Japanese body language: 7 key gestures to learn

By Casey Hawkins

It may surprise you to know there are close to 100 different gestures regularly used by Japanese people to communicate with friends, colleagues and the general public. While most of those used by Western countries are crude or considered a novelty, the Japanese rely on hand gestures to communicate everything from basic requests to expressing emotion and personal preferences.

Those visiting who don’t speak Japanese often rely on the use of hand gestures to get around which can be bemusing, considering some mean the total opposite to what has been learnt back home. Some common gestures have spread globally, making them more identifiable, and are even mimicked by foreigners; however, in many cases their significance has been lost or misinterpreted.

Here are seven gestures with their proper meanings that I can almost guarantee you’ll come across during your time in Japan. Who knows, stay here for long enough and soon you might find yourself doing them as well.

1. Beckoning someone forward

When you’re called over by somebody, or standing in a line and asked to move forward, you’ll see this beckoning movement. The hand gesture used looks more like the person is trying to shoo you away than motion you towards them.

What to look for

The person’s hand will be palm down with fingers out front. They will drag their fingers inwards to their palm, then flick them back out straight again. The flick outwards seems more prominent, making it look like they are telling you to move away.

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When they tilt their heads it means they have no clue what you are talking about.

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For those who don't want to "click here" to read more:

1) The "come here" method (palms down. vs. palms up)

2) Finger counting style

3) The teeth sucking avoidance of saying "no"

4) Pointing with hands instead of fingers

5) The "me" nose touch

6) The peace sign picture pose

7) The "hello-goodbye" bow instead of hand shake

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Serrano: When they tilt their heads it means they have no clue what you are talking about.

What happens when they talk to a person from Mumbai? Who wag their heads all the time, as a kind of "Yes! That's right!"

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I did that "come here" gesture to a shuttle bus driver at JFK years ago. He purposely ignored me for 3 laps around the airport. Then he stopped and asked me if I knew why he was doing that, and I said no. Because, according to him, that;s how one would call a dog, and he felt insulted by it.

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"At JFK" ... he must get away with that a lot ...

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Well sensei258, if you're Japanese then he should have been more forgiving, seeing as he works with foreign people all day. If you're western then the jokes on you!

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