Here
and
Now

opinions

How to bow like a Japanese

23 Comments

What could be more typically Japanese than bowing? Every other book about Japan has something to say on the subject, so it must be important, right? Certainly a lot of foreigners come to Japan and start bowing like crazy, so maybe they all read the same book.

It’s common knowledge, if not entirely correct, that bowing is a sign of respect, gratitude, or apology in Japanese society. And there’s no shortage of information on how to do it properly, how deeply one should bow, or what to do with your hands. There’s just one missing piece ...

I was in a bar last week, and by the end of the night, I’d made friends with about 50 salarymen. As I’d had a rather plentiful number of cocktails and had to wake up the next day before noon, I decided to politely make my exit. And what happened next? They all got up and started shaking my hand, like suddenly I’m a member of Congress or something.

You know, when Japanese people leave a bar, everybody doesn’t rush around shaking hands with them. And when Americans leave a bar in the U.S.– well, it’s basically the same thing. We just say goodbye and peace out. Anyway, while America is still the land of the handshake, people don’t go around doing it all willy-nilly either.

However, in the mind of a Japanese salaryman who’s just polished off a bottle of shochu, shaking hands is what “foreigners” do all the time. Just like how foreigners think bowing is something Japanese do all the time.

So here’s the missing piece I referred to earlier: Japan has a culture based upon hierarchy. It’s a power culture. The store clerk thanks you. You don’t thank him. At the restaurant, you yell your order to the waitress and she comes running. She’s all politeness, smiles, bowing, and deference, because that’s her job. You, as a customer, have a different role, and it does not include thanking, bowing, or even acknowledging her presence. Then, when that waitress is a customer somewhere else, she’ll bark her order at someone else who comes running, and hardly mumble a word of thanks. In any situation, the people on the bottom of the power equation bow and thank those above them. The people at the top don’t respond in kind, and they frequently don’t respond at all.

Bear in mind that bowing isn’t necessarily related to a person’s status in society, age, or gender. It’s about a person’s role in a given situation. Who’s the boss and who’s the employee in the current transaction. Who’s holding the leash and who’s the dog. The person who bows in one situation does not bow in another, and nobody bows all the time. Except old people. And they’re just grateful that somebody actually acknowledges their presence.

Japan has the reputation of being a polite nation. That’s because, for tourists, everywhere they look, Japanese folks are welcoming, thanking, and bowing to them. What wonderful, simple people. They’re so cute. In reality, it’s about business. It’s not that Japanese people are more or less polite than anyone else. It’s that they’re serious employees. It’s their job to treat you well, in the same way that when I call my credit card company, they say “Thank you for calling.” Maybe the person on the other end of the line isn’t actually grateful that I called to complain about my interest rate. But then you never know. Those folks in Bangladesh are awfully friendly.

So take a step back. Next time you go to a store, a restaurant, or a bar in Japan, don’t watch the clerks and waiters. Watch the Japanese customers. Quite often, they’re a whole lot less than polite. They either boss the staff around, or ignore them entirely. They certainly don’t bow to the staff.

Now, you can act however you like in Japan. Bow to the mailman if that’s your thing. Thanks for bringing my electric bill, dude! Hey, it’s a free country. But if you’ve gone to the trouble of learning some Japanese and trying to understand the culture, then you might want to pay attention to what everybody else does, and try to behave similarly. Just a thought.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to bow. You should absolutely show respect and appreciation toward people with whom you have a personal connection. But again, keep in mind who’s thanking whom. If, for example, you give someone a gift, they should bow a bit and thank you. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, as the gift-giver, you probably shouldn’t be bowing to them, unless you’re thanking them for something they’ve done. Okay, so it’s a little complicated. Whatever. Just keep your roles straight is all I’m saying.

As a final note, there is, of course, the reciprocal bowing phenomenon, where everyone is bowing like mad to everyone else in what looks like a mini aerobics class. But that’s typically limited to situations where all parties are on equal terms, like friends and associates, and used when greeting or saying goodbye. Staff from companies that are in business together also do this a lot.

There’s nothing wrong with bowing at the right time. You just gotta know when that time is. How to know? Watch Japanese people. Then do what they do. And so, if we ever meet, don’t feel like you need to bow. You don’t even need to shake my hand. A hug will do just fine.

© Japan Today

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

23 Comments
Login to comment

Great insights on Japan, as usual Ken!

