Why do Japanese women cover their mouth while laughing?

By

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.

Topics:  

Japan born, US educated, language teacher.
  • DG Ball says:

    Nakata-san *Greg in sai-keirei* Thank you for this article, i have learned and been enlightened by it. I see how it was written by you two years ago yet this is the first i have seen it and i am glad for that. I would love to see more articles written by you and i also plan to be a English teacher. Thank you (*^_^*)

  • Attila György says:

    Reason #2… Imperfection make you perfect! 🙂

  • CarbonRyda says:

    They hide their teeth to keep from showing their misaligned and rooting teeth to men. Dental care in the Edo period was non-existent and covering the mouth to hide unattractive teeth was common and is still a common habit for Japanese women during that period. Covering the mouth while laughing is a sign a modesty for Japanese women now, with that same mindset carried over from the Edo period. Still to this day…dental hygiene in Japan is still considered a luxury, not necessity.

  • CarbonRyda says:

    Because dental hygiene in Japan is expensive and not as common for regular cleanings and check-ups like Western countries. Sometimes Japanese men find over bite attractive in some women.

  • Will Smith says:

    It would be so great if they ( Japanese men and women) would cover their minds when yawning. Also, please stop coughing in my direction.

  • FromTokyo says:

    I buy reason #2. I’ve often thought that’s a good reason.

    Women in some countries in Africa do it as well, but they have great teeth, so their reasons are likely different.

  • Cheryl says:

    I think reason number 1 is (or has been) shared across a bunch of different cultures, it wasn’t just considered unladylike to smile but people thought it made them look silly and childish, even when getting photos taken.

  • Clare Chung says:

    thank you!very detailed

  • Mark Forrester says:

    Because Japanese people come from a culture of introverts.

  • Gum says:

    the only reasonable reason is second one, because in general Japanese people (both men and women) laugh out VERY loud

  • Mel says:

    Japanese women are full of grace and intrigue when they do this. Please keep your traditions. I noticed that too and it warms my heart.

  • Joetaku says:

    Reason #5: because it looks really cute 😉

  • Kailene Falls says:

    I picked up this mannerism before I even noticed it was a mannerism! On a trip back to The States, my dad pointed it out. I like it, though, especially when we’re talking after eating. I’m always paranoid that I’ve got nori or something in my teeth, so it serves a purpose. 😛

  • primalxconvoy says:

    I’m glad some of the more snaggle-toothed/brown/grey/black-toothed females in Japan cover their mouths.

    I just wish most Japanese men would do so, every time they open their mouths. Many of them have absolutely rotten breath.

  • MarzGurl says:

    When I was in school in Japan, my culture class teacher told me that it was done because it was once a religious thing that suggested it was rude to show bone (including teeth). He COULD have been completely BSing us, ’cause, like, who actively tries to show their bones if they’ve not fractured a femur through the flesh? Just adding to the commentary, though.

  • Cobra_x30 says:

    I’ve seen this a couple times and it DOES seem more feminine. As a guy I can say it’s an almost instinctual reaction to find this behavior alluring. I was born and raised in America and have spent my life dating American women. They are not very feminine as a group and seem proud of it. I admire the Japanese way in many of these cultural norms. It would sadden me to see them “westernize”. It’s like too many, western women have decided that it’s a shame to be female and they now strive to be masculine. Eh… maybe it’s just a grass is greener thing, but I would like to say “Japan Please Stay Japanese!”.

    • Bear Inthewoods says:

      American women DO differentiate between “manly” and “feminine”… But to a much more subtle degree. From childhood, we are taught to be emotionally strong, bold, not weak… So if you hear American women curse, see them in non-traditional occupations, participating in sports, those things are encouraged. We are also encouraged to look good doing those things, like a female super hero.
      A random American (male or female) who was un-informed about mouth-covering traditions, might interpret the act as shy, not confident, unsure, socially awkward. “Aw, she didn’t want us to see her laugh at (whatever).” We might think she was embarrassed by the thing being laughed about, however innocent. Don’t be surprised if a well-meaning American tries to bring this women “out of her shell”. If the American didn’t understand that mouth-covering is considered “elegant”, I’m pretty sure it would be misinterpreted.
      The reverse, of course, is that Americans think they are being fun and bubbly when they are loud and annoying and laugh out loud showing as many teeth as possible…even indirectly complimenting the person that said the funny thing. A closed mouth smile is a seen as an uptight conservative shy person who cannot enjoy social situation.

