Bowing in Japan Everything you've ever wanted to know about how to bow, and how not to bow, in Japan.

    Japanese bowing is something that comes up a lot here at Tofugu. It seems that people, whether they're preparing for an upcoming trip or living in Japan as a foreigner, are often at a loss regarding what exactly they're supposed to do when a bow is required. They have a vague, physical understanding of how Japanese bowing works, of course, but worry about missing the subtle nuance and offending their hosts or colleagues.

    These questions always give me pause since bowing is so deeply-ingrained in Japanese culture that I don't give it much conscious thought. To be honest, another thing I take for granted is the fact that not many foreigners will even think to bow in the situations where a Japanese person normally would—right or wrong, this assumption does give you something of a free pass.

    That being said, a well-timed, correctly-executed bow will definitely earn you brownie points while you're in Japan, and that's where this guide comes in! Here, we'll introduce the main types of bows you should know and explain step-by-step how to perform them.

    Why Bow at All?

    A proper saikeirei bow

    It's believed that bowing in Japan started sometime during the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794 AD) with the introduction of Chinese buddhism. According to those teachings, bowing was a direct reflection of status—if you met a person of higher social standing, you would put yourself in the more "vulnerable" position of a bow, much like a friendly dog rolling over on its back, to prove that you didn't harbor any ill will toward them.

    In modern Japanese society, bowing serves a variety of functions that go beyond this original intent. Generally speaking, you will bow when doing the following:

    • Saying hello or goodbye to someone
    • Starting or ending a class, meeting, or ceremony
    • Thanking someone
    • Apologizing to someone
    • Congratulating someone
    • Asking someone for a favor or their goodwill
    • Worshipping someone or something

    More than just focusing on these occasions, though, it's important to remember that bowing conveys different emotions, such as appreciation, respect, or remorsefulness. As you learn the physical aspects of a good bow, keep in mind what you're trying to communicate through your posture, as this will inform how deeply you bow and for what length of time more naturally.

    Sitting vs Standing Bows

    Before we begin talking about the different types of bows you might perform, let's touch briefly on the two positions from which you can begin a bow in the first place.

    The first is a seated position called seiza 正座せいざ. Seiza is the way you will be expected to sit in almost all formal situations, ranging from participating in a tea ceremony to mourning at a funeral. To get into seiza from a standing position, start by kneeling. Men should kneel one leg at a time, while women should put both knees on the ground at the same time, if possible. With the tops of your feet flat on the floor and your toes pointed straight back behind you, rest your hindquarters on your calves or heels. Keep your arms at your sides and put your hands palm-down on top of your thighs. Try to sit up as straight as possible. If you've never sat this way for any significant length of time, I would strongly recommend practicing at home, as it takes some getting used to.

    You can also initiate a bow from a standing position called seiritsu 正立せいりつ. To get into seiritsu, stand and look straight ahead to a spot about 5m 40cm (almost 18ft) in front of you. If you're a man, position your feet about 3cm apart. If you're a woman, make sure your feet are touching. Place your hands lightly on your thighs at a diagonal, keeping a fist-worth of space between your body and your elbows. Finally, remember to breathe with your diaphragm to give a more centered appearance.

    The Basics Of Japanese Bowing

    Now that we've covered the two "starting positions" of seiza and seiritsu, there are three points to remember for every bow.

    First, remember that the slope of your back and the back of your head should form a straight line, rather than a curve. Another way of thinking about this is that you should try to hold yourself in a way that doesn't allow for any gaps between the collar of your shirt and the skin of your upper back.

    A straight backed bow and a curved back bow

    Second, when bowing from seiritsu, be sure to keep your legs and hips in the same position throughout the entire bow. In other words, don't stick your butt out! To help accomplish this, it may help to image that you're standing with your legs flush against a wall when you begin your bend.

    Third, as a rule of thumb, inhale while moving into a bow, exhale while holding the bow, and inhale again while straightening back up.

    I bet you didn't think there was so much setup for such a simple-looking gesture, did you? Well, never fear—we've reached the part where I begin telling you about some actual bows!

    The Nod-Bow and Mokurei: Non-bows

    …or is it? You see, when you're interacting with people you know very well, such as a friends or relatives, a full-blown bow isn't usually required. Instead, you can incline your head just slightly, as seen below.

    In very casual situations, you can even get away with simply casting out a sort of "respectful beam" from your eyes, bowing only in your mind. This is called mokurei 目礼もくれい*, which combines the kanji (eye) and (bow).

    *Confusingly, this word has a homophone, mokurei 黙礼もくれい, which refers to a "silent bow". Be careful not to get the two confused.

    Eshaku: The 15° "Greeting" Bow

    When you see an acquaintance of equal business or social rank, such as a coworker or friend-of-a-friend, you will perform an eshaku 会釈えしゃく.


