I’ve Been Thinking about Bowing

by John Brinsley


(John is currently living in Tokyo, Japan, and is a student at Hombu Dojo.)

New Year’s in Japan is a three- or four-day holiday, ideally spent with family sitting around doing not much of anything before going back to the routine of jobs, school, community activities, etc. Upon returning to work, some of the day is spent greeting your colleagues with, "Happy New Year, I look forward to working again with you this year (Akematshite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu)," and a bow. The hands are draped on the thighs as you make your greeting, and as you straighten up, you smile and give perhaps another nod and make a joke or ask how the holiday went.

Last Saturday, my family and I met at one of the many (many) Starbucks in Tokyo before doing some errands. This particular branch is adjacent to a large department store. We had a good view of one entrance as the doors opened at 10 am. As people made their way in, the clerks at the various concessions all bowed very slowly and deeply. One young woman in particular struck me: back straight, head in line. She kept her hands together at her chest and seemed to be very sincere about her task. The customers paid no attention.

The next day at Hombu was Kagami Biraki. The instructors and many members of the dojo pound mochi outside before and during the two Sunday classes, and the smell and smoke of the wood fires cooking the rice waft through the neighborhood. Everyone greeting each other for the first time of the year bows more formally than they otherwise would, and the changing room is even more crowded than usual.

Doshu, as always, has impeccable posture as he bows in to teach the second class. Then, he makes his way around the room greeting everyone, taking longer with the older members. I get a nod and a smile, “Long time no see, where were you during the holidays?” Waka-sensei and I grumble a bit as we practice on the wood in the back, given the limited space. I have to go ask a foreign guest watching class to sit down, and another time Waka-sensei notices someone peeking through the curtains from the men’s changing room. "What’s the matter with people, don’t they have any manners,” we say during kokyu dosa. Then, we bow to each other as class ends.

This sense of courtesy, which used to be innate in Japan, seems less so these days. Maybe it’s a reflection of the frantic pace of life: taking time to bow, taking time while bowing, requires a deliberation that is incongruous with listening to an iPod and text-messaging friends. Aikido is an antidote to that sensibility as long as it preserves an old budo saying: "Everything begins and ends with bowing."

To Robert Savoca-sensei, Kate, Cormac and everyone at Brooklyn Aikikai: Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.