How Many Ways Can You Bow in Japan?

Plus, why is the head of Toyota named Toyoda?

Akio Toyoda

Toyota president Akio Toyoda held a press conference Friday to apologize for the quality problems that led to a massive automotive recall and at least 19 deaths. The Los Angeles Times noted that Toyoda performed a short bow to express regret rather than a long, sustained bow to indicate contrition. How many kinds of bows are there in Japan?

Four. Japanese bows can be formally categorized as eshaku, a simple 15-degree bend or nod of the head; keirei, a 30-degree tilt to show respect; saikeirei, a full 45- to 90-degree bow intended to show the deepest veneration or humility; and dogeza, a fetal prostration expressing utter subjection or contrition. Toyoda’s bow last week fit best into the keirei category, but some observers felt he should have committed to a saikeirei instead.

There are gradations of meaning within each category, so you can’t interpret a bow just by measuring the angle between legs and torso. As important are the duration of the gesture, and the exact context under which it’s made. A graduating student might perform a full, prolonged saikeirei to his professor as a gesture of gratitude, but he might perform the same bow in an abbreviated form to apologize for having accidentally stepped on someone’s foot.

Bowing is so important in Japan that parents begin to teach the practice to children shortly after they start walking, and some schools hold enormous assemblies where preteens spend hours bowing in unison to master the postures. One company supposedly developed a machine with a laser line to teach their sales staff the ideal angle for bowing to customers. Still, in most daily interactions, the four categories and the precise pitch of the body matter far less than properly representing the hierarchical relationship between the two parties: The subordinate person—student, son, employee, etc.—must always must bow down lower, and stay there longer, than his superior. (This can lead to stooping competitions when a pair whose relative social standing is not altogether clear comes into contact. There may be uncertainty, for example, when a successful novelist is introduced at a lecture by a university president.)

While your typical street and office bows have more to do with relative depth, the four traditional bowing categories still come into play in very formalized situations, like a corporate press conference. Japanese salarymen, like former M itsubishi CEO Katsuhiko Kawasoe and Yamaichi Securities boss Shohei Nozawa,have performed deep, almost comically prolonged saikeireis—often exceeding 30 seconds—for the public in recent years. (Even the most contrite bows don’t last more than 10 seconds in less formal settings.) More than a few of the disgraced, like late Agriculture Minister Matsuoka Toshikatsu, subsequently committed suicide, raising questions in Japan about the level of shame faced by failed leaders. Toyoda’s refusal to self-flagellate to the same degree may be a signal that the relatively young president intends to break from the seppuku practice of older corporate honchos.

Bonus Explainer: The Los Angeles Times article suggested that Toyoda may have avoided the saikeirei because a fuller gesture would have acknowledged responsibility for the safety problems and thus expose the company to increased liability in U.S. courts. Could a deeper bow really have gotten the car company into legal trouble? It’s highly unlikely. In many states, the bow couldn’t even be mentioned at trial, because “benevolent gestures expressing sympathy” are excluded from evidence. In addition, Toyota’s massive recall is a far stronger admission that the cars were flawed than a simple bow.

Bonus Bonus Explainer: Why is the car company called Toyota, if its founding family goes by the name Toyoda? The former is more auspicious. The written form of Toyota requires eight brush strokes—as opposed to 10 for Toyoda—and eight is considered a lucky number. The kanji symbol for eight widens at the bottom, suggesting that a more prosperous future awaits. Eight is also the number of auspicious symbols in Buddhism.

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Explainer thanks Ian Condry of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sona Iliffe-Moon of the Toyota Motor Corp.; Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica; and Curtis J. Milhaupt of Columbia Law School.