Japanese body language and gestures explained

Updated and expanded 1 January 2015

Why do the Japanese point at their noses to show “I/ me”?

Although I didn’t notice it when I lived there, a book on Thailand that I read recently says it happens there too. If so, I wonder if it could be the Buddhist idea that your soul lives in your head, also responsible for the taboo against touching Thai people on the head.

Why is thumbs down more negative in Japan than in other places?

Although my students seem only vaguely aware of the fact, apparently thumbs down in Japanese means “go to hell”, with making a cross with your open hands being the closest thing to the “bad” meaning of thumbs down in English.

Why does crossed fingers mean “check/ bill, please” in Japanese restaurants?

You don’t see this very often as pressing the ping pong button or shouting is much more common, but all my students seem to be aware of it and totally unaware of the signing in the sky gesture with that same “Bring me the bill” meaning in many other countries. I’m guessing the Japanese gesture has basically the same root and comes from putting an X as signature.

Why is the Japanese “come here” gesture the opposite way round to that of the Western one?

If you come to think about it, there’s no reason why it should be one way or the other, or indeed sideways – and all three exist in certain countries.

Why do the Japanese put their palms together at the beginning and end of meals?

You don’t see this a lot in public, but it’s fairly common in schools and among the young and old at home. Although often translated as “Thank you for the meal”, “Itadakimasu” and “Gochisosama (desu/ deshita)” are at least as much prayers of thanks to the food for giving up its life so that you can eat as they are thanks to the cook. The palms together are therefore actual prayer gestures.

Why is it impossible to bump into Japanese people?

Despite all the complaints about “aruki-sumaho” (walking while using a smartphone), I find it almost impossible to walk into someone doing so. This amazing ability to avoid other people in the street was mentioned in the classic book “Watching the English”, where she bumped into people to get reactions like the English “Sorry!” but found the Japanese the only nationality of tourist in London that it was impossible to actually bump into. The only explanations I can imagine are that it’s part of the Japanese consideration for other people and/ or a consequence of living in crowded cities on a crowded island.

Why do the Japanese wave an open palm in front of their nose?

As I think it is easy to imagine, it means “No”, sometimes with a more emphatic meaning in situations like brushing off compliments.

Why do the Japanese rub the back of their heads and hiss through their teeth?

This seems such a natural reaction to difficult questions and impossible requests that the Japanese rarely notice that they use it, but it’s definitely more common here than in any other country I know. It’s also much more common among men than women and much more common at work than elsewhere. I think it’s just a consequence of the difficulty of simply saying “No”. Note that sucking of teeth is in no way the aggressive sound it is in some cultures.

Why do the Japanese screw a forefinger into their cheek to show that something is delicious?

Although I never saw it when I lived there, many Japanese seem convinced that it is an Italian gesture. Maybe we Brits are wrong thinking that kissing your fingertips is the Italian gesture for “Delicious!” because I didn’t see that in Italy either…

Why does a cutting gesture across your neck with an open palm meaning “fired” in Japanese?

The expression for sacked in Japanese is “kubi”, which is the word for “neck”. (The same expression and gesture also exist in Korean).

Why are the Japanese happy to push and shove in trains?

This is particularly strange in Japan, where people usually have a similar attitude to personal space and bodily contact as the British, for whom any personal contact in a train is likely to lead to much harumphing, if not a fight. As with much behaviour on trains, I can only imagine it is because strangers are not social contacts and so what happens between you basically doesn’t matter.

Why is bowing still common in Japan?

As in Europe when it was still common there, bowing tends to be most useful in countries where politeness is mainly decided by status like Japan. As people who move here find, it is also very convenient to have one gesture for “Thanks”, “Please”, “Sorry”, etc etc.

Why do the Japanese still not shake hands?

Some other countries where bowing is still common and status is still important like Korea have somewhat taken to shaking hands too. Those places tend to be happier with bodily contact than the Japanese though.

Why do the Japanese avoid eye contact when being told off or apologizing?

