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A lot of people ask about bowing in Japan, and what they should do if they ever visit or live in Japan. Now, bowing in Japan is so deeply ingrained in culture and society that it’s not something people really think too much about (unless you’re in business, but we’ll talk about that in a bit). If you’re a foreigner, you’re probably not going to be expected to bow all the time, though that depends on the person. There are, however, so many different ways one can and should bow, depending on the situation (which can make it confusing if you didn’t grow up bowing to everyone your whole life).

Firstly, Bowing Should Be Natural

One thing that I get a kick out of is people who don’t know any better and think bowing should be done like it’s seen in anime. They do the full 45 degree bow and hold it there for a few seconds. On top of this, they make a big deal out of it. Stand straight up, rigid for a second, then slam their head down into their really deep bow, thinking that all Japanese people bow this way.

The thing is, 90% of the time (and even more, unless you’re working in business) bows are incredibly casual and small, even getting down to small nods of the head. We’re going to talk about bowing and how depth, etc., effects what you’re trying to communicate in your bow, but for now, if you’re one of those rigid deep bowers, relax a bit and don’t think about it so much.

What Does A Bow Mean In Japan?

The meaning of a bow totally depends on the situation, depth, and length of time you hold your bow. Bowing in Japan shows respect for the person or thing you’re bowing to. Societal ranking in Japanese is really important. If you’re higher up in society from another person, you’ll notice that they talk more politely to you (to a greater extent than what we do in America / Western cultures), bow more deeply, and even perhaps order the same food as you at a restaurant (so as to not out-food you, of course).

Bows are only one of the many ways you can show respect and humble yourself in front of another person. Depending on who you’re bowing to, you can bow more deeply, bow longer, or even, perhaps, not bow at all. Beyond humbling yourself, it seems like you can bow for almost any other reason at all. You can bow to greet people, say thank you, say you’re sorry, when you’re congratulating someone, and more. I’ve broken all this down into bullets to make it easier for you, and while the breakdown isn’t perfect it should give you some idea of the different things bowing can communicate.

  • The nod-bow, 5 Degrees: This is just a small nod of your head. Make sure your head goes forward (we’re not nodding backwards and lifting our chin). The nod-bow is for pretty good friends, and is the most casual bow of them all (because it’s the smallest and shortest). There is another situation you might use this bow in, though. If you’re a higher ranking person (in society, work, whatever) than the person you’re bowing to, you could also use this small nod-bow. Bowing is meant to humble yourself, so if you’re higher ranking, you don’t have to humble yourself too much (but by bowing a little bit, you’re at least acknowledging the other person).
  • Greeting Bow, Eshaku (会釈), 15 Degrees: This bow is for greetings, mostly for people you already know or are equals with. The “nod-bow” above is similar, but for when you know someone a lot better. This bow is probably for people you’ve met before and are familiar with, but not familiar enough to just go for the nod.
  • Respect Bow, Keirei (敬礼), 30 degrees: This is where bowing gets respectful. Thirty degrees is actually quite a lot and feels like quite a lot, if you go ahead and do it. This bow is reserved for your boss / other people who are higher ranking than you. You could probably do a little more than 30 degrees if you wanted to, too. You wouldn’t use this bow with good friends or relatives (unless you were making a joke), so save this for people you don’t know / people who are above you on that societal scale.
  • Highest Respect Bow, Saikeirei 最敬礼, 45 degrees: Say you screw up, big time… perhaps you made some cars that accelerate to 80 mph and crash into things and you need to apologize, or perhaps you’re bowing the the emperor. This is the bow you should use, because it shows the most amount of respect (or regret) possible (at least, until you get on your knees). You won’t need to use this one very often, if you’re lucky.
  • Kneeling Bow, Touch Your Head To The Floor: You don’t see this kind of bow very much anymore. This is the kind of bow you see people doing in Samurai flicks when a daimyo goes by (or they messed up really really bad). If you’re flipping out at something terrible you did (like, really terrible), you might just flip out enough to get on your knees and touch your head to the ground (but more likely than not, you won’t ever do this kind of bow, unless you’re doing some kind of martial arts or you’re just trying to be funny).

I also found this image, below, which covers some of the bowing levels that I broke out above. These are the three main ones, and do a good job showing how you should bow. Notice how the guy’s hands are by his side, and his eyes are facing the same direction as his head? The lower your bow, the more you should look down.

