Communication in any language includes not only verbal elements but also unspoken clues. These could be a posture or a gesture, eye contact, the distance between speakers, tone of voice, and many other things that add to the conversation. While some cultures are more reserved when it comes to using gestures, others can “speak” with their hand as, for example, Italians do. In Japan, too, gestures and body language play a huge role in daily and business communication.
Nevertheless, signs and gestures used in Japan may be very different from other countries and quite often unique. In this article, we are going to examine some of the most typical gestures and explain how to use them correctly and what to pay attention to.
Learning how to bow the correct way is at the top of the list when visiting or living in Japan. People bow in a variety of situations. There are many ways to bow and all of them have their own names. To begin with, let us take a closer look at the most neutral and easy way that would fit the majority of cases.
The right way
Start with the upright posture, firmly standing on both feet while keeping your hands along the sides (better a bit closer to the front) of your thighs. Then lower your eyes and bow to about 30-45 degrees with your spine straight. Maintain the bow for a second or two, and get back to an upright position.
As simple as that, when done correctly this basic element of Japanese body language conveys your good manners, modesty, and respectful attitude towards your counterpart. This is an easy first step to create a good impression in Japan.
Gestures and body language used in Japan are often unique to the country.
The wrong way
Do not rush through this simple ritual. And do not reduce your bow to a fast nod. Quick nods are only for family members and close friends. Take your time to lower you back too and maintain the proper degree. Also, do not bow on the go. It is polite to stop before bowing. Once you have straightened you back after a bow, you can continue moving.
Watch out not to slouch your back, drop your head (or on the contrary try to look forward at the person while bowing), place more of your weight on one foot than the other. What is seen as relaxed and casual posture in some countries may signal a lack of interest or respect.
Pay attention to your arms. Do not let them hang lifelessly, never keep them in pockets or behind your back in a lock, and do not grab your clothes while bowing. Do not cross arms in front of your chest. Sometimes people also press their palms together at the heart level as if saying “please”, which is, of course, one of many ways to bow. However, it is used only during religious rituals. Finally, do not clench fists. It signals suppressed anger.
Speaking while bowing is unacceptable. Supporting the conversation with gestures is important (see the next point). But bowing is not one of those gestures. You can start or continue speaking when you have returned to an upright position.
If you are not sure how to bow correctly, observe how people around you do it. Usually, this gesture is easy to replicate and it comes automatically, oftentimes even unconsciously, to many people after being in Japan for a while. For those who are not in Japan, there are myriads of tutorials on YouTube. Practice with the video and after several attempts, it will come very naturally.
Keeping up with the conversation
In Japan, it is polite to confirm that you are listening to your partner in a variety of ways. On the one hand, when listening to a person you have to verbally react by saying things like “Naruhodo” (I see), “Sou desu ka?” (Is that so?) or “Sou desu ne” (That is truly so!), “Hee!” (Wow! / I cannot believe it! / What?). On the other, support your reaction with the appropriate body language.
It is acceptable to point fingers at unanimated objects or to show the direction. In Japan, pointing fingers to other people is not considered to be as rude as in many Western countries. However, it is better not to point fingers at the others. Yet, it is common and absolutely normal to point at oneself (quite often in the face at the nose level) with the index finger when talking.
Responding to a request
Accepting something or agreeing
When accepting an offer, you can thank a person and slightly bow. If you are receiving an object from someone, be sure to take it with both hands and bow at the same time.
If you want to say “OK” you can give a person a thumbs-up or put your hands up above your hand, bend them in the elbows a bit to form a big “O” (called maru in Japanese).
Remember, however, that thumb-down is an offensive sign in Japan. And the sign that is used for OK in the United States (a thumb and an index finger form a circle, other fingers are stretched out) means “money” in Japan.
Showing denial or prohibition
If you are denying something there are two ways to indicate it.
The stronger way is to cross your arms in front of your chest with fingers straight to form a big “X” (called batsu in Japanese). It is also handy to use this one if the person you are gesturing to is a bit far from you. Remember that making an “x” with your fingers does not convey the same meaning. In Japan, this sign stands for “Receipt, please” and can be used in a cafeteria.
Another way is to lift your arms bent in the elbows to your face level, put your straight fingers together as a continuation of a palm, and then wave your hand fast in front of your face. It may look like a person is trying to remove an unpleasantly smelling air but without grimacing. At the same time, you can say “ie-ie” (formal) or “iya-iya” (informal) for “No, I would rather not”, or “chigaimasu” for “That’s incorrect” or “muri desu” (formal) or “muri-muri-muri” (informal) for “No-no, that is impossible, I cannot do it”.
If you need to count on your fingers, start with your palm up and proceed to folding your thumb inwards first, then the index finger, and so on until you form a fist. Then you can continue counting on the same hand, but start unfolding fingers from the thumb again. If you are showing the number with both hands, then you place one hand onto another. For example, “eight” would look like three fingers of one hand pressed against an open palm of the other and turned towards the listener.
Asking a person to come closer
In Japan, if you want to ask a person to come closer to you, you raise your hand with the palm facing down and soften your wrist to let your hand and fingers hang freely. Then you start moving your fingers and hand towards yourself as if cooping the air. For those who see this gesture for the first time, it might look as waving “buy-buy”. But it actually means “come closer”. Think of lucky cats (manekineko) bouncing their paws calling for happiness and fortune to approach them, and you will never be confused.
As you can see, besides bowing, Japan has a lot of very peculiar gestures. People tend to perceive communication through the cultural lens of their country. Thus, it is good to know how body language in Japan is different from the rest of the world. Being aware of cultural differences and mastering body language of another country at least to some extent may save the day.
"Otsumami" - a bite size snack:
Being aware of body language and gestures helps to build better communication.