Aikido is respectful, in keeping with established etiquette, we are respectful of the founder of Aikido, the place that we practice, our fellow Aikidoka, and ourselves. That respect is demonstrated by bowing. 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. 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 expresses open-mindedness 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 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 GOZAIMASHITA” (“thank you”).
Bowing in your weapon – When bowing in before a weapons class, students should have the bokken or jo on their right side, blade facing away toward their bodies. This symbolizes deferment and respect for the teacher, since the weapon is drawn in battle from the opposite side, the left. Occasionally members will be asked to perform a standing bow to start a weapons practice for this, the hilt (handle) of the bokken is held on the left, and again on the opposite side it would be held when facing an opponent. The blade is still held facing toward yourself, both hands raised to eye level, and the head bowed slightly below the level of the offered sword. Once a practice has begun, weapons are your life, symbolically – almost universally, weapons are held on the left, at ready, mindfully, respectfully, until the end of practice, when the bowing in procedure is repeated.