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All Together Now ...


A few weeks ago, I had occasion to take part in an awards ceremony being held to make presentations to the winners of various prizes in a national essay contest. Previous to this, my experience of such affairs had been limited to the small graduation ceremony given by my daughters' day care center, a considerably less rigorous event.

This ceremony though, was quite an important one, and the awardees represented a complete cross-section of Japanese society, from very young elementary students up through adults, and also including a group of foreigners. Over the course of the afternoon, during the two-hour rehearsal and then the slightly shorter ceremony itself, I was particularly surprised by the considerable trouble almost all the participants had with some of the formalities involved - most notably the proper bowing techniques.

I watched all of these people, one-by-one, step up onto the stage, and struggle with what to do. The ideal form was apparently for the presenter and the awardee to bow together first, then for the person to step forward, be presented with the certificate, bowing as he received it, then to step back a pace and bow in unison once more before leaving the stage. Almost nobody got it right.

In some cases the presenter would bow quite deeply but the recipient would simply nod his head. This person would then realize his mistake and make a hasty deeper bow. This would be picked up by the presenter, who would bob down again in response, usually just as the other person was 'coming up'. Finally they would come to rest, the presentation would be made, and the 'bobbing ducks' routine would begin again. Just when to start the bow? How far down to go? What to do with your hands? Nobody seemed to have any idea about what to do. And these were the Japanese! It was almost like watching a group of foreigners trying to wrestle with the customs of a strange society.

I very much wanted to do a 'good' job, so as my turn approached, I watched the presenter very carefully and tried to memorize the timing of his bowing movements. But just as I walked towards the stage to receive my award, I realized that the presenter was being replaced by a different person for the foreigner's group! And sure enough, my preparation had been useless, for this person followed a different rhythm, and I too ended up bobbing up and down, trying to catch his movements ... And for the presentation, I made another mistake here too. I took the certificate and said in a loud clear voice "Arigato gozaimasu." (I guess my mother's training was long and hard all those years ago ...) When I got back to my seat, my neighbour gently reminded me that it wasn't customary to say 'thank you' on such occasions. Silent acceptance was preferred. Sigh ... And I had so much wanted to show everybody that a foreigner could do the job just as well as a native Japanese.

But then I realized ... I had done, hadn't I! At least by the general standards shown over the course of the afternoon, I had done neither better nor worse than anybody else. The experience of watching all these people struggle with this seemingly simple procedure made me realize that the 'art' of bowing is obviously another one of those things that is on the decline in contemporary Japanese society. Of course, bowing is still a very important part of life here, and it is difficult to imagine getting through a day without finding yourself bent over inspecting the tips of your own shoes on at least a few occasions. Unless you hibernate at home, that is. One certainly doesn't get much in the way of bowing practice when communicating with one's children! (But now that I realize it, you can't escape from bowing rituals even when alone in your own home ... the telephone is bound to ring, and during the conversation you find yourself in the ridiculous situation of bowing to somebody you can't even see!)

Many westerners who come to Japan either to live, or just on business, have considerable problems with bowing, and I don't just mean the mechanics of 'what to do'. They have real problems with partaking in a ritual that in their minds seems to place them in such a subservient role. It is truly distasteful for them to bow down before somebody. I visited this country on business some years ago, together with the owner of the company for which I then worked, a 'straight-ahead, shake hands, look 'em right in the eye' kind of man. He simply could not bow to our hosts, and I'm sure he felt quite some distaste at my attempts to respond in kind to the Japanese bowing. In his mind, 'real men' stand straight up, and 'weak toadies' bow and scrape.

Those with more experience of Japan, realize that it is actually more common that the senior of the people involved is the one who will be bowing the deepest, and that 'subservience' is just not a factor in the thinking involved. Of course, 'rank' and status is involved, quite deeply, and people with much experience in the art of bowing are capable of making quite extraordinary calculations as to the proper depth and timing of the bow.

But I suppose such sensitivity will soon be something of a lost art. There are not many younger people nowadays who have the inclination to follow such delicate nuances of the custom, and as I found during that ceremony I attended, current standards are very low indeed.

That seems somewhat of a pity to me, because the few people during the ceremony who did perform such duties well, gave every appearance of polished poise and politeness. They were not like robots, mechanically going through a memorized sequence of movements, but rather came across as confident, courteous individuals. I felt envious of their abilities, and secretly decided that next time I find myself in this situation, I'll be ready to handle it. I'll be the perfect model of correct bowing. There's only one problem. When am I going to get another award?