Previously, we mentioned about gestures and body language to avoid here in Japan. This time, however, we will show you what typical gestures Japanese people actually use in real life and the meanings behind it. There are a lot of gestures that are used here in Japan, so let’s get started straight away, shall we?
Common Gestures Used In Japan
The King of Gestures: Bowing
Bowing is absolutely integral to Japanese language and culture. You bow to say hello, excuse me, thank you, I’m sorry, please and just about anything else. When meeting someone for the first time and even when greeting an old friend, Japanese people usually bow rather than shaking hands or hugging.
Bowing is such an enormous part of Japanese communication that I have trouble speaking Japanese without bowing or at least ducking my head—even if it’s to another non-native speaker. Bowing in itself doesn’t need a lot of explanation, but there’s a “right” way to bow in Japan.
1. The “right” way to bow
Men place their hands at the sides of their legs and bow from the waist, while women should place hands flat on the front of their thighs or clasp their hands in front of their legs. Look at the ground and bend from the waist, pause for a moment, then stand up straight.
The length of time and depth of your bow is dictated by social context and stature; for example, a sales clerk will likely bow a full 90º to you as you exit their store, and won’t stand up straight until you’re out the door. This is also the typical bow that employees at a company would use when the CEO passes by. In regular social interaction—say with a friend, teacher or an older person who smiles at you on the train platform—a slight duck of the head is probably fine.
2. Giving and receiving gifts
You should always bow when giving or receiving a gift in Japan, and you should hold the item in both hands as you pass over or accept it.
Yes, No and Not Sure
Nodding and shaking your head are fairly universal gestures, and they’ll serve you well with Japanese speakers. There are, however, Japanese equivalents of these gestures, and it’s worth at least recognising what they mean.
3. Yes / Okay
Make a big O shape above your head with your arms to indicate “okay!” in much the same way as we might use a thumbs-up or put our first finger and thumb together (both of which are considered very masculine and fairly crass gestures in Japan!).
To indicate “no” in Japanese, often people will cross their arms in an X shape front of themselves. This was one gesture that I found a little disconcerting at first, because it seemed kind of strong and I thought I was doing something very wrong. However, I’ve since learned that it isn’t meant in a rude way and is a “no” gesture used in much the same way as shaking your head. If someone crosses their fingers together, however, that means conflict and is intended as an insult!
5. I don’t know / Excuse me
If someone is waving one hand in front of their face, it means that they don’t know the answer to your question or they’re trying to tell you that they can’t speak English. Often they’ll also shake their head, along with a look of terror on their face!
If they’re holding up one hand in front of their face but not moving it, that means “excuse me” and they probably want to get past you. The “I don’t know” gesture is just like this, only the person will also wave their hand in front of their face (a little like if there was a bad smell!) and probably duck their head in a small bow.
Gesturing to People
6. Referring to yourself
Refer to yourself by pointing towards or even touching the end of your nose.
7. Referring to others
Gesture towards others with an open palm, and move your hand slowly and gently—you can point towards yourself, but don’t point at others.
Have you ever seen a 招き猫 (まねきねこ), the lucky cat in stores? To Westerners it looks like it’s waving goodbye, when in fact it’s beckoning you in! The Japanese way of gesturing for you to “come here” is to reach forward and let your hand go limp, then flap your fingers back and forth. At first it may look to you like a gesture to go away, but in fact it’s an invitation to join—just don’t use it with your seniors or superiors.
9. Counting on your fingers in Japanese
The way Japanese native speakers count on their hands can be maddeningly confusing for English speakers, because it’s basically completely backwards from our style.
Besides basic body language like smiling or frowning, there are specific gestures that Japanese people use to communicate particular emotions.
The Japanese gesture to express anger is to hold your fists beside your head with the fingers pointing towards the sky, and is used to represent “devil horns.”
If a Japanese person brings a hand to the back of their head, it means that they’re feeling embarrassed, or awkward, and it’s probably a good idea to change the subject!
At the end of a meal, Japanese people clap their hands once in front of their face while saying “ごちそうさま” or “ごちそうさまでした” to express gratitude. This gesture (without the phrase) is also used to ask for forgiveness.
If a Japanese person wants to show that they’re ready to accept a challenge or work hard at something, they’ll place one hand on the opposite bicep and flex their arm. This gesture expresses strength and resilience, showing that the person is prepared for whatever may be in store.
At first it can feel a little strange to use unfamiliar gestures, but communicating in such a culturally-appropriate way is guaranteed to win you friends very quickly in Japan—just as forgetting the different standards of body language manners could turn newfound friends off!
Especially if your language level is still fairly low, learning the best gestures to express your meaning will allow you to communicate on a deeper level with Japanese speakers, while letting silence be golden.
A final gesture tip for the bold: If a Japanese person sits beside you on the train and opens an English textbook to start “studying,” this is often intended as a loud-and-clear “Hi! Where are you from?”