Tips on How to Bow Properly in Japan

Why visitors to the country should learn this custom

Japanese Business
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If you are traveling to Japan, knowing how to bow properly will be a useful skill. Imagine visiting the United States or any country in the West and not knowing how to shake hands. That's how important bowing, known as ojigi, is in Japan. In fact, people commonly greet each other by bowing instead of handshaking, and it is extremely impolite not to return a bow when someone greets you with one.

With this overview, discover the basic facts about the custom and how to improve your technique. The better your bow, the more appreciation you'll receive while visiting Japan.

The Many Functions of Ojigi

One solitary bow has a variety of different functions in Japan. It may express feelings such as respect, gratitude, apology, greeting and much more. In other words, when people bow, they can use the gesture to say any of the following:

  • thank you
  • sorry
  • hello
  • good bye
  • welcome
  • congratulations
  • excuse me
  • good night
  • good morning

No gesture in the United States compares. A handshake, head nod or kiss on the cheek certainly can't convey this complex range of sentiments.

Different Ways of Bowing

Bowing may seem simple, but there are many different ways to bow in Japan. Foreign dignitaries who visit the country are typically coached on the appropriate way to bow there and in what context. How you bow depends on the social status or age of the person you bow to. If the person is older or of a higher status than you are, it is common to bow deeper and longer, which shows respect. A higher status person could include teachers, spiritual leaders, employers, public figures and civic leaders.

The most informal bow is a bend of about 15 degrees for a casual greeting. In casual daily life situations, bowing is often a nod of the head. This form of bow should be the easiest for an American to relate to, since head nods are commonplace in the U.S. The most popular type of bow in Japan is done at a 30-degree angle to greet customers or to thank someone. It's often seen in Japanese business situations.

A more formal way of bowing is performed at a 45-degree angle looking down at your feet. This type of bow signifies deep gratitude, a respectful greeting, a formal apology, asking for favors and similar sentiments. For examples of formal bowing, check out the way heads of state greet Japanese leaders when you see these meetings on the news.

Basic Bow

If the idea of bowing at a certain angle is intimidating to you, try to at least master the most basic kind of bow in Japan. In most situations, it is polite to bow by bending from your waist with a straight back. Men usually keep their hands in their sides, and women usually put their hands together on their thighs with their fingers touching.