I don’t think I ever bowed before coming to Japan, but it’s such a huge thing in Japan. I mean, it’s one of the biggest aspects of the Japanese culture. Because there’s so much emphasis on respect, bowing is one of the main ways to convey that.
Now, I bow practically every day, whether it’s a slight nod to the staff member or an apologetic one to a passerby. There are a few types of bows in Japanese culture and they’re used for various purposes. For travellers and those planning to live in Japan alike, it’s best to know what they are and understand the nuances behind them.
In this article, we’re going to look at what to note when it comes to bowing in Japanese culture, and the three types of bows you can encounter!
Bowing in Japan
Bowing, known as ojigi (お辞儀) in Japanese, is not only a Japanese body language but it’s a crucial part of Japanese etiquette. Regardless of the occasion, both formal and informal settings, you have to bow and prepare to be bowed to. Depending on the situation, bowing can represent a couple of different things – greetings, gratitude and apologies are just to name a few.
There are a couple of things you should note about bowing. The first of them all is that this simple ritual should not be rushed. You can’t just walk and bow – it’s not really something you can do on-the-go. It’s considered rude if you do that and it’s best to stop before bowing.
When you do bow, be careful of your posture. A relaxed and casual one can be misunderstood as disrespectful or lack in interest. Try not to put more weight on one foot than the other or try to look forward at the person when you bow. Keep your arms at your side stiffly as you bow, palms open towards your body (see images below). Other postures may be adopted in more casual settings, but as a guest there’s only one way to guarantee politeness. Never have your arms hang lifelessly or crossed in front of your chest, or in a prayer position. Clenching of fists is also a strict no-no – you’re kind of telling the other person that you’re suppressing anger if you do that.
The last thing to note is that, when you are bowing, don’t talk. Conversation is not particularly acceptable when you bow. Surely, you can wait till your back is straightened up to continue your conversation. When doing self-introductions, it’s best to express yourself and bow as a punctuation to your greeting. Some standard phrases may be said while bowing, but to ensure clear communication, as a learner, bow after you have spoken.
As we briefly mentioned, there are three types of bowing and the varying degrees have different meanings. Let’s take a look at them.
A 15º bow, also known as eshaku (会釈), is when you’re slightly bowing. It’s kind of like a nod but rather than just doing with your head, you’re also moving your upper body. This kind of bowing translates to a casual greeting or salutation, and is used more informally than others like when you’re passing by someone at work or school as a casual greeting.
Eshaku can sometimes be used as an apology, too. The whole idea of this type of bow is that it’s extremely casual. You don’t use this as a normal type of greeting bow. You do see this being used in formal and business settings, but it usually follows a proper greeting as repetition.
To do this bow, you tilt forward of about 15º from your normal posture. I know we mentioned previously that it’s not okay to look at a person when you bow, but in eshaku, you maintain visual contact with the person you’re greeting. It’s better to have your hands together in front of you but it’s also fine if you don’t.
This next type of bow requires you to tilt your upper body and head to a 30º angle. Also known as keirei (敬礼), this bow translates to a respectful salutation and is used in formal settings to greet, thank or apologise to someone. When you need to communicate with someone respectfully, like a client, customer or boss, this is a gesture of respect in Japanese body language.
Unlike the previous type of bow, you don’t look at the person you’re bowing to – you look at the floor. Your arms should be kept at the sides of your body, front or back of the body in a respectful manner of covering one hand over the other. Make sure your back is straight and you’re not just tilting your head.
Keirei is used by staff members when they greet and bid farewell to customers at a shop or hotel. You’ll commonly see this type of bow when businessmen are thanking or apologising to their clients or higher-ups.
The most extreme bow of them all is the saikeirei (最敬礼): the 45º bow. On some occasions, it can be up to 60º! This type of bow is the most respectful salutation which can also be used to project deepest regrets in an apology.
If you’ve done something extremely bad at work, quickly stand up straight and then tilt your upper body to a 45º angle while keeping your head down. Make sure your hands are at your sides when you do this. Saikeirei is a formal style of bowing you most often see and do in a business setting.
I have to admit – I do see some people bow all the way down to a 90º angle. And a lot of the time, they’re on the phone on the streets and still bowing even though the other person couldn’t see them. They must be sincerely sorry for what they have done.
Bowing is such an important custom in Japan, and practicing it while in the country is the best way to understand this tradition. You’re not only visually showing your respect for the person you’re bowing to, but you’re also deepening your comprehension of this characteristic of the Japanese culture. So, the next time you messed up at work, go all out with the saiekeirei to your boss!