It has been said that an armed society is a polite society.

Well, feudal Japan was very well armed.

As much as status and position matter to the Japanese, etiquette is the grease that allows the wheels of society to turn. The lower-ranked one is, the more fawning his manners will appear as higher and higher ranks are being addressed and interacted with.

Virtually all forms of social interactions will take one of three clear divisions: to one’s superiors, to one’s equals, and to one’s inferiors. If a low-ranking samurai deals with an equal, he will function on an equal level unless he is hoping for a favor, in which case he would behave in the inferior-to-superior manner. Were he to behave in the superior-to inferior manner, it would be either insulting or humorous, depending on situation and intent. If the same low-ranking samurai were to use equal-to-equal manners and speech to his lord, it would be a shocking example of lèse majesté — the servant would be declaring his equality with the master — and it could get him severely reprimanded or even killed.



Bowing is the standard greeting and farewell, and depending on the depth of the bow and its duration, one can immediately tell who is the superior and who is the inferior. Equals and friends may bow with little more than an inclination of the head informally, but as with all things, a formal situation requires formal behavior. The most reverential form of bowing is a prostration, with one’s forehead touching the ground.

Usually this would only be used at court, or when summoned by one’s lord, although a peasant being addressed by someone of very high rank may do this, and then carry on his conversation with the lord from a kneeling position. If one has committed some error, he will apologize by bowing in this manner to the one he has offended; it is a sort of “get out of jail free” card if done sincerely, as a proper bow and apology always gets a higher reaction from the one being apologized to than if the person just stands there and says, “Sorry.”


The language itself is a barometer of social standing. Japanese has several different “politeness levels” with which one can speak. There are even certain verbs that are only used for different people. For example, when common people (or equals) eat, they will taberu; when someone more important than you eats, he will meshiagaru. When an equal does something, we say suru (= do); when a superior does something, the verb is nasaru, and when it is an inferior, it is itasu. To these specialized vocabulary elements can be attached myriad forms of verbal endings, and to these can be married the various forms of simple pronouns. The result is a wonderful patchwork that can in a few words tell you everything you need to know about who is who.

In the English vernacular such subtle nuances are nigh unto impossible to get across. There are a few ways to convey the idea, however. When addressing a superior, use as polite a speech pattern as possible. Watch Amadeus or Henry V to get an idea of how this works. Refer to superiors in the third person, not the second (e.g., “Would your lordship allow his servant to undertake this assignment?” versus, “Let me go!”).


An indoor audience.

An indoor audience.

When having an audience with a lord or other important personage, there should be guards present (although they may be hiding behind wall partitions).

One should always bow formally to the lord at such a meeting, and sit on the floor several feet away. There may or may not be a cushion to sit on.

When indoors, the lord holding the audience will invariably sit on a dais at one end of the room, and anyone else will be on the floor. Outdoors, if a formal audience is being conducted, there will be a tatami platform or a camp chair on which the lord will sit, in front of a semi-circle of camp-curtains bearing the lord’s crest. Watch KagemushaKumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood), Shōgun, and similar films; they all present several different examples of audiences.

An example of an outdoor/camp audience.

An example of an outdoor/camp audience.

Sometimes, the person holding court will sit on his verandah, and the people in attendance will sit below on the ground. This is more typical for a larger group, when a single room might not hold everyone who needs to be there.

Sword and weapon etiquette

It is frequently said that the sign of a samurai is his two swords, but this was a tradition that was only really starting to solidify during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Most bushi would wear or carry a long sword, and the short sword was often little more than a dirk.

During the Sengoku period, people carry what they can get away with. Katana (and the usually matching wakizashi) are worn thrust through the sash, edge up, at the left side (no one is left-handed in Japan, so no one would carry their swords on the right side).

One way to get an idea of someone’s rank is to observe how he wears his sword. One with rank and authority wears his katana thrust through his obi almost horizontally, sticking far out in front and behind (thus establishing his “personal space”). A more humble or lower ranking man wears his closer to his body, so that the scabbard is almost parallel to his leg. Part of the reason for this is that to touch the scabbard of another was often deemed an insult, and at times could have been seen as a virtual challenge to an immediate duel.

Threatening gestures with swords include:

  • grasping the scabbard just behind the guard and pushing the guard forward with the thumb (breaking the “seal” on the scabbard);

  • deliberately reaching across the body and grasping the hilt with one’s right hand but not actually drawing the blade;

  • removing the cloth “sleeve” that travelers sometimes put over the hilt and guard to keep dust away;

  • and pulling the scabbard forward but not quite out of the sash, so that the hilt is more accessible for a draw.

One need not actually draw or strike if performing one of these actions (for such is the intent being telegraphed) but one must realize that if he is bluffing and has no intent to fight and if he backs down in the face of someone calling his bluff, he suffers a loss of face.

When indoors in a private home or noble’s estate, one must surrender the katana. In an estate, castle, or even the home of anyone with rank, there is a servant whose job it is to receive these swords, and keep track of them. There is a closet or sword rack near the door where “checked” swords are kept until the owner of the weapon is preparing to leave.

Passing the sword.

Passing the sword.

When handing over a sword, the superior person will use one hand, the inferior both. The blade is always properly oriented (i.e.; for a tachi, edge down; for a katana, edge up). A superior person grasps the sword palm down on the scabbard, near the middle, and hands it over horizontally; the recipient receives it in both open palms, one at the hilt and one near the foot. If an inferior hands one over, it is palms up, under the hilt and foot; the recipient grasps it, palm down, at the center-point. This is similar for all weapons, as well, be they firearms, spears, or blades.

Handing over an unsheathed sword (e.g., for inspection), one should grasp the sword in one hand at the very base of the hilt, holding the sword upright with the edge toward the one offering the sword. The recipient grasps the hilt directly below the guard; this puts him in a position to cut right down and take your arm off. That is the idea. It should be returned the same way. One thing implied in this is respect for the person receiving the sword; one is putting him in the dominant position, saying, “I trust you.” Of course, if you genuinely don’t trust the other person, you wouldn’t hand him a drawn weapon to begin with if you don’t have to, right?

The polite way for a guest/visitor to position a sword.

The polite way for a guest/visitor to position a sword.

When sitting or kneeling indoors — especially as a guest — one should remove the sword from his sash and place it along his right side, edge in. This makes the sword inconvenient to get to and draw, and shows the proper respect. A great way to deliver a not-so-subtle insult (”I don’t trust you; I could kill you, you know”) is to remove the sword from your obi but lie it on the floor on your left side, edge out. This is positioned for an easy draw. The key to a respectful attitude with swords is to indicate that it would be difficult to draw, cut, or otherwise defend oneself, while the other person would find it easy to attack.

When carrying yari, naginata, or any polearm on the road, they are held point down, pointing at a spot on the ground about three feet in front; they can also be carried along the body in an attitude similar to “shoulder arms.” On the march, the blades are usually protected by lacquered covers. In addition to bringing the weapon into a guard position, the most threatening thing one can do is to jerk the haft and send the “sheath” flying; it implies you’re ready to use your weapon.