Ai Nihon 愛日本: To Bow Or To Shake

- November 22, 2012 - 0

There’s a principle in game theory called coordination; it says that if someone greets you with a bow, it is highly likely that you’ll bow as a sign of acknowledgement. Your response would correlates with your identity and culture. Bowing or known as ojigi is deeply embedded in Japanese culture. Unless you’re from Japan you probably wouldn’t know that there are a range of bow in Japanese etiquette.

There are three main types of bow in Japan depending on the degree of the bow. The most common bow is the eshaku, 会釈, a slight bow at 15 degrees. Walk into any Japanese store and the greeter would most probably enthusiastically welcome you exclaiming irashaimase, いらしゃいませ with a slight bow. The second type of bow is a salute known as keirei, 敬礼 with the upper torso slanting at 30 degree while the last type of bow is called sai-keirei, 最敬礼, 45 degrees respectful. Bowing at 30 to 45 degrees is certainly a lot and this is usually reserved for your boss or perhaps the emperor! The deeper the bow, the higher respect is shown.

Bowing in Japan is more than just a sign of greetings or an expression of gratitude or apology. It isn’t equivalent to a handshake. It’s a genuine and straightforward gesture that could express a wide range of emotions – remorseful, humility, sincerity, condolences, deference, devotion, willingness, submission and the list goes on. Japanese bow in almost every setting at workplace, schools, religious ceremony, shops, on the telephone and even bowing a train away.


The idea of bowing isn’t to show how much you yourself suck or to kiss someone else ass for appraisal. Shaking is quick but what if the other person just sneezed on his hand. Kissing on the cheek is warm but it’s gross getting other people’s saliva on your cheek. Fortunately, bowing is the best option to get it right – no body contact, just keep it on the eyes and gesture.

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