Who’s Got the Powahhh? (Pictures are being evil)

The Politics of Greetings

The scenario: One ryuugakusei (international student) and one Nihonjin (Japanese person) are meeting for the first time. What happens? Do they shake hands or bow? Over the course of Gaidai Sai (Kansai Gaidai’s International Festival), I was able to witness many people meeting each other for the first time. I was also able to witness how couples reacted with each other in public, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As for the first questions, I wasn’t sure how the situation would play out. Instinctively the ryuugakusei went in for the handshake, and the younger generation responded with a meek handshake back, accompanied with a quick bow. It got me thinking about power distance between two people that know each other, two acquaintances, and two strangers. Power distance meaning social gap between people, i.e. boss vs. employee has a larger power distance than employee vs. employee. So the power distance between two strangers is uncertain. For a handshake, how do you determine the power distance? Does the handshake have to be long and strong or whoever puts his hand out first is the more dominant figure? For bows, I noticed it is much easier to identify the power distance. It depends on how deep the bow is and who continues to bow even after the other person stops bowing. Usually, I’ve observed, the person who continues to bow is one who considers himself “under” the other person.

Sometimes power distance is broken between strangers due to other variables such as signs or costumes.

These two are boyfriend and girlfriend. Should they hold hands in public? In this generation, are they equal or is the male still the dominant figure? Since they are my friends, I know that (from what can been seen when with them), they are equal or if anything, the female dominates the male in a playful manner. The whole aspect of power distance intrigues me here in Japan since people interact so differently here. The body language is so interesting to observe, especially between the three types of couples (two strangers, two acquaintances, two friends).


December 2, 2009. Uncategorized.


  1. visual gonthros replied:

    Yes, body language is fun to observe, especially between people of different cultures. Do your friends hold hands in public? I have been seeing increasing PDA in Japan, primarily by young people, in the 12 or so years I have been here.

    Social status can be observed through bowing but I think personality comes out more with the handshake (among westerners who practice this custom). I recently laughed to myself recently when a student said goodbye with a very strong handshake, like he was trying to crush my hand. What was up with that?

  2. dlag1689 replied:

    My friends hold hands in public. I figured because young people of Japan are becoming more flexible with PDA.

    My friend’s dad made me give him another handshake after I gave him one in order for him to show me how to “do it right”. Apparently, no one likes a floppy handshake. It’s true though, floppy handshakes make me uncomfortable now.

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