Do I Bow or Can I Hug?

by | Sep 30, 2021 | Observations

Do I Bow or Can I Hug?

I pondered this question as I sat on the ten-hour flight from Los Angeles to Haneda Airport near Tokyo for our first ever visit to Japan. Tatsuya had been a twenty-nine year old businessman when he joined our family briefly in 1994. He came as part of a cultural program being offered to my school at no cost: a Japanese teacher that would embed in a classroom for three months to teach Japanese culture, history, and some language, and to offer cultural enrichment for the entire school. The sole financial obligation would be to provide room and board for the duration. I had jumped at the opportunity for the school, and the lodging would be easy. We had the perfect guest area with private bath, and I knew my family would be game.

After years of repeat visits from Tatsuya and various members of his family, we were finally taking advantage of his exhortations to come and visit Japan. We were looking forward to it, but there was a bit of unease surrounding the trip. Aside from the language barriers, cultural barriers would certainly come into play. As a former teacher of foreign languages and cultures, I knew that those barriers could be even more tricky than linguistic faux pas. Cultural habits are subtle and frequently invisible to the uninitiated. Hand gestures and other body language signals can confuse or insult without intention. So it was with trepidation that I imagined our first meeting with Tatsuya which would certainly take place in public in the lobby of our Tokyo hotel.

During his time with us, Tatsuya had learned to be reasonably comfortable with a warm but not overly invasive hug. And in turn, when we visited his cousin and elderly aunt outside New York City for lunch one weekend, we were eager to sample the bow-as-greeting, which has its own rules. We were prepared to bow to his aunt out of graciousness for her hospitality. What surprised us was the bow we received in return. With multiple repetitions of the posture, she bowed to us at a ninety degree angle – her torso parallel to the floor. She paused in the pose each time for several seconds – far longer than the modest bow we had managed to pull off without feeling foolish. We thus learned that the depth of the bow and the length of time it lasted were both proportional to the esteem in which the “bowee” is held. We were honored guests in her home, and her appreciation for the warmth and protection we had extended to her nephew were elements that factored in to her effort.

I knew I wanted to greet Tatsuya with affection but that an American hug in a Japanese public space might not be appropriate. However, bowing to Tatsuya didn’t seem natural either and would certainly embarrass us both. I had asked him so many questions prior to our trip in lengthy emails, but I had neglected to think about this until the long hours on the trans-Pacific flight during which I barely slept. Now, awake in my seat, eyes wide open, I envisioned the moment of meeting over and over, trying on different solutions each time. None felt right.

We arrived at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo, frazzled and looking forward to crashing in the inviting space for hours before assuming our role as tourists. But a message from Tatsuya awaited us – he would be there in about an hour to greet us and fill us in on the next day’s activities. The moment of reckoning was approaching. A loud ring on the hotel room phone announced his presence downstairs. We descended, wondering.

We stepped out of the elevator and into the busy lobby. We saw very few westerners. People were swarming about wheeling suitcases, trotting after luggage trolleys, or hustling off to one or another of the eating options that the hotel provided. We scanned the area looking for a familiar face. Finally, the impish grin that I had come to know and love smiled at me from across the crowd. He approached. I advanced, my husband right on my heels. As we stood face to face, Tatsuya reached out and gave me a hug.

We sat and chatted awhile before returning to our room for a long night’s sleep. We made plans for early the next day: meeting at 8:30 AM at the Shinjuku Station to visit the Toho movie studio where Godzilla was shot and Kurasawa worked his magic. (What a perfect opener for a trio of movie buffs)! Then off to a string of temples and shrines and learning the difference between the two; next, a taste of traditional food and a sumo tournament followed by Noh theatre in the park; finally, dinner at his parents’ home. And that was just the plan for day one! We could look forward to a full two-week itinerary, bound to excite and exhaust us in equal measure.

I told him about my angst regarding our initial meeting. He smiled and I knew there would be no more hugs at the metro station the next morning, nor any of the days to follow. In the end, we settled – a tacit agreement – on a warm gripping handshake for both greeting and taking our leave: a solution midway between the demonstrative American and the understated Japanese. Just enough to express the emotions of the moment without making a spectacle of the event.