  • shatonbytories says:

    The reason? You say it yourself –
    “Reason 1 – Japanese women aren’t supposed to laugh out loud, which is considered lacking grace and unladylike in Japanese culture”
    i) “aren’t supposed to” – who says they aren’t supposed to, other women?
    ii) “considered lacking grace and unladylike” – by whom, other women?
    iii) “in Japanese culture” – this term encompasses a lot of male privilege and chauvinism.

    You also say “It is a learned behavior” (I would say “conditioned” behaviour.)
    Fair enough if you wanna do it, but those who don’t, or those who wanna break from doing it as pavlovian response, should not face subtle admonishment or pressure to conform a la Reason 1.
    It may be “cute and elegant” to some, but only really in the context of women eager to please and succeed in conforming to the subservient roles of this male led society.

  • AUSDAVIDZ says:

    I think Japanese woman are just fine and don’t care if they do not have perfect teeth! Smile on sisters!

  • Michael Hixenbaugh says:

    Just because only women in Japan perform this behavior but men do not does not eliminate this as a “cultural phenomenon” as you put it. There are plenty of societies where there are different expectations of what is acceptable for men and women, including double-standards such as this.

  • Joanna Lynn Fay says:

    When you said it wasn’t a cultural behavior, did you actually mean that it was? Because parts of your reasons 1 and 3 seem to indicate it is cultural. “Because Japanese women aren’t supposed to laugh out loud, which is considered lacking grace and unladylike in Japanese culture.” and “Because that’s what other Japanese women do. Japan is a collective society and people tend to mimic other people’s behaviors.” These sound a lot like “culturally learned behaviors” to me…Just because men don’t also do it, is not an indicator of whether or not it is part of the culture, as men and women’s cultural roles are frequently different.

  • Macarons & Sakura Tea says:

    Regardless of the reasons, I see this habit of mouth-covering by Japanese women as something lovely. There is this delicacy or charm to it. As for Reason n.4, this may equate to the [evanescent] ”Maria Clara attitude” in my home country. Señorita Maria Clara de los Angeles y Alba is a character from Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere and she is considered as a model of Filipina modesty as shown through her acts of covering her mouth with a pañuelo or an abanico, among other things.

  • Beverly Cabungcal says:

    I never knew about the crooked teeth, until..well this post. 🙂

  • shonangreg says:

    Isn’t this a Tokyo thing? Years ago some ladies from Osaka at a jazz festival I went to encouraged me not to cover my mouth when I laughed. They were cute, young, and enjoyed laughing out loud.

    I’ve since heard that it is one if the big differences between Kansai and Kanto.

  • Moïse Beugré says:

    I just fell in love with Japanese culture and their peculiar concern about “beauty”,that way of covering their mouths is part of what japanese people call nadeshiko if i’m not wrong and i totally love it if you’ve got more about it or anything related to japanese culture please don’t hesitate to share it,japanese culture is getting more and more popular so it’s cool nowadays to know and practice stuffs like that (y)

  • yoyi says:

    I think it is best not really americanish white, but a bit off-white, ivory, creamy, anything kinda white, but not like americans. I mean don’t they feel awkward, when their teeth are whiter than their eyeballs? Overbleached, end.

  • yoyi says:

    “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.” I don’t. For me, one hand is enough. If I use both hands, I put them on my cheeks, not my mouth. It comes out naturally. Does it mean I am less of a woman, or have bad manners? 🙂 I don’t think either of these.

  • Luningning GH Gotera says:

    This is interesting! I think that generally, in Asia, women tend to be demure in their ways. Just like their Japanese counterpart, Filipina women, of early times, also cover their mouths, and sometimes , even half of their faces, (with only their eyes showing, ) either with a fan or a handkerchief. This is specially true during the Spanish times.

