How to Bow (and why you should visit Japan)

A handshake is a worthy introduction when meeting someone for the first time or sealing an agreement. A hug can express gratitude or say farewell to a good friend. A courtesy is a polite way of accepting a compliment and also bestowing honor to another. But the action that can do all this and speak a legion of words is a bow.

The western hemisphere may have claimed a victory when they preferred the uncomplicated fork rather than acquire the more intricate niceties of chopstick technique, but I feel that they in turn have also sorely missed out on a treasure. That is, the art and practice of bowing. While it’s not uncommon to see a dainty bob of the head in an apology or acknowledgment in a country such as America, a deep, stiff bow at the waist might draw curious glances. During my visit to Japan, I was introduced to an entirely new culture. If you’re going to spend any amount of time among the locals in Japan, you will very quickly become acquainted to the world of bowing.

I’ll admit, my bows were a little awkward and graceless the first few days.  The appropriate and expected times to bow are bound to confuse a foreigner. My personal experience taught me that if in doubt, it’s always better to bow than not. This rings especially true in formal circumstances. Also, if someone else bows to you first, it’s modest for you to return the bow with one of your own that dips lower than theirs. The deeper your bow, the more sincere your expression. The action displays a sense of respect and manners that is so reflective of the values of the Japanese people themselves.

It didn’t take long me to recognize the brilliance of this simple motion and adopt it into my social routine. It only takes a few days of immersion into the culture for bowing to become a natural motion, and then second nature. It is a multi purposeful stroke of genius in my opinion. It can express thanks, acceptance, submission, confirmation, honor, agreement, greeting, parting, and friendship. I think many other countries could do well to take on this little manner, but I am compelled to voice my doubts on its ability to thrive in a different environment.

The custom of bowing has roots that run deep and strong in Japan, filled with a proud history of bows. I believe it is this noble, dutiful pride that is bound in the hearts of the Japanese people that sets them apart from the rest of the world. Their national concept of honor, respect, and community is one unparalleled to any other society I have known. The dignity of the people is what allows this tradition of bows to endure through the centuries, and the resulting kindness is what makes them special. The serene gardens, breathtaking views, and illuminated cities make Japan a wonder for any traveler, but the sights don’t capture the experience that can only be found in the details accredited to the spirit of the people.

In all my years to come, I’ll never forget how Japan knew how to cherish the strength in community. Visiting Japan is an encounter that is well-worth your time, and an adventure that will show you that there’s a certain grace and esteem in respecting the people in your life.


Olivia Jeffcoat, California, USA


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