Japanese Customs: Shoes, Bowing, and Chiming-in

Japanese Customs: Shoes, Bowing, and Chiming-in

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  1. Learning about Japanese customs can help bridge the gaps between friends and explain some behaviors previously confused by non-native Japanese.  In this article, I will discuss three very common Japanese customs which take non-native Japanese a little while to adapt to, but can help make them fit in better amongst Japanese and in Japan.

    Removing Shoes When Entering a Home

    Many Japanese homes, even if Western-style, will contain at least one tatami mat room.  The tatami mats are made of straw, traditionally, and some have fancy edging.  Since historically the Japanese would sit on the tatami mat floor when eating, and lay their beds, futon, out on the tatami mat floors for sleeping, the custom of removing shoes before entering the home was developed out of a necessity to keep this area clean.

    This custom can be difficult to adapt to, for many Westerners, when visiting Japanese homes in Japan or abroad.  In Japan, most homes and apartments have an entry-way when you first walk through the front door, which is a place to remove your shoes before stepping (usually stepping up) into the home.  After removing the shoes, place them neatly, side by side, with the toes facing the door so they are easily accessible when it’s time to leave.

    Bowing

    The Japanese bow is another custom Westerners sometimes have trouble adapting to, but once they adapt to bowing in Japan, this custom often follows them for a while even after leaving Japan.  The level of formality between the individuals can be seen in their bows to each other.  Simple head/shoulder-nods are acceptable between friends or from a distance, and when quickly acknowledging someone such as when passing by.

    For a superior, such as one’s boss at work or a professor, the bow should be more engaging, involving a bend at the waist and not rushed but not held for too long either.  This is similar to the bow practices in martial arts classes also.

    The most formal bowing methods involve kneeling properly on the ground and, with the hands in front of you, bowing your head.  Sometimes this is done with the head coming almost to the floor.  This is often seen on Japanese dramas when someone is asking for the biggest favor they could possibly request of the other person, usually forgiveness.  A similar style of bowing is seen in Geisha houses and on movies involving Geisha.  In the Geisha instance, the bow is for sensual appeal and traditional Japanese femininity.

    Aizuchi: Yes, I’m listening!

    Aizuchi (相槌) can be translated as "chime in" and this is the label given to those verbal cues Japanese speakers provide while they listen to someone speak.  For non-Japanese, these can be difficult to master but essential to natural-sounding Japanese.  Often, aizuchi consist of short "hai" or "ee" (yes) responses as the other person talks, which are meant to indicate that the listener is following along.  For Japanese, when speaking Japanese with non-native Japanese speakers, a lack of aizuchi can make the Japanese person uncomfortable and they may not continue the conversation long.  

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