Bowing In Japan
The depth of your bow says a lot in Japan and, while the rules are not as strict as they were, there are some important things to remember.
In the ebb and flow of Japanese life, the bow keeps the peace, establishes and reaffirms relationships and serves as a ritual for dealing with given situations and people. It is as much a part of the day as breathing and occurs just as naturally. It is not stilted or stiff but rather dance-like, each step executed neatly – a bob, a bend, and a pause, depending on the circumstances.
The bow is often considered the equivalent of the handshake. The depth of the bow depends on the relationship between the two people meeting. Bows can range from shallow nods to kneeling bows where your head touches the floor although the latter is rarely seen these days. As well as replacing the handshake, a bow can replace 'thank you', 'please' and other commonly used terms of gratitude and request.
While handshakes have little variation, other than length of time and strength, which don’t tell you much other than that someone has strong hands, the bow can convey any manner of meanings and emotions about the relationship and obligations between the individuals involved. Bows are complex and it takes some time to become used to the different nuances although Japanese usually do it with little conscious thought.
The bow is also a way of humbling yourself and showing respect for the person you are bowing to. The lower you bow, the more respect you are showing and the most common bow is around 15 degrees held for one or two seconds while a deeper bow would be 30 degrees held for three seconds. Bows should always be returned (except to staff in department stores etc who bow to welcome you) and the person who is the lower status of the two should bow first and lowest, holding the bow until the other person has done theirs. Men bow with their hands at their sides and women bow with their hands just touching in front. Heels are kept together for the bow.
Goodbyes at anytime evoke multiple bows as the person or people leaving make their farewells but it is common to see people saying goodbye at train stations or in elevators and continuing to bow even after the train or elevator has gone. Alternatively, you can see them bow and stay low until the train has pulled out. Similarly, Japanese talking on the telephone often forget and bow even though the person on the other end can't see them.
One of the places where bowing has been turned into an art form is within business. New employees are often trained in appropriate bowing techniques towards other employees and towards customers. With a focus on the depth, length and timing of bows for different situations, these neatly uniformed Japanese almost bow in synchronicity. In Japan’s economic heyday, it was common to see department stores with a bowing and neatly uniformed girl, (including gloves and hat), at the bottom of the escalators asking you to watch your step as you get on. In elevators too, another bowing, uniformed girl asked you what floor you wanted and told you what was on each one as the manual elevator went up and down.
In business and socially, Japanese are never far from their business card. The card provides a good guide for working out who bows the lowest in a new relationship or at a first time meeting. The cards inevitably have the company name and the person’s position within the company written on them so, when cards are exchanged, the person viewing it knows instantly whether they are higher or lower than the person they are meeting and customises their bow to suit. All of this is done almost instantaneously.
In sport too, bowing is part and parcel of tradition and routine. As well as in the martial arts like karate, kendo and judo, sumo also has the ritual of bowing.
If you are new to Japan, you may find at first that you are not sure when to bow or how low or for how long. Most Japanese just appreciate that you make the effort and try but, if in doubt, bow lower and for slightly longer than the person you are meeting. You can’t go too far wrong with that! And when you start bowing on the phone, you’ll know you’ve got the hang of it.