  • skaizun says:

    Nakata-san, you have a lovely smile! Don’t hide it! 😉

  • lordblazer says:

    Japanese women also were suppose to cover their teeth in black ink. thank god that tradition died out.

  • #2 I don’t think so, most people want the crooked teeth, or yaeba, because it looks cute.
    What I heard was a long time ago, after women got married , there was a teeth dying practise to make them black. Since it wasn’t cute, they hid their teeth while laughing in order to hide it. It is called お歯黒 Ohaguro. It is only in current times that it was adopted as a cute mannerism, but お歯黒 is where it started.

  • Khairul Nizam Zainal says:

    Thank you, i learn allot from this article

  • Duper says:

    I’d never considered this before, thought it had crossed my mind. Makes sense and I have to agree. ^_^ Great article!

  • mm says:

    There are only 2 countries in the world right?

  • Celine Elise Leva says:

    So much class in one article.

  • Francesc Puig-Basagoiti says:

    one of the thousands things I still dont understand since moving to Japan. Perfect make-up, perfect hair, perfect dress….and then they smile and the constrast is just mesmerizing, why they put so much effort in the way they look but completely forget about their teeth? Many women here need some serious work in their teeth. I say less make up and better teeth. Give that face a nice ying-yang balance cause you are worth it baby 🙂

    • jlenoconel says:

      Teeth are expensive to care for lol.

    • Nahra Lee says:

      I’ve heard from a japanese friend that it’s sort of a trend their “messy” teeth, it makes them look younger.

    • Manami Chinen says:

      If you live in Tokyo you should understand that is not cheap to live there and one of the most expensive things is a dental treatment and buy some makeup, arrange the hair or get a dress is cheaper than this. While in Colombia a dental treatment can cost around 500 dollars in 2 years, there in Japan can costs 4000 dollars and other than that, each month you have to pay from 4000 to 7000 yens that is equal from 30 to 60 dollars.. I think that is not about if they want or dont want it.

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    This is a very good article.

  • Clinton Hayes says:

    Thank you!

    I has wondered about this for some time and now that I know why I don’t have to aske myself “Why isn’t she laughing. She genuinely looks like she wants to, but shes just giving me this kind smile.”.

    Yet another lesson learned.

  • Youbigdummy says:

    I used to do this as a child but I had severe self-esteem issues. When I see this this behavior I think this person doesn’t know their value, or that they are blushing. I’m an American by the way.

  • Brett Davidson says:

    There should be a learned exception too. When you’re the student trying to learn Japanese and your instructor instinctively covers her mouth, it not only muffles the sound, but I can’t see the shape, which is important to learning correct pronunciation. 🙂

  • gigi4747 says:

    I’m back in the U.S. now, but I always take my shoes off in the house (and sometimes even bring my “indoor” shoes (crocs) with me to other people’s houses). Shoes in the house, esp in the bathroom, just grosses me out now. I’m also much more likely to cross at crosswalks and wait for the signal to cross than I used to be 🙂

    I like the way Japanese women dress much better than the way a lot of American women dress, too. ie, the look Japanese women seem to go for is more pretty and feminine than an obvious attempt at “hot,” which usually just looks trashy or sloppy. Also could do without the tank top and Lycra Capri workout pants that a lot of American women wear.

  • Rita .Sassatelli says:

    I actually do this since some years ago, even if I can’t explain why. And I’m portuguese. Maybe too much anime and manga and japonese culture interest? Who knows?

    • Tess de la Serna says:

      In the Philippines, we cover our mouths when we laugh. I still do it here in America. I grew up where they say that giggling in public and laughing out loud are not ladylike and rude. It’s a cultural thing. Because some of the Filipinos that stayed in America for awhile now stopped covering their mouths when they laugh. I agree with Nakata-san, I think it’s cute.

  • Diana Stanciu says:

    To be honest, baring your teeth to others suggests aggression. Look at
    animals, cats, dogs, monkeys, you name it, they open their mouth and
    take an aggressive stance by showing their teeth when they’re about to
    attack. Teeth are weapons, and I think humans still know this, in the
    back of their heads. Japanese women are a bit more submissive than men,
    they don’t want to be threatening, so they hide them.

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