It is well known that we do not only communicate with speech, but also with our body. Our body language sometimes says much more about our thoughts than what our words want to express. Also, learning a foreign language is also learning the body language of another culture. Discover some Japanese gestures used on a daily basis.
If wearing a sanitary mask bothers many of us Westerners, it is because the expressions on our faces are important to us in communicating with others. A smirk, a grimace of disgust, puckered lips, these facial expressions emphasize verbal language and facilitate conversation. And this body language is far from being limited to the face! On a daily basis, we employ a whole lot of gestures which, for some, are sufficient to convey a message, or, for others, accentuate our words …
It is good because the language is also lived with the body that it is dIt’s hard to learn Japanese only through books. Beyond the structure of the language, its grammar, its vocabulary, we must revisit our gestures in order to avoid any odds. Because if many gestures are more or less universal, their translation can sometimes be very different.
Certain Japanese gestures are certainly familiar to you, such as the V for victory which has become a reflex (and a message of peace) in photos or bowing to greet each other. But the Japanese gestures below may surprise you!
Counting by folding your fingers
If the Japanese are more and more influenced by the way of counting in the West, they traditionally count on “the opposite”. Where we raise one or more fingers to indicate a number, the index marking 1, the index and middle fingers 2, the 5 fingers apart 5, the Japanese, open hand, fold their fingers on their palm. Thus, the thumb folded on the palm means 1, the index finger comes to rest on the latter to make 2, and so on up to 5. To go up to 10, they raise the fingers thus folded, starting with l little finger (which indicates 6).
I’ll tell you right away, I never got used to it! And it sometimes causes a little misunderstanding with older sellers when I want to indicate a quantity with my fingers.
Know how to read “no” between the lines
I have already spoken about it several times: Japanese people are allergic to the word “no”. This is the root of many misunderstandings. Where frustrated at not having an answer we perceive a lack of frankness, the Japanese see a polite way of not hurting our ego with too direct a refusal. Also, the word “no” is rarely used when it comes to responding to an invitation. The Japanese prefer the expression 難 し い で す ね ・ ・ ・, “it’s difficult…”, followed by a heavy blank of meaning.
This is typically where body language has an important role to play. The body will communicate the discomfort of the interlocutor. By digging into the question, I noticed that the Japanese usually distinguish the gestures of women and men. However, this distinction is fading more and more!
Japanese men therefore rather spend their hands behind their heads to scratch the back of their necks. Their faces full of regret, they breathe between their clenched teeth, their gaze vague and the air of beating around the bush. Japanese women tend to put their hands forward, palms towards the interlocutor, as if to push them away, shaking them, looking embarrassed.
Remember in any case that if the Japanese scratch their heads with their noses in the air or push you away with their hands, they are saying no to you.
It’s a bit of a variant of “no”. When the Japanese make a cross with their hands or outright their arms, it is to signify that something is impossible. For example, a restaurant is full and cannot accommodate you.
Be careful not to confuse with the two crossed indexes. Because this gesture makes it possible to ask for the bill!
“I have a nose, therefore I am”
In the middle of a conversation, your Japanese interlocutor points his index finger towards his nose, or even touches the end of it? It is not a question of playing the clown, nor of a childish gesture, he emphasizes that he is the subject of the subject. We shouldn’t be offended, because pointing fingers is not rude and allows us to put ourselves forward as our personal pronoun “I”.
I had addressed the issue in an article on Japanese personal pronouns. While they do exist, they are rarely expressed orally (and even in writing, which makes reading novels difficult at first!). It is by the context, of a text, or of a conversation, that the Japanese find themselves there and pointing fingers is an element of clarification.
The edge of the hand to cut through the crowd like Moses
Pre-coronavirus pandemic, taking rush hour transport in Japan was like being sardine in a can. Among the skills required to survive, learning to contort, to walk avoiding the feet and to get out of the compact crowd of passengers without making a mistake are essential.
The Japanese don’t like to break the “wa”, the harmony. No wonder, then, that to clear their way without offending anyone, they raise their hand to face height, fingers raised and clenched as if to figuratively split the crowd in two and move forward … Head down, gaze down! A little complicated gymnastics, sprinkled with lots of courbette and sumimasen.
A way of clearing a path very different from what we experience in Russia for example! Russians, in fact, find it perfectly normal to get out of the way by pushing you (gently) squarely with your hands (on your shoulders, your arm).
This Japanese gesture is enough to disturb more than one! When inviting someone to come closer, the Japanese use this hand gesture that we would rather adopt to chase something away. Palm down, they wave their fingers up and down like saying “walk away”. But it is in fact the opposite that must be understood.
If the Japanese are more comfortable than us with the mask, it is perhaps that unlike us, they rely less on the expressions of the lower face (the mouth, the cheeks) and more on the gaze and and head and hand movements.
They communicate a lot with them. The palm in front allows for example to indicate the way or is an invitation to enter or to take something. So many details you need to know to communicate well in Japan! Do you know of other Japanese gestures? What is your favorite gesture?