Japanese Body Language: 7 Key Gestures to Learn

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Japanese body language 7 key gestures
January 11, 2017

It may surprise you to know there are close to 100 different gestures regularly used by Japanese people to communicate with friends, colleagues and the general public. While most of those used by Western countries are crude or considered a novelty, the Japanese rely on hand gestures to communicate everything from basic requests to expressing emotion and personal preferences.

Those visiting who don’t speak Japanese often rely on the use of hand gestures to get around which can be bemusing, considering some mean the total opposite to what has been learnt back home. Some common gestures have spread globally, making them more identifiable, and are even mimicked by foreigners; however, in many cases their significance has been lost or misinterpreted.

Here are seven gestures with their proper meanings that I can almost guarantee you’ll come across during your time in Japan. Who knows, stay here for long enough and soon you might find yourself doing them as well!

1. Beckoning someone forward

When you’re called over by somebody, or standing in a line and asked to move forward, you’ll see this beckoning movement. The hand gesture used looks more like the person is trying to shoo you away than motion you towards them.

What to look for

The person’s hand will be palm down with fingers out front. They will drag their fingers inwards to their palm, then flick them back out straight again. The flick outwards seems more prominent, making it look like they are telling you to move away.

Japanese body language: 7 key gestures to learn

2. Counting

This one gets everyone, as it’s the complete opposite to the Western equivalent. To show an amount using hands, usually the stretched out fingers signify the quantity. However, in Japan, it’s the bent fingers that determine the amount.

What to look for

One thumb bent into the palm while others are straight indicates “one”. “Two” is shown by resting the index finger over the thumb while keeping the remaining three straight. Three fingers to the palm indicates “three” and so on.

Japanese body language 7 key gestures

3. Indirectly saying “no”

I’ve lived in Japan for just over a year now and don’t recall hearing a Japanese person use the direct word for “no” (“iie”). For most situations, it’s considered too direct, which is why body language is often used in its place. For example, if a service provider cannot accommodate your request, to show regret they will often place their open hand onto the back of their head and expel air through their teeth (kind of like an audible sharp breath in). This performance replaces the use of the word “no”, requiring the receiver to understand the unspoken message.

What to look for

While many staff have learnt to say “no” to foreigners to avoid confusion, dining out or shopping is probably where you’re most likely to see this gesture. Apparently it’s more common for men to place their hand on their head, and for women to rock one hand back and forth out in front of them. The breathing sound and the look of regret on their face is most noticeable.

Japanese body language 7 key gestures

4. Giving directions

I was regularly told as a kid “it’s rude to point,” but it wasn’t until I moved to Japan I felt it necessary to curb the habit. Instead of pointing a finger, Japanese people hold out their hand and gracefully motion towards the location or object. It resembles how people offer food from a plate, as if they are kindly offering their advice rather than telling.

What to look for

Palm face up with elbow bent (like a waiter carrying a tray), extending the arm out towards the proposed direction.

Japanese body language 7 key gestures

5. Referring to one’s self

Mid conversation you might see a native touch their forefinger to their nose, especially if trying to communicate with a non-Japanese speaker. It’s not that they are trying to make you laugh, or tell you there’s food on your face, but rather a way of saying “I”. When I first moved to Japan, I regularly had friendly elderly people use this gesture to tell me basic information like their age or food recommendations.

What to look for

Raised forefinger to touch the tip of the nose during conversation.

Japanese body language 7 key gestures

6. Using the peace sign

The finger “V” peace sign was used by the hippie subculture during the late 60s to demonstrate their opposition to the Vietnam War. Nowadays, it is used playfully by youths and fans of Japanese pop culture. Some say it serves as a visual cue to make people smile for photographs, like the word “cheese”. It’s also been suggested women use the sign to portray themselves as cute and young-spirited.

What to look for

Palm facing outward towards camera, two fingers up to create a “V” shape with other fingers tucked into palm. Arm can be stretched out in front or bent slightly, bringing the V closer to the eyes.

Japanese body language 7 key gestures

7. Greetings and goodbyes

It’s not customary for Japanese people to shake hands or kiss each other on the cheek to greet. It’s most common to see them do a little bow or offer a business card, especially when meeting for the first time or attending formal occasions. When friends meet or say goodbye, they often rapidly wave, even when standing at arm’s length from each other. Just watch the school girls getting on and off the train to see this in action.

What to look out for

Elbow tucked into waist, open palm with outstretched fingers moving rapidly from side to side.

Spotted any other unique gestures in Japan? Have you adopted Japanese mannerisms living here? Let us know in the comments! 

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Creative type with an undying curiosity to walk in the shoes of others.
  • Shinnokina says:

    I think the author meant that Western hand gestures are *considered* crude in Japan. There are some Western gestures that could actually offend people in Asia, because they have a different meaning. Like the way we use our hands to beckon people towards us is the way they would do it to a dog and is disrespectful to show it to a person.

  • eastkylib says:

    Number one is very misleading. The gesture you describe actually means “bye bye.” It looks like our gesture for “come here”, but it is not.

  • Dai Inami says:

    Good post. But I found some wrong explains. This article is misleading a little. Please don’t trust them completely.

  • Bartholomew Harte says:

    1Thank heavens the old “Bird’ hasn’t taken to roost in my home away from home!

  • xseqer says:

    oh yeah, hand hiding teeth when female speaks or laughs but usually limited to females who use the classical vocal patterns or ‘little girl’s voice’.

  • xseqer says:

    Hand with fingers together pointing outward from the body about waist high to indicate one’s direction of walking or crossing a street.
    Forearms crossed at wrists, fingers rolled into fists and palm side facing out and held up indicating ‘not a chance’, prohibited.

  • Andreas Rütten says:

    sugoi desu. domou arigatou

  • Kimberly Hakola says:

    Arms crossed, making an “x”, over their chest to say “closed,” “prohibited,” or “no!” A softer version uses two fingers (one from each hand) crossed to make an “x.”

  • Kazunori Nozawa says:

    I appreciated such an interesting info. I will use it as a reference to non-Japanese. The illustration for No. 4 looks like a Chinese in his fashion. When you introduce Japanese gestures, all the illustrations should also represent the Japanese people with their fashions, I think.

  • Steven says:

    This is really useful. Great article.

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