Arriving in Japan, one can’t help but feel special and very much welcomed. From porters, coach drivers, waiters, hotel staff, tour guides and locals passing on the street, everyone bows to greet one another. On the ultra modern bullet train, a staff member delivered lovely lunch boxes to each of our seats. As she was leaving our car, she turned and quietly bowed before departing. This pleasant bowing is an invitation of peace and mutual respect, as well as a constant reminder of Japan’s charming culture.
Japan has always had a reputation for unique traditions and a culture that is completely distinctive. Perhaps it’s due to the island nation’s long history of isolation, and with no outside influences Japan has developed many of its own customs and traditions. For the Japanese, respect is of the utmost importance and bowing is a form of communicating this respect to others. Very quickly my travel companions found themselves bowing in return. Politely bowing became a natural response as it felt right, and we were eager to do what was appropriate in our host country.
As our tour progressed, we got into the hang of it the best we could. We learned that not all bows are the same, and the meaning of the bow can change depending on certain details such as facial expression. For example, when we first approached the dining room at our hotel, the maitre‘d exhibited a warm expression which made us feel especially welcomed. In many situations the expressions were more serious and respectful, with eyes lowered. Often, there were no words to go with the expression as the face seemed to say it all.
The concept of bowing is meant to indicate that whatever your social status is, you are placing the other person above yourself and you are there for them, for whatever reason they may need you. Through a quick search on my tablet, I learned that posture is very important when bowing. For example, when bowing to others there should be no slouching over and it’s important to bend from the waist. Also, the depth of the bow determines the level of respect. For instance, a deeper bow is shown towards seniors because the Japanese culture dearly values their elders. This appreciation for elders has been ingrained in families and their children, making Japan one of the kindest places in the world for seniors. Additionally, the person bowing should always keep their gaze downward. I noticed that men keep their hands at their sides and women place their arms and hands in front of them, resting on their legs.
Throughout our visit to Japan I noticed people bowing as you we passed them, and but I found this difficult to reciprocate. To bow while walking is not an easy feat! However, I think the effort was appreciated. The art of bowing says a lot about the Japanese people and their deep sense of warmth and respect; which is a lesson we could all certainly benefit from!
Our 2022 Japan journey is coming soon! In the meantime, be inspired by all things Japan by visiting our destination page here.