Japanese etiquette of bowing

Anthropology: A Case of Timeless Japanese Sociocultural Conventions and Etiquette

Several cultures have evolved over time and with that evolution, cultural components have either changed or become completely forgotten. Nevertheless, Japan has managed to maintain most of their cultural customs even though most of them remain rooted in their traditional meaning and may appear peculiar to the rest of the world. The Japanese culture remains heavily influenced by China because, during the Edo era, they adopted a distinct isolationist policy that was quite like that of China. This allowed them to operate with remarkably minimal interference from the outside world and cultivate several ways of life that are now identified as their culture. However, they have not remained fully traditional as over time, they have adopted some Western influence. Here are some of the most identifiable social conventions that have been preserved in traditional Japanese culture.

Table Etiquette

Japanese table manners
Credit: Matcha-jp

One of the most profound cultural elements of Japan is their commendable manners, which amongst other places often gets seen when dining. In as much as other forms of cutlery has been adopted in Japan because of the influence of globalization, the use of chopsticks remains extremely critical to the polite dining culture in Japan. The Japanese have always used chopsticks when eating all their dishes and this has become so recognizable that it has been adopted in other areas globally as a celebration of the Japanese culture. The use of chopsticks also remains governed by certain mannerisms that when not followed get considered as disrespectful for the Japanese culture. Some of these include always using chopsticks to lift the food to the mouth s opposed to cutting or stabbing it. Additionally, one is expected to always leave their chopsticks with the tips facing to the left in front of them after a meal. This is because leaving them upright bears an association with their funeral traditions. Again, pointing using them is considered awfully rude. This dining culture makes the Japanese culture easily identifiable globally by virtue of its uniqueness.


Bowing in Japan
Credit: This image was originally posted to Flickr by mayanais at https://flickr.com/photos/54238729@N07/9980668875. It was reviewed on 15 November 2015 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Ojigi, which is what bowing gets referred to in the Japanese culture remains to be perhaps one of the most recognizable social conventions that remains rooted in Japanese traditions. Bowing is a practice used for salutations, apologies, saying goodbye, and a general form of expressing respect to other people. While there are several forms of bowing, the Japanese do not expect foreigners to understand all the variations. They only expect that everyone understands that bowing is a traditionally accepted form of expressing respect. The several variations of bowing represent different things to the Japanese. The saikeirei refers to a 45-degree bow that gets often used to express a sincere apology or to express the highest form of respect. Another variation of the bow is a 30-degree one referred to as a keirei bow that is used to show respect to superiors in the society. Finally, the 15-degree bow referred to as eshaku is a semi-formal one used as a form of salutation when meeting people for the first time. While several cultures and nations have taken up the handshake the most common form of salutation up until the Covid-19 pandemic, the Japanese have retained the bow as a symbol of salutations, remorse, gratitude, and respect. This serves as an indication of how profound the preservation of social conventions guided by traditional Japanese culture remain to Japan.

Taking off Shoes

Taking off shoes in Japan
Credit: https://justjapanstuff.com/

One the most peculiar social conventions that remains very identifiable in this day and era is the constant removal of shoes. This especially true when entering a temple, home, some restaurants, and a traditional guesthouse culturally referred to as ryokan. This social convention remains rooted in the traditional practice where the Japanese would sleep, eat, and sit on the tatami mat floors. This would therefore require them to take off their shoes when entering places to avoid spreading dirt across the floors. This practice has been carried on through generations and is still observed even today. This has also informed some structural designs of buildings in Japan. Most buildings have an entrance hall called genkan that is usually designed and built to be at a different height level from the rest of the floor. The practice has also been reinforced over time by way of placing signage requiring the removal of shoes in designated areas. Moreover, when it comes to footwear, the Japanese also have specific types of slippers that get worn in different rooms to avoid always being barefoot or in socks. The act of taking off shoes in the culturally expected areas in Japan may appear to be trivial in nature but going against it can be interpreted as rude and disrespectful because of the meaning assigned to it by the Japanese. Therefore, it remains profound to understand the cultural meaning of several practices to avoid being disrespectful when engaging in interactions.

No Tipping Requirements

Tips not required in Japan
Credit: https://boutiquejapan.com/

As a way of cultivating a culture of great service offering in Japan, the practice of tipping after getting restaurant service is not expected. It is so commonly accepted that you would get your tip handed back to you even if you insisted on leaving a tip. While this has become a norm in most places globally, with varying percentages, the Japanese culture rooted in kindness to others keeps the idea of great service provision from getting commercialized. Consequently, in as much as practices such as no tipping rooted in the Japanese culture may appear retrogressive, they also help to shield Japan from modern age problems such as poor service delivery in the hospitality sector.

The Gift of Food

Omiyage Gift Box
Credit: https://blog.gaijinpot.com/

As a result of the period when Japan isolated itself from the international community, they learnt how to live together as one community that cares about each other. This gave rise to the notion of gifting loved ones with food in a practice called omiyage. In Japan, it is almost mandatory to bring food to colleagues or loved ones as a gift when one travels, whether domestically or internationally. Food as a gift holds more value than souvenirs in Japan. Additionally, the omiyage gift boxes come with edible souvenirs. While food in most areas is only used for sustenance and in social settings, the Japanese attach the meaning of value and expression of love to food. This is what makes it a valuable gift.

