Why do the Japanese still bow?

Bowing seems to be a universal human gesture, as by making yourself lower than the person you are bowing to and making yourself vulnerable to attack by lowering your head and not looking at them you show respect in an unmistakable way. Similar gestures exist in other animals. However, in most European societies bowing has almost died out, remaining only for kings and queens and possibly from servants to masters, and I think these vestiges give a clue to why it still exists in Japan more generally.

Politeness in Japan is fundamentally different from politeness in modern Britain, to take an example of another country that is famous for its manners. For example, in a shop in the UK the shopkeeper and customer will say please and thank you an approximately equal number of times, and the body language and tone of voice will also convey the illusion that both sides are equal. In Japan, the customer is king, and the king will often show that with a lack of the bowing, polite language, avoiding eye contact etc that the server will use, and in a convenience store will often not say a word during the whole interaction. The language and body language of interactions with bosses, sempai etc. often work the same way. Therefore, politeness in Japan is still a way of showing distinctions in status between people, whereas most politeness in the UK is now to pretend that those differences don’t exist.

More on bowing (not including my theory!) on the Wikipedia page here, including the interesting theory that the “scraping” in “bowing and scraping” comes from the foot moving backwards in a Elizabethan bow.

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3 Comments

  1. Ruben said,

    August 12, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Not related to this post.. however I have a question for you (and your website): is it just me or the Japanese, especially salarymen, don’t wear sunglasses? I mean, often going to work on a sunny day the only persons wearing them are me and other gaijins.. a not young japanese man with sunglasses is not so common…
    why?!

  2. Valerie said,

    August 15, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    We just ended a two week hosting program in our home for two 12 year old Japanese girls from Tokyo. While I am aware that culturally the use of “thank you” and “please” differs from one Asian country to another, I was shocked to see that those girls had never been taught a sense of gratitude by saying “thank you” or “please” and I could tell by their body language that it wasn’t because they did not know how to express themselves. It seems as if they would never have the need for the word “Arigato” (sp?) in their own culture.

    It is my understanding that Japan is a very polite country where respect and gratitude towards mother and father is of utmost importance. Would you say that today’s youth is discarding politeness all together or are we dealing in those two young girls with the exceptions that confirm the rule?

  3. alexcase said,

    August 18, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Although the Japanese probably use “Sorry” even more than English speakers, all Japanese behaviour is very context-dependant, and saying “Please” and “Thank you” all the time at home would be seen as a bit cold and impersonal, and parents demanding it would be seen as not providing the safe haven from the outside world that a Japanese family is supposed to be. As a Brit, I find Japanese parents incredibly rude with their parents, but it has to be said that the resulting teenagers are usually much more polite with strangers that their British equivalents. There is therefore the possibility that they feel so much at home that they are treating you as they would their own parents. Unfortunately, the other possibility is that they are seeing you as the equivalent as hotel staff, who would give lots of polite language but might get none in return. Either way, Japanese guests usually impress by their politeness and it surprises me that you have that impression, so it may well be that they are just the kind of spoilt brats that you get everywhere. The final possibility is that they feel so shy about speaking English etc that they are simply trying to avoid opening their mouths


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