It has been almost 8 months since we moved to Japan. By now I have got a fair idea of certain Japanese customs and etiquette. In a country where lot of importance is given to public behavior, accepted mannerisms and etiquette, it is impossible not to learn these mannerisms. In fact there are set rules on what is acceptable and what is not. We foreigners are not expected to know all of these but for sure it helps in the long run to behave like the Japanese.
One of the first things that we notice about the Japanese is their bowing. Infact this is one of the things that most people outside Japan associate with the Japanese. This action is actually more prominent in the entire East Asian region especially in China, Japan and Korea. Bowing is actually a traditional way of greeting in these countries and it implies giving respect. It is also a way to express apology and gratitude.
The act of bowing is called “O-jigi” in Japan. This act is considered to be of utmost importance. The type of bowing varies on different occasions. At first foreigners don’t see the difference. Spend a few weeks in Japan and it is easy to distinguish between the different types of bowing.
The most informal or common bow is to bend at the waist with back straight and eyes down. Males keep their hands at the side while women keep them on the lap. To express a deeper emotion and higher respect the bow should be longer and deeper. The formal bow is a slightly more deeper while the most formal or polite bow is much deeper and longer. The most informal bow is only a small nod of the head with a slight bending of the waist. A friend explained it to me as informal bow is at 15 degrees, formal is 30 degrees and most formal ranges between 45-90 degrees. How scientific!
Seniority and superiority also are of utmost importance in bowing. Younger people bow deeper and longer when bowing to older people who reciprocate with slightly lower and lighter bows. At workplace, subordinates bow first and usually deeper and longer. At times superiors may not reciprocate with a bow and even if they do it is a slight bow and very short one.
When apologizing, the bow has to be deeper. A light bow indicates that the apology is not sincere while a deep bow implies great regret. Also the head is kept much low. Infact the body language should display that the person offering the apology is regretful for the situation.
Also when thanking the bow is deeper like in the case of apology. This is to express that the person bowing is grateful. Deep bows imply high degree of gratitude.
It is common to bow when you are introduced to a new person or even when you are meeting a person for the first time. Also when you meet friends or acquaintances, it is common to bow. Even at stores or restaurants, it is common to bow when you enter or when leaving.
Also when someone bows to you, you are expected to bow in return. At times this leads to a funny situation when both parties keep bowing repeatedly. Most foreigners are confused when to stop and the Japanese don’t stop bowing because they consider it rude to stop first! Many times we have encountered long “bowing” good byes.
Children are taught to learn bowing at a very young age; perhaps they learn to bow before they can stand without support or before they learn to speak. I remember an 11 month old kid bowing in gratitude when we gave a gift. On my occasional visits to my daughter’s kindergarten, her friends bow when they see me and then run off.
It is common to see the other drivers bow when driving past if you have given them priority to pass. Also pedestrians at zebra crossing bow down in gratitude when quickly crossing the road to express gratitude to the drivers who stopped to let them cross. Our friend (also a foreigner) was narrating a funny incident. He has lived in Japan for over a year now and on his recent visit to his home country, he habitually bowed to a person who had given him way. The other person looked at our friend with a “What was that for?” kind of expression.
Having lived in South Korea and Japan for over a year, we are now so used to it, bowing comes naturally to us now. Even on our trips back home we unknowingly bow when thanking someone.