In shops, in the streets, on the phone… You may have noticed that Japanese people bow all the time! Japan has a lot of hidden rules like where to stand in the escalators, are what to do with your shoes… But the manner of bowing is very visible.

Ojigi, the “bow” is an essential manner for the Japanese people, especially when doing business. An adult who can’t properly bow will be labelled rude or childish. Although the “bow” is routinely used in Japan, there are nuances that even some Japanese people might ignore! If you intend to do business with Japanese people, it’s better to know the basics of the bow and its meanings. And if you intend to work in Japan, you will soon have plenty of opportunities to practice!

When do Japanese people bow?

Ojigi can express many things: salutation, gratitude, apologies, and respect.
Nevertheless, they are almost never used between friends and family members.
In non-business situations, the “bow” is used mainly for your elders, superiors, strangers, and acquaintances.

Ojigi: dos and don’ts

This is the basic posture for ojigi.

DO: If you are a man, you can keep your hands on the side of you body or keep your hands together in front of you. If you are a woman, you should keep your hands together in front of you. 

DO: In business context with foreigners, most Japanese people will shake hands with them and bow slightly at the same time. You will give a good impression to your business partner if you do the same.

DO: Say something (like ‘thank you very much’) after you bow. This proper manner is called ‘gosen-gorei‘ in Japanese. However, there are actually many people who bow while speaking!

DON’T: Curve your back. Keep it straight as a mark of respect.

DON’T: Join your palms in front of your chest!  This is a common mistake among foreigners visiting Japan for the first time. This kind of greeting is used in other countries, like in Thailand for example. In Japan this is mainly seen in places of worship.

In Japan this gesture is related to prayer.

The different ‘levels’ of bowing

Now let’s get to the trickier part. There are different sorts of ojigi that are used depending on the situation. There are actually 5 ways to bow, but today we’ll see the 3 mains ones, used when standing.

ojigi_3 types

① Eshaku: It’s a slight bow with an angle of about 15 degrees.

Example : In the case of passing your neighbor on the street, or when you pass a client or your superior in the hallway (“Good
morning”, or “See you tomorrow”).

② Keirei: It’s used most often in business, with a bow of about 30 degrees.
Example:  When you visit your client’s company, gain a new client, or greet someone new. It’s also used to express gratitude, for example is someone gives you back the wallet you dropped in the street.

③ 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. 

Example:In the case of you causing trouble for, let’s say… the president of a company.

Observing Japanese people bowing can help you!

Of course, Japanese people don’t bow at an exact angle because they don’t measure the angle with a protractor!  They learn it through their own experience as they grow up. So it might look very confusing at first, but the more you observe the people surrounding you and the more you practice, the more you will ‘feel’ when and how to bow!


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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.