Why do Japanese people bow?

Showing respect (RIP Ku, Sept 19, 2008)
I thought I would start with the beginning: greetings. Have you ever wondered why Japanese people bow when they meet each other? In the western world, a greeting is a handshake, or a kiss on the cheek. This sense of touch is completely absent from the Japanese greeting.

Where did it originate?

Bowing is basically a sign of respect which originated from the samurai’s in the 14th Century. It was initially ‘samurai’s etiquette’ and was only introduced to the general public during the Edo period (1603 to 1868).

Bowing Etiquette

When you meet someone in Japan for the first time, the conversation would usually go down as:

You: Konnichiwa. (Hello)
*Bow*

Hiroko Sato: Konnichiwa. (Hi!)
*Bow*

You: Hajimemashite. Applebottom James desu. Douzo yoroshiku (How do you do? I’m James Applebottom. Nice to meet you)

*Bow*

Hiroko Sato: Hajimemashite. Sato Hiroko desu. Douzo yoroshiku.
*Bow*

As you can see, there are four cues to *bow* – but how does one bow exactly?  “Is it just a nod?” “How deep should I bow?” “How long should I hold it?” “I’ve got a sore back, is bowing safe?” Relax! I’ve made a list of points that you should remember when you do your first bow:

  • Bow for the occasion: There are different bows for different situations. When you greet someone who is more senior to you, you should hold the bow at the lowest point (say 30 degrees) a bit longer than your senior. When meeting up with friends (who you know well), you can bow with a small head movement forward without really bending your body. When greeting someone for the first time who is of equal ‘status’ to you, a 15 degree bow would be acceptable.
  • Keep your arms natural but not floppy. When you bend forward, your arms should naturally slide to the front over your thighs. They don’t need to be stiff by your side – we aren’t in the military here!
  • Bow back if you’re bowed at! Unless of course you are getting bowed at by employees in stores (yes, customer service in Japan is out-of-this-world).
  • Don’t get out-bowed. Like in the conversation, there are four bows which often start off more deeply and become more smaller. If Hiroko Sato is more senior to you, you better bow after her last bow, otherwise it may be taken as disrespectful.
  • Bowing while receiving a business card. When greeting someone in business, the lower position person will present the other with a business card (with both hands holding the card). In Japan, the business card is treated with respect and when receiving it, it should be received with a bow with both hands still holding the card in front. Make sure you take some time in studying it before you put it away.

 Well I hope this gives beginners some idea of how to bow in Japan 🙂 Remember, it’s all about watching how others bow too so make sure you observe while you’re in Japan.

When was your first bowing experience? Did something go wrong?

Disclaimer: All photo’s in this post have been taken from those that have been free to use or share, even commercially.  

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