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.
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.