In Japan, etiquette is a serious matter. Especially in business, you can make your fortune or destroy a relationship. When travelling in Japan, there are a few things that you should know, so as to avoid embarrassing situations. Maybe the most important one is how to greet someone: by bowing.
There are a few different ways of bowing, each one adapted to a certain situation. As a rule of thumb, the deeper the bow, the more respect is shown. Of course, no one will expect you to understand the subtle nuances of Japanese etiquette perfectly, but showing people that you are trying to learn their culture will help you a long way.
- Bowing is the common greeting used by Japanese people.
- Bowing can express a lot of different feelings, from greeting to gratitude, from apology to congratulations.
- There are three different kinds of bows – eshaku, futsuurei, and saikerei – each one used for different situations.
- Knowing when to bow is as important as knowing how to bow.
- Sometimes Japanese people will offer you a handshake so as to avoid problems. If so, don’t bow, and just return the handshake.
Greeting in Japan: Bowing
Bowing is the common greeting in Japan, and there are a few different ways to do it. You can give a small nod with your head, or you can bend to the waist. Different kinds of bows mean different things and are appropriate for different situations (see below).
You should know that most Japanese won’t expect you to know the proper rules that surround bowing, and usually a nod of the head will be more than enough. Shaking hands is pretty uncommon, but it is still seen sometimes.
When entering in a shop or in a restaurant, the staff will welcome you with the greeting “Irasshaimase”. You are not expected to answer, you just have to nod your head and keep walking.
A Few Words on the History of Bowing
Most probably, bowing in Japan started during the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794), when Chinese Buddhism was introduced to the country. To Buddhists, bowing is a direct reflection of your status. When you meet someone who occupies a higher position in the social hierarchy, you should put yourself in a vulnerable position, then offer your head and bow.
It is a simple way to show the other person that you don’t represent a danger for them.
What about Shaking Hands?
Being a foreigner allows you some freedom from the strict rules of Japanese etiquette. To avoid awkward situations, many Japanese will greet you with a handshake. If you are in Japan for business, expect to see a combination of bowing and handshakes. Handshakes being so rare, they are the sign of a strong connection.
However, to avoid mistakes, do what other people do and return a bow when someone offers you one. Showing that you are trying to adapt to the local etiquette is a sign of respect.
So, if someone is offering you their hand, give them a handshake. If you want to bow, express your intent clearly. When shaking hands, maintain eye contact; when bowing, keep your gaze down.
How to Bow in the Correct Way
When in Rome… It is always good to know how to greet someone in the local way and avoid embarrassing situations. Knowing how to bow properly when travelling in Japan, will be a useful skill. In Japan, bowing is known as ojigi. Everyone bows to greet someone else, and it is considered extremely rude not to return a bow when someone greets you with one.
Executing a proper bow is extremely important to Japanese people, and this is why they learn how to bow when they are really young. Mastering the art of bowing is fundamental to succeeding in Japanese society – a mistake, and a business deal might be ruined forever.
The deeper the bow, the longer it is held, the more respect is shown. To avoid bumping into someone else’s head, move slightly to the left. After bowing, give the other person a friendly look or a warm smile.
Different Ways of Bowing
You can bow in many different ways in Japan. Bows depend on the social status or age of the person you are bowing to. If someone is older than you, or has a higher status than yours, the bow will be deeper and longer – a way to show respect. In Japan, people with a high status are teachers, employers, spiritual and political leaders, and so on.
- Eshaku: The most informal bow is a bend of 15 degrees. It is a casual greeting, used in daily life to greet someone you know, someone who is your equal socially (a friend, for example, or a co-worker).
- Keirei or futsuurei: A 30-degree bow, used generally for more formal events, especially during business interactions. It is a way to show respect to those occupying a higher position. You should hold the bow for about two-and-a-half seconds.
- Saikerei: This bow of 45-degrees is the most formal one. When performing it, remember to look at your feet and not at the person you are bowing to. It is a bow that shows a profound, respectful greeting, deep gratitude, or a formal apology. It is the kind of bow that heads of the state use to greet Japanese leaders, or that people use when meeting the Emperor, or for dramatic apologies.
A bow can be performed while standing or sitting. The seated position is called seiza. Seiza is the way you should sit in every formal situation – a tea ceremony or a funeral, for example. To get into seiza, start by kneeling. Put the tops of your feet flat on the floor, with the toes pointed behind you, and rest your hindquarters on your heels or calves. Keep your back straight.
To perform a bow from the sitting position, place your palms on your tights and bend forward. It is not as easy as it sounds, and it might require some practice – especially if you have to sit in that position for an extended period of time.
Learn the Basic Bow
You should learn at least how to be comfortable with the informal, basic bow. It is actually pretty simple. Make a 15-degree angle while keeping your back straight. Men are expected to keep their hands on the sides, while women can put their hands on both thighs.
When to Bow
In Japan, bowing can mean a lot of different things: respect, apology, greeting, gratitude, among others. Basically you bow when a situation requires additional respect. You might want to bow in order to:
- Greet someone or welcome them
- Show respect
- Express gratitude
- Congratulate someone
- Expressing sympathy
- Asking for a favor
- Apologize for something
- Begin a formal ceremony
Visit Japan with Asia Highlights
Japanese etiquette can be fascinating but also daunting. It is always a good idea to show other people that you are trying to learn their customs. Start planning your next trip to Japan to explore its millenarian culture, with the help of Asia Highlights! We will take care of all the hassle and you will have time to practice proper bowing, which will delight your Japanese hosts.