cdb03b: There are subtleties of how far and how long you should bow based on your social status in comparison to someone else’s but you are wrong that Westerner’s should never attempt it. It is generally seen as a very good thing that Westerner’s attempt to use proper etiquette and any mistakes are just assumed to be because you are a foreigner.
bizitmap: American here who’s been to Japan, they typically don’t have a huge expectation that you’ll know the rules as a westerner and **trying** to do it right is more than enough. Pretty much any polite greeting, “thank you” or “good bye” moment is the right moment for a quick bow.
It’s kinda like handshakes, sure there’s stuff about confident handshakes vs polite vs “this guy’s too important for you to stroll up to” but largely as long as you’re TRYING to be nice, nobody’s worried.
r3dl3g: 99% of the subtleties you’d never need to know, or would be forgiven for not knowing as a foreigner so long as you bow in general.
If it’s in a traditional setting, expect to bow. If it’s in a non-traditional formal setting (e.g. business meeting), expect to make a short bow, followed by a handshake.
That’s literally all there is to it.
RadBadTad: Think of it like a non-English speaker trying to express gratitude by saying “Thank I”. It’s wrong, and an American saying it would get a very strange look, but from someone who doesn’t understand the language, it’s completely acceptable and welcomed because it’s shows effort and respect.
tomthehippie: Basically bow when you would say thank you as I understand it. As far as “subtleties” its mostly about social standing. The roots go back to when Japanese society was very caste oriented.
If you were a peasant you had to bow really low to a Samurai. They had to bow to a higher ranked Samurai, but if it was only a rank or two separating them, then they didn’t need to put their head in the dirt. If you outrank someone then you don’t need to bow as low as they do.
However a downward nod in response to a bow is condescending. Kinda like saying that you are so far above them that you don’t even need to make the effort of bowing.
porgy_tirebiter: White guy living in Japan for over a decade here. If you don’t look Japanese everyone here will assume you are completely ignorant of the culture and language and most indiscretions will be forgiven. Any attempt at anything “Japanese” will generally be met with happiness and cultural pride that you are trying and interested.
The only things you can do off the top of my head to piss people off that you might not know to do or not do: don’t talk on the phone in trains or on busses, stand on the left side of elevators (or the right side in Kyoto/Osaka), let people get off trains before you get on. Maybe more, but that’s all I can think of.
Le-Marco: A bow in which you just move your head down just a little bit is referred to as a “shit bow.”
Workacct1484: You bow lower the more “respect” the person deserves. You would bow much lower to your teacher than you would to a fellow student. Consequently your teacher would bow shorter to you than a colleague.
basically a status thing. The lower you bow, the higher above you than they are. But if you are above the other person you still bow, don’t just nod your head. That is seen as very disrespectful. Kind of condescending “Here’s a token attempt”
Maintaining eye contact shows a bit of distrust “I respect you, but I am not willing to take my eyes off you.” This is why you will see martial artists bow but maintain eye contact. Because technically they are opponents at this moment.
Those are the two I know.
stairway2evan: In my experience (white American!), though there are many subtleties and rules surrounding bowing as far as social status, politeness, ceremony, etc., it doesn’t mean that you should never attempt to bow. Personally, any time I’ve bowed incorrectly or in the wrong situation, I’ve been gently corrected, but I’ve never caused offense. In general for foreigners, it’s the attempt, the respect, and the deference that matter, and you’re not expected to know all of the subtleties that a native would know. At least not in everyday situations.
sensualbrian: I went for a week and no one seemed to care at all that I didn’t. They understand a smile and a wave just fine. It’d be like a Japanese guy bowing in America and you being offended by it like “WTF THATS NOT WHAT WE DO HERE”
picksandchooses: I agree with what’s been written but the basics are to imitate what the Japanese person is doing (how low, how long, etc.) When in doubt go shallower and shorter and offer a handshake, they’ll understand your attempt was imperfect, but politeness has been served.
aprilfools411: At the very basic level, you bow deeper based on the level of gratitude and how much higher in terms of social status the person you are bowing to is.
