The Art of the Traditional Japanese Bow: Blending Ancient Virtues into Modern Society

February 16, 2019 Updated: February 16, 2019

Japan is known as the land of the rising sun. Apart from being a society filled with the most cutting-edge technologies, ancient traditions are unforgotten and practiced widely.

Honor and self-respect betoken cultural refinement in this Asian country. A testament to this is evident with the “bow.”

Bowing in the Japanese language is called ojigi. It’s one of the primary ways that Japanese people show respect for each other and is used to say hello or goodbye, thank you, sorry, or when asking for a favor.

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There are five different ways to bow, and the type of bow used depends on the situation, age of who you are bowing to, and societal setting, such as the workplace.

Japan, like many Asian countries, is a hierarchical society. This is an important factor in understanding how one interacts with others as well as the expectations. The lower the level of the bow, the more respect, gratitude or sorrow one conveys.

The first is a gentle nod of the head for greeting friends, people who are younger, or subordinates at the office.

Next is eshaku, a bow used to greet people one knows but perhaps not well. The angle of this bow is about 15 degrees.

Illustration – Shutterstock | Rawpixel.com

The third kind is called keirei, which is a formal bow used to show respect for elders or your boss.

The fourth type is a 45-degree bow called saikeirei, which is used to convey deep and highly regarded respect.

Illustration – Getty Images | TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA

Lastly, there is the kneeling-down bow called dogeza. It should be used when greeting someone of a very high rank, and it is also done when one has made a grave mistake and must apologize. Sometimes dogeza is performed when seeking an important favor from someone.

Illustration – Shutterstock | Flavio Gallozzi

In feudal times, failing to bow or even bowing improperly to a samurai or lord could lead to being sentenced to death on the spot. Of course, such punishments no longer exist, but the expectation to properly bow still remains.

In every segment of Japanese society, ojigi is an essential part of Japanese custom. For instance, when crossing a road, pedestrians—including children—bow to the driver that was waiting for them to cross as a sign of gratitude.

This etiquette demonstrates how well the Japanese have immaculately blended the ancient virtues of respect and honor into modern society—developing it to a fine art.

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