A basic explanation of Japanese greetings
Japan is a country consisting of an island chain that is slightly smaller than California and is estimated to have about 126 million people, which is almost four times the number of residents of the state (Cali has a population of 36 millions). That is a lot of people on one island, no wonder they have tall skyscrapers.
With that many people in one nation, ideas are bound to bounce off of each other faster. No wonder new technology innovations keep coming out each year. Even with all the constant new changes and the fast lifestyles, some things have not changed such as customs and tradition. One of the customs that remains the same is the greeting.
When you meet a person in Japan, you should bow to show your respect. Your palms should be facing your thighs and heels need to be kept together. The degree of the bow and how long it lasts depend on the formality of the situation. In a formal setting, how long and how low you bow your head determine how much respect you have for the other person.
A word of caution, this does not mean that you should bow the full 90 degrees. The only time a person would bow this low is to show his respect when he visits a shrine, grave, or temple. Please do not have the same incident in which President Obama bowed the full 90 because you will only lose face. A 45 degree bow will be good enough and still considered respectful. (Also, can anybody forward this article to the president for me? Thank you, hehehe.)
The bow should not be longer than two seconds with the exception of during a prayer, when you should hold your bow until the prayer ends. For informal meetings, a nod or a lift of either hand to the level of the head is acceptable (it is like if you were about to wave but minus the wave). No matter how modern Japan seems to be, physical contacts are not the custom, no matter how close the relationship seems to be.
The only slight influence from the Western world to the bowing custom is the handshake. This refers to the younger generation more than the older or in the cosmopolitan area. Never force a handshake. A tip to know if you should shake hands with the other person is if they offer their hand first. Most of the time it is a combined with the bow.
Bowing should not be one time per person per day. It is best to make sure to bow to a person no matter how many times you see him in a day. If the person is an elder, be sure to stop and bow. Next we'll discuss how to address the people of Japan.
Always address people as "Mr." or "Mrs." A simple way to achieve this is by adding the Japanese suffix San to their last name. For women, the only time you will notice someone calling each other by her first name is if they have grown up or work together and only in informal settings. There are many cases where women who are neighbors still call each other by their last name added with San even if they have known each other for years.
With the men, they will address each other by first name only if the relationship is close and also only in an informal setting. In the work place, the men will still call each other by the last name with San attached at the end. The only time you do not have to use the last name and San is when you are talking to children.
Thank you for reading this article. I hope I have answered all the basic questions you may have. If you have any additional questions, please contact me. From where I am and wherever you are, I'm going to bow out for the night. Enjoy, everybody.