I didn't know at the time of viewing that we would actually get to know him and when we finally met in Argentina, he kept us so entertained that we skipped our trip to Evita's grave and instead imbibed in copious amounts of Patagonia beer. He's a worldly-wise, brilliant writer with a mind is as quick as his tongue. I regret not having played his suggested game when I was in Japan...
Ask someone to impersonate a Japanese person and there will likely be a combination of pretending to take a photo with a gasp of awe, holding their hands together and saying “konnichiwa” or bowing deeply with an “arigato” at the peak. While these might be ignorant generalisations, as most stereotypes are, they are not entirely removed from the truth.
Over 125 million people inhabit the four main islands of Japan enjoying a safe and peaceful community, arguably the safest in the world. A key ingredient to this successful society is the respect that the Japanese show for each other. This society has been moulded through the simple concept of showing respect for others. One of the most impactful ways to show respect to others is via a bow. The lower the better.
In my days as a high school teacher, every class was inevitably ignited with the students standing up, a predetermined spokesperson yelling “rei”, in an unenthusiastic monotone, leading to the class to uniformly fold their body into a 90-degree bow while blurting “arigato Dennis Sensei”. Meet a friend of a friend and you will be confronted by a “yoroshiku” followed by a casual bow. Buy a bus ticket at the station and a bow will follow your change. Give way to a pedestrian crossing the road and you will be rewarded with a bow. Bows represent respect and respect shapes Japanese society. They are so important that they actually learn how to bow properly at school in large practice sessions.
This can be daunting to a foreigner who has never bowed before. Do I look up as I bow? How far down should I go? Hands at the side? Timing? But there is no need to worry. This needn’t be a point of fear but a chance to enjoy the difference in culture. Introducing the revolutionary game, Ultimate Bow Off!
This game works particularly well in restaurants because commonly as you square up your bill and exit, all staff members will stop and bow as a sign of gratitude. It is nice to receive this bow to top off a nice sushi meal or a hot bowl of ramen. But why not enjoy this even further by throwing in a game?
Now, as I mentioned, Japan is all about respect. Respect for your elders, your superiors or your customers. Therefore, it is a sign of respect to have the last bow. You leave a restaurant and receive the standard good-bye bow. It works. The staff are happy, they showed their respect for your business, you are happy to receive the respectful gesture. Enter the chrome double-ended spanner into the works. What if you bow back and say “arigato”? This plunges the whole system into chaos. They thought their work had finished. You ate, you paid, they bowed, you left. Done. But now, they are required to meet the customer respect requirements and bow back. They do. It’s solved. They had to double their bowing performance, not a big deal, back to caring for the other patrons.
Now, imagine the crazy idea of replying to their second bow with a second rebound bow. Therefore, tripling the work of the bowing staff. They once again reply. You match their third bow. You have entered into a bow battle. They can’t let you have the last bow, that would be terribly rude! We’ve now slipped into the extreme sport of ultimate bow off.
Who knows when this will end? You continue to match their bows. Remember that there is very often not just one staff member involved, but the chef, the waiters and the cashier. Each one of your reply bows multiplies the bow volume by four or five. After a bow rally of around five returns, other customers have noticed this battle and stop their slurping for a second to observe. This places even more pressure on the staff bowing away frantically.
As time goes on you may lose the chef, he will admit defeat and subtly side step out of the conflict hoping that no one notices. However, the cashier is like a front line soldier in the midst of battle. He can’t just drop his gun, smile and say “can we stop this now?”. He has to keep on bowing away. Some will do so with the same bravery of a frontline soldier invading enemy ground, not letting the abnormality of the situation affect their perfect bowing style, perfected at school.
Some will see the funny side of it and bow with a cheeky smirk gradually letting each bow slip closer to the border of casualty seen amongst friends. The more ‘rebelious’ staff members will immediately catch on and cease to participate in such a game. Extremely rude if you ask me. Whichever viewpoint you come from, Ultimate bow off is here and destined to change the face of this rigid formality forever.