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How to bow politely

Knowing when to bow in Japan and the right way to bow can seem daunting for first-time visitors, particularly because bowing isn’t very common in Western culture. Meanwhile, bowing comes naturally for Japanese people who typically begin learning the important etiquette from a young age.

Bowing properly for each potential social or business scenario is critical for success. Committing an etiquette faux pas at the wrong time could potentially derail a business deal, signal incompetence, or create an awkward situation that leads to a “loss of face.” Some Japanese companies hone employees’ bowing etiquette with formal classes; a few receive training on conducting business over drinks, too!

No need to feel awkward: With a little practice, you'll be giving and returning bows in Japan without even thinking about it. Doing so becomes reflexive after traveling in Japan for a week or two.

The Reasons Japanese People Bow

Bowing isn’t just used for greetings and saying hello in Japan. You should also bow during other occasions such as these:

  • Showing respect
  • Expressing deep gratitude
  • Saying goodbye
  • Offering an apology
  • Telling someone congratulations
  • Expressing sympathy
  • Asking for a favor
  • Showing appreciation
  • Beginning a formal ceremony
  • Beginning a training session
  • When entering or leaving a martial arts dojo

Bowing vs Shaking Hands

During first-time meetings, many Japanese people will avoid an awkward situation by offering to shake hands with Westerners instead. In formal settings and business engagements, sometimes a combination of handshakes and bows will ensue as a nod to both cultures. If you aren't sure, stick with bowing while in Japan. Shaking hands in Japan is more often done among close friends and when congratulating each other on a recent success.

Simply follow your hosts' lead as to which comes first; however, you should certainly do your best to return a bow properly if one is offered.​ Your hosts are undoubtedly skilled at helping others save face and will try not to put anyone into a position of embarrassment.

While shaking hands is still relatively rare between Japanese, doing so has come to symbolize a strong relationship—signaling a deeper connection than what Westerners assign to casual handshakes. Some Japanese executives make a point of shaking hands after announcing a large deal or high-profile merger between two companies.

Bowing and Shaking Hands at the Same Time

Both bows and handshakes are used in business and formal greetings. Try to avoid the common newbie mistake of nervously bowing when the other party planned to shake hands. This happened in 2009 during President Obama's visit with the Emperor of Japan.

You can avoid any potential embarrassment by expressing your intent to bow. If the other person has their hand extended to shake, don't begin a bow instead! You can tell when a person or group is going to bow first when you are walking toward each other. They will often stop at a slightly greater distance (just out of hand-shaking range) with feet together. After the bow, you can then close the distance with a step or two and shake hands if necessary.

Bowing while shaking hands at the same time happens, but doing one at a time is better etiquette. Solid eye contact is expected during a handshake; meanwhile, the gaze should be down during a proper bow. Only martial artists should maintain eye contact during a bow!

If a bow-shake occurs (they sometimes do), you'll undoubtedly be in close proximity. Bumping heads isn't a good way to make friends, so turn slightly to your left.

How to Bow the Right Way

The correct way to bow in Japan is to bend at the waist, keep your back and neck straight if possible, feet together, eyes downward, and have your arms straight at your sides. Women often bow with their fingertips together or hands clasped in front at thigh level.

Face the person whom you are greeting squarely, but look at the ground while bowing. Bowing with a briefcase or something in your hand is OK; putting it down first is optional. You should, however, receive someone's business card (if one follows the bow) reverently with both hands and a slight dip.

The deeper the bow and the longer it is held, the more respect and submission are shown. A quick, informal bow involves bending to around 15 degrees, while a more formal bow calls for you to bend your torso to a 30-degree angle. The deepest bow involves bending to a full 45 degrees while you look at your shoes. The longer that you hold a bow, the more respect is shown.

In general, you should bow more deeply to superiors, elders, judges, people of rank or office, and anytime the situation demands additional respect.

Remember to look down as you bow. Pick a spot on the floor in front of you. Maintaining eye contact while bowing is considered bad form—threatening, even—unless you are squared to fight an opponent in martial arts!

Sometimes you may find yourself bowing more than once until someone finally relents and stops the ritual. Each subsequent bow will be less deep. If you are forced to bow in a crowded situation or cramped space, turn slightly to your left so that you don't knock heads with others.

After exchanging bows, give friendly eye contact and a warm smile. Ideally, try not to combine a bow (requires eyes to be downward) with a handshake (eye contact is expected).

Regardless, showing effort and that you know something about bowing etiquette in Japan goes a long way toward building a better relationship. Sadly, Westerners are notorious for their sloppy bowing in Japan. Watch a couple videos or ask a Japanese friend to demonstrate technique.

Serious Bowing

Bows of sincere apology are usually the deepest and last longer than other bows. In rare instances, to express profound apology or gratitude, a person will bend beyond 45 degrees and hold it for a count of three.

Long bows beyond 45 degrees are known as saikeiri and are only used to show deep sympathy, respect, apology, and in worship. If you are granted an audience with the Emperor of Japan, plan to perform a saikeiri, otherwise, stick to less extreme bowing.

