The meaning of the kanji for Rei (Etiquette)

posted in: Budo, Kanji | 2

We often just use it to mean “bow” in the dojo, but it also has a wider meaning of thanks, gratitude, manners, etiquette, and so on.

Here is a large version of Rei so you can see it more clearly:



In fact, 礼is quite a modern kanji. It’s a simplified form of the original kanji:



The left-hand side of 禮 is a form of 示, which means altar, festival, religious service. One of my favourite ways to bring kanji (or the radicals that they’re built from) to life is to look them up in a Japanese kids’ dictionary – and this is no exception – as you can see from this picture, which shows how 示 is a little picture of an altar:

15.06.15 - shimesu pic smaller
Shogakukan Kanji Dictionary for Elementary School Students, 5th edition – page 723

The right-hand side is豊 which according to any standard Japanese-English dictionary means bountiful, excellent, rich. But again, the kids’ dictionary shows a far richer meaning behind this. First of all, it tells us that豊 is a simplified version of an older, more complex kanji: 豐




And 豐is made up of:

– mountain
– bean
2015.07.13 - rice radical – a ripe ear of Asian rice

The dictionary explains that 豐 represents a heap (mountain) of agricultural crops stacked on top of a sake cup. (As you can see from the picture below). So 豐 (or the simplified version豊) has connotations of a stand, rack or table to hold something offered to the gods. As you can see from this picture:

15.06.15 - yutaka pic smaller

When we put these two parts together – both with their sacred connotations – we get禮 which means, the act of preparing something for the gods for a festival.

So the accepted translation of Rei 禮 (or nowadays the simple form 礼)into English is thanks, gratitude, manners, etiquette, bow. But a closer look at the kanji gives us also the ancient, sacred associations of this kanji.

Does this mean that we are effectively participating in some kind of a religious ceremony every time we perform a rei (bow) in the dojo? Readers of Angry White Pyjamas will remember the character of R’em, who struggled with this,

R’em, too, was close to breaking point. The cause was the new photograph of Kancho Sensei that now hung below the shrine shelf. R’em announced that he could no longer bow down to the shrine, because in orthodox Judaism you do not bow down before human images. But bowing to the shrine was a considerable part of daily ritual in the dojo. It was done in full view of everyone six times a day. Was R’em proposing to give up the course because of his religion? […] But R’em solved the problem, or at least found a temporary solution. He started to bow slightly off centre, not quite at the shrine. “I bow at the wall” he said, proudly. It was such a slight movement that no teacher noticed, but it saved his conscience.

Obviously this is a question for individuals to answer for themselves, according to their own personal beliefs. But I really like Dave Lowry’s perspective on this in Sword and Brush. Lowry makes the distinction between religion and spirituality. He explains that, The Way is unattached to particular religious dogma. However, it demands, a devotion to spirituality, and this devotion makes itself evident, in part, in the form of etiquette, or rei. 

The difference between religion and spirituality is complex. To summarise very broadly, religion tends to be more about adopting a specific set of beliefs and rituals; while spirituality is more abstract and perhaps harder to define. It’s often said that it’s possible to be religious without being spiritual; and spiritual without being religious.

Lowry sees the modern kanji for rei 礼 as showing a man kneeling at an altar. He concludes, This is fitting. Rei teaches the bugeisha how to sit before the altar. It leaves up to him what it is he shall worship there. 

Obviously this is just one person’s take – and there are various different ways to view the role of spirituality in the martial arts. For example:

  • At one extreme, some people see nothing at all spiritual in the martial arts. This may be either because they are heavily focused on the sports side; or because they are aggressive in nature and basically just want to learn how to fight better.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, some people see martial arts training as a purely “spiritual” exercise. An extreme version of this, is that I’ve heard a small number of aikidoka state that aikido is not actually a martial art; it’s a philosophy and way of life, which just uses martial arts metaphors to express its principles.
  • Mid-way between these two extremes, is the view that the martial arts are definitely “spiritual” – but only as a by-product of following a demanding path of physical and mental self-discipline, over a long period of time.

Which of these views would you most agree with? Or do you have a completely different take on the relationship between spirituality and the martial arts? Please reply to this post and let me know!




2 Responses

  1. Aiki_grrl

    Hello again Kai,
    You give me so much great food for thought! I cannot read kanji so these posts are interesting and helpful to me. I love that you quote Angry White Pyjamas, a book very close to my heart!
    One of my teachers once made us sit in seiza for an hour repeating the phrase “rei is saving myself”. After about 20 minutes of this I was wondering where Ray was and when he was coming to save me. Ray never did show up but I had something of an endorphin-induced spiritual experience.
    In all seriousness, though, I connect with your third description. Rei as etiquette is not just an empty ritual but a physical discipline that expresses one’s internal state. A beautiful bow is an offering, not to God/s but to the art, the dojo, Sensei and fellow students. It is a way to express without words what is in my heart.
    Rei as respect also has a more martial meaning. We must remember that aikijujutsu was developed in an era where transgressions of etiquette could get one killed. I respect the ability of others to hurt me and treat others accordingly. This is not to be paranoid, only aware, and maintain some humility. Don’t provoke or antagonise people. Save myself.

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