Knowing when to bow in Japan and the right way to bow can seem daunting for first-time visitors, particularly because bowing isn't very common in Western culture. Meanwhile, bowing comes naturally for Japanese people who typically begin learning the important etiquette from a young age.
Bowing properly for each potential social or business scenario is critical for success. Committing an etiquette faux pas at the wrong time could potentially derail a business deal, signal incompetence, or create an awkward situation that leads to a "loss of face." Some Japanese companies hone employees' bowing etiquette with formal classes; a few receive training on conducting business over drinks, too!
No need to feel awkward: With a little practice, you'll be giving and returning bows in Japan without even thinking about it. Doing so becomes reflexive after traveling in Japan for a week or two.
The Reasons Japanese People Bow
Bowing isn't just used for greetings and saying hello in Japan. You should also bow during other occasions such as these:
- Showing respect
- Expressing deep gratitude
- Saying goodbye
- Offering an apology
- Telling someone congratulations
- Expressing sympathy
- Asking for a favor
- Showing appreciation
- Beginning a formal ceremony
- Beginning a training session
- When entering or leaving a martial arts dojo
Bowing vs Shaking Hands
During first-time meetings, many Japanese people 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 as a nod to both cultures. If you aren't sure, stick with bowing while in Japan. Shaking hands in Japan is more often done among close friends and when congratulating each other on a recent success.
Simply follow your hosts' lead as to which comes first; however, you should certainly do your best to return a bow properly if one is offered. Your hosts are undoubtedly skilled at helping others save face and will try not to put anyone into a position of embarrassment.
While shaking hands is still relatively rare between Japanese, doing so has come to symbolize a strong relationship—signaling a deeper connection than what Westerners assign to casual handshakes. Some Japanese executives make a point of shaking hands after announcing a large deal or high-profile merger between two companies.
Bowing and Shaking Hands at the Same Time
Both bows and handshakes are used in business and formal greetings. Try to avoid the common newbie mistake of nervously bowing when the other party planned to shake hands. This happened in 2009 during President Obama's visit with the Emperor of Japan.
You can avoid any potential embarrassment by expressing your intent to bow. If the other person has their hand extended to shake, don't begin a bow instead! You can tell when a person or group is going to bow first when you are walking toward each other. They will often stop at a slightly greater distance (just out of hand-shaking range) with feet together. After the bow, you can then close the distance with a step or two and shake hands if necessary.
Bowing while shaking hands at the same time happens, but doing one at a time is better etiquette. Solid eye contact is expected during a handshake; meanwhile, the gaze should be down during a proper bow. Only martial artists should maintain eye contact during a bow!
If a bow-shake occurs (they sometimes do), you'll undoubtedly be in close proximity. Bumping heads isn't a good way to make friends, so turn slightly to your left.
How to Bow the Right Way
The correct way to bow in Japan is to bend at the waist, keep your back and neck straight if possible, 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, but look at the ground while bowing. 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 and a slight dip.
The deeper the bow and the longer it is held, the more respect and submission are 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, judges, people of rank or office, and anytime the situation demands additional respect.
Remember to look down as you bow. Pick a spot on the floor in front of you. 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. Each subsequent bow will be less deep. 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. Ideally, try not to combine a bow (requires eyes to be downward) with a handshake (eye contact is expected).
Regardless, showing effort and that you know something about bowing etiquette in Japan goes a long way toward building a better relationship. Sadly, Westerners are notorious for their sloppy bowing in Japan. Watch a couple videos or ask a Japanese friend to demonstrate technique.
Bows of sincere apology are usually the deepest and last longer than other bows. In rare instances, to express profound apology or gratitude, a person will bend beyond 45 degrees and hold it for a count of three.
Long bows beyond 45 degrees are known as saikeiri and are only used to show deep sympathy, respect, apology, and in worship. If you are granted an audience with the Emperor of Japan, plan to perform a saikeiri, otherwise, stick to less extreme bowing.