Bowing (お辞儀) is perhaps the best-known form of Japanese etiquette. Bowing is so important in Japan that most companies provide training to their employees on the right execution of the act. The custom of bowing is more complicated than most people think. Bowing can be used for introductions, appreciation, apologies, and greetings. The specific intricacies of bowing are far more complex, with duration and depth of bow prescribed for every circumstance.

Basic bows are usually done with a straight back,with hands at the side (for men) or clasped in front (women), and with eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. The deeper and longer the bow, the stronger the respect and emotion.

Bows are of three primary types: formal, very formal, and informal. First, let’s consider angle. Informal bows are usually made to a 15 degree angle: perhaps just tilting the head forward. More formal bows describe a 30 degree angle and are deeper.

The etiquette on bowing also includes the appropriate depth, length, and response. For instance, when a person maintains a bow for longer than expected, it would be polite to bow all over again. This often leads to a long exchange of lighter bows.

Bows by a person of inferior status are deeper, longer, and more frequent than bows by a superior. A superior addresses an inferior generally with a slight nod of the head; some others may not bow back at all. Apologetic bows tend to be deeper and longer than all the other kinds of bow. The back is bent for about 45 degrees, the bow lasts for more than three seconds, and the head is lowered.

In cases of begging and apology, people crouch down to show submission or deep regret, called dogeza. These days, dogeza is looked on as contempt for oneself and is not normally used.

Bows of gratitude follow a similar pattern of extent. In some cases, a kneeling bow is also performed—sometimes so that the forehead touches the floor: saikeirie (最敬礼), or most respectful bow.

Shaking hands is not popular among the Japanese, but exceptions can be made for foreigners. Bows can also be combined with handshakes or done before or after handshakes.

bow — bow1 [bou] vi. [ME bouen < OE bugan, to bend < IE base * bheugh , to bend > Ger biegen; the BOW1 n. is 17th c.] 1. Dial. to bend or stoop 2. to bend down one s head or bend one s body in respect, agreement, worship, recognition, etc. 3.… … English World dictionary

bow and scrape — To kowtow, to ingratiate oneself sycophantically • • • Main Entry: ↑bow bow and scrape To be over obsequious • • • Main Entry: ↑scrape * * * behave in an obsequious way to someone in authority * * * bow and scrape : to treat someone who is… … Useful english dictionary

bow and scrapeTo be too polite or obedient from fear or hope of gain; act like a slave. * /The old servant bowed and scraped before them, too obedient and eager to please./ … Dictionary of American idioms

bow and scrapeTo be too polite or obedient from fear or hope of gain; act like a slave. * /The old servant bowed and scraped before them, too obedient and eager to please./ … Dictionary of American idioms

bow — bow1 bowedness, n. bowingly, adv. /bow/, v.i. 1. to bend the knee or body or incline the head, as in reverence, submission, salutation, recognition, or acknowledgment. 2. to yield; submit: to bow to the inevitable. 3. to bend or curve downward;… … Universalium

bow\ and\ scrape — v To be too polite or obedient from fear or hope of gain; act like a slave. The old servant bowed and scraped before them, too obedient and eager to please … Словарь американских идиом

bow and scrape — To say that someone is bowing and scraping means that they are being excessively polite or servile. The President was greeted with much bowing and scraping … English Idioms & idiomatic expressions

bow and scrape — idi to be excessively polite or deferential … From formal English to slang

Customs and etiquette of Japan — Japan has a code of etiquette that governs the expectations of social behavior and is considered very important. Many books instruct readers on its minutiae.Some customs here may be very regional practices, and thus may not exist in all regions… … Wikipedia

Etiquette in Japan — The code of etiquette in Japan governs the expectations of social behavior in the country and is considered very important. Like many social cultures, etiquette varies greatly depending on your status with the person in question. Many books… … Wikipedia

Etiquette in Asia — In Asia, many points of good etiquette are derived from religious beliefs. This Kannon statue (known elsewhere as Kuan Yin) stands on Mt. Koya, Japan. As expectations regarding good manners differ from person to person and vary according to each… … Wikipedia

The act of bowing (ojigi) is a common part of daily life in Japan. The etiquette of bowing contains many intricate rules that depend on factors such as the context, social status and age of the person. Generally, bowing is a mark of respect and emphasises social rank between people. The following discusses common occasions of when to bow and how to follow common bowing etiquette.

  • There are two positions to begin bowing: standing (seiritsu) and sitting (seiza).
  • When performing a standing (seiritsu) bow, the person looks straight ahead with hands placed on their thighs and back straight. They then bow from their hips. Men generally stand with some space between their feet while women stand with their feet together.
  • A sitting (seiza) bow is expected on formal occasions. When performing a sitting bow, the person kneels into position. Men generally kneel with one leg at a time, while women place both knees on the ground simultaneously (if able). The person rests on their calves or heels and keeps their feet flat on the floor with their toes pointing behind them. With hands resting on the thighs and back straight, the person then bows as they would when standing.
  • The depth and length of the bow often indicates the level of respect. For instance, in semi-formal situations, people tend to bow at about a 30-degree angle for one to two seconds. In more formal situations, people often bow at an approximately 45-degree angle for three to four seconds. Finally, in the most formal situations, people will bow at a 70-degree angle for about two seconds and hold the bow for longer.
  • In Japanese bowing etiquette, people do not place their palms together.
  • When bowing, people do not make direct eye contact but rather look at their counterpart’s neck or chin.
  • Bowing should not happen while seated on a chair. If someone bows to you while standing, it is expected you will also stand and bow.
  • People are expected to be still when bowing. As such, do not bow when walking.
  • Speaking while bowing is considered rude.

