Japan’s vast array of culinary delicacies, exported cultural phenomena, and unique attitudes make the East Asian country one of the more fascinating corners of the globe for both tourists and expats.
Whether a visit is in the cards in the near future, something worth knowing about before embarking on your travels is their age-old mannerism and etiquette of a standard Japanese bow.
We often see this bowing motion in movies, television shows, and all across pop culture, yet most of us don’t know what it means, the significance behind it, when and where to do so, and the occasions in which it’s called for.
Even specific techniques convey different meanings depending on to whom your bowing is addressed!
Luckily, the purpose of this bowing guide is to find out all of the above! We’ve also included some background information on the history of bowing and why the Japanese choose to do so in the first place.
So, sit back, relax, and inform yourself about a Japanese bow.
Introduction to Bowing
Whereas you’d greet your friends with a kiss on the cheek or a quick hug, Japanese people greet their compatriots via bowing.
A Japan bow can range from a slight nod of the head or a deep, bending motion at waist level – we’ll get into the proper forms later. The movement can also be utilized to apologize, thank, or request a favor.
We’ve now reached a juncture point where some of you will click off this article and go into the Land of Cherry Blossoms armed with only superficial knowledge of the mannerism.
Considering bowing is such a niche subject, citizens don’t usually expect traveling tourists or expats to know when, where, or how to bow.
After all, getting away with a simple nod is considered more than acceptable.
Those of you who stay, however, will almost certainly be rewarded with an opportunity to truly impress your foreign counterparts with extensive comprehension of all the essential information regarding the Japan bow.
Let’s look and see how deep this rabbit hole truly goes.
A Reasonably Quick History of Japan’s Bow
The origins of this age-old salute trace back to the middle of the first millennium (500 AD to 800 AD), when Chinese Buddhism made its way to the confines of the East Asian empire.
According to traditional Buddhist teachings, bowing serves as a means to show piety and respect.
Those who worship Buddha bow to his statues out of pure devotion, and disciples bow to their masters to show admiration. Moreover, at the time, bowing was meant to portray status in meetings between people of differing classes.
Those of lower classes greeting superiors would bow to demonstrate themselves as unthreatening and peaceful.
Bowing’s now-widespread prevalence is thought to have been linked closely to the rise of the samurai class throughout the Kamakura period.
Samurais had rigid manuals to follow consisting of proper discipline, etiquette, and mannerisms – the Japan bow being one of these.
The following Muromachi period, along with the further development of the samurai code, dressing customs, and overall strengthening of warrior culture and identity, brought upon the various forms of bowing we know today.
Depending on the occasion and location, samurais were expected to learn three techniques: Saikeirei, Kerei, and Eshaku.
While the chaotic environment of social turmoil and endless warfare of the Sengoku Era brought about the complete abandonment of traditional samurai etiquette for over a century, the Edo period restored peace and prosperity amongst the Japanese population.
With the newfound stability, urban sectors began to blossom and were now heavily invested in proper education.
The warrior class rose back into prominence atop the Japanese social ladder, and warrior customs and etiquette made their way to the common folk of the East Asian nation.
With these customs, bowing rose from the dead after being wholly forgotten for a century. Social class influence also began to present itself within bowing techniques to demonstrate one’s social status and overall power.
These two concepts are now traditional Japanese culture’s mainstay, and we don’t see them going anywhere soon!
Who Bows in Japan?
Nowadays, the Japanese bow is no longer reserved for interactions between different social classes or samurais.
No matter what age, gender, occupation, or background, every Japanese national is expected to bow at least occasionally in everyday life whenever it’s called for.
Children are taught these customs and where, when, why, and how to do so from a young age.
Moreover, Japanese people will also bow to tourists or expats – as if they’re being forced to by the government to demonstrate their etiquette – who are roaming the country’s many astounding sights.
Unless you’re spending the whole day indoors quarantined as if you have COVID-19, you’re bound to bow to Japanese countrymen at least a couple of times throughout the day.
