To start with

What could be more fitting for this very first post than starting with a greeting? Let’s say hello, let’s… bow? We westerners rather like to keep our back straightened. The image of two Japanese salarymen (サラリーマン), perpetually bowing towards each other while repeating dōmo (どうも) is the first thing that pops up in my mind. Of course, and, considering my back, fortunately, this type of bowing is not the most common one. Which one you have to use depends on the situation.

ImageThe bow (ojigi お辞儀) is an essential part of the Japanese greeting, or aisatsu (挨拶). Roughly we can distinguish two types of situations: greetings for “daily use” (nichijou 日常) and greetings for special occasions (tokubetsuna baai 特別な場合). Because you want to make a good first impression, you better take care of your posture, which should be “rational, beautiful and not wasteful”. Regarding aisatsu, there are several types of bows:

  1. the informal nod with the head (tachisugata 立ち姿which means “standing posture”), used among friends or towards subordinates.
  2. the greeting bow, 15 degrees (eshaku 会釈), used to greet equals or people you are not very familiar with.
  3. the respect bow, 30 degrees (keirei 敬礼), used towards higher ranked people.
  4.  the most respectful bow, 45 degrees (saikeirei 最敬礼 ), unless you bump by chance into the emperor, this one is not used for greetings, but for apologizing only.

Men hold there hands straight down, while women clasp them in the lap. The bow should originate at the waist. And o yes, do not forget to look down while bowing.

Although this seems quite complicated, I think we Belgians aren’t better off with our “kiss problem”. In Wallonia there’s apparantly no issue, everyone kisses everyone. In the Flanders on the contrary, I can mention one fixed rule:  women kiss everyone, men only women. There are however some exceptions: If you’re male you can kiss other men on the cheek in case of a) living in Antwerp, b) being an artist, c) being a new type of man, called “the bromosexual”. Hugging too is allowed and particularly popular with young people. Kissing starts on the right cheek. The real question is: how many kisses? The number varies from 1 to 4.

I will try to explain by enlightening my own kiss behaviour. On special occasions like Christmas, my granny gets three kisses. When I meet my friends in conditions that are not related to fixed activities (school, clubs), like going out, I kiss them once. The other times, they should be happy with “hi”. On my birthday I receive three kisses from everyone. When I see my family back after a while, one kiss. Four kisses are possible in other regions of Flanders. You see, greeting in Belgium is a hazardous endeavour. If you’re not sure about the local kiss counting, you could end up kissing the air, or receiving one on your ear.

In Japan, kissing is seen as quite intimate and not done even among friends. When you kiss someone, it has a romantic meaning.

So be aware: bow in Japan and count your degrees, kiss in Belgium and count your kisses.

Facts for fun

– “If a high official never bows, how does he get into a mosquito net?” a jest song from 1875 about the foreigners who apparently had no clue about bowing.

– Watch this amusing video on YouTube: Japanese Bowing

– If you were wondering how to use the salarymen bow: when both (equal) parties don’t want to give up, they keep bowing, but each time less deep. They finish with a nod.

– When you enter a shop in Japan, the staff will greet you with irasshaimase! (いらっしゃいませ) and a bow. It’s a custom to ignore them.


– Donahue, Ray T. Exploring Japaneseness : on Japanese Enactments of Culture and Consciousness. Westport, Conn.: Ablex Pub., 2002.

– Davies, Roger J, and Osamu Ikeno. The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Tuttle Pub., 2002.

– blog  Tofugu


3 thoughts on “To start with

  1. Pingback: I’m Sorry For Apologizing | nippaku

  2. Pingback: Hundred Posts on Nippaku: Time for Celebration! | nippaku

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