West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs


By Josiah Lebowitz

Sorry that there wasn’t an update yesterday. Although I technically have more free time right now than I did when I was in Japan, I have a lot more to do as well so I may have to skip a day here or there depending on how busy I am. Now, on to today’s topic.

In the US and many other parts of the world we use handshakes as a greeting, to seal a promise or agreement, and the like. Though, as you probably know, far Eastern countries like Japan have a different way of doing things. Japanese people do know what a handshake is and many will shake hands with foreigners, but the correct way to do things is by bowing.

But a bow is much more than a handshake. Japanese people bow when greeting each other, saying goodbye, asking for a favor, offering thanks, and apologizing, along with a few other things. The habit of bowing is so deeply ingrained that some Japanese people will even do so while talking on the phone.

There are many different types of bows depending on the bower’s gender, his relationship to the person being bowed to, and the specific situation. The generic male bow is to bow from the waist with your feet together and arms and hands pressed firmly against your sides. The generic female bow is similar, except that you keep your arms in front, with your hands overlapping a little below your waist. How low you bow and for how long varies depending on the social status of the person you’re bowing too (the higher they are in relation to you, the lower and longer you bow), how much you respect the other person (lower and longer bows equals more respect), and the situation (if you’re expressing deep gratitude or remorse you should bow lower and longer). In some cases, little more than a nod of the head is needed while extreme situations may call for the “ultimate” bow where you go on your knees and press your hands and forehead to the floor. Mastering the subtleties of proper bowing is something that can really only be done by spending a lot of time around Japanese people though a normal (maybe 45 – 60 degree) fairly brief bow (a second or two) will work in most situations if you’re unsure. You should note that, while low long bows do show great respect, appreciation, or contrition, they can also seem mocking when used at the wrong time.

So why bowing? Many foreigners think that it’s to avoid physical contact but that’s not the case. Japanese people have no problems with physical contact, especially with people they know (though public displays of affection are generally avoided). Instead, the purpose of bowing is to show respect towards the other person no matter who they are, which fits perfectly with the Japanese ideal of maintaining calm and harmonious relationships.


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