If you’re worried about embarrassing yourself with your anemic Japan bow form, don’t stress: thanks to your foreigner status, no one will judge you, and Japanese people won’t take it as a sign of disrespect or ignorance either.
Call it a no-judge zone!
What’s the Significance?
First and foremost, while bows carry many different meanings – which we’ll get into shortly – the motion’s primary utilization is to show respect to who you’re interacting.
This has been the primary purpose of the Japan bow since the days when incredibly disciplined samurais held all the cards.
Nonetheless, a Japanese bow can have many meanings, ranging from a simple “good evening” to “let’s collaborate.”
Other common means of bowing include:
- I need more time
- Let’s proceed
- I apologize
- Can I ask for a favor?
- See you later
- Among others
As we previously established, its longstanding position in Japanese culture and etiquette is part of why bowing is held in such high regard in the Land of the Rising Sun.
While you’d think that lots can get lost in translation when bowing, the various forms commonly practiced ensure that emotions, feelings, and communicative processes are efficiently implied.
Japanese markedly conservative or traditional people find beauty in demonstrating a perfect bowing position and appraise the motion as a critical representation of the nation’s cultural identity.
In no uncertain terms, bowing is a huge deal in Japan.
Occasions to Bow
Considering a standard Japanese bow can carry many different meanings, people from Dai Nihon find themselves bowing in even the most unexpected circumstances where you’d typically think it simply isn’t necessary or called for.
Whether that be bowing to your coworker after an exhaustive paperwork filing session, a friend after a long night of heavy drinking and conversation, or your committed delivery driver who’s gone through a rainstorm to deliver your pizza, there is an infinite number of occasions where you’re going to find yourself bowing in Japan.
If you’re ever stuck in an awkward situation with a national and don’t know how to react or respond to them, bowing will quickly get you out of that uncomfortable state in an instant.
The Japanese bow, in general, conveys so many meanings – essentially all of them positive – that there’s never a situation where you can’t bow.
Nonetheless, there are moments where bowing can even be seen as a sign of disrespect.
Some of these notable instances include bowing while being seated, showing obvious signs of anger or agitation with someone, and in the middle of speaking.
Thus, knowing exactly when to bow and when to avoid doing so will do you favors to avoid being intertwined in conflicts with Japanese citizens.
In the Japanese business world, proper customs and manners have the reputation of being one of the trickiest aspects to learn if you’re planning on working for a Japan-based company – or already doing so.
Because etiquette and ranks, deriving from samurai culture, are still influential today, not utilizing the right bowing stance is considered a workplace blunder and can even be taken as an offense by your superiors.
Many companies will even offer recruits extensive training courses on learning proper Japanese bow form.
Places in Which to Bow
As established above, there aren’t many occasions where bowing isn’t considered acceptable, and the same goes for specific locations.
You get the idea of airports, offices, football stadiums, skate parks, deli shops, restaurants, and gaming stores; if there are two or more people at a place in a given time, odds are they’ve bowed to each other.
If you’re more on the touristy travel plan and are looking to hit some culture-rich landmarks in the Flowery Kingdom, check out a Shinto shrine to experience the traditional bowing sequence.
Present an offering (money will often do the trick), bow twice, clap twice, bow once; after that, you’re good to explore the rest of what’s a fantastic sight to see.
Nevertheless, bowing to someone standing below you on the horizontal plane is a big no-no for reasons related to showing respect to the person you’re bowing to.
It’s as if you’re looking down upon them in a condescending fashion.
Have you ever caught yourself waving goodbye to someone you’re talking to via your phone, albeit unable to see them physically?
This subconscious act can also be seen in Japanese people, but instead, through bowing.
If you’ve made it this far into the guide, pat yourself on the back first. Sitting through endless waves of text on something so trivial (at first glance) certainly isn’t easy.
Nonetheless, we hope you’ve now realized that bowing in Japan is the farthest thing from a trivial concept. This is where we’ll now get into the meat and potatoes and go over all the proper bowing forms.
