If you don’t know it yet, Japan is a high context culture. This means the people rely on unspoken words and mutual understanding when communicating. If you’re just starting your life in Japan or just learning about Japanese culture, it can get quite confusing. Don’t worry, there area few common body gestures to start you off.
They’re not your average body gestures that we know. Sometimes, Japanese body gestures can be quite foreign to the rest of us. So save yourself the miscommunication and learn about the top 8 most common ones you should know while learning Japanese!
1. X Signs
This first one is most commonly used to avoid misunderstandings between locals and foreigners. There are a few X signs in Japanese body language. The first one is when the X figure is created using arms. Usually, the arms are crossed in front of the body to get a big giant X. This means “no” and letting you know that something is not allowed. If a guard walks up to you and gives you this X sign with his arms, he’s probably letting you know that you can’t go in somewhere.
The second type of X sign is a small X figure using the fingers. This isn’t a subtle way to say no. In fact, this has a whole new meaning. This small X sign is actually asking for the bill. So if you’re trying to get your waiter’s attention for the check, give them this small X sign.
2. O Signs
This next one is the O sign. Similar to the X sign, there are two types of O signs. The first one is using the arms. The arms are shaped in the O figure over the head, linking to each other. This translates to approval. If that guard gives you this O sign instead of the X sign, he’s saying you’re allowed in somewhere.
The second O sign is using the fingers. You guessed it – it’s not a subtle way to say okay. If you join your thumb with other fingers to make the O figure, you’re gesturing the word “money”.
3. Arms Folded
This next body gesture is one more familiar to us, but with a different meaning. Sometimes, during work meetings, you might see your clients or higher ups having their arms folded. Don’t worry, they’re not disinterested. It’s the opposite meaning. They’re so interested that they’re thinking long and hard about something. So if you see someone crossing their arms when you’re talking to them, they’re not being rude. They’re just thinking.
4. Hand Behind the Head
The hand behind the head has a few different interpretations. You’ve probably seen it if you’ve watched anime or Japanese drama. Some understand it as a way to say no, some understand it as a reaction to embarrassment. If you’ve done something embarrassing and someone caught you doing it, it’s a natural reaction to have one hand behind the head. Like, “oops, I tripped”.
In another situation where this body language is used is if someone wants to say no, but is too polite to. If your friend isn’t free on the day you ask them out, they might have this body gesture while saying “um” or “chotto…”
In Japanese culture, pointing is considered rude. You shouldn’t point at others, but you can point at places and objects. You can point to yourself, but this is where the Japanese body gesture comes in. To point to yourself, you point to your nose. Kick that habit of pointing to your chest when referring to yourself and point to your nose when you’re in Japan!
6. Palms Together
If you’ve been to temples and shrines in Japan, you’ve probably seen this body gesture. This is a common one: palms pressed together in front of the chest. It’s kind of like a praying position. When Japanese people are praying at temples and shrines, they’ll do this gesture. But it also has another meaning: asking for help. If someone wants to ask for your help, they would do this gesture along with saying “please” or “onegaishimasu” (お願いします).
One some occasions, this can be used together with an apology to express your sincerity.
7. The Waving Hand
One hand gesture that’s pretty unique to Japanese culture is a wave with the palm faced downwards and moving back and forth. It’s kind of like the beckoning cat (maneki neko, 招き猫). If someone does this gesture to you, it’s not to shoo you away. Rather, it’s beckoning you to come closer.
If someone’s doing the same waving motion but with their hand moving up and down in front of their face, like as if they’ve smelt something bad, the meaning changes. This is another way of saying no, but more for declining a compliment. If you compliment your Japanese pal and she goes “sonna koto nai” (そんなことない), this gesture will usually accompany it.
8. The Chopping Hand
Don’t be surprised if a stranger starts chopping the air with their hands. This is a way of saying “excuse me, I’m coming through”. The most common example is when you’re in a crowded train, and someone wants to get off. They’ll place their chopping hand (the palm facing the side) in front of them to make their way through the crowd.
Sometimes, the chopping hand can be used to interrupt a conversation.
I have friends who would interrupt a conversation with this exact motion – I’ll be talking with another person and someone would come in between us, chopping the air and pause, before continuing to join the conversation.
Now you’re 8 gestures closer to fully understanding the high context culture of Japan. The thing is, if you really don’t know what your Japanese friend is trying to say, just ask! There’s definitely no harm in asking for an explanation, but it might be riskier to assume what they’re trying to say.