    1. Stand in seiritsu
    2. Bend forward 15° at a natural pace
    3. At the same time and at the same speed, lower your hands 3 to 4cm down the front of your legs
    4. Keep your gaze in line with the bend of your body and look at a spot about 180cm (6ft) in front of you
    5. Return to seiritsu at a natural pace.


    1. Sit in seiza
    2. Bend forward 15° at a natural pace
    3. At the same time and at the same speed, slide your hands toward the outside of your knees.
    4. Place the tips of your fingers (touching) lightly on the ground, in-line with your body.
    5. Keep your gaze down at a natural level.
    6. Return to seiza at a natural pace.

    As you can see, you don’t have to linger over any one part of this bow—just don’t appear rushed.

    Senrei: The 30° "Polite" Bow

    When you're sitting in a semi-formal situation and want to show a moderate level of gratitude or respect, you will perform a senrei 浅礼せんれい, the most common type of sitting bow in your day-to-day life.

    Note: This bow can only be done while sitting.

    1. Sit in seiza
    2. Bend forward 30° over a one second beat
    3. At the same time and at the same speed, slide your hands toward your knees
    4. Men, place your palms on the floor, 3cm apart. Women, place the tips of your fingers on the ground directly in front of your knees, thumbs touching.
    5. Direct your gaze to the floor in front of you to a distance that is twice your seated height
    6. Hold this position for one second
    7. Return to seiza over a one second beat

    Be sure to take your time while practicing this bow, as it should appear graceful and sincere.

    Futsurei or Keirei: The 30 to 45° "Respect" Bow

    When you're interacting with someone who is higher-ranking or has some sort of power over you, such as your boss or your in-laws, you'll perform a futsuurei 普通礼ふつうれい or keirei 敬礼けいれい. Futsuu 普通ふつう means "ordinary" and kei けい means "respect", so think of this as a show of respect appropriate for most situations.


    1. Stand in seiritsu
    2. Bend forward 45° over the span of one complete breath
    3. At the same time and at the same speed, lower your hands down the front of your legs
    4. Stop your hands 7 to 10cm above your knees
    5. Return to seiritsu over the span of a slow inhalation


    1. Sit in seiza
    2. Bend forward until your head is 30cm from the floor over a period of 2.5 seconds
    3. At the same time, place your hands flat on the floor, making a triangle with your thumbs and forefingers
    4. Hold your upper arms close to your body and leave your elbows slightly off the floor
    5. Direct your gaze toward your index fingers with your face parallel to the floor
    6. Hold this position for 3 seconds
    7. Return to seiza over a period of 4 seconds

    Saikeirei: The 45 to 70° “Deeply Reverent” Bow

    Tourists and foreigners living in Japan will rarely have to perform a saikeirei 最敬礼さいけいれい as it conveys profound respect or regret. Outside of religious uses, which we'll get to in a minute, it's almost entirely reserved for dramatic apologies or audiences with the emperor. In other words, don't break it out for just anyone.


    1. Stand in seiritsu
    2. Bend forward 70° over a period of 2.5 seconds
    3. At the same time and at the same speed, lower your hands down the front of your legs
    4. Stop your hands when they touch the tops your knees
    5. Direct your gaze toward the ground at a spot about 80cm in front of you
    6. Hold this position for 3 seconds
    7. Return to seiritsu over a period of 4 seconds


    1. Sit in seiza
    2. Bend forward until your face is 5cm from the floor over a period of 3 seconds
    3. At the same time, slide your hands toward your knees, leading with your right hand
    4. Cup your hands slightly and put them on the ground about 7cm in front of you
    5. Form a narrow wedge in the negative space between your hands with the tips of your forefingers touching
    6. Direct your gaze straight down—your face should be parallel to the floor
    7. Keep your body compact, with your chest lightly touching your thighs, your upper arms close to your body, and the inside of your forearms touching the outside of your knees
    8. Hold this position for 3 seconds
    9. Return to seiza over a period of 4 seconds, moving your left hand slightly faster than your right
    10. Look into the middle distance between you and the person you have just bowed to

    When you're practicing this bow in the seated position, pay special attention to step #9, which is the return to seiza. Do so deliberately and wholeheartedly, pausing slightly before you're completely upright. This helps extend the moment and, thus, the amount of respect you're conveying.

    Additionally, because this bow lasts ten seconds, there are some special rules for breathing. You will inhale while bending forward, then exhale when you begin holding the bow. After exhaling, wait for a moment—typically measured as "two blinks"—then inhale again as you straighten back up.

    Nirei-Nihakushu: The "Worship" Bow

    When visiting a Shinto shrine, you will be able to make an offering and ring the suzu. After doing so, you will want to perform a nirei-nihakushu 二礼二拍手にれいにはくしゅ.

    1. Do 2 keirei bows
    2. Clap twice in the air in front of your chest, hands pointed upward
    3. Do a single saikeirei bow

    Dogeza: The “Begging for Your Life” Bow

    Nowadays, you'll probably only see the dogeza 土下座どげざ in samurai or yakuza movies. Someone who is getting yelled at for doing something really disgraceful might do this, pressing their face into the ground out of shame or fear, but I hope you never find yourself in that position, as it is, essentially, groveling.