Often considered the trickiest part of understanding bowing customs and etiquette, knowing proper bowing techniques can do wonders in terms of familiarizing yourself with Japanese nationals and smoothly integrating into their culture.
It’s an excellent way to say that you’re willing to learn about these intricacies and want to be viewed by them as more than just a clueless foreigner.
Regardless of the position you undertake, however, there are five bowing rules you must keep in mind at all times:
- Hands on your sides if you’re a male, in front if you’re a female.
- Look down no matter what.
- Back straight, no slouching whatsoever. Good posture is necessary.
- Protruding hips should also be avoided; the latter two are considered ugly and unprofessional.
Now that we’ve got these conditions let’s dive into what exactly goes into performing the saikeirei, keirei, and eshaku.
If you’re ever in need of performing this bow, odds are you’ve probably aiming to achieve one of three things:
- Desperately seeking an apology following a bad blunder of epic proportions.
- Saluting the Messiah’s second coming – whoever that may represent in your life.
- Attempting to demonstrate that you’re deeply thankful for someone’s offerings or help.
Doing so will require you to bend at a 45° for at least three seconds – unless you’re meeting someone the likes of the emperor himself, which will result in irreparable back damage from a 70° bend. (Note: We can’t confirm the damages part).
Thus, you won’t find yourself performing this bow very often, but it can certainly come in handy in the rare event you encounter someone of true power.
If you plan on using this bow to subtly and condescendingly make fun of your Japanese counterparts, however, we strongly advise you’d go for another way of horsing around.
It’s comparable to putting pineapples on pizza in front of an Italian who’s been crafting pizzas for longer than your existence on Earth; the ultimate offense with the wrong person, in other words.
If the saikeirei bow can be considered the Four Seasons of bowing techniques, the keirei can be nicely represented by your standard Marriott Courtyard; both have insanely good pillows, but we’d argue the Marriott is an inferior, less expensive version of an industry-leading Four Seasons. Call the keirei a lite version, if you will.
Hotel analogies aside – that’s not why we are here – the keirei is also commonly used in formal settings such as business meetings and is often employed to demonstrate respect to your higher-ups.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t have that incredible humility or gratitude punch, as you’re only meant to bend down to a 30° angle.
The next time you find yourself in a sushi spot, we challenge you to find a service worker who won’t bow once you leave the establishment as a sign of gratitude for dining there.
As the least formal version of the three bows – your average Best Western, if you will – this is the bowing form that’s the most comparable to dapping up your friends.
Only required to bend down to a 15° angle, you’ll often find yourself performing this bow with your coworkers, people you’re generally familiar with, of the same ranks in a specific environment, or passerby strangers.
It’s also worth mentioning that for all three of these bowing techniques, your eyes should be fixated on what’re three feet in front of you on the floor.
We don’t advise looking at who you’re greeting directly in the eyeballs, or things could get a little weird.
Wrap-Up About Bowing in Japan
You’ve finally made it to the end of the marathon.
Odds are, when you searched for proper bowing etiquette on Google, you weren’t expecting to stumble upon an over 2,000-word dossier on the history, what it means, the significance and importance in the Japanese society behind it, when and where to do it so, and occasions in which its called for.
Whether you’re a tourist or an expat whose next stop is the Land of the Rising Sun, knowing proper bow techniques and the historical context behind the move will only benefit you.
You could even use some of this information to impress your potential in-laws if it ever comes down to it! It can do you wonders when it comes to acclimatizing Japanese culture.
Regardless, in case you’ve forgotten already and only planning on visiting for a couple of days, remember: Straight back and neck, glancing down, correct hand placement, and proper duration depending on who you’re communicating to and the purpose of said interaction (more time, greater meaning).
Once you have these things down, mastering all three techniques will be a piece of cake.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide on how to bow properly in Japan; you can confidently go into the beautiful country of Japan and not worry about making a fool of yourself the next time you greet someone inside their borders.