Shake hands or bow?

Shaking hands is extremely important for interpersonal communication, because it embodies close connections. Friendship. It is a desire to convey good news. I remember one story deeply when my friend, calligrapher Izan Ogawa wrote the word Akushu – shake hands – with children at one Prague elementary and explained how the character for this word is created. That there are two signs for hand and then there is a sign for a house. The two hands are housed together, at least for a moment. Hands in a shared house. Izan then shook hands with all the students, and one girl took it so seriously and deeply that she wanted to keep the whole experience in her hand remembering Izan personally, and her mother then reported to the school master that her daughter refused to wash her hand in the evening. This story confirms that handshake as symbol and action is very strong in Japanese culture, very profound, and yet, people in Japan rarely shake hands. They prefer to bow to each other. However, when they bow an unfilled space is created between them. They do not connect physically. It seems to me that Japanese people fill that gap by bowing several times in one act of greeting. I would almost say too many times. They bow intently and respectfully.

Bowing to one another is called ojigi. The word has the courtesy prefix “o” and it is immediately clear that the „o“ suggests something very important to watch out for. When you open the internet, you will find many pictures of bowing people and videos about bowing, where they advise you what is the good and bad way to bow. It’s an art! I’m not much of a joke teller, but this one is etched in my memory. Probably because I had to learn to bow when I came to Japan and it wasn’t easy. I didn’t know if I had bowed too deeply or too little and carelessly, and I never knew how many times I was to bow. Three times, five times, ten times? That’s probably why I liked this very joke. It was like this: On a platform, an old lady said goodbye to her loved ones who boarded a train. The train was leaving the platform and the lady bowed. She bowed for a long time because the train was long. She could only stop when the train fully left the station. The last vagon left and one could see a cow standing behind the station in a field. Cow was looking at the lady. Yes, on that cartoon joke there was seen a bit of the last vagon and the old lady bowing and in front of her behind the rail was the cow. It was as if  lady honored the cow by bowing and the cow seemed not to be amazed at all. The cow accepted the bows. Maybe the lady honored the cow too? Who knows.

As I progressed in the study of the Japanese language and culture, and as I got used to Japanese society, I also began to master bowing. And then I once found myself when talking to someone in Japanese that I was bowing. To whom? I was on phone! Well, probably to a cow that wasn’t even there. I thought that moment that I became Japanese. A little bit. Nowadays bowing is natural to mee, it is part of myself. I like bowing actually. When parting with guests in front of Miyabi, I always bow. And I stay standing in front of Miyabi until my guests turn around the corner or are so far at the end of the street that they can’t be seen. In Japan, those leaving people would always turn around after about twenty meters and both sides would bow again. Both sides show that they don’t want to say goodbye, but there’s nothing they can do about, so they say goodbye. I really like the habit. After all, not every guest would like me to hug him or her. Bowing is nice!

Miyabi guests would definitely not like to be hugged now when the covid illness troubles us. Even handshake is now not the best greeting style. People hit elbows to elbow instead. Covid greeting! It’s a funny gesture. Yes, looks quite friendly, but you hardly can put your elbow and elbow into a house in the meaning of the characters hand hand and house in akushu. So as a result, it may be better to pay homage to one another by ojigi, bowing. I would plead for that. And when we experience the space between us as something we lose, we can bow several times and very respectfully with a little “o”. Opoklona. Greetings. When we really mean our greetings from the heart and do it honestly, and when we manage to communicate this to others, then it’s marvelous and all are happy. Good greeting is an artfull act, whether it is akushu or ojigi. Or just a smile.

In the last blog, you may remeber, I talked about onigiri. Onigiri also has the courtesy prefix “o”. Now, I decided to prepare for you in Miyabi Onigiri Matsuri, a celebration of rice balls. We will offer them during the extended weekend in the sign of St. Wenceslas. We have Omatsuri and onigiri because the rice is being harvested and is to be celebrated. I am talking about it because onigiri has connection to akushu. Remember, akushu are two hands in a house. Akushu suru and Te wo nigiru have similar meanings. Akushu and onigiri have a common denominator. For me, rice balls are a symbol that creating something with the palms is passing on something humanly important. Palm to palm. Even when handshaking, the hands touch via palms.

These days we can’t shake hands and hug like we have been used. Pandemic does not allow. But we can certainly pass on greetings and actually do something for others. By our hands. By our palms. And we can always bow. And smile.

I really wish all of us to keep good spirit and enjoy friendship.

Yours, Miyabi Darja

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