Within the traditional martial arts of Japan are customary practices called reihō¹ and sahō². They both have strong cultural ties, and play an essential role both in and out of martial training. When traditional martial arts were introduced to western countries, such as the United States, some individuals made efforts to retain both reihō and sahō. However, not everyone sees the significance in them, and may even feel that these 2 practices can be excluded. For this post, I will discuss about the importance of reihō and sahō, from their roles on a cultural aspect to the lessons that lay hidden in them.
Let’s first look at the practice of reihō, which has the dictionary meaning of “etiquette” or “manners”. It’s function is a bit deeper than these definitions, though. An integral part of Japan’s history, the idea of reihō is practiced daily within the culture of Japan as showing respect to people, objects, customs, and so on. It is like a code of conduct, an unwritten behavior of sorts that has evolved over time. For martial arts, reihō is simply showing respect to one’s teacher, training partners, the weapons & equipment one uses, as well as to the art itself. While a customary practice, for those who aren’t native to Japan generally have to be taught reihō³.
A misconception of reihō is that it is ritualistic, or religious by nature. Actually this is not the case. Reihō is very simple in presentation and has reason behind its existence. There are few exceptions where certain groups and schools (i.e. Ogasawara ryu, Imagawa ryu, and Ise ryu) have “ritualized” their reihō, especially during the peaceful times of Edo period. Focusing on a visually appealing presentation, very structured rules and procedures are used within their formalized reihō, which can be seen in practices such as rope tying for both armor and packaging, flower arrangement, and style of clothing worn for martial events. While they may have been influential in certain aspects, what these groups do is not considered the norm.
As a standard reihō when 2 people are practicing kata, they stand face to face while holding their bokuto (wooden sword) in the left hand.
Switching their weapons from left hand to right hand, they bow their heads down. Their weapon passed to their right hand is a sign of respect, that they will not attack one another unexpectedly.
Finishing their bow, they step back with the left foot, and draw their weapon out, ready to train.
The 3 pics above show the reiho used during kenjutsu training in Chikushin Martial and Cultural Training Group. Click on each pic for further descriptions.
Bowing one’s head is the obvious indication of reihō. For martial arts there are a few that can be considered standard, or commonly see. Some of these are the following:
- Shizen rei (自然礼) = Standing bow, to peers, teacher, etc.
- Shinzen rei (神前礼) = Bow to the kamidana (small shrine in a dojo), in respect to the art and forefathers
- Shi rei (師礼) = Bow to teacher before, and after, training
Keep in mind that the types of reihō practiced depends on a martial school’s history, customs, what type of martial system it specializes in, and so forth.
Other than showing respect, reihō can serve some unique purposes not often considered. One is it helps to develop habits of “staying human” during training. What does “staying human” mean? In an activity where one learns techniques that can potentially hurt another, reihō acts like a reminder to be gentle with training partners during practice, and be thankful that they entrust his/her safety in your hands. This can be seen when two individuals bow before engaging in kata geiko, as well as the bow afterwards. It is here where reihō can help us to stay human, and put aside our ego. Without it, training could resemble that of a fight club, where participants engage just to be only strong and unbeatable, while disregarding the safety of those who they train with.
Another aspect of reihō is it contains some tactical applications both for physical purposes, as well as psychological. It varies between martial schools, and is applied accordingly based on the school’s philosophy. For example, reihō can teach the concept to gesture respect to others, which in turn you can gain trust, friendship, and possibly gain access to much needed information. On the other hand, reihō can encourage to develop awareness about people around you, especially in unfamiliar places, and read people’s temperament.
Sahō is a practice that, much like reihō, has deep roots in Japanese culture. Dictionary terms tend to be the same as reihō (manners and etiquette), but actually goes beyond stated definitions. Sahō deals with preparation and customary actions, which can be as grand as ceremonial event to something as small as one’s everyday routine. The sahō of Chadō⁴ (tea ceremony), for example, is a great representation of the effort & attention to detail that is incorporated into presenting an elegant and engaging experience for those who appreciate tea.
Historically, sahō plays an important role in the nation of Japan rich with an intricate tradition. Its influence can be found in how rooms were prepared with specific decor for special events, how particular outfits were worn daily to work, and so on. As one would expect, sahō not only helps keep order and consistency in certain engagements & routines, but makes record keeping of what is required easy.
The sahō for many traditions have been recorded during peaceful times in Japan. For example, this dated manual called “Tokokazari Un’ō no Maki” (床飾蘊奥の巻) depicts detailed instructions for servants/employees on how to set up a room for specific celebrations and events.
In Japanese martial arts, there are different aspects of sahō. On the lowest level, sahō is simply wearing one’s keikogi for training. On a more visually profound level, we see sahō during the start of certain training exercises, as well as while working on specific kata. This can vary numerous ways, from the specific way one walks to initiate a training exercise, 2 practitioners bow to each other, to even how a particular weapon is prepped for use.
Here is an example of sahō that is used in my martial arts group, Chikushin Martial & Cultural Training Group. During kenjutsu training we utilize what is called “Issoku Ittō no Maai⁵”. This entails 2 people standing a few feet away from each other while holding their bokutō (wooden sword) on their right side as if a real sheathed sword. Passing it to their left hand, both draw their bokutō out (as like a katana from its sheath), stand in a posture called Seigan, and walk forward. They meet the tips of their bokutō together before stepping back and assuming the designated posture. While it can appear ceremonial at times, one of the purposes of Issoku Ittō no Maai is to help learn proper cutting range with a katana.
This pic shows a small part of a unique sahō used for a bo versus katana sequence where both practitioners place their weapons on the ground in a specific formation, followed by a za rei (kneeling bow). Such is done for public demonstrations and events.
Possibly the most common place to see a martial school’s sahō is during public demonstrations. For these demonstrations, generally called an enbu⁶, sahō that is presented may seem very ritualistic. For example, a practitioner is preparing for a solo kata which includes a sheathed katana, he/she may appear mentally focused and serious as the katana is gestured during bowing or the like, as if in a zen-like state, before inserted into the obi. Or when 2 practitioners that have finished a sequence in a paired kata may do movements that appear slow and exaggerated, with pauses that make their presentation seem not-so-combative. There are reasons behind all this.
For the most part, sahō during a public demonstration is all for the sake of presentation, to convey to spectators the type of spirit one must develop. Studying traditional martial arts isn’t only about developing a strong, physical body; refining one’s spirit and fortifying one’s mental endurance are just as important, and sahō helps to support this. Another reason can be to indicate where certain techniques are strong and are an actual strike. Take note that while having spectators being able to understand and follow demonstrations is important, this does not mean that sahō should reveal specific details about a particular martial style and its techniques, for certain information, such as strategic timing, are held back and made accessible for those training in that style.
In essence, there are many positive aspects of doing both reihō and sahō. Other than preserving this Japanese tradition, there are lessons that can be useful both in and out of one’s dojo. Those that pursue studying traditional martial arts generally get a chance to learn about these practices at schools that choose to follow this custom. Both reihō and sahō are also preserved in my martial arts group, and incorporated in each training sessions.
3) Surprisingly, reihō is not a big part within many families’ household in Japan’s current society compared to a few hundred years ago. Although the idea of respect and manners are expressed in many service-related, business-related, and educational-related mediums, one would be surprised how it doesn’t rub off on every individual as a whole. Spending time living amongst the locales, as well as reading current topics on news sites and blogs, gives one the chance to see and understand these changes.