Bowing in Japan is even more ubiquitous than the common American social gesture it is often compared with--the handshake. This is because the bow communicates more than a greeting or first meeting although it is also used in these circumstances. Some of the reasons people in Japan bow are to apologize, to greet at first meetings, to say hello, to say goodbye, or to congratulate someone. You'll get used to coupling many of the things you say with a bow.

When to bow

Who you bow to depends on your status in comparison to the other person. Generally, good friends with equal standing don't bow to each other, especially if they are school-aged. However, it is polite to bow to casual acquaintances, strangers, and those who have a higher status than you. Status is determined both by age and profession. Those older than you have a higher social status than you as do professionals such as doctors and teachers.

How to bow

The depth of the bow depends on two main factors: The status of the other person and the formality of the situation. The basic rule is that the more respect a person is and the more formal the situation, the deeper you bow. Therefore, a first meeting with your professor warrants a deep bow from the waist. A casual morning greeting to a friend or an "excuse me" to a stranger you've bumped into warrants only a small bow--more like a nod of the head.

Men and women bow differently in Japan. Men should bow with their arms at their sides and their hands against the seam of their pant legs. Women should place their hands together with the fingers touching on their thighs.