Why do Japanese bow?

This is very important in everyday life when meeting people. We should greet people as we meet them. Then, we need to do something more than that if we are to be more polite. That is where bowing comes in.

Bowing is not just simply lowering your head looking down, but involves bending the abdomen while maintaining a straight upper posture. It is not just a habit but an etiquette.
An etiquette is not just a habit, but a way to convey thoughts or feelings. Sumo wrestlers usually gets away by lowering their head, but its probably because they have a hard time bending their hips. While bowing is used in various situations, let’s explore these points.


Bowing to people to show gratitude and politeness

This is when bowing in office or workplace. There is no need to bow when in equal standing, but between people with upper and lower positions, the latter must take the initiative. There must also be a clear distinction on who’s who on the upper and lower standing. For example, between the one who recommends and the one who got recommended for the job position. Despite being in the same position, the one who recommends will usually be in the upper standing. It is a quick and understandable way to let him/her (one who recommends) know that “I am able to get this job because of him/her so I must humble myself”. It is important that the “…because of him/her…” part be emphasized to convey gratitude, otherwise bowing will just be for a show. If we are to communicate, we need to have decent knowledge don’t we? And for those who are greeted, they should not show arrogance for having an upper standing. Both parties must be respectful of each other so that they can begin and do their work properly.


Bowing in Japanese culture from religion

In Japanese culture, there are few words that ends in “-do” like Kendo, Judo, and other martial arts (Budo). Originally, they are refered to as “Kenjutsu” and “Jujutsu” respectively. Then something got added that they changed “-jitsu” to ”-do”. Others include Kado (flower arrangement), Sado (Tea ceremony) and Koudo (incense burning). Including Kendo and Judo, these started way back from Shintoism (Shinto), which existed since ancient times, and Buddism (Butsudo), which existed since the start of Japanese culture. So what does “-do” mean? It means a man’s way of life. How to live it? What kind of life is worth living? What is the foothold of way of life? If the foothold is Kenjutsu, it becomes Kendo. Jujutsu becomes Judo. Finally, Bujutsu becomes Budo. And so, bowing originated from religions Shintoism and Buddism. And as to whom should bowing be addressed, it should be to a being that transcends humanity, a god. Therefore, bowing should be done with fear and respect to convey reverence.


Japanese history culture and everyday life

According to Japan’s history, its advancement of science has started late compared to other things. And so, we can say that they were not inquisitive. In another point of view, history is made while accepting that those unseen things are unknown forces beyond human working on them.

Beyond human as in, gods. Therefore, religion is involved. In other words, god is always close and present in one’s daily lives. Japanese people are an agricultural tribe. Rice is the most produced agricultural product which came from rice-cropping. A paddy field is needed for rice-cropping, and paddy field needs plenty of water. A place where there are plenty of rain and snow have prosperous rice-cropping. However, people can never put water on the paddy fields by themselves. It all depends on the weather.

In the past they refer to weather as “otento-sama”, the same as how they worship a god. Since people cannot do anything about a natural phenomenon, they need to adjust their lifestyle according to weather conditions. A lifestyle in which they cannot directly look at the sun. Since they can’t directly look at the sun, they tend to look downward. But if they turn their back at the sun, they cannot predict the weather.

In a lifestyle where forces beyond human must be accepted even though they cannot be seen, paying respect to the great force that helps plants grow, fear that comes out from unseen things, and then the body reacts as a result of these in addition of the religious etiquette, thus bowing becomes a part of the japanese lifestyle that continues up to this day.

MyTop10Japan Editor

MyTop10Japan Editor


Working at MyTop10Japan.