お辞儀 (おじぎ, Ojigi) ‘Bowing’ is an important aspect of culture and everyday life in Japan as well as in many other Asian countries. Originally, this form of manners originated in Buddhism and was meant to reflect a person’s social status. Today, the Japanese bow to a wide variety of situations – but when should you bow, and how do you do it properly?
When do you bow?
What a handshake or sometimes a hug is to us, bowing is in Japan: when greeting and saying goodbye. Whereas a handshake can also occur in international companies or generally when dealing with foreigners – sometimes there is a combination of bowing and handshaking.
Furthermore, a bow is appropriate when apologizing, congratulating, or thanking, and at the beginning and end of class, a meeting, or a ceremony.
How do you bow properly?
To bow properly, you must first keep your back straight. Bowing is done from the hips, which means the whole upper body bends straight down at a natural speed. The hands lie flat on the sides of the thighs; women can instead place the right hand folded over the left on the front of the thighs (in the lap). So the hands are not put together as in Thai ‘Wai!’ In Japan, this is only customary when praying and before and after a meal.
Now the only question is: How deep and long do you have to bow? The answer to this is: It all depends! As already mentioned, this form of manners is based on Buddhism and the classification of social status. Nowadays, bowing in Japan is supposed to show respect and recognition to the other person. Still, the social aspect is not completely unimportant: the lower-ranking person bows deeper and longer than the higher-ranking person. So, for example, the student bows deeper than the teacher as a sign of respect. Other examples include host and guest, salesperson and customer, or employee and supervisor. Therefore, there are different ways of bowing, including sitting. However, in the following, we will only discuss the three most common ones while standing, as shown in the picture.
Bowing in Japan: the different types
The first, more informal type is called eshaku (会釈), in which you bow about 15°. With peers, such as work colleagues or people of the same age, such a slight bow is quite sufficient. However, if your counterpart is of higher rank, the 30° bow keirei (敬礼) is appropriate, showing just the proper amount of respect for many situations. Especially for business matters, this style is common, although sometimes companies may still have their own rules regarding bowing.
Finally, there is the 45° bow saikeirei (最敬礼), the most polite and respectful type of the three, for example, for a particularly sincere and contrite apology – but for foreigners, this type is rather unusual. Furthermore, you should not bow while walking but stop briefly for it and then continue walking. The same goes for speaking; first, say what you have to say and then bow.
And that brings us to the end of the basics of bowing in Japan! If you are a little afraid of doing something wrong after all these rules, don’t worry! Especially as a non-Japanese person, you will not be blamed for small mistakes.