but there are important points that have a relationship with dojos in Japan, even in our modern era.

      As much as status and position matter to the Japanese, etiquette is the grease that allows the wheels of society to turn. The lower-ranked one is, the more fawning his manners will appear as higher and higher ranks are being addressed and interacted with.

      Virtually all forms of social interactions will take one of three clear divisions: to one’s superiors, to one’s equals, and to one’s inferiors. If a low-ranking samurai deals with an equal, he will function on an equal level unless he is hoping for a favor, in which case he would behave in the inferior-to-superior manner. Were he to behave in the superior-to inferior manner, it would be either insulting or humorous, depending on situation and intent. If the same low-ranking samurai were to use equal-to-equal manners and speech to his lord, it would be a shocking example of lèse majesté — the servant would be declaring his equality with the master — and it could get him severely reprimanded or even killed.

Bowing is the standard greeting and farewell, and depending on the depth of the bow and its duration, one can immediately tell who is the superior and who is the inferior. Equals and friends may bow with little more than an inclination of the head informally, but as with all things, a formal situation requires formal behavior. The most reverential form of bowing is a prostration, with one’s forehead touching the ground.

      Usually this would only be used at court, or when summoned by one’s lord, although a peasant being addressed by someone of very high rank may do this, and then carry on his conversation with the lord from a kneeling position. If one has committed some error, he will apologize by bowing in this manner to the one he has offended; it is a sort of “get out of jail free” card if done sincerely, as a proper bow and apology always gets a higher reaction from the one being apologized to than if the person just stands there and says, ” Sorry.”

The language itself is a barometer of social standing. Japanese has several different “politeness levels” with which one can speak. There are even certain verbs that are only used for different people. For example, when common people (or equals) eat, they will taberu; when someone more important than you eats, he will meshiagaru. When an equal does something, we say suru (= do); when a superior does something, the verb is nasaru, and when it is an inferior, it is itasu. To these specialized vocabulary elements can be attached myriad forms of verbal endings, and to these can be married the various forms of simple pronouns. The result is a wonderful patchwork that can in a few words tell you everything you need to know about who is who.

      In the English vernacular such subtle nuances are nigh unto impossible to get across. There are a few ways to convey the idea, however. When addressing a superior, use as polite a speech pattern as possible. Watch Amadeus or Henry V to get an idea of how this works. Refer to superiors in the third person, not the second (e.g., “Would your lordship allow his servant to undertake this assignment?” versus, “Let me go!”).

 When having an audience with a lord or other important personage, there should be guards present (although they may be hiding behind wall partitions).

      One should always bow formally to the lord at such a meeting, and sit on the floor several feet away. There may or may not be a cushion to sit on. When indoors, the lord holding the audience will invariably sit on a dais at one end of the room, and anyone else will be on the floor. Outdoors, if a formal audience is being conducted, there will be a tatami platform or a camp chair on which the lord will sit, in front of a semi-circle of camp-curtains bearing the lord’s crest. Watch the Kagemusha, Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood), Shôgun, and similar films; they all present several different examples of audiences. Sometimes, the person holding court will sit on his verandah, and the people in attendance will sit below on the ground. This is more typical for a larger group, when a single room might not hold everyone who needs to be there.



It is frequently said that the sign of a samurai is his two swords, but this was a tradition that was only really starting to solidify during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Most bushi would wear or carry a long sword, and the short sword was often little more than a dirk.

      During the sengoku period, people carry what they can get away with. Katana (and the usually matching wakizashi) are worn thrust through the sash, edge up, at the left side (no one is left-handed in Japan, so no one would carry their swords on the right side). One way to get an idea of someone’s rank is to observe how he wears his sword. One with rank and authority wears his katana thrust through his obi almost horizontally, sticking far out in front and behind (thus establishing his “personal space”). A more humble or lower ranking man wears his closer to his body, so that the scabbard is almost parallel to his leg. Part of the reason for this is that to touch the scabbard of another was often deemed an insult, and at times could have been seen as a virtual challenge to an immediate duel.

      Threatening gestures with swords include: grasping the scabbard just behind the guard and pushing the guard forward with the thumb (breaking the “seal” on the scabbard); deliberately reaching across the body and grasping the hilt with one’s right hand but not actually drawing the blade; removing the cloth “sleeve” that travelers sometimes put over the hilt and guard to keep dust away; and pulling the scabbard forward but not quite out of the sash, so that the hilt is more accessible for a draw. One need not actually draw or strike if performing one of these actions (for such is the intent being telegraphed) but one must realize that if he is bluffing and has no intent to fight and if he backs down in the face of someone calling his bluff, he suffers a loss of face.

