“Cut off my head,” kōchō sensei said as he made a chopping motion against the back of his neck with his hand, “if you want to.”
He repeated the motion, this time bending his neck farther down in front of me.
Oh. I understood. I raised my open hand and said, “I have no weapon.” Then I extended it to him and he shook it. There we were, relating the origin myths of the most basic unspoken greetings of our respective cultures.
There was a time when bowing struck me as very strange. As uncomfortable, overly formal, and submissive. But bowing isn’t a completely foreign concept, which may be why Westerners like myself tend to read into it with our own baggage.
In the West, there are maybe four times to bow:
- To make a show of ‘humility’ after a performance
- A formality before dancing with a partner
- To pay respect to royalty
- To worship deity
Two of the four are all but obsolete. There’s also the head nod, which may or may not be a vestige of a time when bowing was more common in Europe. Maybe there is just something human about bowing. But today we mostly wave and shake hands, for some reason.
Those feelings of strangeness fade pretty fast once you get to Japan, or visit other parts of Asia. The gesture becomes very natural very fast. It’s not so much about mutual deference as it is about mutual respect and acknowledgement. Such reciprocity is pleasantly refreshing.
They say the litmus indication that you’re turning Japanese is that you subconsciously bow while on the phone. If such involuntary bodily reaction occurs while operating light machinery like a phone, then it also extends to heavy machinery – like a car! I’m serious. This happens all the time.
You’re driving down a country road, and approaching Ojī-chan who is working in his garden. He looks up and gives a friendly bow. What do? Well you bow back of course. (The urge is irresistible)
Or riding shot-gun with a Japanese driver who isn’t paying attention and they slam on their breaks because they just noticed the pedestrian crossing the street in front of them, and they give a deep apologetic bow.
Or I’m on my walk to school, and the same people who drive past me every morning give a visible nod. I usually bow back, but I’m conflicted about encouraging this practice. As with the phone, I’m not even sure how aware Japanese people are that they’re doing this until you point it out to them.
If this sounds dangerous to you, I think you’re right. How is putting your head down for the second it takes to count as a bow any different from putting your head down for just a second to look at a text?
I suppose you can cheat a bit by lowering your head while still (trying to) keeping your eyes up on the road, but a sudden jerking of the head still seems dangerous.
Maybe this is just a small town thing, where everyone still waves to each other (especially while driving). Just instead of waving, it’s bowing.
But I’ve seen it happen in cities too. There will be an awkward merger or intersection in traffic, and I’ll flash for the other car to go ahead, and instead of waving they’ll give a quick full-on under the steering wheel bow to me before going ahead. Japanese drivers can be can be just as crazy and reckless as anywhere else, but they’re definitely more polite in my experience.
James likes adventure, obscure films, and craft beer. He lives deep in the mountains of Yamanashi.