Japan’s “bow” – what does it mean?

Japan is a country replete with customs and traditions – many originating  centuries ago from Chinese Confucianism and still continuing today. Indeed the writings of this great philosopher are one of the foundations of Japanese society – although many Japanese people today are unaware of it.  Allow me explain the custom of bowing.

First of all: why do Japanese do this seemingly subservient action?  One reason is the average Japanese person feels uncomfortable with body contact. They like to keep a respectable distance from each other – too close is too uncomfortable. Any westerner, living in this country, will tell you that Japanese do not give good handshakes. The acerbic comment of “dead-fish handshake”,  is often heard. The clasping of hands and shaking, is not something Japanese really enjoy – the custom having been, in a sense, imposed on the people by the will of the west.  There is also another explanation about why the Japanese bow and that lies in the writings of Confucius. He believed that the entire body should “speak” when giving thanks or showing respect. The shaking of hands was, and still is, deemed insufficient as a way of expressing your thanks and/or respect. This is also the reason  Japanese accept presents, documents and money with both hands, again a show of thanks and respect. Accepting a gift from someone with only one hand, is churlish. However, many Japanese have learned to expect it from westerners. It is important to remember that the bow in Japan is basically the handshake in the west. It does not imply weakness or inferiority it is only performed to express  thanks and respect. Bows are almost always used during greetings.  One must remember, there are various bows for various occasions and these are delivered in the ways that follow: – 

1. The deep bow:

      This bow is done when meeting with someone who is older than yourself or someone you may consider more experienced or wise – a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, etc. Japanese business men also use this form of bow when business deals have been reached with another company or person – projecting respect and thanks rolled into one. This particular bow does not, in any way, show that you are grovelling or acting gratuitously. Nor is it rote. It is, as the name suggests, “deep” thanks. The “deep bow” is also used with an apology and indicates true remorse.

2. The Medium bow:

This bow is performed many times per day. It is an action done so much, one often doesn’t remember doing it. The medium bow is the same as saying, “Thank you”, when a store keeper serves you. You should bow to the subway station man, after he’s explained, for the umpteenth time, how to get to the nearest department store. You should bow to the delivery man when he arrives at your door with that new XBOX you ordered. And you should bow when you are offer something, a seat, a drink, etc.

3. The slight nod:

This is done among friends and is best described as saying “thanks” or “cheers”. It, along with the medium bow, is used daily in many situations. At a bar, after receiving your drink, a slight nod tells the bartender, thanks. It is a small gesture and I believe some of us in the west, do a similar movement of the head, when we want to convey our gratitude.

To sum up, it is important to understand that the Japanese are not a “skin-ship” nation. Touching someone on the shoulder we you first meet him or her is not the done thing. Japanese people need their space. Once he or she relaxes, you’ll find it easier to, not only speak with the person, but easier overall as the “my space” required at the beginning has diminished significantly. These people are, generally, a shy breed of human, one might call them meek.  However, until they get to know you, an invisible shield encompasses them and the bow is the only way they know of how to greet you, thank you and show respect to you without lowering the shield.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Betty Chatterjee
    Mar 05, 2010 @ 09:02:20

    It is important to know this kind of thing about other cultures. Thanks for your information. Excellent article, Ian.


  2. James Hayton
    Mar 05, 2010 @ 15:12:24

    now you just need to explain the ubiquitous “bing-bong” in subway stations, pachinko, that tune that plays when the door opens in the 7-11, the greetings shopkeepers give, what the hell anpanman is about, and I think I’ll have Japan down.


  3. Van Walsh
    May 30, 2010 @ 05:21:58

    If I had a quarter for each time I came here! Incredible read.


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  5. Aizhan
    Feb 19, 2011 @ 16:17:01

    I’m writing an assay about similarities in showing respect through bows in Japanese and Kazakh cultures.
    you give useful info, thanks!


  6. Fernund
    Feb 17, 2016 @ 23:10:46

    If I well recall, once I read that when the Chinese came to the Japanese islands and met the Japanese they wrote about the Japanese bowing all the time showing respect for elders, ceremonial practices, etc so it seems to be this is a not a practice they acquired from the Chinese but it was already a Japanese costume before having contact with the Chinese.


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