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The Japanese Bow: How to Do It the Right Way

In shops, in the streets, on the phone… You may have noticed that Japanese people bow all the time! Japan has a lot of hidden rules and manners, but the habit of bowing is evident.

Why and When Do Japanese People Bow?

Ojigi, the “bow,” is essential for the Japanese people, especially when doing business. An adult who can’t correctly bow will be labeled rude or childish. Although the bow is routinely used in Japan, there are nuances that even some Japanese people might ignore! If you intend to do business with Japanese people, it is better to know the basics of the bow and its meanings. And if you want to work in Japan, you will soon have plenty of opportunities to practice!

Ojigi can express many things: salutation, gratitude, apologies, and respect. Nevertheless, they are rarely used between friends and family members. In non-business situations, the “bow” is primarily used for your elders, superiors, strangers, and acquaintances.

Ojigi: Dos and Don’ts

男, 人, 立つ, スーツ が含まれている画像

This is the basic posture for ojigi.
  • If you are a man, you can keep your hands on the side of your body or keep your hands together in front of you. If you are a woman, you should keep your hands together in front of you. 
  • In a business context with foreigners, most Japanese people will shake hands with them and bow slightly simultaneously. You will give an excellent impression to your business partner if you do the same.
  • Say your greetings after you bow. This proper manner is called gosen-gorei in Japanese. However, many people bow while speaking!
  • Don’t curve your back. Keep it straight as a mark of respect.
  • Don’t join your palms in front of your chest to greet! This is a common mistake among foreigners visiting Japan for the first time. This kind of greeting is used in other countries, such as Thailand. In Japan, this is mainly seen in places of worship.
In Japan this gesture is related to prayer.

The Different ‘Levels’ of Bowing

Now, let us get to the trickier part. There are various sorts of ojigi that are used depending on the situation. There are five ways to bow. Here are the three main ones used when standing.

  1. Eshaku: It’s a slight bow with an angle of about 15 degrees. Example: When passing your neighbor on the street or when you pass a client or a superior in the hallway.
  2. Keirei: It’s often used in business, with a bow of about 30 degrees. Example: When you visit your client’s company, gain a new client, or greet someone new. It is also used to express gratitude; for instance, if someone returns your wallet that you dropped on the street.
  3. Saikeirei: It is the deepest of the three bows, at about 45 degrees. You may not have an opportunity to use this bow daily. This bow is for indicating your sincere apology or respect toward a person, so it will look awkward if you use this bow on everyone you encounter. Example: In the case of you causing trouble for, let’s say… the president of a company.

Observing Is the Key!

Of course, Japanese people do not bow at an exact angle because they do not measure it with a protractor! They learn it through their own experience as they grow up. So it might look very confusing at first, but the more you observe the people surrounding you. The more you practice, the more you will “feel” when and how to bow!

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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