Bowing (social)

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This article is about bowing as a human action. For other uses of the word bow, go to bow (disambiguation)

Bowing is the act of lowering the head, or sometimes the entire upper body from the waist, as a social gesture.

Bowing exists now and has existed in various cultures at various periods in history. Different cultures have placed varying degrees of importance on bowing, and have used bowing in a variety of ways.

In European cultures, bowing is an exclusively male practice - females perform a related gesture called a "courtsey" or "curtsy." As in Japan, the depth of the bow expresses degree of respect or gratitude, and, in courtly circles, males were expected to "bow and scrape." "Scraping" refers to the drawing back of the right leg as one bows, such that the right foot scrapes the floor or earth. Typically, while executing such a bow, the man's left hand is pressed horizontally across the abdomen while the right is held out from the body.

Bowing probably originated as a gesture of subordination, as lowering the head leaves the bower vulnerable. This was particularly the case in the samurai era in Japan. Samurai were at the top of a highly stratified society; they had the right to kill anyone who did not show them the proper respect.


Bowing in Japan

Bows, called o-jigi, o-rei or rei, are the traditional greeting in Japan, but bowing is not reserved only for greetings. Bowing is a gesture of respect. Different bows are used for apologies and gratitude, to express different emotions, humility, sincerity, remorse, or deference, and in various traditional arts and religious ceremonies.

Because mothers usually carry their young children on their backs Japanese people begin learning to bow from an extremely young age. It is not uncommon for parents to begin teaching their children to bow before they can walk. Bowing is so culturally ingrained in Japanese people and so closely related to certain words and expressions that it is not unusual for people to unconsciously bow when talking on the telephone.

Basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides (boys and men) or clasped in the lap (girls and women), and with the eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. Generally, the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion.

Bows can be generally divided into three main types: informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle and more formal bows at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows are deeper.

There is an extremely complex etiquette surrounding bowing, including the length and depth of bow, and the appropriate response. For example, if the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds), it is polite to bow again, upon which one may receive another bow in return. This often leads to a long exchange of progressively lighter bows.

Generally speaking, an inferior bows longer and more deeply, and more frequently, than a superior.

Bowing at school

Students at all levels of primary and secondary education must bow many times each day. A typical class begins and ends with the students and teacher standing and bowing in unison to each other. Assemblies and club activities begin and end the same way; at assemblies students generally must also bow to each teacher who speaks in front of the assembled school. School ceremonies (such as graduation, welcome and farewell ceremonies) and special gatherings follow the same pattern as well.

Students will generally bow after speaking with a teacher in the staffroom, in thanks or apology, and particularly after being scolded.

In all but the most traditional schools, bows among teachers of similar rank are somewhat less frequent (except in thanks or apology), but subordinate teachers will usually bow when speaking with superior teachers such as the vice principal and principal.

Bows of apology and thanks

Bows are a required and expected part of any apology or expression of thanks in Japan.

Bows of apology tend to be deeper and last longer than other types of bow. They tend to occur with frequency during the apology, generally at about 45 degrees with the head lowered and lasting for at least the count of three, sometimes longer. The depth, frequency and duration of the bow increases with the sincerity of the apology and the severity of the offence. Bows of thanks follow the same pattern. In extreme cases a kneeling bow is performed; this bow is sometimes so deep that the forehead touches the floor. This is called saikeirei (最敬礼), literally "most respectful bow."

Bows of apology are frequently performed at press conferences by high-ranking members of a company that has performed some misdeed, such as producing faulty parts that resulted in a death. These bows are almost invariably performed standing behind a table; the tips of the fingers touch the table while the upper body, held straight, is lowered from the waist until the face is parallel with the tabletop.

Bows of greeting

Bows are commonly used in greeting, both when meeting and when parting. Bows almost automatically accompany the greeting phrases (ohayō gozaimasu (good morning), konnichi wa (good afternoon), konban wa (good evening), oyasumi nasai (goodnight) and sayōnara (farewell, goodbye), but generally are no longer used among the immediate family unless addressing a family member after or in anticipation of a long absence or separation.

Bows also replace speaking under certain circumstances. For example, when encountering again a person to whom one has already spoken that day, a silent bow replaces such phrases as "hello" or "hi."

A superior addressing an inferior will generally only nod the head slightly (some people may not bow at all), while an inferior will bend forward slightly from the waist.

Bowing in martial arts

Bowing is an integral part of traditional martial arts. Bows are used to begin and end practice, sparring bouts and competitions, and when entering and leaving the dojo, or practice room. This tends to be standard among practitioners in any country, but in Japan other types of bow (for example, of thanks or apology) are also standard in the dojo.

Bowing in tea ceremony

Bowing is an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony. In tea ceremony, bows are mainly used to express respect, thanks, and apology.

There are three main types of bow performed in Japanese tea ceremony; they are classified as shin (深), gyō(行), and (草). All are usually performed from a kneeling position. Shin bows are the deepest; from a kneeling position, the bower bends forward from the waist, placing the hands palms down on the floor in front of the body, with the fingers facing. Shin bows are performed to teachers and superiors. Gyō and bows are less deep and less long (gyō bows are deeper). From a kneeling position and bowing from the waist, the hands are slid over the knees until the tips of the fingers touch the floor in front of the body. They are performed among persons of similar rank.

Students of tea ceremony bow to each other and to their teacher; each class begins with bows between the teacher and students. If a senior student is teaching a junior student, bows are exchanged between the two. Before beginning a practice, a student bows to all the other students as well. This pattern is repeated when the practice ends.

A bow is performed at the door before entering the tea room, or tea house. One then proceeds to the tokonoma, or scroll alcove, and bows again. Finally one greets the teacher, and then the other students, or the other guests, with bows. This pattern is repeated when leaving the tea room as well.

The host of a tea cereomony bows before beginning the ceremony. Bows are exchanged repeatedly throughout a tea ceremony, between the host and guest of honour, among the guests, between guests and the hosts assistants, and between the host and guests.

Bowing in religious settings

Template:Expand Bows are performed both in Shinto and Buddhist settings.

Visitors to a Shinto shrine will clap or ring a bell to attract the attention of the enshrined deity, clasp the hands in prayer, and then bow.

Bowing and shaking hands

When dealing with non-Japanese people, many Japanese will shake hands. Since many non-Japanese are familiar with the custom of bowing, this often leads to a combined bow and handshake which can be quite complicated to execute. Bows may be combined with handshakes or performed before or after shaking hands.

Generally when bowing in close proximity, as necessitated when combining bowing and shaking hands, people turn slightly to one side (usually the left) to avoid bumping heads.


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