      When indoors in a private home or noble’s estate, one must surrender the katana. In an estate, castle, or even the home of anyone with rank, there is a servant whose job it is to receive these swords, and keep track of them. There is a closet or sword rack near the door where “checked” swords are kept until the owner of the weapon is preparing to leave.

      When handing over a sword, the superior person will use one hand, the inferior both. The blade is always properly oriented (i.e.; for a tachi, edge down; for a katana, edge up). A superior person grasps the sword palm down on the scabbard, near the middle, and hands it over horizontally; the recipient receives it in both open palms, one at the hilt and one near the foot. If an inferior hands one over, it is palms up, under the hilt and foot; the recipient grasps it, palm down, at the center-point. This is similar for all weapons, as well, be they firearms, spears, or blades.

      Handing over an unsheathed sword (e.g., for inspection), one should grasp the sword in one hand at the very base of the hilt, holding the sword upright with the edge toward the one offering the sword. The recipient grasps the hilt directly below the guard; this puts him in a position to cut right down and take your arm off. That is the idea. It should be returned the same way. One thing implied in this is respect for the person receiving the sword; one is putting him in the dominant position, saying, “I trust you.” Of course, if you genuinely don’t trust the other person, you wouldn’t hand him a drawn weapon to begin with if you don’t have to, right?

      When sitting or kneeling indoors — especially as a guest — one should remove the sword from his sash and place it along his right side, edge in. This makes the sword inconvenient to get to and draw, and shows the proper respect. A great way to deliver a not-so-subtle insult (”I don’t trust you; I could kill you, you know.”) is to remove the sword from your obi but lie it on the floor on your left side, edge out. This is positioned for an easy draw. The key to a respectful attitude with swords is to indicate that it would be difficult to draw, cut, or otherwise defend oneself, while the other person would find it easy to attack.

      When carrying yari, naginata, or any polearm on the road, they are held point down, pointing at a spot on the ground about three feet in front; they can also be carried along the body in an attitude similar to “shoulder arms.” On the march, the blades are usually protected by lacquered covers. In addition to bringing the weapon into a guard position, the most threatening thing one can do is to jerk the haft and send the “sheath” flying; it implies you’re ready to use your weapon.

 We are studying a Cultural Treasure! Let’s treat it as such and pay our respects to those who came before us by maintaining the etiquette of the warrior both inside and out side of the Dojo.

Bufu Ikkan


7 Responses to “Rei”

  1. Duncan-Sama, This is a great topic of interest that is often “overlooked”. Thank you for sharing. One question for those that want to travel to Japan and visit the Hombu or the Budokan for class, what is the bowing etiquette for entering these places? I personally have seen it done differently even by the Japanese in attendance. Maybe a follow up article on particular bowing formalities when entering the training area would be benificial for most, as was this article! Thank you again

  2. marc dillembourg Says:

    Very nice Duncan.
    It’s funny how things are connected.
    I just gave a lecture to my students last week about the importance of Rei.
    With time it is a tool to transform individuals and their mindsets.
    And just like Kamae, it gradually becomes more alive, more honest ; an expression of a person’s Kokoro.
    Thank you again for these great articles.

  3. Anyone wanting to see some examples need look no further than tea ceremony. As with many things there are three levels of formality – shin, gyo and so (highest to lowest). Whether between guest and host, or guest and guest and the utensils used etc. The language is formal and the manner of utmost respect. Tea as Budo has its origins in Zen philosophy.

    Even in biblical terms there is a lesson – it is better to take a lowly place at the table and be invited to sit closer than the host than to assume to much and be embarrased by being asked to move down the table.

  4. Jonathan Krieg Says:

    Thank you for this article .

  5. Kent Wood Says:

    What a wonderful wealth of information. Thank you for sharing this!

  6. alfred reid Says:

    Dear Ducan, this is a very interesting topic, and often over looked by westerners . when entering another culture we should be mindful of the custom and etiquette of the country you are visiting. but a lot of people forget this and think they are still in there own country.
    It is only right and proper that we respect the custom of the country we enter and as a person studying the japanese arts we should be mindful and respectful of the etiquette in our chosen art .
    and if you dont know these please ask someone who can show you.

    once again thankyou for sharing this topic
    regard alfred

  7. Duncan-Sama,

    Thank you for posting this article and bringing awareness to those who might not have this knowledge and understanding for one reason or another. We do our very best to make proper dojo etiquette a daily part of our training. This is the first step for each new student, even before they do their first Kamae or Kaiten.

    Take care,

    Dave Fetterman, Shidoshi Pittsburgh Bujinkan Taka Seigi Dojo

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