History and origins of bowing in Japan

The greeting with a bow has very distant roots and is a symbol of the culture of Japan: will it also be gradually adopted in the new world as a measure of “social distancing” following the historic Covid-19 pandemic? During the 2019 pandemic crisis, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and top consultant in the USA said that “we should stop shaking hands.” Will we end up doing a bow instead of shaking hands?

Let’s discover and deepen together the history, rules and reasons of this practice, certainly a fascinating reading to deceive time during the global lockdown (at the time the post is written), but also a way to better face our intercultural encounters and, who knows, perhaps adopt a healthy social practice and one rich in history and meaning for the future …

Photo courtesy of Imperial Hotel


What is the point of bowing in front of a closed door? More than we can imagine if we are in Japan. Tokyo Imperial Hotel is a good starting point for this journey through time and Japanese culture. General manager Yukio Kanao recounts some “omotenashi” practices in the manner of the Imperial, that is, total hospitality, unpretentious and “coming from within” without the need for the client to see it.

Photo courtesy of Imperial Hotel


So the staff who answers the hotel phone works with a small mirror in front of them to check at any time to “be answering with a smile” to the customers who call. The staff at the entrance will bow to the customer’s car in departure even after he has walked the corner, as the owners of restaurants in Kyoto, and not only there, still do today, waiting at the door of the restaurant for the customer to turn and change their way for a final greeting (bow).

Where does such a profound and characteristic custom come from? As often in Japan by a stratification of religious, socio-cultural, historical-military factors and, finally, reconfirmed by industrial modernity.


The origins of the bow: between religion and shamanism.

The origins of bowing are (both in the world and in Giaponte) as old as uncertain. The most common version (with confirmation also from Yuko Kaifu, president of japan Hosue in Los Angeles and previously interpreter of Empress Michiko) is that the practice was introduced in Japan by China together with Buddhism in the 7th century after Christ. However, there are different hypotheses that this form of greeting and respect may have arisen already in the Yayoi period (300 BC – 250 AD) in which Japan begins to become an agricultural society with various magical rites.

Later traces would also be found in other shamanic forms widespread in pre-medieval Japan, such as the Iomante (adoration and sacrifice of the bear) of the Ainu populations of Hokkaido (see photo below).

In any case, a ritual that has its roots in the origins of Japanese society and mystical-religious descent.


Samurai and the etiquette of the bow.

Buddhism, especially Zen, is the trait d’union with the practice of carrying out and bowing in the feudal Middle Ages and with the samurai culture, very attentive to Zen precepts.

The development of the Samurai etiquette is divided into three very important historical periods.

The Kamakura period (1185–1333) where the first contiguous feudal-military governments (Kamakura is its cradle) face Zen Buddhism and the first forms of social courtesy are adopted, including bowing.

The Muromachi period (1336-1573) in which the Samurai rules of conduct are diversified for the various occasions and codified by the various schools, the most famous still operating as a cultural center, Osagawara Ryu.

A DVD with the etiquette course according to Osagawara Ryu.


The third is the Edo period (1603–1868) from the name of the new capital under the dominion of the Samurai clans, which will later be renamed the Capital of the East or Tokyo. With the social and country pacification, Samurai culture is reborn as a form of interaction between the various social classes. Schools and places of worship for social classes such as the hugely popular Tea Ceremony flourish. Bowing in all its forms becomes innervated in Japanese society and culture.


Bowing in modern Japan

Edo culture (today Tokyo) is also the hub that brings us to modern and industrial Japan. The megalopolis, capital of Japan, today gathers in its large area almost a third of the population (37 million) and represents its modern culture, although still strongly linked to its roots.

Image may contain: 3 people

“Tokyo TOKYO. Old meets New.” The famous advertising campaign of the Tokyo governor’s office.


Japanese business etiquette is still imbued with the Samurai culture and the “Keiretsu” themselves (the conglomerates or consortia of companies) descend from the “Zaibatsu“, the “centers of interest” assigned by the emperor to the great samurai clans of descent: Sumitomo , Mitsui, Mitsubishi, to name the most famous … Today, bowing is a consolidated practice in Japanese business and society.


Top managers from large Japanese companies greet each other before an important announcement.


Meanings and curiosities

The bow, called Ojigi (Pron .: O-jee-ghee), is now used in a wide variety of situations:

  • to say goodbye
  • to receive and welcome
  • to say goodbye
  • to thank
  • to start a business
  • to pray to the gods
  • to express congratulations
  • to ask for a favor
  • to introduce yourself
  • to show respect
  • to ask for goodwill

And it is used in all social contexts, from the more formal ones (institutions or business) to the more ordinary ones (gyms, shops, simple meetings with friends).


A “sensei” (master) of Karate salutes and sits on his clenched fists.


Spirit of Omotenashi

A controller greets the departing train as a sign of respect for customers and their work. (Click on photo for credits.)


Bow in Japan Respect

A trainer shows her respect for the cetacean with a bow. (Click on photo for credits.)


Rules and tutorials

If you don’t feel like studying the Osagawara Ryu books and DVDs, here are the minimum basic rules for making a proper bow.

  1. Hands: on the hips, along the thighs, for men; on the front, on the lap, with the left side above for women.
  2. Inclination: 15 ° between friends and colleagues, 30 ° with important clients or in formal contexts, 45 ° for ceremonies and special occasions or serious apologies.
  3. Status: use the same inclination if you are equal degree, one more level if you are of clearly lower rank.
  4. Eyes: keep your head bowed and avoid looking at the face you are bowing towards
  5. Reciprocity: bow down to one another, without speaking, without doing other things.

The Dos and Don'ts of Bowing in Japan – Tadaima Japan





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