Bowing, then and now: Japan from Anime to Zen

I met someone new the other day, but our meeting was instantly interrupted at that awkward moment when, in normal times, hands would have been extended, accepted and shaken, and the meeting would have been formalized.

But these days, shaking hands has a whole different feel. I’ve done it, after a quick calculation, and before a surreptitious washing of hands. But this familiar ritual, done without a thought in normal times, has suddenly acquired a layer of life-and-death anxiety: Is this the moment it happens, when the virus, languishing on a stranger’s hand, makes its unwelcome entry into my world? Is this the moment life changes, perhaps forever, and certainly not for the better?

Shaking hands is not a universal greeting, though the dominance of America in international business can make it seem that way. The kiss on each cheek of Europe and the Middle East is perhaps even more common (and probably even less safe in the COVID-19 era). But in Japan, no touching occurs, which is so Japanese, and takes some getting used to. But right now seems advisable everywhere.

In fact, the bow is what I have resorted to recently, almost without thinking. It is tentative and apologetic, but feels like a reasonable stopgap, a way of acknowledging the moment of meeting, but without crashing through biome barriers. If it’s polite in Japan, it can be polite here.

So here’s a teaser from my forthcoming book, Japan from Anime to Zen: Quick Takes on Culture, Art, History, Food and More, which will be published by Berkeley’s Stone Bridge Press in January 2021. Preorders can be made here.

Bowing is a fundamental human motion, a way of paying respect that has had expressions in nearly every culture in the world. While it has largely disappeared in Europe and was never common in the Americas – though entertainers still bow to their audience – it remains widely used in Asia. Nowhere, however, is it as crucial, and complex, as it is in Japan. 

Perhaps one reason it is less common in the West is that bowing is largely driven by a respect for social rank, and the whole concept of social ranking is frowned upon in the egalitarian societies of Europe and the Americas. This is not the case in Japan, which, despite its democratic politics, is at its core a hierarchical society. The Japanese will go to great lengths to determine the status of the person they are interacting with, and that awareness will appear first in the bow.

Bowing in Japan, known as ojigi, is so ubiquitous as to be daunting to visitors, but as a show of basic humility and manners, it is not difficult once you get used to it. Simple attempts at bowing are appreciated by the Japanese, who will not expect a visitor to understand the numerous variations. Just don’t over-do it, by bowing too low or by bowing while you’re shaking someone’s hand, and you’ll be fine. 

The variations of bowing in Japan are mind-boggling, and the “degree” of a bow is literal: the numerical degree of each bow, from 15 to 90 degrees, is determined by the relative social status of the person to whom one is bowing. All of this explains why bowing can be intimidating to the visitor. But rest assured that as with all Japanese social manners, it is much more difficult for the Japanese themselves. Knowing the correct form of bowing is so crucial to business that many Japanese companies insist their (Japanese) employees take classes in proper bowing. There are actual wall charts that indicate the degree of the appropriate bow in any given circumstance. 

The Japanese bow in virtually every social situation, and often, even when they are not in the presence of another person: Seeing a Japanese bow while speaking to someone on the phone, when that other person can’t even see them, underlines dramatically how deeply engrained this formality is. Japanese will bow to another driver in traffic. It’s not unusual to see someone bowing on the street, seemingly to no one in particular. It’s all about showing respect, whether or not the bow is actually seen by the person or thing it is being addressed to. 

(Note that in Thailand and other countries in South East Asia, people bow with their palms together, nodding their head slightly. This is known as a wai, and it is occasionally used by cosmopolitan Westerners. But it is not used in Japan.)  

In Japan, bows are done from either a standing position (called seiritsu) or from the kneeling position called seiza. They are done, as noted, to varying angles depending on the situation, and they can be done for different lengths of time. Those are the basic parameters of a bow.

Bows are done for a variety of reasons, from a basic greeting to the most dramatic, even desperate, bow of apology. The deeper, longer and more energetic the bow, the greater the apology, but bows are generally meant to express respect and appreciation, and they may show up when interacting with a shop clerk, any sort of public officer, a teacher, an employer, a superior at work…or even a mountain one has just climbed, since many mountains are holy, or even gods themselves, and thus, deserving of respect. 

One situation in which it may feel especially important to visitors to get bowing right is during visits to temples and shines, and where paying proper respect isn’t just required, but can have the effect of deepening your experience of a religious act. At Shinto shrines, you will want tomake an offering of a small coin, then by washing your hands (and mouth) and then bowing in the following way: Do two keirei (formal, 30-45 degree) bows, then clap your hands twice in front of you, then do a single saikeirei (deeply reverent) bow, which is 45 degrees or more.  

In other situations, it’s best to watch the Japanese bow and follow suit, remembering some basic elements that are important to remember in nearly any setting, and will serve as a way to show basic respect, humility and politeness. 

One bows from the waist. The back remains straight, the eyes cast down, the hands on the front of your thighs. Bow when bowed to, with the exceptions of shopkeepers, whose bows you are not expected to return. When you do bow, something along the lines of 30 degrees is about right. Don’t bow and shake hands. Don’t bow while walking, or while speaking. Stop everything and bow.

As a foreigner, you are not expected to get this right, but as with speaking a bit of Japanese, any attempt is appreciated.

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website, music1967.com
- An upcoming book on Japanese culture, Japan from Anime to Zen
- A YouTube channel, featuring random songs and thoughts for the pandemic
- Original music on Spotify, with links to Patreon and Amazon 

David Watts Barton

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