Bowing, known as "ojigi" in Japanese, is one the most common and important forms of nonverbal communication in Japan. Although sometimes looked upon as an expression of subservience in the West, bowing is an integral part of Japanese society that is incorporated into every aspect of daily life, from greeting an old friend in the supermarket, to apologizing to your boss at the office. In can also be used to express deep felt gratitude, as a means of saying goodbye, good morning and good night, or as a silent way of subtlety acknowledging your embarrassment when accidentally jostling someone on a crowded train. Ultimately the bow is an expression of respect for others and of personal humility, and techniques vary, from a small nod of the head, to bending at the waist at right angles to the floor. The basic protocol of when, where, and how deep to bow are determined by a complex system based on the relationship with the other person, his or her age, rank, and the circumstances of the encounter. For foreigners who wish to make an impression in regard to Japanese business associates, it's important to avoid being too casual with the mere nod of the head, or unknowingly awkward by bowing deeply when its not suitable. Having said this, most Japanese understand the potential for confusion in this respect and usually don't expect non Japanese to understand the subtleties involved, and therefore will often extend a handshake when meeting foreigners.
Inside a Japanese Home:
All Japanese homes adhere to strict rules in regard to removing ones shoes before entering a house or room, and this is one custom the Japanese will not make allowance for just because you are a foreigner. Upon entering a private residence guests should take off their shoes at the entrance of the house known as the genkan. Slippers are then provided by the host or hostess, and are to be worn for the duration of your visit. There are two exceptions to this practice. Upon entering a room furnished with a tatami floor, slippers are removed, as tatami mats should only be tread upon in socks or bare feet. The second exclusion to the rule is when you enter the washroom of the home. Slippers are again removed and left outside the door in exchange for a pair designated for the bathroom.
Even though most Japanese homes are now furnished with western style sofas and chairs, there still may be an occasion when you will be required to sit on the floor in the traditional Japanese fashion, especially in large family gatherings where meals are often held sitting on the tatami floor around a low table. The formal way of sitting for both men and women is known as "seiza", which is basically a kneeling position where the legs are tucked under as you rest on knees, legs, and feet. Foreigners however are not expected to to sit in seiza for long periods of time, and many Japanese because of their westernized life styles are no longer attempting this uncomfortable position as well. Therefore a more casual style has been adopted. Men usually sit cross legged, while women sit on their knees laying both legs to one side. The former position is considered exclusively male, while the latter is to be used by women only. Although it is not entirely necessary and will not be expected, it is also customary in Japan when visiting someone's home to bring a small gift known as "temiyage". This does not need to be an extravagant present, something as simple as a bag of fruit or a bottle of sake, as more than anything it represents your appreciation for being invited.
About the Author:
Jim Sherard is the author of "Land of the Rising Sun, A Guide to Living and Working in Japan", which can be found at: http://www.escapeartist.com/e_Books/Living_and_Working_in_Japan/Living_and_Working_in_Japan.html
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