Do you know how to bow correctly or properly? Part 2: Kneeling bow (za rei 座礼)

Rei kanjiI find only a little problem with the bowing of za rei itself but what I find is some problems with how we kneel down from a standing “yoi” position.

From your yoi (musubi dachi) position you have two ways to kneel down. One is to kneel down without moving your feet (the way I do). I start with the left knee going down first then followed by the right knee. I know this method is hard for many people as it requires the strong legs and good balance. The other way is to take a short step back with your right foot then to kneel down on your left knee (see the illustration, photo 1, below).

How to kneel down

During the kneeling process, do not put your hand or hands down to support yourself. If you have a knee problem then you must ask your sensei for permission to do this. Normally, you must keep your hands at your sides or laps during this process. This will allow you to correctly kneel down into the seiza position.



Let me share some sample photos to show the correct kneeling bow (za rei).left hand first

From a seiza position, Photo 2 (right) shows that you should put your left hand on the floor first while keeping your right hand on your lap. Then you will put your right hand down. This is the samurai way and this is how I do it.

However, putting both hands down at the same time is also acceptable since we no longer carry swords. It is up to the individual karateka to decide if he/she wants to do a samurai way or the modern way.

samurai zarei

Then the next question is how close or far apart the hands are when you place them on the floor in front of you. The photo #3 shows the samurai way which shows a distance of 4 to 5 inches (or about the width of one hand) between the hands. What is important is that you must not have a wider distance, than this. A bowing with the hands wide apart is considered impolite or uncultured.

zarei photos

Photo 4 is from Ogasawara ryu (小笠原流) etiquette showing their style of za rei. This is the most respected Japanese etiquette and this method is also used in other Japanese arts such as sado (tea ceremony) and kado (flower arrangement).


Sadly, these days in Japan many people do not know how to do za rei correctly. So, in the budo dojo such as judo, kendo and karate, the teachers have to teach their students how to do za rei correctly. In the photos 5 & 6 (below), the teachers (kendo and judo) are coaching their students how to do the za rei correctly.

teacher teaching zarei 2kendo teacher teaching how to zarei

The three key points to follow for your za rei:

1. Do not lift your buttocks as you bow. In other words, you must keep your buttocks on your feet at all time during the za rei process.

2. Keep your back straight and do not arch your back as you bow.

3. The best angle for a teacher is 45 degrees. The students can bow as low as 90 degrees. Do not bow too deeply.


I will share some incorrect za rei samples here.Strange  2

This Japanese teacher (photo 7) is bowing a little too deeply. You can see this as his buttocks are off his feet. He looks like he is losing his balance which is not proper for the etiquette. His back also should be straight and keep his buttocks on the feet.


Here is another example of bowing too deeply (photo 8). If your elbows touch the floor then you know you are bowing too deeply.too low






This person in photo 9 has her elbows spread out too far.Strange 6

You must keep your elbows in line with the sides of your body (refer to the earlier photos 3 & 4)




Strange 10Photo 10 is a very nice poster designed for Master Kanazawa’s birthday. I understand that they are trying to show their respect to sensei with this illustration. Sadly, the bowing person’s hands are placed in the wrong position. As a consequence, it makes this bowing “strange” and not proper. As stated above, the hands should be either together or separated only by 4 to 5 inches.


These two boys are from a kenpo dojo (photo 11).

fingers openWhat’s wrong with their za rei? They seem to be doing the ritual all right. Take a look at the hands of the boy on the right. He should have all his fingers held together. A small infraction but it must be corrected.



Here are couple more good examples.

zarei from sidePhoto 12 is a class picture where a group of people are taking a lesson to learn the correct way of za rei.

This is probably a company’s training class for the newly hired employees.



Keep the bottom downPhoto 13 is of a dojo in Japan. You can see that most of the people are doing their za rei correctly but you can also find a few who are not doing it right. Can you see which ones?



Now you know how to do the kneeling bow as well as the standing bow. These manners are as important as the karate techniques. I hope you will remember them and perform them correctly in your daily training. Good luck.

zarei 3



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