You have the quick neck bow which is like a quick greeting in passing. The 45 degree bow which is the norm in many interactions. There is the 90 degree bow for when you are dealing with a superior. Then there is the dogeza which is bowing while on your knees with your head pretty much touching the ground. This is pretty much reserved for when you fuck up and are apologizing to the person you caused trouble to or the person who is saving you.
Of course there are a lot of intricacies but thats the general gist. Most of the time if you are greeting, thanking, or leaving you say the proper greeting, put your hands on your hips like you are standing at attention and bow your body to 30 to 45 degrees and you are golden.
backdrake: Who knew Japanese bowling could be so complicated?
Volunteer-Magic: I know this isn’t the most serious response here, [but Larry David has a sort of tutorial about the subject of a proper bow](https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=85e4THVEb_o)
wallysparker: I’ve been living in Japan for more than a few years.
Short answer, if you don’t look Japanese (basically everyone but some Koreans and some Chinese) you will never fit into Japanese society. You can speak Japanese perfectly and be fluent in all the cultural rituals (like bowing) but you will always been seen as an foreigner making a thoughtful attempt.
Longer answer, bowing is more of a formal ritual. For most things, like saying “thanks” to the traffic guards or someone who lets you pass on the street, just a simple bob of the head works. But bowing is just the tip of the iceberg for all the ways you can offend a Japanese person in Japan. Just know that.
Smallzy17: Read this in a state of being half awake and read it as “subtleties of bowling”…was very confused how bowling could vary much besides the ball knocking down all the pins..was very confused about the comments for a bit until I read op’s post again.
On the other hand, now I’m wondering what subtleties exist in Japanese bowling… if there even is Japanese bowling. This has all really presented more questions than answers.
canonicallydead: *if you bow deeper than the person you’re talking to it’s because they “outrank” you for lack of a better word
*never point with your chopsticks!
*take someone’s business card with two hands, and treat it with respect, it’s a representation of the person. Put the business card somewhere safe like a card holder.
*take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home or a classroom there are special slippers you will switch to
*do not talk too loudly in public.
*in Japan it’s seen as impolite not to speak Japanese.
There are a lot more but these are the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
theLEVIATHAN06: Read this as Japanese bowling and was intrigued that there was a different style of bowling.
satanicpuppy: You have to understand how many levels of status are enshrined in their culture and their language. It’s deeply impenetrable to outsiders, and ESPECIALLY to English speakers…One of the crazy beauties of English is that it has no mode of formal address: there is no *vous*, no *sie*…no polite form of “you”. We just say “you”. To EVERYONE.
If you’re at a fancy ball, and everyone is dressed well, but you don’t know ANYONES status…You pretty much wouldn’t be able to speak to them in Japanese, because it’s rude to get it wrong by being too formal OR too informal. It’s a huge social thing in a lot of languages, and unusually so in Japanese, same with their bowing.
In English, it’s all the same. It’s why we have issues there, we don’t even think in those pronouns, and it’s a way we trip ourselves up in languages where that is important.
Now, if you bow, or if you speak passable Japanese, but without the subtleties, they’re not going to call you out (that would be crazy rude), and they may appreciate the gesture. Just be aware that you’re probably missing a ton of subtext.
SLAYERone1: As ive always understood it the more formal the occasion/the more important the person your bowing to the deeper the bow
boksaman: I suggest you watch these [VIDEOS](https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=larry+david+shit+bow). You can find detailed explanation on bowing procedure in real life situations by expert Larry David
___LOOPDAED___: Living in Japan 10years. There are rules, but unless you are in a super formal situation you won’t be expected to follow them. Most Japanese won’t even know the rules, just a gerneral bow lower than you’re superiors.
Heck most people can’t even properly speak polite formal Japanese. Like bowing, there are rules but most people just wing it.
If you want actual rules, you’re probably gonna have to Google them and find some in depth guide that is no longer applicable to modern Japan.
burner421: Just walk around with your right hand out eyes at the floor and say shitsureishimasu like a small schoolgirl any time you walk in front of someone and you will be fine.
