When greeting each other, people in Japan bow instead of shaking hands. Why do we do that? Is there a meaning? What is a proper way to do it? Let’s learn about お辞儀/Ojigi, or bowing culture in Japan.
It is believed that bowing traces its roots back to Buddhism brought to Japan from the ancient China sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries. Bowing is an important gesture of respect and piety in Buddhist teachings, and worshippers bow in devotion. By lowering head, being the most important part of a body, you show that you are not intended to attack or hurt others. It is to admire the person you are talking to and also to be humble. Such religious etiquette is believed to be the foundation of Ojigi in Japan.
During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), with the appearance of first feudal military government and Samurai warriors, well-disciplined warrior etiquette along with bowing became important. Instructions on proper ways to bow and show loyalty to the master were made and later in the Edo period (1603-1868), the practice had spread to the common people when there were clear hierarchies. People in lower classes had to bow deeply to land owners and government officials as a sign of respect and obedience.
In modern days, bowing is a social etiquette and doing it correctly is widely considered to be the defining characteristic of adulthood. It is no wonder that many companies in Japan take the extra effort to train their employees on how to bow well during business meetings.
How do the Japanese bow?
A bowing ranges from a small nod of the head called 会釈/Eshaku to a deep bend at the waist called 最敬礼/Saikeirei. A deeper, longer bow indicates that much respect and a small nod with the head is casual and informal. Being overly polity will look strange, so casual nodding is often done in many situations nowadays and most Japanese do not expect foreigners to know proper bowing and etiquette, so a nod of the head is usually sufficient. However, when a formal greeting takes place on tatami floor, there’s a rule to get on the knees to bow. This is called 座礼/Zarei, and it is an important part of Japanese culture especially in traditional activities like the tea ceremony, kendo, etc.
Bowing is also used to thank, apologize, make a request or ask someone a favor. Bowing with your palms together at chest level is a greeting style in Thailand and is not widely practiced in Japan (though some people do it casually when asking something).
In Business situations
It depends on the custom of a company you are in, but generally speaking, when you meet someone for the first time, especially if they are from a different company, you need to bow as a greeting.
When you meet your boss or manager, bowing deeply first is often considered polite and respectful.
Bowing is also done before beginning a presentation and an important meeting. If you are a foreign worker and not sure what to do, just follow what others do.
At Shinto Shrines
If you have a chance to visit a shinto shrine, it is the best to know the proper way of showing respect. Worshipers at a Shinto shrine generally follow 二拝二拍手一拝/Nirei-Nihakushu-Ichirei, or 2 bows, 2 claps, and 1 bow procedure.
Upon arriving at a shrine, it is proper for a worshiper to perform a slight bow towards the main temple building as they cross the 鳥居/Torii gate (The gate is believed to be the sacred gateway between the mundane world and the areas where gods are. When leaving the temple complex, the same procedure applies).
It is respectful to perform another bow toward the altar as an introduction when approaching the main temple building. Then throw some Japanese coins into 賽銭箱/Saisan-bako, offertory box as a donation and ring the bell above the entrance for blessings.
In the main praying process, a worshipper should perform two deep bows and two claps in front of the chest and make a wish. At the end, put the hands down and perform another deep bow to finish the praying. Noises made by the coins, bells and claps are believed to have the effect of taking the negative energy or evil spirits away and bringing in good fortunes.
There is another type of greeting at shops and restaurants.
Upon entering, you hear workers say いらっしゃいませ/Ira-shai-mase to customers. It is like saying “Thank you for coming to our shop”, and no response from the customer is required.
Today’s words and phrases
・be intended to 〜であると意図される
・Bring in 〜を呼び込む
Thank you for reading today’s post!
I hope this will help you understand more about Japanese culture.
See you next time.
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