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Three Types of Bowing in Japanese Culture


Bowing is part of Japanese manners and tradition. Everyone in Japan learns to bow from an early age and keeps practicing it their whole life. Knowing how to bow correctly is important, especially in formal situations such as workplaces and business settings.

Why Do Japanese People Bow?

Ojigi (お辞儀) is a general Japanese term for bowing and encompasses various types of bows used in different situations. It can refer to any form of bowing, from the informal nod of the head to the formal bows described above.

Japanese people bow as a form of greeting, showing respect, expressing gratitude, apologizing, or conveying other sentiments. The bowing tradition in Japan is deeply ingrained in the culture and carries various meanings depending on the context and depth of the bow. 

In formal settings, such as ceremonies, rituals, or business meetings, bowing plays a significant role. It's often a prescribed part of the protocol and reflects the seriousness or solemnity of the occasion. Many employees in some companies are obliged to learn through formal training. It is deeply ingrained in Japanese workers’ manners that you may see people bowing while talking on the phone out of habit, even though their interlocutor cannot see them do that.

3 Types of Japanese Bow

There are several types of bowing in Japan based on the context. Performing a wrong bow may confuse others or, even worse, offend them. Therefore, it is crucial to do the right one. Here are three types of bow used in Japanese business etiquette.

Eshaku (会釈)

Eshaku is a simple casual bow. What you need to do is bend your torso about 15°. It is used for greeting coworkers with the same status or greeting colleagues in a casual environment. People usually perform eshaku in a short moment, but not hastily.

Keirei (敬礼)

Keirei is a formal bow to show respect. You have to bend at 30° to 45°. It is usually used in business settings, ceremonies, or when showing respect to superiors or elders. It involves bowing from the waist with the back straight and hands at the sides or clasped in front. The depth of the bow depends on the level of respect being conveyed, ranging from a slight incline to a deep bend at the waist. To show sincerity, hold your position for a while.

Saikerei (最敬礼)

This is the deepest and most formal bow, reserved for highly solemn occasions or when showing utmost respect, such as in ceremonial contexts or when meeting royalty or dignitaries. Saikeirei involves bending deeply at the waist, to a 45-degree angle or even further, with the arms straight and hands placed flat on the thighs or knees. Due to the deep meaning, it cannot be performed in any situation or for anyone. Doing this bow in inappropriate situations may offend some people because it looks like you are making fun of Japanese culture.

Other than those three type, you may recognize another form of bowing in Japanese culture, which is Dogeza (土下座). Dogeza is a deep bow performed while kneeling on the ground, often used as a gesture of apology or extreme reverence. It involves touching the forehead to the floor, with the hands and elbows placed on the ground in front of the body.

Japanese Bowing Etiquette

Bowing etiquette is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and plays a significant role in social interactions, demonstrating respect, gratitude, and humility. Here are some key points about Japanese bowing etiquette:

  • Don’t shake hands and bow at the same time

In some countries, handshakes are the basic business etiquette to greet someone. Traditionally, Japanese people bow to greet each other, but they adapted to handshakes after many contacts and partnerships with foreigners.

However, sometimes mistakes happen during greetings. When both parties learn each other's culture, the foreigners bow to their Japanese colleagues while the others put out a hand for a handshake. Therefore, you need to read the body language. Of course, you can do both but not simultaneously. 

  • Look down when performing a bow

The unwritten rule while bowing to someone is not to look at the person. You should not maintain eye contact unless you are in a martial art match. In Japan, eye contact can be interpreted as aggression. When bowing, look at the grounds or floor. Keep your gaze in line with the bend of your body naturally.

  • Bow longer and lower to people with higher status or older than you

Bowing has a direct connection to social hierarchy in Japan. To respect people with higher status or older, you have to bow longer and lower. It is a humility symbol as you put yourself in a lower and vulnerable position. However, it does not mean you have to bow 90° every single time.

Despite all the rules and variations, you don't need to push yourself too hard to master bowing instantly. Even Japanese people learn to bow for a long time, and even then, they still can make mistakes. The important thing is you are willing to learn and try practicing it. Every simple attempt is appreciated!





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