Bowing versus shaking hands
When I attend various shinnenkai (New Year’s parties) at the beginning of each year, I find it hard to snap back into remembering to bow properly, whilst negotiating my wine and canapés, and exchanging akemashite omedetou ("Happy New Year") with Japanese business acquaintances.
It feels awkward at first if I haven't been socialising with Japanese people for a while, but thanks to my time in a Japanese school, where we bowed every morning to the teacher, and had twice weekly outdoor assemblies where we rehearsed standing at ease, then standing to attention, then bowing – the proper way to bow is somewhat instinctive for me.
For most non-Japanese people, bowing correctly is a challenge, and in my opinion, we worry too much about it. Most Japanese people, when meeting with a foreign person, will expect to shake hands. I usually advise that a slight nod of the head or bend at the waist is a good cultural compromise when shaking hands with a Japanese person. If you have not been brought up to bow, and also had it drilled into you again at an induction course in a Japanese company, when you do try to do a full bow, you will almost certainly get it wrong. Bowing too deeply or for too long a time will result in your Japanese counterpart feeling obliged to dip down again for a further round of needless bowing.
You often see this happening in public in Japan, where neither party wants to stop bowing first, in order to show respect. In the mid-1990s, an English-language magazine targeting Tokyo’s expat community extrapolated on this phenomenon by publishing an April Fool’s article saying authorities were going to set up “no bowing” zones, near revolving doors and on station platforms as excessive bowing was causing a safety hazard. Plenty of people believed the article.
I do know of one case where bowing actually did lead to physical injury. A British employee of a Japanese company in Europe related the story to me: “Our new Japanese Managing Director for Europe was going round all the departments to introduce himself and as he turned to me I put out my hand to shake hands. He, however, had started to bow down low, and I caught him right in the eye. Fortunately it turned out he has a good sense of humour, and whenever I see him in the corridor now, he covers his eye with his hand!”
Bowing is deeply engrained in the Japanese psyche, it would seem. One Japanese friend of mine, who has been living in the UK for 30 years, still bows whenever he meets a Japanese person, even in the streets of London. I asked another Japanese friend of mine, who has also been living for many years in London, if she would ever consider hugging her mother when she came to meet her at Narita airport each time she returns to Japan. “Ewww no!” she said, and then laughed, realising how years of kissing, hugging and shaking hands in the UK had made no impact on her instincts at all.
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly. This and other articles are available as an e-book “Omoiyari: 6 Steps to Getting it Right with Japanese Customers”