It is common for people to ask about the practice of bowing in aikido. In particular, many people are concerned that bowing may have some religious significance. It does not. In Western culture, it is considered proper to shake hands when greeting someone for the first time, to say “please” when making a request, and to say “thank you” to express gratitude. In Japanese culture, bowing (at least partly) may fulfill all these functions. Bear in mind, too, that in European society only a few hundred years ago a courtly bow was a conventional form of greeting.
Incorporating this particular aspect of Japanese culture into our aikido practice serves several purposes:
It inculcates a familiarity with an important aspect of Japanese culture in aikido practitioners. This is especially important for anyone who may wish, at some time, to travel to Japan to practice aikido. There is also a case to be made for simply broadening one’s cultural horizons.
Bowing may be an expression of respect. As such, it indicates an open-minded attitude and a willingness to learn from one’s teachers and fellow students.
Bowing to a partner may serve to remind you that your partner is a person – not a practice dummy. Always train within the limits of your partner’s abilities.
The initial bow, which signifies the beginning of formal practice, is much like a “ready, begin” uttered at the beginning of an examination. So long as class is in session, you should behave in accordance with certain standards of deportment. Aikido class should be somewhat like a world unto itself. While in this “world,” your attention should be focused on the practice of aikido. Bowing out is like signaling a return to the “ordinary” world.
When bowing either to the instructor at the beginning of practice or to one’s partner at the beginning of a technique it is often considered proper to say “onegai shimasu” (lit. “I request a favor”) and when bowing either to the instructor at the end of class or to one’s partner at the end of a technique it is considered proper to say “domo arigato gozaimasu” (“thank you”).