Returning Bows

Knowing how much to bow is often pretty hard. It’s sort of a game of “guess who” where you try to figure out the other person’s age, status, company, etc., to figure out how much you need to humble yourself at their expense. There’s a few good ways to do this, though you’ll often find yourself just doing something in between (or overly respectful, just in case) because you don’t know enough about the other person. First though, here are some rules on bowing:

  • You should bow back to people who bow at you (with a couple exceptions… i.e. people who greet you at stores / people who try to hand you things on the street).
  • Try to get the other person’s business card (people hand out their business card like nothing in Japan). On it should be their company and title, which will give you an idea about where they are in the world.
  • Try to guess how old they are. Chances are, if they’re older than you, they’re above you in almost every way. Treat your elders with respect, yo!

If all else fails, just go for the 30 degree bow. It’s right in the middle, respectful, and you probably won’t go wrong with it. The main thing with bowing, I think, is that you put the effort in. Like I mentioned earlier, Japanese people generally don’t expect foreigners to know the ins and outs of bowing. They also don’t expect foreigners to do bowing 100% perfect all of the time. The most important thing is that you don’t make it look rigid and unnatural. Try to relax, bow, and have fun!

Other Fun Tidbits About Bowing

Bowing is so ingrained in Japanese culture that you’ll see it in some funny instances. Here are some “exceptions” (or, at least, odd situations) you might run across a Japanese bow as well as what you should do about it.

Bowing On the Telephone:

Japanese people are so naturally inclined to bow that they often bow on the telephone, too, even though nobody can see them. Usually telephone bows won’t go beyond the “nod-bow” but there are some who are really, really hardcore. Once you’re bowing on the telephone, you’ll know you’ve spent a good amount of time in Japan.

Employees At Stores, Bowing To You:

Normally it’s nice to bow back to people, but a lot of times you’ll run into people greeting you at stores (not at all like a Walmart greeter) with enthusiastic welcomes and bows. You don’t have to stop and bow back to these people. Don’t worry, they’re getting paid.

Bowing A Train Away:

Occasionally you’ll come across someone seeing off someone getting on a train. The other person will get on and they’ll bow (and hold that bow) until the train is completely gone from the station. That right there is devotion! You, however, will probably never have to do this. Relationships that require this are fairly rare, and as a foreigner to Japan there’s a low likelihood that you’d need to do this (and even if you did, you probably wouldn’t be expected to either). Aside from trains, you’ll see this with cars and elevators as well.

Bowing Over And Over Again:

Often times when you’re bowing with someone, the bows will start off deeper, then gradually get smaller and shorter the more times you bow. It’s kind of a “hey, you bowed, I better bow again,” which is responded to with a “oh no, he/she bowed again, I better bow too,” and this keeps on going until the bows get small enough where both sides can stop. You just don’t want to get out-bowed by the other person if you’re trying to show respect to them (this happens most in equal relationships).

P.S. You should do a small 15 degree bow to Tofugu on Twitter by following it.

P.P.S. If that wasn’t enough, you should do a 45 degree bow to the Tofugu Newsletter.


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  • jrabernethy

    When I saw this headline on Twitter I thought it said “Bowling In Japan, a how-to guide”

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Ooh, that would be cool too. I love bowling in Japan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carsonkk Kyle Carson

    Hey Koichi! Great article as always! I always wondered what the sort of “guidelines” there were for bowing, but never really knew until now. Its funny to read this article after seeing some over-exaggerated bowing in anime and what not. Keep up the good work!

    P.S. Make another youtube video there awesome! ^^

  • http://www.facebook.com/carsonkk Kyle Carson

    Hey Koichi! Great article as always! I always wondered what the sort of “guidelines” were for bowing, but never really knew until now. Its funny to read this article after seeing some over-exaggerated bowing in anime and what not. Keep up the good work!

    P.S. Make another youtube video there awesome! ^^

  • http://www.facebook.com/carsonkk Kyle Carson

    Sorry for the double post.

  • http://twitter.com/Tornadoes28 Jon L

    Too bad Barack Obama did not have these guidelines before he did his 90 degree bow to the Emperor.

  • Otowatunga

    Hilarious video on bowing to apologize:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqZcEwHBAk8

  • http://twitter.com/usagi704

    Haha, I thought that's what the headline said too!

  • xeno_panda

    Same here, the “bowling is ingrained in Japanese culture” was certainly confusing.

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  • http://www.project-kathryn.com kathryn

    I thought it said bowling too and couldn't imagine how Japanese bowling would be any different to elsewhere. I think there is one kind of bowing you missed — excessive drunken bowing before catching the train home. And, most importantly, how to avoid it when walking through the train station!

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  • gec

    Another fun one is shop workers bowing out of the shop floor if they leave it through a staff door.

