Monday, February 8, 2010

Am I Invisible?

You know the stereotype that Japanese people bow a lot? Well, it's not a stereotype. It's true. It's very common to bow to any one you are parting ways with. However, it's usually in formal or business situations. Shop clerks and restaurant staff always bow to customers, employees will bow to co-workers or bosses. I think, perhaps, it's especially important to do it for someone who is superior to you in age, social standing, or position in the company. Depending on their degree of importance, you have to adjust the change the angle degree of the bow. If they are a lot more important than you, you should bow really low. Anyways, I don't know much about it because I'm never really in a situation where I need to know this. Since I'm a foreigner, no one expects me to bow. Right now I'm focusing on the language, not the customs. One thing at a time.

Anyway, I remember noticing a ridiculous amount of bowing one time on the bullet train from Tokyo to somewhere far, maybe Nara. There were these female train staff in their fancy matching uniforms that made them look like flight attendants. They were walking up and down the aisles, passing from car to car for no apparent reason that I could glean. Every single time they exited a car they would open the door, turn around to face the people in the car and give a low bow before going out the door. If there was a group of them, each one would stop and give a bow before exiting. It seemed like these girls were stopping and bowing and going in and out of doors every 10 minutes. All I could think is, no one notices their bowing except me, the foreigner, and I certainly don't care if they bow to me or not. Is anyone really going to be offended if they exit the train car without bowing first? I know I may be missing something culturally, but I just found it rather excessive--to the point of being quite funny.

Another thing I've noticed is that people often bow when they get off trains and part ways with someone. The other night when I was on my way home from work, there weren't any seats so I was standing in the the middle area near the doors. There was a group of people standing a few feet away from me. As the train doors opened, most of the group got off the train and one of the remaining members was saying her deeply polite "goodbyes" and "thank yous" and "you've worked hard's" (Sayonara, arigatou gozaimashita, otsukaresama desu.. etc) to these people who must have been in a higher position than her, maybe even her bosses, but I don't know.

As she was spewing this ridiculous string of intensely polite greetings, she was rapidly bobbing her top-half up and down, up and down, so devotedly, so eagerly, that she failed to notice my presence about a foot or two away. Suddenly, mid-bow, her head landed right on my shoulder. I moved away, quite surprised and she didn't even seem to notice. She continued right on bowing. I couldn't help but laugh. I had just been bowed on!

And for a treat, here's a funny picture I found of Obama bowing to Emperor Akihito last November. It looks pretty funny cause the two are supposed to be in equal standing--both world leaders, and yet the Emperor is giving a very shallow bow and Obama is bowing like a lowly servant. It's also pretty funny that he's shaking hands at the same time. People don't usually shake hands in Japan--unless they are greeting foreigners and they are aware of the custom. I kind of love that he did that, though. So very hilarious..