“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”
Aretha Franklin’s soulful anthem to deference offers a valuable tip for first-time visitors to Japan. Following the country’s traditional customs—particularly that of bowing—is a way to show, and garner, respect with locals. It also shows that you truly understand, or are trying to, the culture of Japan.
Bowing in Japan
Ojigi, or bowing, is the way Japanese people greet each other—their version of a handshake—yet the act can be used to express more than a warm welcome. A bow is a gesture of civility; it can say “thank you,” “excuse me,” “my apologies,” or “good night.” Perhaps most important, it shows due regard for others, and the way one bows to them depends upon their age and social status.
For example, if you were expressing a casual greeting, you would briefly bend at around 15 degrees. (For someone you see regularly, a nod can suffice.) If, however, you were meeting someone older or, say, the head of a company, your bow would be longer and deeper, up to 45 degrees and looking down at your feet. You would perform this more reverent bow to ask a favor or show deep gratitude, as well.
Beyond Bowing—Further Culture of Japan
- Changing into slippers when entering homes, temples, and many other buildings is traditional. (Rule of thumb: if there is a row of slippers outside the entrance, put some on.) There are even special slippers for the bathroom.
- Offering a gift to your host is a must. Being invited into a Japanese home is an honor, and you should always bring a present, wrapped as elaborately as possible. (Never refuse a gift—although it is standard to protest at first.)
- Never pour your own drink, and always wait for someone to say “Kanpai!” (Cheers!) before drinking.
- Eating in public, on trains, or while walking is considered ill mannered. (The exception: ice cream cones.)
- Tipping is also considered rude, and even insulting. If you feel absolutely compelled, leave a small gift instead.
Dining with chopsticks is customary and, indeed, often necessary; if you’re not yet adept, do your best to learn (or, bring your own portable cutlery). Also, far from being rude, slurping your noodles is considered polite and indicates that you enjoyed your meal. So show some respect for the culture of Japan and slurp away!
Traveler’s Tip: To properly bow, bend from the waist and keep your back straight. Men generally have their hands at their sides, while women hold one hand over the other atop their thighs.
Interested in experience the culture of Japan for yourself? Join one of our upcoming trips to Japan: