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Tweet of the Week #135: The ‘Bowing Seal’ Custom Is Too Much

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Is the fate of Japan’s beloved red little stamp sealed? Japanese society could soon ditch the hanko (seal for signatures) requirement. The government has been discouraging the practice in replace of the unstoppable progress of digitalization.

But not every company is ready to ditch the hanko. It’s still used for standard business etiquette in Japan. Particularly in the financial sector, where big firms have their own unique bowing seal (おじぎいん).

When a document goes down “the ladder,” it requires approval from multiple departments. Signatories tilt their stamps to the left of their bosses’ stamps as if they were bowing. Banking institutions like Mizuho deeply care for hierarchy, and the practice is taught to new employees.

Here’s a funny illustration from @iwanttobejinrui parodying the bowing seal practice.

The bowing seal

おじぎ印

“Bowing Seal”

From right to left, the stamps of the CEO (社長しゃちょ), the managing director (常務じょうむ), the department manager (部長ぶちょう), the section manager (課長かちょう) and the team manager (係長かかりちょう), whose (exaggerated) stamp does a 180° as if practicing judo on his superior!

For most folks in Japan, the bowing seal custom is a ridiculous excess of courtesy. Traditional Japanese etiquette actually dictates the opposite. A seal should be stamped straight and as harmonious as possible. A titled stamp is almost an insult to seal manufacturers, but every industry has its quirks!

How to bow in Japan?

A group of businesspeople bowing to apologize.

We have briefly covered Japan’s bowing etiquette in our Japanese job interview guide. While you may never have to tilt your hanko or use one at all, bowing is taken seriously. So here are the different degrees of (standing) bowing based on the formality.

Your “what’s up” nod does not count as a bow.
  • 会釈えしゃく: The 15° or “greeting bow” is for friends and colleagues such as people of similar rank with you.
  • 敬礼けいれい: The 30° or “polite bow” is for VIPs such as your boss, an interviewer, your in-laws, etc.
  • 最敬礼さいけいれい: The 45° or “respectful bow” goes up a notch and is kept for religious practice, the emperor and extreme situations such as public apologies.

Vocabulary

Japanese Romaji English
おじぎいん ojigi in Bowing seal
社長しゃちょ shacho CEO, company president
常務じょうむ joumu Managing director
部長ぶちょう buchou Department manager
課長かちょう kachou Section manager
係長かかりちょう kakarichou Team manager
姿すがた tachisugata Standing posture
会釈えしゃく eshaku Greeting bow
敬礼けいれい keirei Respectful bow
最敬礼さいけいれい saikeirei Deeply respectful bow

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