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What is the proper way to bow in Japan? | Motivist Japan

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Ojigi (お辞儀) or the act of bowing is definitely one of the most important part of Japanese culture. Bowing is used commonly in greeting a person as well as giving a deep apology. There are different levels and types of ojigi depending on the situation. In this article we will explain to you how to do the proper way of bowing in Japan and when you need to use it.

TYPES OF OJIGI

1. RITSUREI (立礼) or the Standing bow

This is basically most common bow that you see in Japan. Ritsurei is used when greeting a friend or a colleague at work. Used also when visiting temples and shrines in Japan. This is also used when expressing deep apology.

Ritsurei has 3 levels, the Eshaku (会釈), Keirei (敬礼) and Saikeirei (最敬礼).

A. ESHAKU – this is achieved by bending your upper body on a 15 degree level while keeping the hands on the side for men and in front of the lap for women while the eye gazing down. This is used when greeting friends or anyone with same status as you. Considered less formal but still respectful.

B. KEIREI – More formal than the Eshaku. This is achieved by bending the upper body on a 30 degree level. Can be used when greeting a person who is of higher status than you like your company managers or CEO as well as clients.

C. SAIKEIREI – Usually done when giving deep respect or deep apology. If you watch Japanese news, you will normally see people who are connected to scams or anomalies expressing their deep regret and apology when talking to media. They bend their upper body in a 45 degree level while holding it for 3-5 seconds.

Below is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doing a saikeirei (deep respect) bow to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Embed from Getty Images

2. ZAREI (座例) – Bowing while seating

The second type of Ojigi is Zarei or bowing while sitting. Zare is still very much part of the Japanese culture. However it is mostly used in special events like Geisha's performance or a Kendo match. 

Zairei also has 3 levels, the senrei (浅礼), futsurei (普通礼) and the saikeirei (最敬礼 sitting version).

A. SENREI – this is achieved by bending the upper body on a 30 degree level while sitting. Both hands should be placed on the lap while the fingers are close to the knees. Considered as the least formal. 

B. FUTSUREI – Most common sitting bow. This is done by bending the upper body closer to the lap while the hands are placed on the floor closer to the knees. The hands are forming a triangle (with the index fingers touching). The face should be facing the floor  but not too close to the floor (around 30 cm away from the floor). Stay in this position for about 4 seconds before going back to sitting position. 

C. SAIKEIREI – This is the used when giving deepest form of respect or apology. This is done same as the Futsurei but this time your face will be closer to the floor (around 7 cm away from the floor). 

During Kendo (剣道) match, the player bows to pay respect to their opponent. The type of bow you see in Kendo is called Saikeirei. 

Embed from Getty Images

WHEN DO YOU BOW IN JAPAN?

Since handshakes are not common in Japan, bowing became their gesture of saying thank you, showing appreciation and I'm sorry in many scenarios like the following:

1. Bowing in temples and shrines.

2. Bowing when a vehicle stops and letting the pedestrians cross. 

3. Bowing to their workplace before the start of work. 

4. Bow to pay respects to the departed.

5. Bow before and after a sports match.

6. Bow to say goodbye. 

WHAT TO AVOID?

When doing the ojigi or bow, the person must not speak while bowing. For example when doing 自己紹介 or self introduction, you must complete your introduction firsr before bowing. It is considered rude when you are already in bowing position and you haven't completed what you want to say. 

When doing a standing or seated bow, the eyes should follow the body. Example for saikeirei, when you bow your eye should be where the foot of the person is located. Always remember the deeper and longer the bow is, the deeper the emotion is. 

If you prefer shaking the hands of the person, you should do the shake hands first before bowing or bow first before the shake hands. This is a common mistake to foreigners. They tend to combine the two which is not the proper way.