A British or American kid staring at the floor when mumbling an apology might be told to “look at me while I’m talking to/ while you say that”. However, at the other extreme a kid staring you in the eyes while apologizing obviously still feels angry and not really apologetic at all. In Japan, eye contact during apologies is always taken to have the latter meaning.

Why do the Japanese nod so much?

It is show you that they are (still) listening. Actual comments on what you say that are common in English like “I know how you feel” and “Tell me about it!” might stray too close to interrupting, something that Japanese rarely do, hence the nodding and very simple reactions like “Sou?” (“Really?”)

Why don’t the Japanese chew their fingernails, suck their pens, chew their pencils etc?

Of course, our parents and teachers everywhere tell us not to do these things, but in Japan perhaps people are more likely to actually listen to their parents and teachers (as perhaps with other things our mothers told us to do like wearing vests etc as well). It may also be considered sexual in some way.

Why do people look at you funny if you wipe your face and neck with the “oshibori” flannel, even though you see Japanese doing it?

It’s something only “oyaji” (ill-mannered old guys) do.

Why do Japanese women cover their hands with their mouths when they laugh?

This is probably related to why Japanese women used to dye their teeth black, being some kind of taboo against showing teeth. However, I imagine it now sticks only because it is a cutely girlish thing to do.

Why has dogeza (kowtowing) almost completely disappeared in Japan?

In Korea kids still do this to receive envelopes of cash at New Year, similar to Japanese otoshidama. Maybe there wasn’t any particular fixed use for it in Japan???

Why do Japanese men rarely put their hands in their trouser pockets?

It could just be that Japanese guys actually listened to their parents (maybe the same reason for still wearing vests at ages when few British guys would), or given the problems with chikan (gropers) on trains etc maybe everyone would just get the wrong idea, but I guess that in Japan it has the typical meaning of being a slacker and that is more negative here than other places.

Why are some Japanese people happy to pick their nose on the train?

Even more than most countries, Japanese behaviour is controlled by social pressure. Especially in big cities, if you don’t know someone they can’t put social pressure on you, so what they think about you basically doesn’t count.

Why do Japanese people keep telling me not to sit in a seiza position on my knees?

The fact that it is used in formal situations means that using it with friends could suggest that you don’t feel relaxed around them. Or they could just be concerned it’s uncomfortable, although I for one find agura (crossed legs) just as likely to make me lose sensation in the lower half of my body and stagger when I stand up.

Why is it rude to blow your nose in public in Japan?/ Why is endless sniffing considered more polite than blowing your nose in Japan?

I have students who go to the toilet each time they want to use a tissue! One theory is that in Asia the most common diseases could be passed on through handkerchiefs etc, while those in Europe were more likely to be passed on through spitting- hence the fact that spitting didn’t start to die out in Japan until the Meiji authorities decided it wasn’t something seemly to do in front of foreigners. Note that some young people are more happy to blow their nose in front of people, although people do usually at least turn away when doing so.

Why do some Japanese blow their nose in public, even though it is supposed to be taboo?

In my experience the biggest nose blowers are people who go through life not noticing half the things a Japanese etiquette will tell you should never do. This one might be because it is not something taught at kindergarten when most other basic social conventions are drilled into people.

Why do the Japanese make little eye contact?

Eye contact is generally very culturally specific, which is one reason why the English assume everybody is in love with them when they first arrive at the Mediterranean. In common with the general rule in East Asia, the Japanese tend towards little and short eye contact, both with conversation partners and strangers in their vicinity. Too much eye contact can be taken as a come on or aggressiveness.

Why do the Japanese clap at a shrine before and after bowing?

I’ve heard it’s to get the god in question’s attention, though I’m sure there must be more sophisticated explanation than that, particularly as you also clap afterwards.

Why do the Japanese clap at the end of group meals such as work dos?

Japanese prefer clear and even sudden transitions like this, and generally dislike habits such as English bosses trying to find a smooth way from the small talk straight into the business of the day.

