On the first day in the office I met an intern I had mistaken for a teacher. I had taken a default position of addressing everyone with safe formalities and bowing at an angle just short of tying my shoes.
The intern returned a deeper bow and I bowed in return, which he returned even deeper. This action recycled itself until the intern literally ran from the bowing radius.
I’d find out later that the poor guy was bound by tradition to bow deeper than me. I was actually being an asshole.
Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about bowing in Japan.
There are, by my count, three types of bows.
1. The Head Nod. This is the casual bow you give when passing a peer or co-worker in the hallway or giving a stranger in your neighborhood a friendly “konbawa.” You tip your head and maybe lean forward a little. You can also use this to make other foreigners look at their cell phones.
2. The Slider. This one is on a sliding scale from about 15 degrees to a full-blown, shoe-tying 45 degrees. The bend comes at the hip with your hands in front of your pants pockets (for men) or in front of your belt buckle (for women). Keep your eyes down when bowing. Adjust the depth of the bow and the duration for each situation, with a minimum of about 1 second. The 20-degree version of this bow is the most common.
3. The Betraying Samurai. This involves sitting on the ground with your legs folded like a half-assed push-up and touching the ground with your forehead. If you think you need to do this one, ask yourself: “Am I being deported?” If the answer is no, you can probably use a deep bow #2.
Understanding the Bow
I’ve discussed before the Japanese fondness for segmentation: From bento to film making, people love breaking things down into smaller parts, addressing each part with gusto and then moving on to the next piece. If you understand this, you’ll start to understand how to bow appropriately.
Bowing marks the beginning and end of any social interaction that isn’t completely casual. You bow to mark the opening of a conversation; your partner bows to accept, and then you talk.
You don’t bow before talking about the weather or how your lunch was. You might bow slightly if you had a question; you would definitely bow before asking for a favor (which in Japan means asking your boss to answer your petty questions about his lunch, so you usually bow to superiors all the time).
The equivalent in American English is the expression, “So…” You can gauge the degree of inconvenience or awkwardness someone is about to create by how many “o”s are attached to the end of their “s.”
- 15 degrees: “So, do you wanna grab a beer tonight? My treat.”
- 45 degrees: “Soooooooooo, are you, uhh, planning on moving out of the house so I can move in with your ex-wife?”
Just imagine that every added “o” is a half-inch further down, and you can figure out what kind of damage the bow is announcing (This is also useful for your education in Japan’s psychic arts).
When I leave work for the day, I bow to my supervisor. I still haven’t properly regulated it, so I do a jerky chicken-slash-head-bob maneuver that is only accepted as respectful because I’m American.
The proper bow would be about 30-degrees, held for one second.
The remorse bow signals the start of a formal apology, and the depth and length of time depends on the offense.
For egregious crimes you bow from the waist to form a 45-degree angle with your body. Police will often ask the instigator of a physical altercation to do this bow in lieu of arrest, because the shame involved is so tremendous.
But perhaps you haven’t started a knife-fight at a bar or killed someone with drunken archery. Perhaps you just have to leave work early.
For that kind of offense, you just cut the degree and duration of the bow.
On the “So” scale:
- 15 degrees: “So, I’m sorry, but I have to go home and put out a fire.”
- 45 degrees: “Soooooooo, I’m really sorry, but you have to go home, because I just set your house on fire.”
During formal ceremonies the bow marks the beginning and end of each part of the event. When a new manager is hired, the new manager may come to the stage and bow. They’ll be formally introduced, then bow and leave the stage. From there, they will instantly turn around, take to the stage and bow again before addressing the remaining business – say, a budget report.
The bow segments the two portions of that meeting: The first bow introduces the new manager, the second bow ends the introduction. The third bow announces the start of the budget report segment of the meeting.
To introduce the new manager and then have them go straight into the budget report would be pretty standard business in the US, but it muddies the waters in Japan. You want a clean and formal introduction to have the full attention of the audience, then you want it to shift to the full attention of the budget report.
Some places are less formal and rigid about this than others.
Finally, there’s the bow of a perpetually subservient class of the retail workers. Retail workers address you with a level of formality just below Emperor; the more enthusiastic clerks bow deeper in proportion to your bow, and they continue doing it until you are out of sight.
A friend who had returned some defective merchandise at an electronics shop was sent off by every employee in the store bowing at the doorway until he couldn’t see them anymore.
You can always ignore retail bowing. If you are too egalitarian to let a bow go unreturned, think of it this way: When you bow, they have to bow again, deeper, so by being “rude” you are actually preventing back injuries. Just say “Sayonara” and call it a day.