What Is Dogeza? : One of the most distinctive features of Japanese culture is the frequent bowing. Performing a bow involves placing your arms at your sides, or clasping them in front of your waist, and bending at the hips. The deeper the bow the more sincere and formal it becomes.
What Is Dogeza?
Bowing at a 90° angle is often reserved only for very special circumstances, such as addressing the emperor, greeting an honored guest at a swanky hotel, expressing condolences at a funeral, etc. However, there is an even more formal bow than the one stated above, and that bow is called the dogeza (土下座). In today’s article, we’re going to learn what dogeza is, where it came from, how it is used today, and how it has lost some of its meaning in modern-day Japan.
What Does Dogeza Mean?
Dogeza is a special bow that expresses deference to someone of higher status. It is most often used to express one’s deepest apologies for wrongdoing or as a means of asking for a favor (such as lending money).
To perform a dogeza, a person gets down on their knees, places their hands on the ground, arches their back, and presses their forehead to the ground in the space between their hands. Performing this act is a very serious public display and the person doing it is coming from a position of shame. It is equal to someone getting down on their knees and clasping their hands together, begging for money or forgiveness. In some circumstances it is equivalent to kissing someone’s feet. The dogeza is the most humiliating position in which to place oneself in Japan. This is because in Japanese culture the ground is seen as filthy and home only to animals and the unclean (which is one reason shoes are removed before entering a house). To get down on one’s knees and place one’s head to the ground shows that you are willing to grovel in the mud like an animal for someone’s forgiveness.
Where Did Dogeza Come from?
The act of dogeza dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century. It was used to show reverence to the gods in places of worship—such as temples and shrines—and was also performed by peasants to show respect to those of higher rank. When a nobleman or aristocrat would pass through villages, the peasants would get down on the roadside and dogeza to them, saying, “I prostrate myself before thee, oh noble one, and clap my hands in prayer” (michibata de heifuku shite kashiwa de wo utsu).
How Is Dogeza Used Today?
Between the Taisho and Showa period after World War I, the actions and phrases of yore evolved. The dogeza, which was once used to express the utmost reverence and respect to superiors, was now used to express apologies and request favors. Novels and historical dramas of the time also helped to influence this shift.
In modern-day Japan, dogeza is used in only the most serious situations and is usually displayed before a mass of people—such as family members, co-workers, members of the same organization, passersby on the street, etc. I once witnessed in the middle of a shopping square a man performing dogeza in front of another man, saying “I’m sorry that I slept with your girlfriend!” I assumed they were good friends and that the man apologizing betrayed a deep trust and loyalty between them. I don’t think the friend forgave him, though, because he kicked the guy in the head while his head was still on the ground. Ouch!
Although dogeza is viewed as an action of deep humility reserved for only the most shameful circumstances, many believe that it has lost its meaning in recent times. The reason for this is that the modern Japanese person is put under a lot of stress due to the very high standard of etiquette placed upon them. Whether it’s dealing with customers at work, talking to superiors, or just existing in public in general, there is a right way to conduct oneself and a wrong way. They are criticized from the words they use all the way down to how they stand and the minute movements they make. The Japanese are constantly under the spotlight, and they find this unbearable; therefore, when someone other than themselves makes a mistake, they feel a sense of relief. This sudden release in tension often results in laughter. In other words, Japanese people find it hilarious when someone else makes a mistake, and modern TV comedies bank off of this. Recently, there was a TV comedy show called Hanazawa Naoki which features several episodes involving humorous scenarios of characters performing dogeza. One character gets a huge bank loan just by performing a dogeza, and the banker who issued him the loan has to perform a dogeza to the board to apologize for being so stupid. These episodes received rave reviews amongst the Japanese for how hilarious they were, which underscores the idea that dogeza isn’t taken as seriously as it once was.
The ancient custom of showing reverence to gods and superiors has evolved into an expression of deep apology or for asking a favor. However, because age-old standards of conduct stress the modern Japanese person out, actions such as dogeza have devolved into parody in some circumstances and have lost their impact.
The times, they are a-changing!