I’m a bower.
I don’t think I did it before I came to Japan, but within a few hours of being here, it all clicked. It suits me. While my form might not be as good as those who grew up with bowing all around them, I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for the TPO of the act in most of its forms by now.
Bowing is integral to Japanese society. There are casual bows among friends, casual bows among people you don’t know, casual business bows, formal business bows, formal bows, very formal bows, and bows that are done to demean yourself and submit.
To westerners — particularly Americans — who view bows as humiliating, bowing all seems the same. It’s an demonstration of weakness or subservience.
I argue that this is not the case in practice. It’s simply an action designed to reduce social tension. While it is self-effacing, it isn’t usually self-debasing. The fact that most bows are reciprocated, it means both parties have agreed to lower their status for the sake of politeness.
Granted, there are fake bows. Some of the most gracious bows I’ve ever seen are clearly choreographed. Everyone knows it’s fake, but the occasion calls for a good bow and nothing says “we humbly accept your money, as much as you have” than a well-timed very formal 45 degree angle bow betweeen business people or at a high-end Tokyo department store.
Many moons ago, when I first visited Japan, I was encouraged by the people around me to return bows and be very respectful of Japanese traditions. I really took this to heart and adapted “When in Rome…” to “When in Japan…”. This was good enough. If somebody bowed at me, I’d bow back in the most formal way I knew.
Receiving change at the convenience store, I’d get a “Domo arigatou gozaimasu!” with a half-assed konbini-bow. I’d return that with a really white half-assed 30 degree or less bow.
A friend pointed out to me how he’d often seen foreigners (he used the word “gaijin”) bow too much. While I disagreed that bowing too much was a bad thing, I do agree that if you don’t have a good feel for it, your timing and the appropriateness of your bow will fall into question… or, well, just look weird.
I fixed my “konbini-bowing” by making it more of a Japanese head nod but upping the politeness of my Japanese. Well, that’s not really true… I just kinda mumble あざーす now… Oh well…
THE “LET’S NOT SEE SO MUCH OF EACH OTHER” BOW
Passing people that you’ve already talked to in a restaurant or manga cafe. The workers will be on their best behavior and if you make eye contact, they will bow and acknowledge you. Most Japanese people avoid eye contact and just walk past them. I generally acknowledge them with a casual bow. Although, I’ve noticed after the first bow, they tend to avert their eyes and I avoid you until you come up to them. It’s not rudeness, it’s just they don’t want to get up in your face like American workers are forced to do.
THE “GOT IT” BOW
When people say something to you, like “Good Morning” or “O-tuskare-sama desu.” My experience is that, no matter how polite the Japanese is, casual encounters in the hallways or entrance of the company are treated as casual, and a head nod plus some polite Japanese does the trick.
In parts of America, particular the Midwest and South, we do a head nod to passer-by’s to kind of say “wazzup, we’re cool, yo.” But the Tokyo people don’t do this at all. Basically, you’re ignored on the street by passer-by’s. So resist the temptation to give a heads up to anybody who passes by you.
“Well, it’s just friendly. If I do it, there’s nothing wrong with it.” you might be saying to yourself. Well, that’s not exactly true. Nodding your head as a casual greeting to an unknown passer-by is probably interpretted by my Tokyo with a deeper mean. It looks like a casual bow. Maybe you don’t know that person, it could be offensive, but I think not. The main thing is it would be a little bit “icky.” Sort of like, “why are you being so friendly to me in this 2 second interval that we pass each other?”
“EXCHANGING BUSINESS CARDS”
I could write a class on this, except I’m not really qualified to it. Actually, exchanging any document with another Japanese person in a formal situation requires two hands and some semblance of a bow depending on the status of the people involved and the transaction. The junior ranking and female participants may do a bow very close to 45 degree angles.
Business bows are very formal, and most Japanese who join a large company are forced to go throw new recruit training which among other things, teaches correct bowing edict. They’ll learn things such as how far down to go, how long to stay, how many repetitions are required (if any) and of course the difference between male and females bows. Of this last point the only thing I’m aware of is that women tend to put their hands over their crotch — but I think this is because they are carrying a bag/purse/case and it looks unsightly to swing your bag around to one side. I dunno, I’m just guessing, but it makes sense to me.
THE WAKATTA BOW
Among friends, you’ll see little head nod bows accopanied by “hai” (yes), “un” (yeah/ok), “wakatta” (got it).
I could go on and on and on about bows, but the best way is to see them in action yourself. A quick search on YouTube should yield results or better yet, one day in Japan. Also, if you watch samurai movies you can see the really traditional bows like “dogeza.” A dogeza is the most formal bow, prostrated before your superior with you face nearly touching the floor. In old Japan had many uses, in modern Japan, it’s pretty much for apologies or begging. You hardly see it anymore. I happened to see it once when a salary man had offended his superiors at a drinking party. He apologized, did a dogeza and begged for forgiveness and then left the premises. Wow. Even some of my Japanese friends have never seen a real dogeza! LOL.