A Guide To Bowing In Japan: When & How To Bow, Plus Common Mistakes To Avoid

According to local expert Yohei Shoji.

By Tess Falotico

27 December 2019

In Japan, bowing (ojigi) is used as a greeting, a way of showing remorse, and as a sign of respect. The origins of this tradition go back hundreds of years, and the custom has evolved from fifth-century Buddhism to 12th-century samurai warriors to modern business culture. Today, there are bows for meetings, bows for acquaintances, bows for groveling, and many bows in between.

It can be daunting for an outsider to learn the intricacies and etiquette, but as Journy’s resident Japan expert Sarah Corsa says, “Visitors are given a lot of leeway in Japan when it comes to etiquette, and any attempt to recognize local customs is appreciated.” It’s a good rule of thumb in any foreign country: it’s always best to try to follow local etiquette as a way of showing respect, even if you make mistakes.

Here are a few simple tips to help your do your best with a traditional Japanese bow.

When to bow

A few common bowing situations to keep in mind:

  • Greeting someone or being introduced to a new person
  • Apologizing
  • Showing gratitude
  • At work or in a meeting

Nods, bows, and kneels

The correct way to bow in terms of the degree angle of your upper body depends on the situation and your relationship to the other person. “The deeper the bow, the more reverence you’re showing to the person you’re bowing to,” says Yohei Shoji, who grew up in Japan and did extensive training on bowing in business culture. Bows that are five degrees apart can mean different things, but consider Shoji’s simplified list to be your cheat sheet for all the types of bows:

  1. A nod of the head and a smile: A friend/neighbor, colleagues with slight seniority, hotel door men.
  2. 30- or 45-degree bow, looking down: Your boss or an older person you’re meeting for the first time.
  3. Full formal bow at the waist, looking down: Formal occasions or meeting clients.
  4. On your knees, arms and forehead on the floor: “You really messed up and you’re groveling for your life.”

Common “don’ts” to avoid in the art of bowing

Don’t do prayer hands. Shoji has seen visitors make the common mistake of holding their hands in a prayer position, but they should be down at your sides—not in front of your chest.

Don’t forget to keep your eyes down when you’re doing any bow that’s deeper than a nod. It’s a sign of respect.

Don’t bow too intensely for the situation — for example, “a full bow to your cab driver after you get out of the car.” Shoji says it could seem like you’re making fun of bowing culture at worst, and you’ll look silly at best.

Don’t overthink it. “Japanese people are fairly lax when it comes to foreigners,” says Shoji. “They don’t expect you to abide by strict Japanese norms of bowing etiquette.” While it’s not native to Japanese culture, Shoji adds that it’s not a faux pas to shake hands in any situation where it would make sense to do so for Westerners.

For more on Japanese etiquette, read up on the dos and don'ts of staying in a traditional ryokan.

Akuppa John Wigham