You, as a customer, have a different role, and it does not include thanking, bowing, or even acknowledging her presence.

if you’ve gone to the trouble of learning some Japanese and trying to understand the culture, then you might want to pay attention to what everybody else does, and try to behave similarly.

However, I somewhat disagree with that last bit about trying to "pay attention to what everybody else does, and try to behave similarly."

I went through a phase of attempting to better assimilate into Japanese society by somewhat following social norms like playing the Japanese-style role of aloof customer. I didn't like that much, though. It made me feel both uncomfortable and unhappy. It just seems a depressing way to approach customer-server relationships. Also, I came to feel disgusted to find many (perhaps even most) customers here to be cringingly rude and completely opposite to the stereotype of Japanese people as polite which I had subscribed to before coming to this country.

I have long since reverted back to smiling at service staff here in Japan, thanking them for serving me, showing a measure of appreciation and otherwise acting more like people back home do as customers in server-customer situations. For the most part I find that service staff here really do appreciate the occasional civil and appreciative customer. I feel more comfortable in my own skin, so to speak.

Anyway, I find the service here to be quite good at times (albeit within set limits), but not so much the hospitality -- maybe that is partially attributable to an undercurrent of service staff revolt against the overall ill-mannered nature of the nation's customers. It sounds corny, but I really do miss the much friendlier restaurant service and hospitality back home, even if much of that is arguably motivated by the promise of better tips -- "Hi, my name is Janet, and I will be your server today..."

4 ( +7 / -3 )

It's that they're serious employees. It's their job to treat you well,

Therein lies the rub.

One person's idea of "treating the customer well" might mean pretending to like them, and smiling while handing them an "out of the box" product or service.

Another person's idea of "treating the customer well" might be to actually listen to what the customer is saying, and trying your hardest to provide it for them, regardless of what you've got in the shop.

One might say that one way is "pretend respect" while the other way is "honest respect."

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Another good JT article, good companion piece to 'Survey asks: What makes Japanese citizens feel distinctly Japanese?'

http://www.japantoday.com/category/lifestyle/view/survey-asks-what-makes-japanese-citizens-feel-distinctly-japanese

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

I was in a bar last week, and by the end of the night, I’d made friends with about 50 salarymen.

Bar? more like the Tokyo dome!

Bear in mind that bowing isn’t necessarily related to a person’s status in society, age, or gender. It’s about a person’s role in a given situation. Who’s the boss and who’s the employee in the current transaction. Who’s holding the leash and who’s the dog. The person who bows in one situation does not bow in another, and nobody bows all the time. Except old people. And they’re just grateful that somebody actually acknowledges their presence.

Ken ,not sure i recognise this country of which you write.

Watch Japanese people. Then do what they do.

Hmmmm.. would rather do my own thing thank you.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

as the gift-giver, you probably shouldn’t be bowing to them, unless you’re thanking them for something they’ve done

The fact that they've kindly accepted your humble gift is reason enough to bow.

Another person's idea of "treating the customer well" might be to actually listen to what the customer is saying, and trying your hardest to provide it for them, regardless of what you've got in the shop.

Like when I was looking for a wedding outfit, the shop I was in had a dress I liked but I wasn't sure if I could get the right accessories to go with it. The lady who was serving me sent her assistant out to other nearby shops to borrow stoles, jackets, boleros, shoes, bags, you name it, so that I was able to coordinate my whole outfit in one place. Can't see that happening in the UK, where the girl on the till locks it up and walks away on the dot of five, even though there's a queue of people waiting to pay for stuff.

Being nice to shop staff doesn't cost anything and makes your own life more pleasant than growling at them. Thank you for swiping my loyalty card, thank you for giving me my change.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Japan has a culture based upon hierarchy. It’s a power culture. The store clerk thanks you. You don’t thank him. At the restaurant, you yell your order to the waitress and she comes running. She’s all politeness, smiles, bowing, and deference, because that’s her job. You, as a customer, have a different role, and it does not include thanking, bowing, or even acknowledging her presence. Then, when that waitress is a customer somewhere else, she’ll bark her order at someone else who comes running, and hardly mumble a word of thanks. In any situation, the people on the bottom of the power equation bow and thank those above them. The people at the top don’t respond in kind, and they frequently don’t respond at all.

