The next time you are at an airport in Japan, observe families and friends reuniting or saying goodbye. You will rarely see hugging, kissing, or other signs of physical affection. A gentle nod or bow, a short word, maybe a slight touch of the arm or hand, or just a raised eyebrow are far more common. It is not that Japanese are cold, but there are formalities they observe in public, and letting yourself go is not one of them.
Bowing is a standard way to acknowledge people and can range from a small head nod to a deep waist bend. The deeper the bow the greater the deference to the other person. People bow when saying hello or goodbye, thanking someone, apologizing, conveying congratulations, worshipping, or asking a favor. You might observe drivers, for example, give a small, quick bow as a way to say “thank you” when another car gives way to them. You will see deeper and longer bows from people apologizing on television (it is not unusual for the network to report the angle and length of the bow).
To practice bowing, keep your feet together, leave your arms on your sides, and bow from the waist. If sitting on your heels (i.e. in a tatami room), rest your hands on your lap or move them in front of your knees as you execute the bow.
You can never out-bow an elderly Japanese woman. They will match you bow for bow to show they are giving you greater deference. Just let it go at one or two bows; three might be okay if they served you some really good tea. Japanese do not expect foreigners to know all the rules of bowing but to do so earns you extra points.
Handshakes are not common and, if done, there is usually no eye contact and the handshake may not feel as firm as in other countries. It is safer to wait for a hand to be offered rather than to initiate. Otherwise, stick to bowing.
Personal space is highly valued so it is best to err on the side of caution when it comes to physical actions and closeness to avoid making Japanese people feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Greeting begins with a set salutation related to the time of the day. Ohayou gozaimasu or more casually, ohayou, in the morning; konnichiwa for most of the day; and konban wa in the evening. One exception is for those who work a second or third shift in which ohayou is still appropriate late in the day or at night.
Initial greetings are usually followed by o genki desu ka? (How are you?) and usually answered with okage sama de (Thanks to you). This call and response may sound trite, but it's a formality that reassures both parties that all is well. If a person were not to respond in the usual manner, one would sense something was amiss and might inquire.
In a business situation, greetings begin with the visitor or junior party reciting the name of the company or organization that they belong to, followed by their own name, all the while bowing and holding out their business card with both hands in a sign of offering. This is followed by yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Please show me your favor). The other person will respond in kind. What follows is a slight dance of hands as cards are exchanged. Upon receiving the cards, both parties scrutinize the cards and check the position of the other person. They also check whether they read the Chinese characters in the name correctly (Chinese characters can have different readings). People are addressed politely, with a -san affixed to their surname. Afterwards, business cards are put away with care, often in a separate compartment in the same card case (a safe option), or in an album specifically for collecting business cards. Never fold the business card, write on it, or stuff it in your back pocket.. The single most embarrassing faux pas of westerners is to toss their business card across the table like dealing blackjack at a casino.
When parting there are set phrases to be said depending on the circumstances of the meeting. It usually begins with Soro soro (Well I must…) and some action such as putting away business cards, arranging papers, gathering up one’s belongings, or some other similar action. Japanese take these cues as a transition sign. Someone who can “read the air” will understand that the meeting needs to wrap up. Thanks are made to each person for making time and staying too long. There is a final bow and again call for favor from the person (yoroshiku onegaishimasu).
There are many ways to say goodbye. The standard is sayounara. Shitsurei shimasu (I’m being rude by leaving) is a more formal farewell. At night, you can say oyasumi nasai (Good night). Between friends, a casual mata ne (See you) is usually exchanged. And if you are going to part for a longer period of time, it is nice to say o genki de (Take care/Be well).
Introductions (or lack thereof)
When introduced to someone for the first time, say hajime mashite (our meeting has begun). Japanese take care when introducing people as they feel responsible for the relationship created. If you are a tourist out with a Japanese person, they will most likely introduce you by your country and mention that you are just visiting. If you live in Japan on the other hand, you will most likely not be introduced. It can feel awkward standing as your Japanese friend engages in conversation while ignoring you. Japanese tend to segregate relationships and they do not feel obligated to introduce a family friend to a work friend for example. In the case of the tourists, there is no sense of responsibility because the two people are unlikely to meet again.
Greetings are about formality. And formality is a means to reassure one another that you are on the same page. What seems insincere is actually a great way to connect and start off a relationship in a good direction.