Why do Japanese women cover their mouth while laughing?
By Yumi Nakata
On July 5, 2015
Have you ever wondered why Japanese women cover their mouth with their hand when they laugh or even smile? This is not a cultural phenomenon as Japanese men laugh without covering their mouth but as a Japanese woman, I can tell you that there’s more to it than that.
In this article, I want to explore why we cover our mouth when we laugh.
Reason #1: Unlike American culture that cherishes beautiful smiles, Japanese women smiling while showing their teeth showing are often frowned upon. Why? Because Japanese women aren’t supposed to laugh out loud, which is considered lacking grace and unladylike in Japanese culture.
Reason #2: Japanese people generally have very misaligned teeth. Many women have really crooked teeth and they are simply embarrassed to show their unaligned teeth.
Reason #3: Because that’s what other Japanese women do. Japan is a collective society and people tend to mimic other people’s behaviors. We may not be aware of this consciously but Japanese women naturally follow other women’s lead. It is a learned behavior.
Reason #4: Japanese society sees this behavior as graceful and women are encouraged to just smile because that is a sign of attraction and grace.
This doesn’t make sense to foreigners but once you live in Japan for a while you would get used to it. Whenever I go home to visit my family in Japan, I see my friend who covers her mouth even when talking and I am truly impressed by her grace. It is kind of beautiful and elegant. I almost never see that in California so it was refreshing to me.
I grew up in Japan and feel very fortunate to have lived in two very different societies. American women would never cover their mouth while laughing unless they have a missing tooth as Americans are very conscious about their teeth. They believe that straight and perfectly aligned teeth makes beautiful smile. It is a social status thing so why would they hide that status?
At the same time, I want to embrace this traditional etiquette among Japanese women. It is kind of cute and elegant.
There is a universal etiquette among women around the world. When they are surprised, they cover their mouth with both hands. Some of them even cover their whole faces with hands. For example, The winner of the Miss Universe would do that almost every year because she is so shocked to win this prestigious competition. Japanese women do that too, so there are some similarities among women regardless of cultural backgrounds.
When my American friend asks me why Japanese women don’t want to show their big smile, I would just tell them that it is part of Japanese tradition. “Don’t women look more gracious when they cover their mouth while laughing?” I get various responses.