In my twenty years in Japan, I would have to agree with the above statement.. Those brave souls who work in customer service here, must down a few drinks every night after work just to get relieve the stress.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

What could be more typically Japanese than bowing?

Sniffling constantly and refusing to blow your nose?

That's a good one. I see you know Japan well. You could probably add to it, Coughing without covering your mouth.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of typical Japanese behaviors.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

You just gotta know when that time is. How to know? Watch Japanese people. Then do what they do.

Valuable advice for anyone starting life in a new culture.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The difference is that Japanese customer service staff do smile and greet and assist - most Australian CS staff barely give you a grunt So when on holiday i am very happy to smile and thank the konbini staff after seeing them being ignored by their other customers

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Most Japanese people, particularly those who live in Tokyo, are exposed to foreign cultures to be aware of the differences. Most are also just like people from every other culture in the world and are appreciative of persons who try to show respect. In travelling around the world I've seen people sniffing without blowing their noses and coughing without covering their mouths. My travels have spanned more than 35 years with 25 of those years spent in Japan.

There are rude people everywhere and making ignorant comments that paint a race with a broad brush shows your ignorance or lack of manners. I thought that pretty much everyone is aware that a few bad examples can cause a loss of perspective. Maybe those of you who have made derogatory comments toward Japanese people should be included in that select group of persons who exhibit rude behavior.

If you don't like it here or think you're better because of your cultural background, please leave. Then try to grow up.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

It's important to be sensitive to cultural norms when living or travelling outside your own culture. It's important to realize that as a non-Japanese person you are an ambassador for your country whether that's what you signed up for or not.

That said, it's also important to be true to your own nature in a given situation. If you are rude, you will be rude. No point lecturing you about that now. It's your life. However, as a respectful and appreciative person I make an effort to connect with people. I smile and bow and thank Japanese people who serve me (sometimes multiple times and changing tenses as they do).

I don't give a rat about their status. I am not their superior in any way. They have given me a service, and I show them my gratitude as sincerely as I know how. So in that sense I do "my thing" but also adopt some of their culturally appropriate mannerisms in order to be better understood.

And those who come to my country? I teach them how to hug.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

They either boss the staff around, or ignore them entirely

I would advise you not to overgeneralize, though you seem to do that a lot, Ken. Do a quick google search of things that women do not want men to do or want men to stop doing. You will find that acting bossy in front of shop staff / restaurant waiters is almost always near the top of the list. Yes, I've seen some lowlifes acting like they own the restaurant. I've also observed that MOST customers give a small "eshaku" when given their food or the item they bought. I also do this. Did you not notice people doing that? If so, you are purposefully ignoring it or you need better observation skills.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

The blokes who bow like a woman are curiously irritating for some reason. Hands by your sides, boys, not crossed in front of you like a junior high school girl!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

WHATEVER..... to me, bowing in Japan I think is just a gesture of showing respect, gratitude, acknowledgement, bowing saying thank you. When, how etc.... is the question. Some countries does bowing too. Some by bowing with hand clasp in front of their face. Remember "savadeekah" Thais one way of showing respect. My one Yen thought.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

How about we just change the 'Feature' column to 'how can we generalize all of Japan and claim it's still unique'? No one ever bowed before Chinese and Koreans came and made this nation, and if they did it could not have been anything more than accidental.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

"Watch the Japanese customers. Quite often, they’re a whole lot less than polite. They either boss the staff around, or ignore them entirely."

So while in one sentence you talk about how police people are in Japan in the next you contradict yourself by saying it's "a job" and "an act". Another fluff piece. How about next we talk about how chopsticks are uniquely Japanese?

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Smithinjapan, you are probably correct that there isn't any one single behaviour limited to Japanese people; however, you have to realize that enough people bow and use chopsticks and consider themselves unique and many other characteristics to agree that those behaviours are noticeable. Especially to non-Japanese in Japan navigating the new social norms in which they find themselves.

Yes, that means people will generalize when observing such behaviours. And no, generalizations do not apply to everyone. Which means, as you point out, contradictions to such generalizations occur. However, articles such as this one and others you want to trash can be helpful to those not yet quite as savvy as you on the subject of behaviour of Japanese people. Yes, helpful. Not everyone is sensitive and attentive and immediately aware of subtle nuances of a culture that is not their own.

