Under: karate, martial arts
8 Jun 2014


I have had some experiences while teaching karate over the years confused me. One of the time I was teaching this woman some karate on the side and showed her how to do the kenpo salutation/bow. She did not want to bow to me. I tried to explain to her this was just a formality in karate – it shows respect for one’s instructor. I finally got her to understand but I did not understand the objection myself. I’ll tell you about what I was able to work out with her in a bit.


Then when I read this post entitled, “Religious Objection In The Dojo” I was still confused a couple of years back. I mean I am a Christian but was not really practicing much other than trying to find a service at Easter and Christmas. Still I was confused by why even a devout religious person would object to the obligatory bow before and after lessons.


In this post I’ll explore the pros and cons of the martial arts tradition of bowing. First watch this explanation video I found.


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So from watching this video and from my experience each school carries down some traditions from their parent organization. Kenpo Karate came from China, to Japan, and varying degrees depending on your Kenpo lineage, Okinawa, Hawaii, and finally (for me) to the United States. In many cases even though the predominate religions have not been handed down, many of the customs of the peoples of that lineage have. Bowing is an Asian custom somewhat akin to the Western handshake.


The bow is also a religious sign or sign of since reverence (such as what one might do before a king in some countries). So here in the United States we do not have kings and queens or even the custom to bow to normal people for any reason. However we have a large Asian population and I have seen bows used.


Here in the United states we have the mini-bow or nod. As a male walking down the street if you are going to pass another male of physical stature or fighting ability or just want to keep peace; you would do the eye contact/nod thing. That way the alpha male you are passing does not feel disrespected and does the compulsory nod back to show respect acknowledgement of another alpha male.


So you see we Westerners are accustomed to the bow’s meaning even though it is not as formalized as the Western handshake.


In the Kenpo Karate style I practice our founding Grand Master, James Mitose told us in his writings (how I know about this) that karate ought to conform to the major religion in the country it is being taught. From that statement I discern two things, One that Master Mitose was aware of social norms of cultures and wanted kenpo to survive and be widely adopted. I also understand that kenpo is not married to any one religion!


The Tracy’s school I was brought up in did not stress bowing crossing the threshold or when entering the mat – only at the beginning and ending of lessons and at tournaments. We were a semi-formal style – meaning we kept some of the traditions but focused more on karate than on a any foreign culture. When we sparred often the only sign of respect was a quick tap on the gloves.


So the workaround with the woman was we agreed to shake hands before and after lessons.  I had no issue with that as the respect was the important part. How you showed it was not a big deal.

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One Response to “Bowing in the Martial Arts; Valid Religious Objections?”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    I never considered this! I appreciate your thoughtful discussion and the egalitarian way you handled it, John!

    In the beginning, in the martial arts, unlike other areas of my life, I just did as I was told! :-) Over time, I grew to respect and appreciate the traditions that made it an art and not just martial.