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110613-0043 - Japanese Maiko Greeting, 1890s

14 Rules for Women

Artist Nobukuni Enami
Publisher Nobukuni Enami
Medium Glass Slide
Period Meiji
Location Shiga
Image No. 110613-0043
Purchase Digital File

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

  1. A woman should always get up early, wash her face, and carefully comb her hair, for it is rude to appear with disheveled hair.
  1. Do not stare at other people, male or female, and be very careful in your speech. Do not tell anything without being asked, make confessions, or speak boastfully of yourself, and above all, on no account speak ill of others.
  1. When you are in the presence of your superior, do not scratch yourself; but if any part of your body itches so badly that you cannot help scratching it, put a finger on the spot and give it a hard scratch so that the itchiness may be absorbed in the pain so caused. Do not wipe sweat off your face or blow your nose; but if you must do so, run into the next room or turn your face away from your superior. In blowing your nose, first blow gently, then a little louder, and finally gently again, but you should, if possible, do these things before you come into your superior’s presence.
  1. Do not use a toothpick in company, for it is extremely rude to talk with one in your mouth.
  1. Do not pare your nails, comb your hair, or tighten your obi in company, or glance at a letter that another is reading or writing.
  1. Do not step upon other people’s cushions, beds, or feet; but always bear in mind that the only things you may tread on are your clogs and the only things you may step over are the grooves of the sliding-doors.
  1. If any one invites you to go out with her, do not put on a finer dress than hers; you should ascertain by previous inquiry what she is going to wear. Do not scent yourself too much or have strong scent-bags about you.
  1. It is not good form when you make a call to sit in the middle of a room, and it savours too much of a novice to sit in a corner. Do not make a noise by opening and folding a fan, or fidget with a tea-cup; and do not show a tired face and yawn or pretend not to hear what is being said to you. Moreover, when you have a visitor, do not be constantly looking at the clock and let her suspect that you are impatient for her departure.
  1. When you meet a superior in the street, bow low so that the tips of your fingers, with your hands extended downwards, may touch your feet. Do not get flurried and give incoherent answers; but steady yourself by fixing your eyes upon the lady’s knees if she is one whom you wish to treat with the greatest respect, upon her obi if the respect is to be of a slightly lesser degree, and upon the crest of her haori if that respect is still less. Look your equal in the face.
  1. In handing a knife to a superior, if it is hers, take the handle in your left hand with the blade pointing towards yourself; but if it is yours, take the handle sideways so that the blade points to her left. In either case the right hand should rest on the mat as you bend forward. Always use the left hand before your superiors.
  1. Never enter another’s house unannounced, however intimate you may be with her; for if you were to come upon an untidy room, your intrusion would be no less unpleasant for yourself than for your hostess.
  1. In leading a blind man into a room, let him rest a hand on your shoulder, or catch hold of a fan in your hand or of your sleeve. It is rude to lead him by the hand.
  1. It is extremely rude to send a caller away when you are at home; but some people go so far as to decide whether they shall be at home or not, only after they have heard the caller’s name.
  1. Nothing is more displeasing to a hostess than to have a a visitor who stays on without having anything particular to say. We should not therefore pay a needlessly long visit or make too frequent calls. Intimate friends should, however, call occasionally; but neither the hostess nor the caller is without business of some kind; and if a person is offended with another for not calling on her often enough, there is no need to become intimate with her. If you have business to do with any one, consider the hour of your visit; do not call too early in the morning or too late at night or at meal-time. If there is a caller before you, wait till she leaves before broaching your business, or else call again.

70613-0002 - Two women in kimono bow deeply
Two women greeting each other with an extremely deep bow. Unattributed, hand-colored albumen print, ca. 1890s.

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.”

161217-0042 - Japanese Women Greeting, 1900s
Two women bow to each other in the yard of a restaurant. Nobukuni Enami, hand-colored glass slide, 1900s.

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.

80219-0016 - Illustration of Two Nude Japanese Women Bowing in the Nude
Illustration of two nude Japanese women with elaborate hairstyles at a bathhouse bowing to each other in New Year’s greetings while humbly and politely expressing well-wishes. Part of a New Year’s decoration can be seen in the left top corner. Nabezo, color lithograph, ink on card stock, Kokkei Shimbun (滑稽新聞社発行), Volume 9, 1908 (Meiji 41).

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!

Further Reading

Also read The Fine Art of the Japanese Bow.


1 Inouye, Jukichi (1911). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 172–174.


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Old Photos of Japan aims to be your personal museum for Japan's visual heritage and to bring the experiences of everyday life in old Japan to you.

To enhance our understanding of Japanese culture and society I track down, acquire, archive, and research images of everyday life, and give them context.

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Thank you,
Kjeld Duits


Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: 14 Rules for Women, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on December 11, 2023 (GMT) from

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