In Japan, bowing is serious social business, used on arriving, departing and often in between. Yet, laments Chiyuki Takaishi, 70, “So many of us only nod without moving the spine, or incline deeply while keeping the neck straight up. That’s gawky.”
Takaishi has bent over backward to correct the dip in Japanese manners by building a how-to-bow machine. His motive was not just esthetic. As head of Osaka’s Kintetsu department store chain, he wanted a commercial edge. Says Takaishi, “This business depends on customer satisfaction. Who could resist the splendor of the polished bowing of our sales staff?”
The bow depends on social status; the loftier the person being greeted, the lower you go. Proper form demands that the back and neck remain straight as the waist bends. Strangers often peek in mid-bow to see how low the other person is going. The frequent result, a laugh-getter in Japanese sitcoms, is a chain reaction of increasingly deep bows.
Bowing skills have declined, Takaishi suggests, in the postwar breakup of the traditional family. “The finest bowing instructor used to be your grandmother or grandfather,” he says. “Today, families often live apart.” Takaishi has three children and six grandchildren, but he lives alone with his wife in an eight-room house.
An Osaka University commerce graduate who has been with Kintetsu for 27 years, he began work on his bowing machine in 1977. His first version utilized a wooden plate held against a student’s chest. A needle registered the angle of the bow. But, Takaishi says, the measurements were unreliable because some girls “were deep in bosom, while others were shallow.” (Most salesclerks in Japan are women.)
Working with electronics experts for six months, Takaishi produced the new model. Seven electric eyes evaluate the bow at three settings: 15 degrees for a fellow employee, 30 degrees for a customer and 45 to show special respect to superiors or for a customer making a purchase.
So far, 400 Kintetsu employees have trained on the machine. Takaishi hopes to sell it to other businesses, but as yet no one has been willing to bow to his asking price—$10,500.