Have you ever tried to speak Japanese over the phone? It’s not any easier than speaking to someone face to face, is it? In fact, it can be much more difficult. When you can’t read a person’s face and body language, even the simplest phrases can become much, much harder to understand.
That’s why it can be so much harder to listen to the radio or a podcast in Japanese than to watch movies, dramas or even anime without subtitles. We rely much more on facial expressions and body language to communicate than we often realise. So knowing common and culturally-appropriate gestures can really help you to communicate in Japan, especially when your limited vocabulary fails!
Why Learn Japanese Gestures?
Gesturing is culturally influenced and Japanese speakers use gestures to communicate quite differently from what we’re used to in English.
This means that it can be very easy to intimidate or cause offense to somebody without ever meaning to, just by the way you look or gesture at them. What qualifies as completely ordinary behaviour in America or Australia may be overly crass or even rude in Japan, and if you come across this way, then you won’t have any chance to communicate at all!
Silence also plays a much more important role in Japanese conversations than in the West. It can be a little disconcerting at first, feeling like you need to say more and more and more to fill the silences when you’re in a conversation with a native Japanese speaker—but this is completely normal in Japan.
Much of Japanese communication comes from context. This means that Japanese speakers usually drop any “extra” words from a sentence that can be taken from context. This makes speaking simpler and more streamlined, but can make it much harder for those of us who don’t speak Japanese naturally yet!
This is when it’s very important to be able to look for and interpret any non-verbal cues to help you understand everything that the person you’re speaking with is trying to communicate. Look at their facial expressions, their body language, and the gestures they’re making with their hands. You’ll be amazed how much you can say without ever opening your mouth!
Gestures and Body Language to Avoid in Japan
When it comes to your own non-verbal communication, knowing what not to do can be just as important as what to do. So before we get into gestures you may actually want to use, here are some gestures and body language that may cause offense.
Looking people in the eye too much
While in English-speaking countries looking people in the eye is considered respectful because it shows that you’re paying close attention to what they have to say, in Japan it can be considered too close for comfort, or even aggressive and intimidating.
If you’re speaking with someone and they keep staring at their shoes or looking away, perhaps they’re feeling a little overwhelmed by your stare. Try looking to the side a little, or at least glancing down or to the side a little more frequently.
Spreading out arms and legs
Anyone who has ever missed out on a seat on the train because someone has spread out wide enough to take up space for two understands how frustrating that behaviour can be. Drunk, sleeping salary men aside, in Japan it’s considered really bad form to take up more space than you need, especially on public transport.
And while we’re on the topic of public transport, the Japanese locals request that you speak quietly and avoid talking on the phone, and always stand up to give seating room to the elderly and people with children!
Slouching and hands in pockets
It may be the most comfortable way to stand, but in Japan leaning languorously against a wall with your hands in your pockets is considered to look lazy and messy. Just as it does in the English-speaking world, good posture shows that you’re alert and paying attention.
Crossing your arms
This is considered a hostile position, and it’s unlikely that anybody will approach you for a chat if you’re standing with your arms crossed. If you cross your arms during a conversation with a Japanese person you don’t know very well, they may take that as a signal that you don’t want to talk. However, crossing arms with eyes closed shows that you’re thinking deeply about something, which in some conversations is just right!
Don’t do it. Like staring someone in the eyes, it comes across as too strong, and potentially aggressive. Even if you’re giving directions or gesturing towards an object, you should gently indicate direction with an open palm.