Communicating with a Japanese can be very frustrating at times. If the rapport hasn’t been developed, they tend to communicate in brief, but meaningful sentences, and a lot of times can be very ambiguous in their answers or wants.
Silence is more integrated in their customs as a form of communication than compared to Western languages. Also, the Japanese tend to be passive resistance. Therefore, it is very important that you understand the Japanese body language. Coupling the knowledge of the Japanese body language with verbal communication will help avoid misunderstandings between you and your Japanese conversationalist.
Ever notice when making eye contact with a Japanese individual, the individual responds by looking away?
Making eye contact is considered rude, leads to uncomfortableness, and can be construed as a sign of aggression. When speaking to or approaching a Japanese individual, make very brief eye contact to signal the individual, but then maintain appropriate eye level, such as the individual’s neck.
A list of the common and not-so-common body gestures used by the Japanese. Learn these to avoid any confusion and awkward looks when communicating with your Japanese coworker, friend, or stranger!
Index finders pointing out from head, like horns.
Asking for forgiveness; Favor, Thanking for a meal
Single clapping of the hands in front of the face.
Open-hand behind the head.
Clenched first in front of face, with pinky-end out front. Refers to the Tengu’s long nose.
Also known as the sesame grinder. Gesture is the motion of using a pestle and mortar. Shape one hand such as if you are holding the mortar. The other hand shaped like you are grasping a pestle. Make circular motions with your pestle hand.
Lick finger, then touch person or object.
Counting (with fingers)
The Japanese finger counting system is opposite of the Western counting system.
1 = thumb finger closed
2 = thumb + index fingers closed
3 = thumb + index + middle fingers closed
4 = thumb + index + middle + ring fingers closed
5 = all fingers closed, clenched fist
Drunk; Lets drink!
Shape thumb and index finger as if holding a small sake cup. Motion cup to mouth as if drinking.
As if your arms are extended out for praying, but with only one arm.
Female; Girlfriend; Wife; Mistress
Japanese equivalent to the Western handshake. Maybe the most important piece of Japanese body language there is.
The lower and longer duration of the bow, the higher degree of respect displayed by the bowee. Vaguely similar to how the firmness of the handshake determines the level of confidence and respect one has for the individual.
Females maintain both arms to the front, with hands on top of legs. Males keep arms to their sides.
Bowing can often be seen done while on the phone.
Hungry; Lets eat!
Index and middle fingers extended outs like chop sticks on one hand. Other hand is shaped like a bowl. Motion chopsticks like you are shoveling food into your mouth.
“I can do it!”; “Challenge Accepted”
Flex arm and place other hand on biceps.
Clashing index fingers.
Hands in pockets.
Mock; Ridicule; Disapproval
Pulling lower eyelid down with pinky and sticking out the tongue.
Thumb and index finger together.
No; “I can’t help you, I don’t speak (language)”
Waving hand back and forth in front of face.
Cross arms as a X in front of you.
Shape arms above your head as a big ‘O’.
Receiving and giving gift
Action is done with both hands on gift and arms extended. Slight head bowing is optional.
Referring to another person; Polite pointing
Open hand with palm facing up, directed to the person of interest.
Referring to one’s self
Point to one’s nose.
Signaling someone to come to you
Wave towards the person with palms facing down.
Success!; Greeting (typically to foreigners)
Wavie hand back and forth in front of face.
Bend index finger, shaped like a hook.
Thinking hard; Disagreement
Folded arms. Context dependent. If eyes are closed, then it is a response that the individual is thinking deeply. If eyes are open and given the context, can also mean the person is disagreeing with you. Can also be considered hostile.
How To Learn Japanese Body Language
Body language isn’t something that you learn overnight. It’s something you’ve been learning your whole entire life. Your body language is your body language, and there’s not much that will change that. If you do, however, want to be more “Japanese” then body language is one of those (important) subtle things you’ll need to change.
Western body language and Japanese body language are quite different. My recommendation would be to start with the smaller more subtle things, or the things that you don’t already have body language for. That way you can work your way up to the things that require big change. Just remember, though, if you put a ton of time (and years) into developing a new body language, then the people in your native country might start thinking you’re a bit weird! So, you gotta balance the good with the bad. There’s definitely some things that stand out more than others between the two cultures, so be a little picky with what you try.
Before you head out, though, check out our Japanese Body Language videos! They’re just like this page but with moving parts.