Two maiko (apprentice geisha) in gorgeous kimono bow to each other at the entrance gate to Genkyu-en Gardens (玄宮園) in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture. In old Japan, the rules of etiquette were elaborate.
This exquisitely hand-colored glass slide by Japanese photographer Nobukuni Enami (江南 信國, 1859–1929) is one of countless vintage photographs of Japanese women bowing. These images were created as souvenirs for Western visitors, who were endlessly fascinated by Japan’s intricate rules of etiquette.
Japanese author and dictionary compiler Jukichi Inouye (井上十吉, 1862-1929), a graduate of London University, also catered to this interest. In his English language book Home life in Tokyo, Inouye shares “quaint directions” from “an old book on etiquette for women.”1
Apparently, “directions” like the above were not always closely followed. In the same chapter, Inouye writes that men were “somewhat lax in the observance of the minutiae of etiquette.”
Additionally, his phrase “quaint directions” suggests that women may not have been fully observant either. Inouye even stresses that “the women of Japan probably talk as much as those of any other country” and that “they chat freely with their friends.” However, he adds, “they are reserved before strangers and open their mouths only when they are addressed.”
People seemed to have been aware that etiquette could be overdone.
Between May 1907 (Meiji 40) and June 1909 (Meiji 42), the satirical publication Kokkei Shimbun (滑稽新聞社発行) featured a supplement named Ehagaki Sekai (絵葉書世界, The World of Illustrated Postcards). Each issue contained 30 postcards, many giving salty social commentary.
Some ridiculed Japanese etiquette. Like this Illustration of two women at a bathhouse bowing deeply in the nude, while exchanging polite New Year wishes.
Nonetheless, some of the above suggestions, like how to lead a blind person, come across as common sense. Others as very respectful.
What do you think? Are there any you would observe? Tell us in the comments!
Children admiring the merchandise of a goldfish vendor. From the Edo period (1603–1867) on, street vendors were essential in daily life in Japan. They sold everything from vegetables to gold fish, fireflies and crickets. Even massages and medicine.