Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

#19 Bowing in Japan

on April 11, 2012

So, it’s the beginning of a new school year in Japan.

Each year at each public school, some teachers get transferred out, and new teachers transferred in.  This is largely out of the teachers’ control (as mentioned in a brief, recent Omake post), though they can submit their preferences.

In any case, here at my middle school, 2 teachers left and only 1 new one came in (they reduced the staff size).  The new teacher just came in last week.  When the old teachers introduce themselves to the new teacher, both parties stand up from their desk or wherever they are, and start bowing furiously, bobbing their heads as they say their greetings and their names.  It reminds me of birds bobbing their heads actually…

How many times you bow and how deeply you bow depends on the situation.  Many times a simple 15 degree bow is enough.  Other times, a 30 degree bow is called for.  For more formal occasions, a 45 degree bow is prescribed.

If you’re being extremely humble, or apologizing for a mistake, you bow a full 90 degrees.

And if you’ve terribly wronged someone, and/or are begging for forgiveness, you might get down on hands and knees like a dog.

Men generally bow with their hands straight at their sides, while women tend to put their hands together in the front while bowing, as that is supposedly more feminine looking.  However there are times when women bowing with their hands at their sides is perfectly appropriate.

Bowing is such a common thing here, done mainly during greetings, as well as when saying thank you or apologizing.  After buying food at the grocery store, or mailing a letter at the post office, people do a perfunctory head nod in thanks.  I got so used to doing this when I studied abroad that people commented I still did it in the US after I got back…it was a hard habit to break.  When I go back to the US in August, surely it will pose a challenge to me again.

Also what’s sometimes funny, is that people bow when talking on the phone too.  I even do it now.  It’s because you bow as if you were talking to the other person face to face, but can look odd when you’re simply gripping a phone.

I couldn’t find a youtube video clip on this, though I challenge you to find one yourself!  Instead, here’s a clip of a stationmaster bowing to commuters during morning rush hour while saying things like “Good Morning!” and “Thanks for using our transportation!”

Also kind of crazy, is when department stores first open in the morning, all the salespeople must bow to the first customers that come through.  I’m always slightly embarassed at watching these sorts of youtube videos, in a place where you’re clearly NOT supposed to be video taping (you’re capturing all their merchandise on film), plus the workers probably don’t want to be immortalized in your video.  But here’s a clip someone took of just such an occasion.  I also find it interesting that the camera person is saying “Good Morning” back to the sales people, when no Japanese people do so.

Also in ceremonies, bowing happens A LOT.  Japanese are very fond of ceremonies.  They have an opening ceremony and a closing ceremony on the first and last day of every school semester.  They have a formal “entrance ceremony” for the new middle school students, the new 1st grade elementary school students, and even for the little kids that enter preschool.  I don’t remember ever having an event marking my transition to school, except for the big epic “first day” of actually going.

In ceremonies, there’s a whole lot of prescribed movements, actions, words…  One rule is that before some important person in the town gives a speech (the mayor, the head of the school’s PTA, the head of staff at the Board of Education, etc), the people for whom the ceremony is for (entering students, or graduating students, depending) must stand up while that person walks on stage.  Then they bow to that person.  Then the students sit down while the speaker gives his speech.  Then the students stand up, and bow again, and once the speaker is seated back at his seat, the students sit down.  Also, when the speaker goes up to the stage, he generally first bows at the other speakers/important people section, then bows towards the teacher/staff section, then walks on stage.  After exiting the stage, he does this same thing in reverse.

Also what both annoys me and makes me giggle is that us teachers, before and after these sorts of important school ceremonies, must stand at the doorway to the auditorium and bow to the speakers/important town people as they enter or exit the gym where the ceremonies are held.  Basically the teachers line up on both sides of the path the people will walk through, and as the people walk in, they bow, and the teachers bow, and more and more of them stream in and it’s constant bobbing up and down of upper bodies.  I tried doing this ridiculous bowing a few times too but for me it just feels so silly.  I have since reduced myself to a precursory head nod or even a stoic just standing there while I watch with amusement everyone else furiously bob up and down.

I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience this all first hand – not only observing bowing standards but participating in them myself.  I understand it’s to show respect to other people, and I do my best to follow suit, but I’m not going to miss feeling ridiculous bowing multiple times or sitting through very long, very boring ceremonies where us teachers often have to head nod bow, or even stand up and bow, several times throughout the thing.  More on the rigidness of ceremonies for another time.

Lastly, here’s a parody video I found on youtube showing bowing etiquette when it comes to apologizing.  Enjoy!  And thanks for reading.

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