Japanese Culture


Primary Author
Chara Scroope,
  • Greetings are very context-dependent in Japan. The formality and social context of a situation dictates what gestures and phrases are used to greet people. Thus, there are a variety of greetings used.
  • In Japan, the most common gesture when greeting is a bow. The depth, length and style of bow depends on the social context (see below).
  • Bowing takes place in many instances where handshakes would be common in the English-speaking West. Nonetheless, many Japanese are understanding and are likely to shake hands when meeting non-Japanese people.
  • When meeting friends and family in casual situations, people usually slightly bow their head (similar to a nod).
  • When greeting acquaintances of similar social status and age, people tend to follow a standard sitting or standing bow.
  • The type of honorific title used when greeting someone depends on their age and gender (see Addressing Others in Naming for more information).
  • The most common title used when greeting someone is ‘-san’. This suffix implies a level of familiarity and can be used to address both females and males. This form of address can also be used with either the person’s given name or surname (e.g. Haruki-san or MURAKAMI-san), as well as with the title of their occupation (e.g. hon’ya-san would mean ‘Mr/Ms Bookseller’).
  • The honorific ‘-sama’ is a more polite and formal version of ‘-san’. It is often used when greeting someone of higher social status or in a business setting. For example, the term “okyaku-sama” is often used to address a guest. In the context of a shop owner addressing a customer, “okyaku-sama” would mean ‘honoured customer’, while it would mean ‘honoured guest’ in the context of a host addressing a visitor.
  • When meeting someone for the first time in a casual setting, it is common for people to say “Hajimemashite” (‘Nice to meet you’).
  • Meanwhile in formal settings, the most common greeting is “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu”. The meaning of this phrase differs depending on the context, but generally means ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance’. This is also often used when greeting a group of people, even if people are already familiar with one another.
  • The most common phrases when greeting someone familiar is “Ohayō gozaimasu” (Good morning), “Konnichiwa” (‘Hello’ or ‘Good day’), and “Konbanwa” (‘Good evening’).

Bowing (Ojigi)

The act of bowing (ojigi) is a common part of daily life in Japan. The etiquette of bowing contains many intricate rules that depend on factors such as the context, social status and age of the person. Generally, bowing is a mark of respect and emphasises social rank between people. The following discusses common occasions of when to bow and how to follow common bowing etiquette.

  • There are two positions to begin bowing: standing (seiritsu) and sitting (seiza).
  • When performing a standing (seiritsu) bow, the person looks straight ahead with hands placed on their thighs and back straight. They then bow from their hips. Men generally stand with some space between their feet while women stand with their feet together.
  • A sitting (seiza) bow is expected on formal occasions. When performing a sitting bow, the person kneels into position. Men generally kneel with one leg at a time, while women place both knees on the ground simultaneously (if able). The person rests on their calves or heels and keeps their feet flat on the floor with their toes pointing behind them. With hands resting on the thighs and back straight, the person then bows as they would when standing.
  • The depth and length of the bow often indicates the level of respect. For instance, in semi-formal situations, people tend to bow at about a 30-degree angle for one to two seconds. In more formal situations, people often bow at an approximately 45-degree angle for three to four seconds. Finally, in the most formal situations, people will bow at a 70-degree angle for about two seconds and hold the bow for longer.
  • In Japanese bowing etiquette, people do not place their palms together.
  • When bowing, people do not make eye contact but rather look at their counterpart’s neck or chin.
  • Bowing should not happen while seated on a chair. If someone bows to you while standing, it is expected you will also stand and bow.
  • People are expected to be still when bowing. As such, do not bow when walking.
  • Speaking while bowing is considered rude.

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