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?
Bowing is a universal gesture. It exists in many parts of the world and has different functions in each culture. In Japan, bowing holds various meanings. It can be used for greeting, apologizing, thanking, requesting, congratulating but mainly to show respect.
Since Japan is an indirect communication society, body languages are crucial. They are attentive to nonverbal gestures because many things are left unsaid. Bowing is one of the commonly used gestures. Due to its versatile function, bowing is inseparable from Japanese communication.
Bowing is a vital part of Japanese business ethics. Even workers 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.
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 four types of bow used in Japanese business etiquette.
Types of Bow in Japan
Image source: Suzuki Karada - kaihukudo.jp
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.
Senrei is also a casual type of bow but in a sitting position. First, you need to be in a seiza position (sitting on your knees). Then, bend your torso at 30° and hold for a couple of seconds. Senrei is used to show moderate respect or gratitude in casual or semi-formal situations.
Keirei is a formal bow to show respect. You have to bend at 30° to 45°. It is usually used to respect someone with higher status or authority, such as your boss. To show sincerity, hold your position for a while.
Seikerei is a deep bow at 45° to 90°. It means sincere regret, apology, or worship (in religious rituals). 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.
Japanese Bowing Etiquette
As stated before, bowing exists in various cultures. Some of you may have been using it before coming to Japan. However, there might be differences. Here are some etiquettes to bow naturally like Japanese people.
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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