    Special Circumstances

    • If you are working in Japan, you may find that your company has its own rules about bowing that differ from what I described above. For example, your boss may tell you to place your hands a certain way or to bow to a certain degree. In that case, just do as you're instructed, using your coworkers as examples.
    • If you are bowing while seated on a chair, leave some space between you and the backrest and sit up straight. Women should put both knees and feet together, while men should keep their knees and feet separated by about 15 or 20cm. The bowing angles are the same as the standing ones.

    Too Many Rules?

    If you're still confused about when, how deeply, and how long to bow, here are some quick guidelines that will save you some brain space if you don't want to remember specifics.

    First, bow when someone bows to you. This excludes the people who greet you in shops and hand out fliers on the street, but should be pretty fool-proof otherwise.

    Second, when in doubt, bow to 30°. This will be acceptable in nearly every situation, as it shows a good balance of respect and familiarity.

    Third, use age and titles to determine how long you bow. You can definitely get by on guessing ages, and if you need to figure out someone's title, try getting your hands on their business card. People hand out business cards like candy in Japan, so it shouldn't be too hard!

    If all else fails, simply hold your bow a beat longer than the person you're bowing to or, if you're in a group situation, than the person who is your closest superior.

    Common Japanese Bowing Mistakes

    • Don’t do the palms-together, hands-in-front-of-chest bow. While this is a form of the “original” bow that came from China with buddhism, it’s no longer standard in Japan outside of worship situations.
    • Never bow while walking in business or formal situations, even as a greeting. Stop moving, bow, then proceed on to your destination.
    • Bowing while sitting on a chair is often too casual for formal situations. A good rule of thumb is that, if the person you're bowing to is standing, you should be standing, too.
    • Don't bow while speaking. If you have something you need or want to say, say it first and then bow. This is called gosengorei 語先後礼ごせんごれい. One notable exception to this is during an apology. Bowing while saying sorry can make you seem more earnest, though this could backfire if the person you're speaking to is a stickler for form. Err on the side of caution.
    • When bowing on stairs, don't bow from a higher step than the person you're bowing to. Instead, wait until the person you're greeting is on the same step as you, then bow.
    • Don't bow when you're visibly angry or frustrated at someone. Bowing is a way of showing respect, so all aspects of your body should reflect that.
    • Some men put their hands on the sides of their butt while bowing, but this isn't correct unless your company prefers that style for some reason. As we discussed earlier, your hands should be on the front your thighs.
    • Some women put their hands together (side-by-side or one over the other) when they bow, letting them hang in front of their legs. This is not a proper bow, though it has become popular among young people, possibly because it appears more delicate and feminine. I won't call it "wrong", since ideas of what is culturally-appropriate change all the time—just keep in mind that this is not a traditional way of bowing.

    Other Fun Tidbits About Japanese Bowing

    I should warn you—once you start bowing, it's hard to stop! Here are some examples you'll see pretty frequently in Japan.

    Japanese Bowing On the Telephone: Japanese people are so naturally-inclined to bow that they'll often do it during telephone conversations, even though the person they're speaking to can't see them. Usually this behavior is limited to the "nod-bow", but there are some people who will take it even further. Once you've started bowing on the telephone, you'll know you've spent a good amount of time in Japan.

    Japanese Bowing A Train Away: If you're hanging around a station, waiting for your shinkansen 1, you may notice men and women bowing to departing trains as they leave the platform. These people typically work for the train company, either as stewardesses or as cleaning crew, and their bows show gratitude for their customers.

    You will sometimes see people doing this for elevators in department stores, as well. Now that's devotion!

    The Bow-Off: As you can tell, politeness is something of an art form in Japan. Sometimes it can also be a competition, especially between two people with the same social or business rank. When two such people are bowing to each other, they will often feel compelled to return every bow the other person makes. "Hey, he bowed," Person A will think, "so I'd better bow again!" Person B, seeing this, will say to themselves, "Oh no, she bowed again, so I have to bow, too!" This leads to both parties bowing over and over, with each bow getting more and more shallow. Finally, when the bows are so small that they can't even be discerned as bows, they can both stop and get on with their lives. The point is, nobody wants to be "out-bowed" and perceived as lacking humility or respect.

    (m_ _)m

    I hope you enjoyed this guide and feel confident enough to bow with the best of them the next time you're in Japan. If you have any questions about a specific Japanese bowing situation, please ask us on Twitter with information about the occasion and the addressee and we'll do our best to help! And if you want a nice visual summary of some of the information in this guide, check out the infographic below. <(_ _)>

    Bowing in Japan: The infographic

    An infographic about bowing in Japan
    Click on the image above to see the full infographic
    Source: Tofugu
    1. Shinkansen are the Japanese "bullet trains"