Bow in Japanese Culture: Understanding the Gesture

The bow in Japanese culture is very important and even has a lot of meaning behind its usage.

Japanese culture places a massive emphasis on respect and bowing is considered one of the primary ways to show respect to other people in Japan.

As a tourist visiting Japan, you will constantly encounter situations where you will find people bowing.

Hence, you must not only learn how to speak Japanese but also know why they bow and also what it means.

Culturally, there are a number of different ways you can bow.

Knowing these different types of bows and how they are traditionally used can help you understand the Japanese culture more deeply.

Bow In Japanese Culture

There are a number of reasons why the Japanese bow but it’s predominantly used to communicate respect.

Interactions between the Japanese are more than the typical verbal communication.

People tend to quickly notice the other person’s expression in the form of body language too.

The concept behind bowing is fairly simple and it shows that regardless of the position and your social status, you are lowering yourself and putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

Bowing is also a demonstration of placing the other person over yourself and that you are grateful for your interaction with them.

Bowing is an excellent example of communication that can be more powerful than words in Japan.

What Is the Meaning Of the Bow In Japanese Culture?

The Japanese word for “bow” is ojigi or in Japanese, お辞儀 (Pronounced: O-jee-ghee).

It can be used for a wide variety of situations which include:

  • saying goodbye
  • receiving and welcoming
  • thanking
  • praying to the gods
  • to introducing yourself
  • asking for a favor
  • expressing congratulations
  • to showing respect
  • asking for goodwill

It is also used in all social contexts. This can include the formal ones such as business or institutions to the informal ones like meeting friends, gyms, shops.

The Japanese bow virtually in every social situation; in fact, this can happen even when they aren’t in the presence of another person.

It should not surprise you to see a Japanese bow while they are speaking on the phone to someone and can’t even see them.

This clearly shows how deeply this formality is ingrained in them. It is all about showing respect.

How to Bow In Japan

In Japan, one of the best ways to show that you appreciate their culture is by learning how to bow.

The Japanese bow can be quite simple, but there are a ton of subtleties that go into doing it.

When you bow, you must keep in mind that you are not slouching over and curving your back.

It should be a nice and straight posture as that shows you are putting on your best for the other person.

Bowing must also come from your upper torso. By this, we mean that your lower body shouldn’t move and must remain perpendicular to the ground, as if you were standing up straight.

Your gaze must also be focused on the ground when you are bowing.

Have your head move downward along with your torso.

Women must bow with their arms and hands in the front and men must bow keeping their arms and hands at their sides.

There is a lot that goes into bowing, so you must understand the subtleties.

This will not only help you understand their culture better but also show them a great deal of respect.

Bow in Japanese Culture: Understanding the Gesture

Bow in Japanese Culture: Understanding the Gesture

Types of Bows

There are multiple types of bows in Japanese culture that are meant to show respect to the other person in various forms.

For instance, the degree of the angle in which you bow is directly connected with the depth of respect the person is showing.

The degree of the simple bow is roughly about five degrees. It is used commonly in informal gatherings such as meeting your friends or family.

There are a couple of specific types of bows too that are connected directly to the degree of the bow.

These include bows like eshaku (会釈), keirei (敬礼), and saikeirei (最敬礼). We will discuss each of them briefly below.

Eshaku

Eshaku is a type of bow of about 15 degrees and is used commonly around acquaintances and in an informal setting.

It is generally a polite way of casually greeting someone or saying thank you.

Keirei

Keirei is the next type of bow of about 30 degrees.

You will see the Japanese using this type of bow in business situations like greeting customers or potential business partners or showing respect to someone belonging to a higher status.

Saikeirei

Saikeirei is considered the most formal type of bow compared to the other two and is typically used with a more serious tone.

This type of bow is used to show respect to a person belonging to a very high status such as the emperor.

It is also used to show the other person a strong sense of guilt or apology.

While these three are the most common and important types of bow you should be aware of, there is another type of bow used rarely called the dogeza (土下座).

Dogeza is only used in extremely serious circumstances. For instance, when someone has made a mistake that has led to the death of another person.

This type of bow involves the person who’s bowing to get on their knees and hands and also place their face to the ground.

It basically shows that the person is begging for their life.

Remember that bowing is a very important tradition for the Japanese and a lot of it can be learned when you partake in it.

To show them your sense of respect, you must put in the effort to learn the proper way to bow and the correct meaning behind it.

Why Do Japanese Bow and Not Shake Hands?

The Japanese bow to one another as a show of devotion, apology, respect, and as a form of introduction too.

Bowing, for the Japanese, is a basic human movement that comes to them naturally and is a simple way of exchanging greetings.

Additionally, this is a method of showing respect to the other person without involving any physical contact.

That said, it does not mean that the Japanese do not shake hands ever or find it disrespectful.

The Japanese offer a handshake to make things more convenient especially for non-Japanese individuals.

In formal settings, you will notice a combination of handshakes and bow being used often.

As a tourist, if you are confused about whether to shake hands or bow, definitely opt for the bow.

Shaking hands is typically preferred by close friends when they congratulate.

You can also follow the hosts’ lead to decide whether to shake hands or bow in case you are at an event.

You must ensure that you are returning a bow if you are offered one.

The fact is that shaking hands happens to be a rare custom in Japan and doing so generally indicates a really strong relationship.

It's easy to gauge whether someone will bow first while you two are moving towards each other.

You will notice that they will stop at a significant distance and will keep their feet together.

On the other hand, the Japanese handshake tends to be quite limp and will have almost no eye contact.

Why Is Bowing Important In Japan?

Understanding the subtleties and intricacies of bowing along with the different types of it will help you understand the bow in Japanese culture.

The practice of bowing in this country is much more than just a habit but can be considered as a characteristic that defines the Japanese culture.

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