Seriously smith, you must realize this is the case. Therefore, it's hardly a plague in the author's writing.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

A few folks commented that I overgeneralized about the people of this nation, and no doubt that's true. However, I'd like to add a few things.

Now, do I really need to add a disclaimer, to say "this is true of some Japanese people, but not all of them, and will depend upon variables such as age, gender, region, social status, and the observer's relationship to the individuals in question"? Really? I mean, if I say, "I went to America, and everybody was fat," do you take that to literally mean every single person? No. Of course there's somebody who's not fat. I don't know who they are, and I didn't happen to see them, but I'm sure there's somebody. Well, maybe.

More importantly, there are countless articles and books that talk about how "polite" the Japanese are and how important bowing is the Japanese. Do you take those writers to task for overgeneralizing in statements such as "Japanese people are polite"? Again, no, because that would be silly. Naturally, there are polite people and impolite people everywhere. People of different cultures manifest politeness and rudeness in different ways, but one can be certain they are present the world over.

If Japan appears polite, I believe it's partly because Westerners (and sometimes Japanese folks themselves) mistake bowing and deference for politeness, in the same way that handshakes and smiles can be confused with friendliness. Now, those gestures may mean that, or they may not, but it would be a mistake to presume such to be the case.

I'm actually hoping readers will reevaluate some of the common generalizations propagated about Japan and consider both the good and the not-so-good of the nation. Not that it's a bad place, but the faucets don't run hot and cold Mountain Dew either. Like everywhere else, this nation has got pros and cons, and they're usually two sides of the same coin. If you're only seeing one side of things, hey, maybe you've missed something.

To get an accurate picture of any country, I think it makes sense to pay attention how people behave and to try to understand their motivations. (The same holds true for Japanese living abroad, who often remark that the U.S. is such a nice, friendly place.) To understand Japanese people, don't look at how they treat you personally. Take yourself out of the picture. Look at how they behave towards each other, on the trains, on the street, and in the stores and restaurants. And then if you have a different impression of things than I do, that's fine too.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

My nihongo no sensei explained the relationships puzzle in terms of when to use polite speech and when to use casual speech, but it shines a light on the relationships with bowing as well. She explained the system as a series of concentric circles with you somewhere near the center. Your kouhai would be closer to the middle along with clerks and other people vying for your business. Your siblings and very close friends would be at the same level as you. Your parents, senpai, and casual friends would be the next circle out. Your boss(es) beyond that, and the customers you are vying to serve are beyond that. The farther out on that diagram the person falls, the more polite you need to be and the more likely you will be doing the bowing.

Now consider that EVERYONE has these circles and must strive to keep them straight if they don't wish to discomfort others unnecessarily and you can see how sometimes you end up with an aerobic session of mutual bowing. Barack Obama raised a whole bunch of conservative eyebrows when he performed a deep bow while visiting the Japanese Emperor back in November of 2009. He was caught up in the confusion over these darned circles. No doubt he wanted to convey respect towards the much older Emperor, but by bowing deeply he - the sometimes called "leader of the free world" - inadvertently placed himself on a lower circle in relation to the Emperor - the figurhead monarch of a country. You will never make the "America is the Best" crowd happy if you appear to be showing deference to another country's monarch, even if that appearance is not the intention.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"You, as a customer, have a different role"

Yes, I'm always amazed at the way Japanese (men, usually) bark orders at waiters and waitresses. Yet Japanese people (women, usually) seem appreciative, even admiring, when I say 'Thank you' to the waitress.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

What could be more typically Japanese than bowing?

Other than the fact that other Asian countries do the same thing?

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

"What could be more typically Japanese than bowing?"

How about forcing their way on trains from the sides of the doors as people are still getting off?

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

If Japan appears polite, I believe it's partly because Westerners (and sometimes Japanese folks themselves) mistake bowing and deference for politeness, in the same way that handshakes and smiles can be confused with friendliness. Now, those gestures may mean that, or they may not, but it would be a mistake to presume such to be the case.

This is absolutely true. These gestures are part of each culture's "polite fictions". The Western fiction might be phrased, "We are equals and I greet you as an equal." The Japanese one might be, "You are better than I am and I greet you as my superior."

These fictions can cause misunderstandings. I've had many Japanese who have lived in the U.S. tell me that although they thought Americans were very friendly, they weren't able to make good friends. I have to explain that often (but not always!) the friendliness that they have experienced is superficial and just part of "good manners."

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites