Have you ever seen the Japanese soccer player Nagatomo bowing after he scored his first goal after joining the Inter Milan soccer team?That scene was uploaded on YouTube and his performance was seen throughout the world.
The “bow” is an inseparable manner from the Japanese people, because it is one of the many, essential business manners in Japan. An adult who can’t properly bow will be labelled naive. Although the “bow” is routinely used in Japan, Japanese people who understand it might not know everything about it.

In what kind of situations do the Japanese bow?

We bow to express salutation, gratitude, apologies, and respect.
Nevertheless, we almost never use it between friends and family members.
In non-business situations, the “bow” is used mainly for your elders, superiors, strangers, and acquaintances.

Example 1:In the case of passing your neighbour on the street,
→You say “hello” with a slight bow.
Example 2:In the case where you were spoken to by someone from behind, “Excuse me, You dropped a handkerchief”,
→You say “thank you” with a deeper bow than in Example 1.
Example 3:In the case of you causing trouble for, let’s say… the president of a company,
→You say “I am very sorry” with a much deeper bow than in Example 2.

The Japanese consciously and unconsciously take on different bows depending on the situation.

We bow in 2 positions

There are 2 positions for bowing. They are; Ritsurei (standing bow) and Zarei (sitting bow). Zarei is a formal bow performed when seated on tatami and I can’t say it’ very common, so let me explain Ritsurei (standing bow).

There are three different angles in Ritsurei, our most typical bowing position (in more specific classifications, there are five ways to bow).

ojigi_3 types

① 会釈(Eshaku):It’s a slight bow with an angle of about 15 degrees. It is used
when you pass a client or your superior in the hallway (“Good
morning”, or “See you tomorrow”).
② 敬礼(Keirei):It’s used most often in business, with a bow of about 30 degrees.
It is used in situations when you visit your client’s company, gain a new client, or greet someone new.
③ 最敬礼(Saikeirei):It’s the deepest of the three bows, at about 45 degrees.
You may not have an opportunity to use this bow on a daily basis.
This bow is for indicating your deep apology or respect toward a person, so it’ll look awkward if you use this bow on everyone you encounter.

At the present time, when bowing, men will bow with their hands on the sides of their bodies, and women will bow with their hands together under their navels, letting them hang in front of their legs.

ojigi_man & woman

We often see foreign visitors to Japan doing the palms-together, hands-in-front-of-chest bow to Japanese people, like in scenes of movies and TV.
This bow may come from the awareness that Japan is a Buddhist country, but this is not standard in Japan. It won’t be seen except when we worship at shrines or temples.

The Japanese people don’t bow at an exact angle because we don’t measure our angle with a protractor. I suppose Japanese people use each angulation at their own discretion.
I think when they bow at each of these angles using their heart, they’ll be able to bow more naturally at each angle.
Japanese people have seen adults bowing since they were children, and learn it through their own experience as they grow up.

When you bow, it is important that the slope of your back and the back of your head form a straight line. In a business setting, you’ll convey an unpleasant feeling to another person if you bow while arching your back and only moving your head forward.

In a proper bow, the word ‘Sengen-gorei’ (先言後礼) or ‘Gosen-gorei’ (語先後礼), means that you should make a bow after you say something like “thank you very much”, or “you’re welcome”.
However, there are actually many people that bow while speaking.

I’ve introduced various details in bowing, but a bow really expresses a way of thinking.
All in all, the most important thing is a thoughtful feeling, not the degree of angulation.

As a Japanese person living in a society where bowing is a common courtesy, I should probably relearn how to properly bow!

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writer/ translator

Born and raised in Tokyo. A legitimate “Edokko” or Tokyoite. I love wandering and experiencing unusual things. Japan is where I was born and raised, but it’s still full of mystery to me. I’d like to share some of my endeavors with you.