“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;” Psalm 95:6
The scene was almost comical as I observed two men greeting each other at the airport. Wanting to adapt to Japanese ways, the foreigner bowed awkwardly, but the Japanese businessman, seeking to accommodate his guest, thrust out his hand expectantly waiting for a handshake. As that brief encounter unfolded before me, I reflected on how much culture had shifted in modern Japan.
Bowing, known as “ojigi” (お辞儀) in Japanese, is still the primary form of greeting throughout Japan. It looks rather simple, but there are actually a number of subtleties involved. The timing, degree and length of the bow depends upon the nature of the relationship. The position of the hands is also different for men and women. A general rule of thumb is that an inferior typically bows longer, deeper and more frequently than the superior.
There are actually three main types of bowing that have specific names with set angles (15˚, 30˚, 45˚), which are determined by the depth of respect one intends to demonstrate. But there is one additional extreme form of bowing known as “dogeza” (土下座) for very serious circumstances where one shows utter acquiescence by getting on his hands and knees and placing his face to the ground. Mastering the finer nuances of these bows is no small task, which is why many companies in the service industry include correct bowing procedures in their training regimen for new recruits.
But with the opening of its doors to the West, Japan has also incorporated some western greeting customs. This now includes handshakes, even between Japanese in some situations, but the closer physical contact of hugging is still not common practice. My wife and I have become so used to the custom of bowing that we have often caught ourselves bowing to people in phone calls, even though they can’t see us! Bowing is essentially a sign of respect that conveys a simple greeting, an expression of gratitude or the acknowledgement of an apology. The very act of lowering one’s head in bowing indicates humility and a recognition of your appreciation for the relationship.
Although the forms varied, bowing was common practice in ancient cultures where there was a significant difference between the superior and the subordinate. For example, when one approached a king, emperor or feudal lord, he did so with eyes lowered and head bowed as an outward sign of reverence and obedience. The same should be true as we approach the Living God, who created the universe and holds our lives in the palm of His hand. This is why bowing is so closely associated with worship. According to Scripture, all the families on earth (Psalm 22:7) and even kings and nations (Psalm 72:11) will one day prostrate themselves in dogeza form before God, acknowledging His majesty and authority over them. If we bow before the sovereigns of this earth, how much more should we humble ourselves before the King of Kings and offer Him our full allegiance and worship.