Manga and Anime

Naruto manga
Credit: Naruto Shippuden War Arc

Manga and Anime are some of the largest and recognizable Japanese exports to the world. Manga refers to graphical books usually printed in black and white and address a wide variety of subject matters and genres. They target all ages and sexes and often venture into themes of romance, adventure, fiction, action, and horror amongst several others. On the other hand, Anime refers to animated TV series often based on selected Manga. Unlike Manga, Anime incorporates colour, movement and most importantly sound including the theme song. These form a significant part of the Japanese culture and influence the popularity of social conventions and activities such as cosplay.

Rooted in the cultural creative expression through Manga and Anime, Cosplay got widely popularized by the Japanese. This has made it normal for Japanese to go around their daily activities dressed up as their favourite anime characters. It has remained an integral part of the Japanese community with the only change being seen in the digital translation of Manga and Anime. The Anime culture can be seen today globally adopted in entertainment and advertising content. The unique artistic approach has been maintained over time in a way that distinguishes Japanese animations from all others. This also contributes greatly to the artistic scene in Japan and amongst Japanese creatives.


Geisha entertainment
Credit: https://www.shikokutours.com/blog

Like most societies, Japan has its own unique and identifiable forms of entertainment and perhaps the most identifiable and unique form is the Geisha. The Geisha is a traditional female entertainer even though at first, they were men. During the Edo era, the rich merchants of Japanese cities sustained a form of entertainment that has come to be known and represented by a distinctive white face, red lips, and elaborately decorated hairstyle. The entertainment forms provided by the Geisha remain cloaked in mystery, but they have become an identifiable pop culture associated with Japan. While the form of entertainment may have evolved to become a part of various cultural events; Geisha’s have become a beloved part of the entertainment culture in Japan. The ability to sustain such mystery around a form of entertainment that has come to enjoy several translations through books, films and TV series is an indication of how cultures upheld can easily get adopted by other nations. Furthermore, traditional theatre arts such as Kabuki and Noh are traditional sources of entertainment in Japan that still get enjoyed even today. These theatre arts combine elements of dance, music, and drama.

Most part of Kabuki get played by male actors who specialize in playing female characters. They have become a critical part of Japan’s celebrity culture who will often feature in TV commercials and advertising billboards. The preservation of traditional theatre forms by the Japanese has paved way and created a profound foundation for their modern theatrical forms. However, the influences of traditional theatre can be seen in all the modern-day Japanese productions. The preservation of such cultural influences allows a set of people such as the Japanese to develop unique and easily identifiable entertainment forms.


A simple Origami Tsuru
Credit: https://www.japan-zone.com/

Origami, which is the art of making shapes by skillfully folding paper into art pieces that leave a flat square sheet of paper remains to be one of the most ancient artistic techniques that not only gets practiced today but has also influenced several artworks by international artists. It is a skill that is taught to children as a recreational activity that is carried through to adulthood and has been passed down for centuries. It was initially meant to promote creativity amongst the young population during leisure periods. Additionally, it has been adopted during several occasions around the world and applied in the resolution of technical problems because of its highly detailed precise nature. It remains a marvel to most of the global population, and this continues to keep it alive.

The Critical Preservation of Peculiarities

Globalization has been a key contributor to the loss of indigenous cultural practices and the erasure of entire historical aspects of communities that bear significance. However, Japan stands out as one of the nations that has embraced modern ways and found several other ways to preserve their traditions. They have also managed to generate interest and capture the attention of the world and led to the adoption of most of their ways or influenced prevalent practices. While some of their ways often appear peculiar to foreigners, the preservation of these peculiarities has not only preserved centuries of tradition but helped to provide the current generation an identity that they can always take remarkable pride in.

The Japanese culture is rooted in respect for humanity and all that it represents, and this can be seen in everyday actions that observe cultural traditions such as the no tipping requirement, bowing and table etiquette. The recognition of the practice of bowing as a symbol of remorse, salutations, gratitude, and respect is a profound indication of how important it is to preserve cultural elements. While globally, several other practices have been adopted to symbolize several elements, the Japanese can take pride in preserving a practice that uses actions to communicate at a profound level. Furthermore, the continued use of chopsticks even after numerous advancements in universally used cutlery signifies the discipline that has been passed down through the course of various centuries among the Japanese. Additionally, the no tipping requirement ensures excellent hospitality service all round as it is not tied to an aspect of commercialization. This discipline has seen them on a steady rise in social and economic development.

Moreover, the preservation of their artistic practices has contributed to a distinct growth of the creative industry. They have done this by influencing several art forms based on their traditional cultural practices and nuances. This is particularly evident in the modern-day existence of geishas, origami, manga, and anime. It also indicates a sustained level of isolation from other nations because while several others continue to replicate various artforms from the west, Japan has continuously refined their traditional art forms and passed on the knowledge and practice to younger generations.

The anthropological lesson from Japan as a case study is that practices rooted in traditions don’t necessarily have to be discarded. Instead, they can be studied, picked apart and the best elements of every practice can be preserved and passed on to subsequent generations. A study into the traditional practices that have survived until modern day globally can help to develop a refined understanding of what it takes to preserve a culture.

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