It is customary in Japan to greet one another with a bow. I’m sure you’ve seen it on television! Bowing is deeply embedded in the culture, so unless you’re from Japan you probably don’t know that there is a fair bit of etiquette involved.
Family members, close friends, and children do not often bow to each other as they are familiar with one another. If they do, it is quite informal. Nowadays, it is more often used for business partners, new comers (visitors to a home or hotel), patrons of restaurants, etc. It is meant to be a sign of respect. The deeper you bow, the more respect you are showing.
As a foreigner, you are not expected to bow. But I would suggest that if someone does it to you, you express the exact same bow in return.
For boys and men, simple bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides. For girls and women, hands are clasped in the lap. Eyes always look down. All bows originate at the waist.
There are three main types: informal, formal and very formal.
- Informal, the common bow, also referred to as eshaku 会釈, are made at about a 15 degree angle, almost a simple tilt forward.
- Formal bows are at about thirty degrees. These are referred to as keirei 敬礼.
- Very formal bows are deeper, around a 45 degree angle, and called sai-keirei 最敬礼. You would save these bows for someone like your employer or even the king!
Now, it isn’t a sign of inferiority – in fact, it can represent a variety of emotions and can be used to expressed nearly anything. The Japanese bow in nearly every situation; from home, to school, to work and also in religious ceremonies.
It also isn’t parallel to a handshake; it’s regarded as so much more. Other styles of greeting, like shaking hands and kissing one on the cheek, can be seen as exchanging germs and possibly worse. A bow has no body contact and is seen as the most cleanly, respectful way of greeting.
When bowing, never maintain eye contact. Always lower your eyes or close your eyes briefly. Keep everything in the eyes and the gesture.
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