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Bowing in Japan

Bowing (お辞儀) is perhaps the best-known form of Japanese etiquette. Bowing is so important in Japan that most companies provide training to their employees on the right execution of the act. The custom of bowing is more complicated than most people think. Bowing can be used for introductions, appreciation, apologies, and greetings. The specific intricacies of bowing are far more complex, with duration and depth of bow prescribed for every circumstance.

Japanese lady bowing

Basic bows are usually done with a straight back,with  hands at the side (for men) or clasped in front (women), and with eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. The deeper and longer the bow, the stronger the respect and emotion.

Bows are of three primary types: formal, very formal, and informal. First, let’s consider angle. Informal bows are usually made to a 15 degree angle: perhaps just tilting the head forward. More formal bows describe a 30 degree angle and are deeper.

The etiquette on bowing also includes the appropriate depth, length, and response. For instance, when a person maintains a bow for longer than expected, it would be polite to bow all over again. This often leads to a long exchange of lighter bows.


Bows by a person of inferior status are deeper, longer, and more frequent than bows by a superior. A superior addresses an inferior generally with a slight nod of the head; some others may not bow back at all. Apologetic bows tend to be deeper and longer than all the other kinds of bow. The back is bent for about 45 degrees, the bow lasts for more than three seconds, and the head is lowered.

In cases of begging and apology, people crouch down to show submission or deep regret, called dogeza. These days, dogeza is looked on as contempt for oneself and is not normally used.

Bows of gratitude follow a similar pattern of extent. In some cases, a kneeling bow is also performed—sometimes so that the forehead touches the floor: saikeirie (最敬礼), or most respectful bow.

Shaking hands is not popular among the Japanese, but exceptions can be made for foreigners. Bows can also be combined with handshakes or done before or after handshakes.

Have a look!

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Read all about Japanese immersion learning and studying abroad. Check out our eZasshi archives for more articles!