Understanding Japanese etiquette

Photo credit - Ta Ching Chen via unsplash.com

Photo credit – Ta Ching Chen via unsplash.com

The Japanese people display grace and courtesy towards others. They are helpful and respectful and this is ingrained in their culture. As an outsider, this can sometimes present challenges – as it has for us recently.

On his last tour of Niseko, Monsieur Contrôleur met a Japanese client who invited him out to enjoy his hospitality. On this trip, we have reconnected with this gentleman in Hirafu, and again in Tokyo. It was our intention to invite him to enjoy our hospitality. However, we have not been able to do that. He insists on hosting us. He has been exceedingly generous with his time and entertaining us. We can only hope he will visit us and that we may be able to return the generosity.

Entertaining guests – omotenashi
Omotenashi means to entertain guests wholeheartedly. It is a show of grace and courtesy towards others. It can mean being treated like a VIP.

The key thing to remember is that as a guest you’re supposed to accept services from your hosts. While it might feel uncomfortable, it is considered respectful to accept this service, and enjoy your time.

Bowing as part of etiquette
Bowing is an important gesture in all Japanese interactions. There are many occasions when bowing is part of the formalities as well as less formal interactions. Here are some:

  • Greetings – a nod of the head (10°) is usually sufficient.
  • Introductions – in both formal and casual introductions, a bow of about 30° is usually performed, with shoulders straight and hands to the side.
  • Bows of respect – this is a an expression of humility, to demonstrate respect.
  • Sports bow – a bow between opponents before a sports match.
  • Religious bow – bow to the gods for example, at a Shinto shrine.
  • Martial arts bow – paying respect to the sensei (teacher) and the opponent.
  • Bowing to customers –  customers are considered gods (of sorts) so it is usual for staff to bow to customers.
  • Bow of thanks – when someone does something for you.
  • Performers bow – at the end of their performance in response to applause.
  • Apologies
    • a mild apology – a bow with the head of 10°, for example when you bump someone or need to squeeze past them.
    • a regular apology – if you have done something wrong, you bow to about 45° (I’m sorry for what I did).
    • a serious apology – if something has happened that is more serious, and affects more people you may apologise with a 45° bow that may be held for 15-20 seconds (I am very sorry for what I did).
    • a panic bow – you may do a 45° bow over and over again to indicate how sorry you are, for example if you spilled something on someone.
    • a serious apology – for example of someone has committed a serious crime and are apologising to the victims, they would bow from a kneeling position (I sincerely apologise for what I did).

Engaging in the etiquette is part of the cultural experience. We have been very fortunate to have had these positive interactions with Japanese people and hope we may be able to do the same with visitors at home.


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