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The sun had already begun dissolving into the reddening sea, an alarming reminder that we had dilly-dallied a little too long on our cycling jaunt round Japan’s Ninoshima Island in Hiroshima Bay. Unsure of the ferry’s last departure for the mainland, we stopped at a roadside bar to ask. This triggered worried looks all round: the final boat was about to leave.

Japan’s Ninoshima Island in Hiroshima Bay (Credit: Angeles Marin Cabello)

“You can just make it if you take the shortcut,” said one man, stepping outside and pointing to a narrow road up a small mountain. With evening falling fast, we had severe misgivings, but cycled off uphill nonetheless. Looking round, we were astonished to see our newfound friend jogging up the hill behind us at a discreet distance to ensure that we didn’t get lost, only turning back when the port was safely in sight below us. His random act of kindness got us to the ferry with minutes to spare.

This was one of our first experiences with omotenashi, which is often translated as “Japanese hospitality”. In practice, it combines exquisite politeness with a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.

People bow outside of a shrine in Kyoto (Credit: Russell Kord/Alamy)

Omotenashi is a way of life in Japan. People with colds wear surgical masks to avoid infecting others. Neighbours deliver gift-wrapped boxes of washing powder before beginning building work – a gesture to help clean your clothes from the dust that will inevitably fly about.

Staff in shops and restaurants greet you with a bow and a hearty irasshaimase (welcome). They put one hand under yours when giving you your change, to avoid dropping any coins. When you leave the shop, it’s not unusual for them to stand in the doorway bowing until you are out of sight.

Neighbours offer gift-wrapped boxes of washing powder (Credit: MIXA/Alamy)

Machines practice omotenashi, too. Taxi doors open automatically at your approach – and the uniformed white-gloved driver doesn’t expect a tip. Lifts apologise for keeping you waiting, and when you enter the bathroom the toilet seat springs to attention. Roadwork signs feature a cute picture of a bowing construction worker.

In Japanese culture, the farther outside one’s own group someone is, the greater the politeness shown to that person – which is why foreigners (gaijin – literally, “outside people”) are invariably astounded to find themselves accorded such lavish courtesies. “It still surprises me after nine years here,” said Spanish teacher Carmen Lagasca. “People bow when they sit next to you on the bus, then again when they get up. I’m always noticing something new.”

But omotenashi goes far beyond being nice to visitors; it permeates every level of daily life and is learned from a young age.

“Many of us grew up with a proverb,” said Noriko Kobayashi, head of inbound tourism at DiscoverLink Setouchi, a consortium that aims to create jobs, preserve local heritage and promote tourism in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture. “It says that ‘After someone has done something nice for us, we should do something nice for the other person. But after someone has done something bad to us, we shouldn’t do something bad to the other person.’ I think these beliefs make us polite in our behaviour.”

Japanese people learnt their politeness from an ancient proverb (Credit: Alexander Spatari/Getty)

So where did all this politeness come from? According to Isao Kumakura, professor emeritus at the research institute of Osaka’s National Museum of Ethnology, much of Japan’s etiquette originated in the formal rituals of the tea ceremony and martial arts. In fact, the word omotenashi, literally “spirit of service”, comes from the tea ceremony. The tea-ceremony host works hard to prepare the right atmosphere in which to entertain guests, choosing the most appropriate bowls, flowers and decoration without expecting anything in return. The guests, conscious of the host’s efforts, respond by showing an almost reverential gratitude. Both parties thus create an environment of harmony and respect, rooted in the belief that public good comes before private need.

Locals greet you with a bow and a hearty irasshaimase (welcome) (Credit: Wayne Eastep/Getty)

Similarly, politeness and compassion were core values of Bushido (the Way of the Warrior), the ethical code of the samurai, the powerful military caste who were highly skilled in martial arts. This elaborate code, analogous to medieval chivalry, not only governed honour, discipline and morality, but also the right way of doing everything from bowing to serving tea. Its Zen-based precepts demanded mastery over one’s emotions, inner serenity and respect for others, enemies included. Bushido became the basis for the code of conduct for society in general.

The wonderful thing about being exposed to so much politeness is that it’s as contagious as measles. You soon find yourself acting more kindly, gently and civic-mindedly, handing in lost wallets to the police, smiling as you give way to other drivers, taking your litter home with you and never ever raising your voice (or blowing your nose) in public.

Wouldn’t it be great if each visitor took a little bit of omotenashi home with them and spread it around? The ripple effect could sweep the world.

In Japan, omotenashi permeates every level of daily life and is learned from a young age (Credit: Angeles Marin Cabello)