If you ever travel to Nara, the once capital of Japan, you will discover an amazing phenomenon. The deer that populate the park bow to the visitors asking for food, something they’ve been doing for almost a thousand years to mimic the human inhabitants.
Bowing, or ojigi, is a very visible part of Japanese culture totally foreign to Westerners. It might seem simple from the outside, but it is actually a very complicated practice with deep social implications. To make the best impression when you get to Japan, take a look at how and why ojigi is so important to everything from drinking tea to business meetings.
If you want to understand ojigi, look no farther. Go through the history all the way to how to greet people as a foreigner.
The History of Bowing in Japan
Samurai and Buddhist Origins
There is an incredibly long history of bowing in Japan, so long that it’s hard to say exactly when it started. Most historians believe it came to Japan from China via Buddhist missionaries sometime between the 5th and 8th Centuries. Specifically, Buddhists would bow to statues of the Buddha to show respect.
The modern complicated bowing system, however, owes its origins primarily to the samurai and their intricate culture and etiquette. In fact, in the 14th Century, the samurai produced the first manuals on etiquette. These built pride in the warrior class and set them apart from the other social classes. These manuals laid out many different kinds of bows to be used in different situations, including competitions, casual greetings, and religious ceremonies.
The Edo Period
During the Edo Period the Tokugawa Shogunate achieved control of Japan and installed the shogun as a military dictator. Naturally, military and samurai etiquette became incredibly important. Additionally, the samurai class was essentially the top class of society, so their customs spread quickly to everyone else.
It was during this time that modern bowing practices truly developed. Social classes became strictly defined, and bowing was a way to show it.
Types of Bowing in Japan
While you probably already knew the Japanese bowed to be polite, you probably had no idea just how intricate it was. How you bow depends on your social class, the situation, and even your physical position. Specifically, bowing, or ojigi, is divided into two main categories: ritsurei, which is bowing when standing, and zarei, which is bowing when kneeling.
Ritsurei is bowing while standing. It’s used for greetings, especially in business settings or in traditional Japanese ceremonies. With all types of ritsurei, it’s important that the legs, back, and arms remain straight. The only movement happens at the waist. Failure to do this makes you look lazy and not fully committed to the bow which can be insulting.
Ritsurei is usually divided into three categories based on how deeply you bow, or how much you bend at the waist.
This is the minimal bow, with only about 15 degrees of bending at the waist. This is a greeting you’d give to someone of the same social status as you, especially in a formal business setting. You can also use it just to greet colleagues on the street if you want to be a little more formal.
When you do this bow, your eyes should briefly glance at the floor about ten feet in front you. Then you return eye contact with the person you’re greeting.
Keirei is the most common way to bow. It’s used in formal situations and shows a bit more politeness. You might use it when you’re greeting clients or superiors. It involves an angle of about 30 degrees, and you should stare at the floor about three feet in front of whomever you’re greeting.
Saikeirei is the most formal of the ritsurei bows. In fact, it literally translates to “most respectful gesture.” It’s the deepest bow, meaning you bend your body anywhere from 45 to 70 degrees. The longer you hold the bow, the more intense the sign of respect.
Specifically, the Japanese use saikeirei for asking big favors and apologizing. They also use it to greet really important people like the CEO of a company.
Saikeirei even has specific hand positions. Men keep the hands at their sides while women place them together beneath their stomach.
Zarei is bowing from the knees, traditional to not just Japan but most of East Asia. Like ritsurei, it’s divided into several styles.
Like ritsurei saikeirei, this is the most formal version of zarei. From the knees, you bow all the way down until your chest is touching your lap. Your hands form a kind of triangle on the floor with the index fingers touching each other. Your face should almost touch the floor. Like with ritsurei, you should hold the bow for a long time to show respect, at least 10 seconds or more.
This is the most common form of zarei bowing. It’s used for a lot of different Japanese ceremonies and activities. You don’t lower your body quite as far as in saikeirei. Your face should come to about a foot away from the floor. Like saikeirei, you should form a triangle with your hands, the index fingers touching, below your face.
Senrei is a more casual bow. It’s used to greet people in informal situations. You may ask why someone is greeting people casually from their knees, but in Japan, this is quite normal, historically even more so. Rather than sitting in Western-style chairs, Japanese people have always socialized on tatami mats, so they are often in a kneeling position.
A senrei bow only involves bending about 30 degrees. Your hands move down your thighs to your knees till your fingertips touch the floor. Men usually keep their hands separated on their knees while women touch them together.
Japanese Apology Bow
Bowing is an essential part of showing a sincere apology in Japan. While some apologies may involve a sekirei bow either from the feet or knees, someone truly begging for forgiveness will perform a bow called dogeza. Dogeza is very dramatic, usually creates a scene, and is honestly a bit embarrassing for the person doing it, which is part of showing how sorry you are.
