However, in looking into this I have found apparent confusion. We CALL the small shrine-looking thing in the front (shomen) of the dojo the kamiza, but it would seem that at least in almost every dojo I have been in (and I have visited many) that the more appropriate term is kamidana.
Kamiza would seem to be a general term for what might be called the upper seat or seat of most importance. Think of a meeting with the president of your company. He sits at the kamiza. Kamidana is a shrine in which much of what we see on what we in aikido call the kamiza. In fact one dojo I have frequented on business is run by a buddist priest and it looks 99% like the kamidana at our dojo, although we call it kamiza. Kamidana also as I understand it are found in homes and may have pictures of ancestors, and the purpose here of bowing is to either give thanks to the kami (spirit or god in shinto belief) or to ones ancestors.
Actually, there's a problem with your initial assumption. First off all, a Buddhism and kamidana
神棚 are completely
unrelated. Buddhism is Buddhism, and kamidana are Shinto. Japanese people often mix the two, but the fact that a Buddhist priest has a small "shrine" set-up like the one at your dojo means nothing as far as the religious import of that "shrine".
Secondly, dojos with kamidana are very, very few. This is a kamidana:
The only dojo I've ever seen with a kamidana is the Aikikai dojo in Iwama.
Notice how high it is, and with the bottles on it?
Not even the Aikikai Hombu Dojo has a kamidana. Kamidana are supposed to be raised, near the ceiling. Much higher than the little step you generally see at the kamiza
上座 in dojos. Also, they should be facing to the south or the east.
What the vast, vast majority of dojo have is a tokonoma
Tokonoma have no religious significance. They simply indicate and serve as decoration for the kamiza - the seat of honor in a house. While the kamidana faces south or east, the kamiza/tokonoma is the wall farthest from, or opposite, the entrance. They should not be confused with the butsudan
仏壇, a home Buddhist altar which signifies the spirits of departed relatives. A guest in a Japanese house will typically be seated in the kamiza, and thus, if there is one, in front of the tokonoma. A guest is never seated in front of the butsudan unless it's a really small room.
If your dojo has an elevated shelf (the "dana" of "kamidana" means "shelf", by the way), with little cups and bowls containing rice, salt, water, and sake, and has a rope with paper lightning hanging across it, you have a kamidana.
If your dojo has a little stoop, on which is placed a vase of flowers underneath some sort of hanging scroll and a perhaps a picture of Ueshiba Morihei, then you have a tokonoma.
If your dojo has a little stoop, on which is placed a vase of flowers underneath some sort of hanging scroll, and
little cups and bottles containing rice, salt, water, and sake, chances are likely that someone got confused.
So, if I am bowing to a kamidana (which in fact seems more appropriate to say) then it would seem I at least need to know what it really means. So, firstly since I don't believe in either the multiple kami that is a part of Shinto or in ancestor worship that would invalidate bowing for THOSE reasons. Secondly I can accept bowing to another ALIVE person as a sign of etiquette and respect. I can give respect in the bow to that person and they can accept it and return it (or not by virtue of if or how they bow). Bowing to an inanimate assemblge of wood and an inanimate picture of O'Sensei out of respect is useless in my view. It cannot accept or return respect. O'Sensei is long since dead and (possibly) in another realm where our respect to him is of little consequence. Finally isn't seriously practicing aikido and trying to encourage its practice to others showing MUCH more respect to O'Sensei and his memory than a perfunctory bow?
Well, you're not bowing to the kamidana, you're bowing to the tokonoma. Bowing to shomen, to the kamiza, in Japanese dojos is not always (dare I say, not often?) something of religious significance. Usually the bowing to shomen is to signify a change in attitude - a shift from everyday life to focused training.
Now, bowing and clapping
is definitely a Shinto-based ritual meant to summon the spirits (kami) to observe your practice. Some say that this can be done without religious signficance, but IMO they've taken the ritual out of the Japanese idiom, like saying doing the sign of the cross can simply mean "good luck" rather than being an appeal to God.
So, other than "being a part of the group behavior" it seems that there is no purpose IN THIS CULTURE for bowing to the kamidana/kamiza. Some would argue that during the bow is a time to center one's self and meditate. My counterpoint is that sure you can do that, but meditation generally requires one to be focused on nothingness and not "when to bow".....and I can do that before the class.
Bowing is never part of meditation, but as I suggested above typically it is used in Japan to symbolize a shift in attitude.
It just seems to me that in our zeal to spread aikido, we spread CULTURAL and EXTERNAL practices as well as the content and essence of the art. It is quite natural that this would have happened in the first generation of aikidoka in the U.S. or other country other than Japan since everyone was instructed by a student of O'Sensei. But as we have grown, I just wonder if others question the relevance of what the second and third generation of non-japanese instructors teach. Since I am an assistant instructor, I spend a lot of time looking for good teaching vehicles, and in the process I have found that some things that appear at first as vital pieces of a technique can be left out or modified quite extensively without detriment to the technique. What that means is that some other part of the technique is what is real and that the other parts teach a lesson but are just that: TEACHING ARTIFACTS. It is important I think to be able to distinguish what is ULTIMATELY important and what is not in the progression of teaching a technique. It is also important in any other thing we do. Otherwise we are forever trapped in the externalities of something.
Well, in Japan, I've seen lots of different styles. Some places, they do the bow and clap. Other places, a simple bow to shomen. Still others, only a bow to the teacher to open the class. Bowing is simply endemic to Japanese culture - it's used to open meetings and classes.
Does any dojo need
to bow? I don't think so. But as I've said before I would expect a dojo that did away with bowing to also do away with hakama, Japanese terminology, and maybe even dogi. The physical, and for most westerners, the non-physical aspects of aikido can be taught in sweats. But if one wants to retain something of the cultural origins of aikido, which while not strictly necessary
, is still something of value in aikido, then retaining the simplest of cultural courtesy and bearing -- bowing to shomen and/or teacher at the beginning and ending of class, bowing to your practice partners -- seems like the least one should do.
All that said, there's a danger in taking things too far. Some people ascribe more meaning and intent to Japanese courtesy (and terminology) than even the Japanese do. On that score, I suggest that if a bow to your partner means more than a handshake would, then you're probably overthinking it. (Using the general "you", here.)