What could be more typically Japanese than bowing? Every other book about Japan has something to say on the subject, so it must be important, right? Certainly a lot of foreigners come to Japan and start bowing like crazy, so maybe they all read the same book.
It’s common knowledge, if not entirely correct, that bowing is a sign of respect, gratitude, or apology in Japanese society. And there’s no shortage of information on how to do it properly, how deeply one should bow, or what to do with your hands. There’s just one missing piece . . .
So I was in a bar last week. Big surprise, I know. And by the end of the night, as always, I’d made friends with about fifty salarymen. What can I say? I’m like sugar to them. Then, as I’d had a rather plentiful number of cocktails and had to wake up the next day before noon (something I try to avoid), I decided to politely make my exit. And what happened next? They all got up and started . . . shaking my hand. Like suddenly I’m a member of Congress or something.
You know, when Japanese people leave a bar, everybody doesn’t rush around shaking hands with them. And when Americans leave a bar in the U.S.–well, it’s basically the same thing. We just say goodbye and peace out. The last time I was back in the States, it seemed like men and women weren’t shaking hands much at all, but everybody sure was hugging each other. But maybe that’s just because I was in San Francisco. Anyway, while America is still the land of the handshake, people don’t go around doing it all willy-nilly either.
However, in the mind of a Japanese salaryman who’s just polished off a bottle of shochu, shaking hands is what “foreigners” do all the time. Just like how foreigners think bowing is something Japanese do all the time.
Okay, here’s three questions for you. Let’s see how good your Japanese is.
- 1. It’s 10 a.m. and you’re out for a walk. On the other side of the street, you see your neighbor walking towards you. What do you say?
- 2. Your walk into a store at noon and the store clerk bows and greets you with “irrashaimasei.” What do you say?
- 3. It’s 10 p.m. and you buy two large cans of malt liquor and a bag of those fabulous Calbee black pepper potato chips. (Note: this is a purely hypothetical situation.) After you pay at the register, the clerk bows and thanks you with an “arigatou gozaimasu.” What do you say?
If you answered, “ohayou gozaimasu,” “konnichiwa,” and “dou itashi mashite” –Congratulations, you’re a foreigner all right. If you answered, “Jack shit,” then you’ve either lived in Japan for a while, or you’re actually Japanese. In other words, Japanese people rarely reply to such pleasantries. Not really the friendliest country ever, Japan.
So here’s the missing piece: Japan has a culture based upon hierarchy. It’s a Power culture. The store clerk thanks you. You don’t thank him. At the restaurant, you yell your order to the waitress and she comes running. She’s all politeness, smiles, bowing, and deference, because that’s her job. You, as a customer, have a different role, and it does not include thanking, bowing, or even acknowledging her presence. Then, when that waitress is a customer somewhere else, she’ll bark her order at someone else who comes running, and hardly mumble a word of thanks. In any situation, the people on the bottom of the power equation bow and thank those above them. The people at the top don’t respond in kind, and they frequently don’t respond at all.
Bear in mind that bowing isn’t necessarily related to a person’s status in society, age, or gender. It’s about a person’s role in a given situation. Who’s the boss and who’s the employee in the current transaction. Who’s holding the leash and who’s the dog. The person who bows in one situation does not bow in another, and nobody bows all the time. Except old people. And they’re just grateful that somebody actually acknowledges their presence.
Japan has the reputation of being a polite nation. That’s because, for tourists, everywhere they look, Japanese folks are welcoming, thanking, and bowing to them. What wonderful, simple people! They’re so cute. In reality, it’s about business. It’s not that Japanese people are more or less polite than anyone else. It’s that they’re serious employees. It’s their job to treat you well, in the same way that when I call my credit card company, they say “Thank you for calling.” Maybe the person on the other end of the line isn’t actually grateful that I called to complain about my interest rate. But then you never know. Those folks in Bangladesh are awfully friendly.
So take a step back. Next time you go to a store, a restaurant, or a bar in Japan, don’t watch the clerks and waiters. Watch the Japanese customers. Quite often, they’re a whole lot less than polite. They either boss the staff around, or ignore them entirely. They certainly don’t bow to the staff.
Now, you can act however you like in Japan. Bow to the mailman if that’s your thing. Thanks for bringing my electric bill, dude! Hey, it’s a free country. But if you’ve gone to the trouble of learning some Japanese and trying to understand the culture, then you might want to pay attention to what everybody else does, and try to behave similarly. Just a thought.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to bow. You should absolutely show respect and appreciation towards people with whom you have a personal connection. But again, keep in mind who’s thanking whom. If, for example, you give someone a gift, they should bow a bit and thank you. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, as the gift-giver, you probably shouldn’t be bowing to them, unless you’re thanking them for something they’ve done. Okay, so it’s a little complicated. Whatever. Just keep your roles straight is all I’m saying.
As a final note, there is, of course, the reciprocal bowing phenomenon, where everyone is bowing like mad to everyone else in what looks like a mini aerobics class. But that’s typically limited to situations where all parties are on equal terms, like friends and associates, and used when greeting or saying goodbye. Staff from companies that are in business together also do this a lot. But you go around bowing like that and people will just think you’re spastic.
There’s nothing wrong with bowing at the right time. You just gotta know when that time is. How to know? Watch Japanese people. Then do what they do. And so, if we ever meet, don’t feel like you need to bow. You don’t even need to shake my hand. A hug will do just fine.