Dogeza translates to something like “prostration” in English. You fall to your knees and bring your head all the way down till it touches the floor between your hands. This shows maximum respect and shame because you put your pride and image aside.
Bowing At Business And Work
Bowing is so important in the Japanese business world that companies usually provide classes for their employees to improve their form. Specifically, workers use ritsurei bows to greet each other, ask for favors, apologize, etc.
Which of the three depends on your position, the position of the person you’re interacting with, and the situation. As a general rule, a bow between two coworkers of an equal level will be casual. A bow to a superior or a customer you have to be polite to will be deeper, such as keirei. With really important people, a deep saikeirei is essential for showing proper respect.
Bowing At Shrines And In Religious Ceremonies
Bowing is an important part of the Shinto religion. If you ever go to a Shinto shrine, you’ll see a lot of it. Specifically, worshipers often pay respects with something called the “two bows, two claps, one bow” procedure.
First, they purify themselves with water at the shrine. Then they toss an offering into an offering box and pull a rope to ring a bell. This is to call whatever kami gods inhabit the shrine. Finally, they face the main building and do two deep bows of a full 90 degrees, two claps, then one bow. The bows show respect for the kami while the claps express joy.
Worshipers may also perform what’s called an eshaku bow as they cross the torii gates of the temple. They do this facing the temple, once when they enter and once when they leave.
Bowing At A Tea Ceremony
Tea ceremonies are a fundamental part of Japanese culture. They involve the ritualistic preparation and serving of matcha, which is powdered green tea. They trace their roots back to the arrival of Buddhism in Japan as early as the 9th Century and range in formality from the casual chakai to hours-long kaiseki. Along with tea, the ceremonies include food and desserts.
Bowing is an important part of the tea ceremony. Since the ceremony is so elaborate, even when casual, bowing shows a polite amount of respect and gratitude to the host. Guests should bow at many different points during the ceremony.
First, guests should perform a formal bow to the tea room itself when they enter. Of course, this is a ritsurei bow from your feet. As they admire the art and decorations of the room, they should also bow to each work.
During the ceremony, the host will bow as he or she serves different dishes and courses. The guests, especially the guest of honor, bow back in gratitude. At the end, the host and guests all exchange bows again to thank each other for the experience. The guest of honor must be especially humble with their bows to thank everyone for honoring them.
Since the Japanese kneel to eat and drink tea, the bows during the actual ceremony are zarei bows from the knees. Exactly which zarei bow depends on the school of tea ceremony and its formality. The more formal, the deeper the bow. Casual ceremonies may only involve the informal senrei bow where the fingertips slide down to the knees. More important and formal ceremonies involve the deepest bows where you form a triangle on the ground with your fingers.
Bowing At Funerals
Traditional Japanese funerals follow the Buddhist tradition. Therefore, many aspects of the funeral are performed by Buddhist monks. The relatives of the deceased person bow to the monks to thank them for their work. They also bow to the guests in gratitude.
The guests themselves pay their respects by bowing. They bow a deep formal bow to the portrait of the deceased. Unique to ojigi, their hands remain together in the Buddhist manner. Guests also bow to the deceased’s family to express their condolences.
Japanese Greeting Etiquette as a Foreigner
Bowing is a big part of greeting people in Japanese. For formal, business, and traditional cultural situations, it’s important to follow the above customs. For your everyday life on the street, you can be a little more relaxed. Still, slight bows, at least with the head, are very common.
If you’re a tourist or new to Japan, the natives don’t expect you to be perfect at bowing. They will be happy if you just make an effort, and you should make that effort to show you appreciate their country and culture. Try to make a slight bow with the head, smile, and look toward the floor.
What Do You Say When You Bow in Japan?
Many Westerners learn the word “konnichiwa” as a greeting in Japanese. This isn’t always the best way to go, though. Konnichiwa is a formal greeting, and it technically means good afternoon, so it can sound strange at different times of the day. If you want to say good morning, use “ohayou gozaimasu” in formal situations. Saying goodnight would be “konbanwa“. You can use these while bowing in formal situations.
Informally, you can say good morning by just saying “ohayou” and just dropping “gozaimasu”. Boys often casually greet each other with “osu“, and girls with “ya-ho“. The most common way to just say hey to a close friend is “ya“. Even friends will still often give a little bow of the head when greeting each other.
How Much Importance Should You Place On Bowing?
While the Japanese understand that visitors to their country won’t know all the intricacies of ojigi culture, if you’re moving to Japan for an extended period of time, at least making an effort to improve is very important. This is especially true if you’re working in a business environment where bowing is essential. The Japanese are polite and kind people, so learning to bow appropriately is a great way to return that respect. It will also impress your clients, coworkers, employers, and all your new friends.