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Bowing In Japan

Americans or other Westerners doing business with the Japanese often ask me if they should bow rather than shake hands during a first meeting – and if so, what is the proper technique?

Please allow me to get slightly philosophical before I give you my answer…

First, whenever you are dealing with human beings from any culture there is never one “right” answer that will be consistently true. We should not deal in absolutes.

Second, know that you can learn to work much more effectively with Japanese (or people from any other culture) by doing two things:

1) learning useful “concepts” from others who have a great deal of experience and insight into the culture, and

2) using your own powers of observation and good judgment.

In my book, The Least You Need To Know About Doing Business With the Japanese, I give useful, practical advice on how to communicate more effectively with Japanese, thus helping you with item one. If you internalize these concepts and then apply your own observation and judgment to your situation, I guarantee you will improve your relations with the Japanese you work with almost immediately.

Having said all that, here is my view on this specific topic…

Traditionally, throughout most of Asia, people bowed to each other as a form of greeting, and did not involve human contact similar to the handshake used in the West. The historical reason for this was to show deference and trust. A person bowing in front of you was essentially giving you his neck, trusting that you would not cut his head off with your sword.

Lest you think this is a silly concept, you should know that the historical reason for the Western handshake was for both parties to prove that they were unarmed, and offered greetings of peace – which is why we still shake using our right hands (most people were and still are right-handed).

Obviously no one thinks about these things anymore. If you find yourself in modern-day business situations where you are concerned that the other party is carrying a weapon, or might lop your head off mid-bow, perhaps you should find another line of work!

The point is that both simple methods of greetings, the bow and the handshake, have historical significance and modern application. They also have many subtle (and some not-so-subtle) variations. Imagine shaking hands with someone you have just met and will be playing basketball with. Now imagine greeting the President of the United States with a handshake. Next, imagine giving a high-five to a friend you haven’t seen in a while. These are all variations of the handshake.

Similarly, in Japan, there are many variations of the bow. Some are very formal, some are very informal. Being introduced to the president of the corporation in which you are employed would command a much more formal bow than the one you’d give to the McDonalds employee who just served you a teriyaki burger!

Here are some general guidelines:

For the most formal version of the bow, used in formal business or political settings:

- Face your counterpart with your feet close together and your hands at your sides

- Do not put your hands in your pockets

- Divide your body into two parts: upper (above the waist) and lower (below the waist). Bend at the waste and remain in the lower position for a short period of time before coming back up.

- Do not bend your neck to look up at your counterpart while bowing (ignore the Karate Kid advice that says “always look at your opponent”. You are not in a competition that involves striking.)

- If you are exchanging business cards, be sure to give and receive with two hands, if possible. Make sure you look at the card for a moment or two, even if it’s in Japanese and you can’t read it (I explain why this is important in my book)

For less formal situations, you will basically mimic the formal version of the bow, but with more relaxed rules. Therefore, it is less important that your feet are together, that you stay in the lower-bow position, etc. In fact, you may just give a very slight bow rather than a full, bend-at-the-waist bow.

Westerners doing business with Japanese will often encounter those who are very familiar with Western culture. In International settings it has become more common for Japanese to combine a bow and a handshake.

Consider the difference in how you would shake hands with the CEO of your company, versus a handshake you give to a friend of your friend at the bar. The “rules” are the same; some of them are just more relaxed. Since this is hard to explain to someone, I always recommend that when Westerners travel to Japan, they carve out about 20 minutes to sit in the hotel lobby to observe people bowing to one another. During a busy period you will witness over 100 “exchanges” in that time. These guidelines and your powers of observation will be the keys to better understanding and learning the Japanese culture.

Submitted by:

Steve Acho

Steve Acho earned his MBA while living and working in Japan. He has worked as a translator, interpreter, and consultant for CEOs and Vice Presidents of Fortune 500 companies across the globe. Steve's e-book is available at: http://www.theleastyouneedtoknow.com




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