    I have to say the daily routine is head bowing. Everywhere all the time. Teachers, students, whoever. Unless it's some male teacher the kids respect and are maybe a bit afraid of… then they'll STOP, BOW and SHOUT “KONNICHIWA!”

  • http://www.artistaoscura.wordpress.com/ artista.oscura

    Very cool post! I really love the photo of the trainer bowing to the whale.

  • Dan

    That's what I thought too!

    Which is really weird when you think about, considering “bowing in Japan” should be a more obvious title “bowling in Japan”, yet our minds all jump to bowling.

    I guess bowling is just really awesome or something.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/6446K6S2XFJNVBM6ZXPACWRWJ4 Emily

    You forgot to mention that bowing is a little different for women. Instead of against their sides, women rest the palms of their hands on the front of their legs and then bow. Be sure not to bend your elbows while doing so.

  • http://twitter.com/kiruchan Kirsten Ewens

    Nice guide! it just reminded me of when I was on holidays in japan and I was on a train platform watching two salarymen doing a bow-off. I kept thinking ” they are both gonna miss their trains if they don't wrap it up soon” lol

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Parrey/1342361409 Daniel Parrey

    Actually thats where you're wrong. Obama was bowing to The Emperor, there aint no lower bower than the one you do for the Emperor. So i think it was quite appropriate.

    For others you can see the bow here. http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/a

  • http://twitter.com/Faraleen Fara Shazleen

    I've never stayed in Japan before but I've met a few Japanese people and it seems that bowing is so natural to them and since I got myself pretty much immerse with Japanese culture, I tend to bow sometimes too…but not the 90 degrees kind, a slight nod of the head and body a little to the front. I feel it's a good form to show respect. Anyway, can you handshake and bow at the same time in Japan?

  • Aaron

    A friend and I used to have a game with the extremely enthusiastic bowing of local 7-11 staff. In Japan newbie style, we used to bow back to the attendants. But, as we were the customer, the staff always tried to have the last bow. I think our record was about 5 bows to each other (each!) before we managed to leave the store. :)

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  • http://twitter.com/lessa_md Lessa Hime

    i spent only two weeks in Osaka and when I came back home it took me another week to get rid of the bowing habit. o_O

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  • http://kellydolljapan.blogspot.com/ KellyDoll

    Great information! I can't say I ever though too much on the depth of bows, besides the obvious head on floor and just a small bow. I'm glad to have read this :)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ian-Rodenhouse/504013124 Ian Rodenhouse

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqZcEwHBAk8&feat

    To supplement your article.

  • http://JapanDave.com David LaSpina / JapanDave

    My wife does the telephone bow all the time. I laughed at her until she told me I did it too…. I didn't even realize. Damn, I've been in Japan too long.

  • http://JapanDave.com David LaSpina / JapanDave

    You can, and I see it with businessmen sometimes, even when they are both Japanese. I see it in person sometimes, but I see it even more on NHK news between high level presidents, CEOs and politicians.

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  • http://twitter.com/plastickingdom ソーフ

    Thanks for this! I've always wondered about bowing etiquette… I'd asked my friend about it but he just said I should do a full bow every time he says something because he's such an incredibly important person. They say a humble nature is also instilled in the Japanese but I guess he's an exception, haha.

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  • VXLbeast

    Very helpful, as usual.

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  • Dion

    I dislike Obama very much, but I do love that he respected the Japanese Emperor and the country’s culture. It does not show we are inferior, quite the opposite, it shows that we are not “above” everyone.

  • Huesselhaven

    Wow this is reary good articre!

  • DeTo

    That bit on bowing over and over again made me laugh. I could imagine someone like Mr shakey hand man from Banzai (TV series) seeing how long he could keep people bowing lol

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  • Rolando José Rodríguez De León

    So, since Im not japanese, do I have to bow? what if I bump with the emperor, will protocol demand me to bow to him or should I just shake his hand?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001189528123 Sayuri Karuson

    IKR! I was like ooo bowling xD

  • Morrissex

    I know I’m opening up an old thread, but can you answer me this question: Do Japanese teachers bow at the Emperor? I’ve always came accross a meme that says that “only Japanese teachers do not bow at the Emperor because he thinks that without teachers there would not be Emperors”. Is it true?

  • Joe

    Can you elaborate on where the person should be looking, and if the head should be down as well, or Just looking up.

    Joe. Sarasota FL

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lee-Bache/100000798608761 Lee Bache

    Since both are leaders and I consider both to be of equal status, therefore; Pres Obama shouldn’t have bowed so low. Then again, I’m an American, what do I know?

  • Katie

    Yes but (sorry American ) shouldn’t it be maybe a little lower but he is on Japan soil probs. Oh well!