One of the first things you will notice when meeting a Japanese person is the bow, it is an extremely important custom in Japan. When two people greet one another they bow, and this can range from a small nod of the head or a full bow where the body is bent from the waist. The bow is also used to say thank you, or as an apology, it is also used to request something or when saying goodbye. The custom is used pretty well just about everywhere.
If you are greeting someone of higher social standard than yourself, you would usually do a longer and lower bow as this is considered exceptionally polite. You will probably encounter this bow when purchasing goods, as this is a mark of respect to the customer.
The bow is usually done instead of the traditional handshake that is rarely performed by the Japanese. Although it is not uncommon to get a handshake if you are a westerner, especially if you are in a business dealing with a Japanese person or you go to shake their hand. The Japanese are extremely polite and respect the western handshake custom, but it’s best to bow. Even if you are a foreigner and you are terrible at bowing you should try a simple bow, as the Japanese person won’t mind if your bow is not perfect.
It is considered polite to bow back at the person offering the bow, and don’t be alarmed if you are confronted with a second or third bow. You will notice that the ladies usually put their hands together to bow while the men usually keep their arms to the side.
In many of the large department stores, you will be confronted by one or maybe more shop assistants standing at the top of the escalators with their only job function to bow at people entering the floor or store, a simple bow is the proper reply. Some of these assistants must get a sore neck and back after working there all day bowing to thousands of customers, but it’s all in a days work.
An apology bow is usually given much lower than a greeting bow, the person bowing bends at the waist, and head usually goes lower than their waist line, at times you will think they will topple over, but they have had plenty of practice and after a few goes you will be able to bow properly.
Bowing in Japan is a friendly and easy custom to adapt to, and you will get much respect from the person you are dealing with making it much easier to bridge the language and cultural gaps.