What’s up with the Japanese and “guts pose”?

This is a pumping of the fist in celebration at a home run etc that seems as un-Japanese a gesture as “guts pose” is un-English an expression, and was yet another reason I hated Ichiro Suzuki.  Thanks to a commenter below for the explanation.

“How this name came about is interesting. There was this professional boxer in the mid 60s called ‘Guts’ Ishimatsu. The guts was because he wanted to be a gutsy boxer. His boxing record was checkered, but more on the winning side. He was the WBC Lightweight champion and successfully defended it 4 times. The word comes from the peculiar pose he struck after winning fights, where he would pump his fist up and down in the air. He has explained that his right hand shows his own joy at winning the fight, and his left hand shows his gratitude to the crowd.”

Why do Japanese (especially men) use an open handed chopping motion to show they want to get past?

Apparently, originally it was meant to show that you were not carrying a sword. The fact that polite table manners in France mean keeping your hands above the table is apparently for the same reason.

Why do Japanese colleagues cuddle each other as they stagger back to the station?

By doing exactly the opposite of what they would usually do (avoiding all bodily contact), they show that they are properly drunk and relaxed and had a good time. They might also be suffering from lack of body contact, as they spent the first few years of their lives strapped to their mother’s body and sleeping in her bed, but are now sleeping in a different bedroom to their wife and will be lucky to get a cuddle or a quick grope when the kids are out.

13 Comments

  1. Breanna parsons said,

    May 5, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    How come it don’t give more info on body language or Gestures? I am trying to work on a school project but can’t seem to find all what i am looking for. i love you culture and the way you live, its way different from the way i live! :) well have Fun! Arigatou Gozaimasu, and Sayonaro.

  2. Nihongo_Master said,

    January 20, 2009 at 3:00 am

    Its Sayonara, not Sayonaro.. Stupid American.

  3. ジェイくん said,

    January 30, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Yes, it’s さよなら, not さよなろ… but lighten up Nihongo_Master.
    ‘No need to be rude.

  4. wampaku said,

    August 13, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Jeez…. Nihongo_Master, are you compensating for something? Or just a jerk in general? (Lighten up, dude!)

    Folks interested in Japanese culture in general, and the differences between American/Canadian/Western culture and Japanese culture should check out “Learning to Bow” by Bruce Feiler (http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Bow-Inside-Heart-Japan/dp/0060577207/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1250151345&sr=8-1)

    Hope this helps! (^_^)v

  5. Ruu said,

    October 14, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Like Breanna parsons,
    i am also researching for a school Project.
    thanks forthe information posted. i was just hoping for a smidgen more. :3

  6. Nani said,

    April 5, 2010 at 8:28 am

    actually, its Sayounara(さようなら)yes, i know its way late but watev

  7. alexcase said,

    April 5, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Actually, it’s both. The form with the long vowel sound is more formal than the form with a short vowel sound

  8. crella said,

    April 11, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Oh for heaven’s sake, I didn’t know it came from Guts Ishimatsu, that’s too funny!

  9. XxOngakuxX said,

    May 5, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Is it true that friends will makes “L”‘s infront of themselfs (at the same time) only one freind it doing it opposite to show their friendship and in the same sense boys will bump arms instead of highfives like we have in America?

    I see this a lot if anime and I was wondering if this is nomal or just something they do in anime.

  10. October 18, 2010 at 6:51 am

    […] More Japanese body language and gestures here […]

  11. alexcase said,

    October 18, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Never noticed either of those, unless you mean joining little fingers to mean a promise

  12. crella said,

    January 7, 2015 at 8:41 am

    “The expression for sacked in Japanese is “kubi”, which is the word for “neck”.

    And if you screwed up in the old days you got your head chopped off with little preamble!

    Re: dogeza: I usually only see very low bowing at funerals , when the bereaved are thanking people individually for coming (and all are in a tatami room). Everyone’s kneeling, so foreheads go to the floor.

    It’s still done in extreme cases of apology.


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