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Posts Tagged ‘bow’

Japanese Manners (part 1)

In Japanese Holidays, Japanese Manners, Travel in Japan on February 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Going to Japan for the first time? There are a lot of manners and commonsensical behaviors that people do here and just take for granted that everyone knows. But the fact is that if you’re visiting Japan for the first time, you probably don’t know most (or maybe any) of the local customs.

If I had a 1 yen coin for every time I saw a foreigner doing something “wrong,” I’d have a fuckload of 1 yen coins. They get in the way, mess up everyone’s routine, or just do things that will annoy everyone around them. None of these things is the end of the world; you can be oblivious and still have a great time. After all, ignorance is bliss.

But if you take the time to learn a few basics, you’ll look like a pro, people will think “what an urbane and polite foreigner,” and in my honest opinion, you’ll have a lot more fun because of the insight into the culture. I really believe the proverb “When in Rome, do as the Romans” is some of the best advice ever. You’ll experience Japan more deeply and you’ll come away with a so much more profound experience.

As I said, there are a lot of “rules” (or “manners,” if you will). But they’re not hard to learn. After a few basics, you’ll start to see patterns and probably be able to figure out the rest for yourself. I’m going to start my list with the big mistakes that I see tourists make all the time, then I’ll go into the smaller things.

4 Manners You Must Know In Japan

Walking & Using Escalators
Walk on the left side of the streets and hallways.
Stand on the left side of elevators; the right side is for people in a hurry to walk.
I see foreigners standing side by side relaxing on the handrails blocking the flow of traffic all the time. There’s a long line of people standing behind them looking irritated about being slowed down.

Pro-tip: In Osaka, for some strange reason, the elevator rule is reversed. People stand on the right side and pass on the left. Often you’ll see Tokyo people doing it wrong here – sometimes intentionally as a snub – so if you do it correctly, you’ll be doing better than even some Japanese!
tokyo elevato

Getting On Trains
Make a line. Japanese trains stop at the same spots, the doors are marked on the platforms or across on the facing wall.
Stand to the right or left of the door, so you don’t block people getting off the trains.
People exit the doors in the middle of the left & right lines first. After everyone has gotten off the train, the people waiting will board the train.
The Japanese like lines and order. It’s this sort of behavior that keeps people calm when there are typhoons, earthquakes, etc.
It’s really just common sense. Let people off first, then get on yourself. Stand to the sides so you don’t block people. You can parlay this skill to every other situation in Japan.


Silence is Golden
Don’t talk loudly anywhere (but especially on trains).
Don’t sit across from your friend on the subways and have a loud conversation. Sit next to each other and talk at a reasonable volume.
People are generally quiet in elevators when unknown people get in with them.
Always keep your phone in silent mode (vibrate), called “Manner Mode” in Japanese, especially in public places.
Don’t talk on your phone on the train. They even make announcements saying this. If you have to take a phone call, get off the train and talk on the platform. The next train will come soon anyways.

Pro-tip: Don’t take phone calls at the table, step outside. You’ll score lots of “cool foreigner” points for this one.


Saying Thank You
Don’t say arigato to staff. They are not your friends. You say arigatō gozaimasu (polite) or dōmo arigatō gozaimasu (super polite).

Pro-tip 1: After a meal, instead of saying arigatō gozaimasu, you can say go-chisō-sama desu, which means something like “Thank you for the bad ass feast.”

Pro-tip 2: The Japanese bow a lot. You don’t have to do a 45 degree bow or anything, but whenever you feel appreciation for someone, give a little bow or at least a nod.


There they are.

4 rules that will help you enjoy Japan while the Japanese enjoy you too.

If you wanna go the extra distance, I have a few more rules that will help you!
Here: Japanese Manners 2


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To Bow or Not to Bow, the Gaijin Dilemma

In Japanese Manners on June 19, 2010 at 5:05 am

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…


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.


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?”


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.


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.


awwwwwwww yeah!
mαrκy( -_-)凸

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