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Bowing in Japan: important things that business travellers should know

26.01'14 - Jörg Nitzsche, Japan Interpreter

Bowing is an integral part of the Japanese culture. They bow to show respect, for introduction, as a means of greeting, and for expressing apology. There are several types of Japanese bow and if you are visiting Japan for business, you must know about them.

In order to greet a friend, you must give a 10 degree nod of the head and shoulders. You may also use the similar style of bow for saying goodbye to your Japanese colleague or friend.

When you are introducing yourself to someone, bow at 30 degree with your upper body, and keep your both hands on the side and head and shoulder straight.

If you are meeting someone very important and who holds a very high rank, you must bow at 45 degree. But never shake your hands while bowing. This is a common mistake that most foreigners make when visiting Japan. President Obama too did the same and he was criticised a lot for committing this blunder.

While bowing is a Japanese tradition, shaking hands is a western tradition. You should not mix the two cultures by doing both the things together when in Japan. It may cause a lot of embarrassment and confusion.

When you visit any religious shrine in Japan, you must make a shallow bow of the upper body to show your respect to the Gods.

In Japan, the staff at restaurants, shopping malls, at parking, and at other places bows to their customers. They consider their customers to be Gods and bow at 20 degree with upper body to show their respect to them.

If you want to say thanks to someone, say it with a bow. There are bows of thanks as well in Japan. You must give a shallow bow of the head to say thank you to a person who lets you go ahead of him in a line at bus station or at the entry to amusement park.

Then if you want to say sorry, there is a bow for that too. For a mild apology, there is a bow with a head bending at 10 degree. For regular apology you must bend at 45 degree with your upper body and for a serious apology, you would need to make a 45 degree bow of the upper body for 10-15 seconds. If however you have committed a very serious mistake, make a bow from a kneeling position.

A bow is an indication of several things in Japan. It can be an expression of humility, apology, gratitude, and of many other feelings and emotions. Spend some time in learning about the art and culture of bowing before you visit Japan for business.


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