Updated: Oct 26, 2018
Japanese people have their own special way for greetings. Yes, instead of handshakes, they greet each other by bowing. So, it's appropriate for you to bow when you're meeting up with Japanese people.
Although they don't really expect foreigners to understand and know the proper bowing rules, a nod of the head is usually sufficient when a Japanese meets a foreigner. Shaking hands is uncommon to them but they would understand if foreigners do that.
For the Japanese, bowing is also used to apologise, thank someone, make a request or even to ask someone for a favour. Therefore, there are ranges of bowing which varies from a small nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. There is also a form of deeper bowing that goes beyond bending at the waist. It is exhibited when the Japanese meets someone who is very important or with authority in order to show utmost respect. Bowing on the tatami floor also requires one to get on their knees to bow.
With so many bowing rules, here are some of the basics that you should know about:
1. Avoid bowing and shaking hands at the same time
Foreigners are simply not familiar with bowing. Therefore it's only understandable that we still try to do hand shakes. Most Japanese people will be okay with that and shakes your hand anyway. But the biggest mistake you could possibly encounter when greeting a Japanese is to bow and shake hands at the same time.
Despite this, Japanese people in business and formal meetings are known to do both for greetings (bows and handshakes). But, one should do both separately. You can start off with a handshake before giving a nod of the head (which will suffice) if you're uncomfortable with bowing.
2. Bowing is necessary when you are introducing yourself
Be it casual or formal introductions, you are expected to bow at 30° with your upper body. Also, put your hands by the side off your body with your head and shoulders straight for one second or so.
While bowing, keep a proper distance from your acquaintance and you don't need to keep eye contact. If the person you're meeting is a very important person, you will have to bow deeper (probably 45°).
3. Bow to show your gratitude
If someone has done a simple favour for you, say letting you go ahead in line, a bow is only appropriate to show your gratitude. Usually it's just a shallow bow of the head.
The “Thank You” bow is a common sight in Japanese weddings. The bride would give an emotional speech to thank her parents before doing a deep bow.
4. Bow to apologise
There are many types of bow for apologies. Mild apology (for any inconvenience caused for the other person) only requires a bow with the head at 10°. Whereas, a regular apology requires a 45° bow for around five seconds. Should a Japanese make a huge mistake, one which likely has affected the public, he/she is required to do a 45° bow for 15-20 seconds. A quick 45° bow is also required to make a panic apology (such as accidentally hitting someone) for several times.
Now that you are equipped with these basic bowing skills, you would be safe when you meet up with a Japanese!