The Culture of Bowing 

Recently I was watching the football World Cup match between Croatia and Japan. Although the Japanese national team lost dramatically on penalties, this did not prevent coach Hajime Moriyasu San from returning to the field and bowing before the crowd to thank them for their support. Clips of this moment have since gone viral on social media and people all over the world expressed their fondness for this gesture of respect. When I first watched it, I remember not even consciously noticing it and I think this shows how natural and almost obvious bowing feels to me after three months of living in Japan. I want to reflect on my journey and how this seemingly small practice has influenced me in day-to-day life and when trying to understand Japanese culture. 

Generally speaking, bowing in Japan is being used everywhere: to greet the waiter in a restaurant, to apologize after you crossed someone’s steps in the metro, to express gratitude to the guy behind the counter in 7-Eleven, or most importantly, to pay respect when visiting a shrine. Not only is it very common, but the science behind it is pretty complex. For example, there are a number of ways to bow: Eshaku, Keirei and Saikerei. The three are set apart by the angle of bowing and in social situations, for example, in business meetings, you must decide which one best fits the moment and your relationship relative to the other person. I recommend you have a look at it if you’re interested.   

But let me return to my personal experience with bowing and how it influenced my time in Japan. At first, my reaction was somewhat bewildered, not that I did not know about bowing culture before, but when the customs officer bowed before me after just helping me out upon my arrival, I was stunned nevertheless. After all, why would anyone bow to me after helping me? This fact just did not seem to make sense for a split second. Of course, I did try to answer in the same way, but I was so uncertain about what to do that I almost fell over and I am glad I could not read his mind. 

A lot of time has gone by since that first confrontation and it is amazing how fast we get used to formerly foreign cultural practices when we are exposed and partake in them. This morning I came across a traffic officer, and I half-consciously bowed to him to thank him for his efforts. I certainly would have been able to walk across the street without his help, but that’s not the point. This way, I could show my respect for the work he does, and he validated my actions by returning the gesture. This little confrontation is a harsh contrast to what I am used to in Switzerland, where in the same situation, I would probably have just walked past without noticing the policeman and I do not think I am alone with this. 

It seems to me that this has a number of positive impacts. On a personal level, it makes you feel noticed and respected, leaving you with a positive feeling after those interactions. It also requires you to be aware that others are serving you and that you depend on them as they depend on you. Fundamentally, it gives you the feeling that you are part of a community and of society. This experience has helped me reflect on my own cultural background, how it influences my social behavior and how I see others. 

I’m not suggesting that our interactions in Switzerland are bad. Not at all, but I am sure that it in some way predetermines the way we perceive and value others.  

Luca Schmid

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