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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Take a Bow: Understanding How the Bow Works in Japanese Culture(the beginning of the Circle in the Square series)

They say people would rather croak than speak in public (and by ‘they’, I refer to the mountains of polls and studies pointing to this), but imagine you had to do that in the language of a culture seems like a fun-house mirror image of your own. That round peg in square hole conception is what I see in a lot of language learners, whether they’ve studied for 1 week or 1 decade. Contributing to this misunderstanding are those teaching the language as two separate things with minimal relation to each other. 

     While I give credit to those who’ve put in their time with the language and teach this way, I respectfully disagree with it, as I view each one to be vital to knowing the other. This is mind, I will now offer the knowledge I’ve gained so our circles can better fit in the so-called squares of Japanese culture, starting with an element closely tied to Japan: the bow.

     The bow-often referred to as 辞儀じぎ in Japanese-was developed in Japan’s older days as a way of showing trust and respect to those you speak with. How does a bend at the waist show trust and respect, you may ask? When it was incorporated into Japanese society, swords were still worth a crap in live combat, so this gesture ensured a weak spot was presented, in this case, the back of the neck. 

     In this presentation, the message is sent that you trust them enough to give them a chance to chop off your head (or harm you other ways, since only certain people could legally use swords back then), which implies they have the dignity not to take advantage of that, and thus establishes trust and respect between those involved. This gesture is seen in many other cultures, and as each has subtleties making it unique to it(like the curtsy's method of placing one foot behind the other), so does the way seen in Japan, which we’ll now examine, starting with its essence.

     Basically, bowing is bending forward at the waist, pausing for a beat (2 seconds is a good length), then coming back up. Be sure to be about 6-8 feet, or so, from the speaker, to minimize accidental head buttage. Where the motion starts is much like the classic military stance, with feet together and arms at your side-or if you’re feeling feminine, with one hand over the other and set on top your thighs. For a bit of contrast, the British butler style places a forearm across the stomach while they bow, and the Shaolin Monk style clenches one hand and places it in the palm of the other, holding both in front of you during the motion and never breaking eye contact. 

     In the Japanese bow, the eyes never lock and the head follows both going down and coming back up. Putting these parts together lays the foundation for much of the more formal aspects of socializing in Japanese society, and likewise are affected by just how formal you wanna be. When you wanna commit the different bows and when and where to do them to memory, think of yourself like the hands of a clock; that way, whether you meet your boss, your friend or some random person on the street, you’ll always know just what time it is. 

     With friends and others you’re buddy-buddy with, you’ll wanna stop your bow-this type referred to as 会釈えしゃく-at around the 12:30 spot (or if you want exact measurements, 15 degrees.); for those you’re tight knit friends with, a simple nod of the head is fine, too.  

When you’re meeting someone for the first time/speaking to people higher up on the social ladder than you, the bow stops at around the 1:30[or 30 degrees] spot; this bow-which goes by the name of 敬礼けいれい- is also your all-purpose bow, if you get stuck on which one to use in a certain situation (though you really should remember which ones are right for the right situation)

More formal affairs and meeting those at the tip top of the social ladder call for a stop at the 2:30[or 45 degrees] spot. This bow-called 最敬礼さいけいれい-is also good for adding a dash of politeness to your apologies after you drop the ball (but not when you completely drop the ball; the bow for that occasion is coming up shortly)

     The last kind of bow you’ll wanna know is for when you’ve utterly dropped the ball and must eat the whole humble pie, which involves getting on your hands and knees and putting your forehead to the ground until you’re told to get up (this particular bow is called the 土下座どげざ.

     If you practice one of the Japanese martial arts or partake of Japan’s period pieces, you’ve seen the 2:30 and 土下座 bows used to show complete deference and respect to those seen as higher up in the pecking order(you’ll know how much that respect means when you see them keep their head low and squat walk forward, whenever they wanted to move towards the speaker); remember this when you see something similar pop up in your studies and consumption of the culture/you need to humble up, so something gets done. 

     In short, the bowing time is 12:30 o’ clock with chums, 1:30 o’clock with strangers/higher ups, 2:30 o’clock with finer folks and 土下座 o’clock when you’ve screwed the pooch(I have a picture to go with this, and if you need to take a look, here it is).

     You might’ve heard that the bow is practiced in odd places in Japan, and that wouldn’t be too far off. At any point in your travels of the country you could see someone bow, whether they’re on the street, on a bike or on the phone. If you’re wondering why they’d bow to someone over the phone, it’s for the reason your loved ones know you’re rolling your eyes at them over the phone: they can sense your lack of respect. 

     Wherever you may be, this is a great way to show your willingness to learn about their way of living, especially when done properly, as they don’t expect that from people unfamiliar with the country, culture and language. There are many more intricacies to pick up about bowing, like the right bow for a particular situation, how long to hold a bow, how far from them we should be, how many bows are needed, when a bow isn’t needed, what not to do in a bow and so on, and so on (PROTIP: some of the phrases you’ll pick up are paired with a particular kind of bow, e.g. the greeting used at the end of an introduction, よろしくおねがいします-which can be shortened to よろしく, informally-being paired with a bow holding an appropriate amount of respect, even if it’s a simple nod of the head to a buddy’s buddy).

These subtleties don’t even include the absurd amount of things those working hospitality heavy jobs, like flight attendants and the maids of maid cafes, need to learn, but you’ll pick ‘em up with time, experience, study and most importantly, asking around; besides, if some of them don’t even take it that seriously, you shouldn’t, either. 

Cheat-sheet: These are what you need to know for everyday life

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