Seriously though the subtilties take time to learn but are not impossible for a foreigner, as long as you are the type of person that can pick up on that kind of stuff(read a room social ques etc). Generally you are a henna gaijin and wont be expected to be civilized. Even more so if you have red or blonde hair. Being a hairy silverback gorilla of a man myself i cause most japanese to head to the other side of the street the same way a white person would upon encountering a minority in the ghetto at night.
japa75: Foreigner living in Japan for over 2 decades here. I think you should definitely, at least, try. But just like the other comments in here don’t take it too seriously, they don’t expect you to do it perfectly every occasion but everyone will appreciate your effort. Hello, goodbye and thank you, those are a must for a quick bow. If you wanna draw a laughter, whenever someone tell you to do something try bowing really low and as you lower your head and torso say, “yes, my teacher” or ” sensei, wakarimashita” the other person will be so embarrassed and they will have to share a good laugh with you. When people first noticed I did that for fun they started doing it back to me and now it is the ongoing joke on what to do when someone is being to bossy.
Austernpilz: When standing: 15° for your equals, 45° for superiors (generally people that you should respect, e.g. your boss or in-laws (yeah, right)), 70° should you happen to come across a person of the imperial family.
Hands on your thighs, about where your pockets are, back straight. Don’t bow while walking.
Bowing is polite and shows respect for the culture. Even if you don’t get it right, you’ll get credit for making an effort. Many japanese don’t know how to shake hands, but you don’t hate them for getting it wrong.
xKomorebi: Bowing serves a few purposes. It can be used to show gratitude, as a greeting, when asking a favor, etc. There are different levels of bowing. When one is asking a favor from or greeting a boss, generally one will bow at the waist. Oftentimes you will observe people talking on the phone, say, with a customer (in a business context) and bobbing the head constantly as they talk. This sort of half-bow behavior is done as a humbling gesture and is such an integral part of the culture that it is done over the phone even though they can’t be seen. The same nod-of-the-head half bow can be used as a quick greeting for a peer, neighbor, etc.
The depth of the bow depends on the perceived place in the social hierarchy of the other person. Thus, waist-bows with a boss or customer and head-bows with a peer. Deeper bows also tend to be more traditional. In tea ceremonies for example, a very traditional act, the guests will bow on their knees with their forehead to the ground (dogeza) in order to pay respect to the arts of calligraphy and flower arranging that are on display. The same prostration would have been used in greeting an emperor.
I don’t know who told you that Westerners should not attempt it but let me say this — the Japanese culture is ridiculously welcoming of Americans in particular, and will welcome your effort to learn about their culture.
GrimwoodCT: There is a book series entitled Kiss, Bow Or Shake Hands that proved very helpful to one of my friends on his first extended business junket to Japan. Although the general volume addresses business in over 60 non-American countries, the series is further broken down by region and those editions are more exhaustive. I imagine that the book or an Asian countries would be the definitive one in this case. Has anyone read any of that series?
Claireftaine: Limited experience in Japan just going to confirm what most people seem to be saying. I bowed to Japanese people who did random nice things for me (like carry my suitcase and show me to my hotel) and I don’t doubt I did it “wrong” but they bowed back and seemed to appreciate it.
From what I can tell unless you’re working in a real Japanese company and have a very high command of Japanese language no one really expects you to follow/understand the non-obvious rules.
Gcdm: You kinda just wing it. I once manage to wedge a car in a small neighboorhood (things went so wrong, so fast), and I bowed to the homeowner in apology before asking him to help me get it out.
SophiaPorterfield: As previously mentioned, bow to everyone that you would normally say “thank you” to. Also, saying “Hai” (which means yes) every couple of seconds when listening to someone and they are giving you instructions and info.
Also, don’t bow to 7-11 workers in Japan.
Zelyo: Japanese often hand things over to you with both hands at once, as a sign of respect to you. If a Japanese bows to you, and you bow back, and then you bow one more time they will feel really bad/rude and bow again. They feel like they have to bow the same amount of times as you. Deeper bow and longer means more respect towards the one you bow to.