Knowing when to bow in Japan can seem daunting for first-time visitors, particularly because bowing isn't so common in the West. In Japan, great emphasis is placed on executing a proper bow; some Japanese companies train employees -- even if they have already learned to bow at a young age -- how to bow properly for each potential social or business scenario.
No need to feel awkward: with a little practice, you'll be giving and returning bows in Japan like the locals!
Going to Japan for business? Learn some Japanese business etiquette basics before you go.
When to Bow
Bows aren't just a form of greeting in Japan. Some other occasions merit a bow as well:
- Showing respect
- Showing deep gratitude
- Saying goodbye
- Offering an apology
- Telling someone congratulations
- Expressing sympathy
- Asking for a favor
- Showing appreciation
During first-time meetings, many Japanese will avoid an awkward situation by offering to shake hands with Westerners instead. In formal settings and business engagements, sometimes a combination of handshakes and bows will ensue -- but never at the same time. Simply follow your host's lead as to which comes first, however, you should certainly do your best to return a bow if one is offered.
Avoid the common newbie mistake of bowing and shaking hands at the same time, as President Obama did before the Emperor of Japan in 2009. The reasoning is that solid eye contact is expected during a handshake, however, the gaze should be down during a proper bow.
President Obama erred during the meeting by bowing too deeply in submission while at the same time shaking hands.
While shaking hands is still relatively rare between Japanese, doing so has come to symbolize a strong relationship -- a deeper connection than what Westerners assign to casual handshakes.
Some executives make it a point to shake hands after announcing a large deal or high-profile merger between two companies.
How to Bow in Japan
The correct way to bow in Japan is to bend at the waist, keep your back and neck straight, feet together, eyes downward, and have your arms straight at your sides. Women often bow with their fingertips together or hands clasped in front at thigh level.
Face the person whom you are greeting squarely. Bowing with a briefcase or something in your hand is OK, putting it down first is optional. You should, however, receive someone's business card -- if one follows the bow -- reverently with both hands.
The deeper the bow, the more respect, and submission shown. A quick, informal bow involves bending to around 15 degrees, while a more formal bow calls for you to bend your torso to a 30-degree angle. The deepest bow involves bending to a full 45 degrees while you look at your shoes. The longer that you hold a bow, the more respect is shown.
In general, you should bow more deeply to superiors, elders, people of rank or office, and anytime the situation demands additional respect. Bows of sincere apology are usually the deepest and last longer than other bows.
Remember to look down as you bow. Maintaining eye contact while bowing is considered bad form -- threatening, even -- unless you are squared to fight an opponent in martial arts! Sometimes you may find yourself bowing more than once until someone finally relents and stops the ritual. If you are forced to bow in a crowded situation or cramped space, turn slightly to your left so that you don't knock heads with others!
After exchanging bows, give friendly eye contact and a warm smile. But do your best not to nervously combine a bow (requires eyes to be downward) with a handshake (eye contact is expected)!
Bowing etiquette follows the concept of losing and saving face in Asia.