Bebe Taian: Mannered Mondays: Ojigi, A Followup

July 23, 2012

Mannered Mondays: Ojigi, A Followup

This week, a followup to the previous post on the importance of ojigi (bowing). This segment also comes from a book by Boye De Mente, a 1981 edition of Japanese Manners & Ethics in Business. It seems that the title (and presumably, content) changed with subsequent editions. This is to be expected; after all, social customs do change over the years. As this edition was written 30 years ago, please keep in mind that it may not entirely apply to todays' actions.

This post is typed verbatim from Japanese Manners & Ethics in Business.

Ojigi - Politeness Makes Perfect

The first-time visitor to Japan is always struck by the wonderful politeness of the people. No other Japanese trait or accomplishment has come in for so much praise. But there is an element of misunderstanding inherent in accepting this politeness at face value because it often misleads Westerners who are unfamiliar with the character and role of traditional Japanese etiquette.

For one thing, not all of the famous politeness of the Japanese should be automatically equated with feelings of kindness, regard or respect for others- a reaction that is all too common where first-time visitors to Japan are concerned.

The Japanese are, of course, perfectly capable of being polite in the fullest sense of the word and probably are genuinely more polite than most other people, but what the foreigner sees, and is often overly impressed by, is strictly a mechanical role that has little or nothing to do with personal feelings of the individuals concerned.

Many Westerners, especially Americans of the tourist variety, lavish praise upon the Japanese for this formal politeness. But most are basing their judgment of Japanese politeness on such things as the pretty doll-like elevator and escalator girls who work in department stores and deluxe hotels. These girls, picked for looks and dressed in cute uniforms, stand and bow and repeat the same lines all day long in self-effacing, heart-rendering voices that remind one of the chirping of baby birds that have fallen out of their nest.

The Ojigi (oh-jee-gee) or "bow" is the most visible manifestation of Japan's traditional etiquette. It is used for both greetings and farewells, when expressing appreciation or thanks, when apologizing, when asking for an important favor- and when requesting any kind of action from a government bureaucrat.

The occasion and the parties involved in an Ojigi determine the kind of bow that is appropriate. The lower the bow and the longer one holds the position, the stronger the indication of respect, gratitude, sincerity, obeisance, humility, contriteness, etc.

Generally speaking, there are three kinds or degrees of bowing: the "informal" bow, the "formal" bow, and the "deep" bow- saikairei (sie-kay-ee-raye), which means "highest form of salutation." In the light, informal bow, the body is bent at approximately a 15-degree angle with the hands at the sides. This bow is used for all casual occasions between people of all rank.

The formal bow requires that the body be bent to about 30-degrees, with the hands together, palms down, on the knees. Ordinarily the bower holds this pose for only two or three seconds, then automatically returns to the upright position. If the other party remains bowed for a longer period, it is polite for the recipient to bow again. The other party may bow a second and third time. Synchronizing the bows so that both parties rise at approximately the same time can be tricky, and sometimes unintentionally embarrassing.

When one party wants to emphasize the salutation and holds the pose for an unusually long period of time- while intoning appropriate remarks- the recipient must continue to make short bows, usually of a gradually lessening degree, to properly acknowledge the other bower's action.

The slow, deep saikeirei bow, which is the bow used to Emperors in earlier days, is only occasionally used now, generally by elderly people- who have a tendency to go back to the old ways as they grow older.

Businessmen who go to ryoukan (rio-khan) inns or geisha houses may be greeted my maids or geisha who bow to them while sitting on the floor. It is not necessary to get down on the floor to return the bow- but it can be the beginning of a lot of fun!

The Japanese reputation for politeness breaks down very easily and quickly in many situations, particularly in those involving government offices, and often in business contexts as well. I have often gone into business offices in which there were dozens of people and had to go to extreme lengths to get someone to acknowledge my presence. At first, I thought this peculiar reaction was brought on by the fact that I was a foreigner. Since the Japanese usually never expect a foreigner to be able to speak their language, I was prepared to believe they hesitated to say anything because no one could speak English; or were simply bashful. It soon became obvious, however, that Japanese visitors were also frequently subjected to the same treatment, particularly in government offices.

Further observation and experience taught me how to shorten the period of waiting- at least in business offices- but direct action on my part was still required. This consisted of catching the eye of anyone in the office who glanced up at me, then bowing very rapidly before he or she could turn away. The most effective bow to use in this situation, it seems, is a short, jerky one. This action triggers an automatic reflex in the Japanese and the party bows back, thus acknowledging your presence. He or she is then strongly obligated to follow up this step by coming to you or sending someone to you to find out what you want.

Another element in Japanese politeness (outside of unexpected visits to business offices) is the compulsion so many Japanese feel to go out of their way to make sure every foreign visitor, whether businessman or tourist, has a good time and leaves with a good impression of the country and its people. As a result of this syndrome, the Japanese are famous for their hospitality, and visitors who are not used to this kind of treatment are often overwhelmed by it.

The main point for the foreign businessman to keep in mind is that he should not confuse the politeness or the hospitality of the Japanese with either weakness on their part or strength on his part. If he is really being courted by the Japanese, he may in fact have to eventually limit the amount of hospitality he accepts, to avoid being put at a serious disadvantage, physically as well as psychologically. Most Japanese businessmen are conditioned to regular drinking bouts. They also regularly bargain as a group. The lone visitor who goes into a bargaining session with a Japanese team after several nights on the town has his work cut out for him.

Previously: Etiquette of Old
Next: Gambare!

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