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Why do Japanese women cover their mouth while laughing?

35 Comments

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According to my grandmother, it is because in the old days people's teeth were not very good, so you hid your teeth with your hand. Now the custom continues even though people's teeth are good because it seems like a sign of modesty. Also, men used to do it.

8 ( +13 / -5 )

Because showing pain and suffering are the most legitimate signals in Japan and revealing too much pleasure or fun are frowned upon, so have to be stifled.

-4 ( +9 / -13 )

Behavior is just copied. Why do Japanese men make bodily noises that Japanese women don't?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

bad teeth

0 ( +0 / -0 )

bad teeth is right and also to avoid smelling gut rot breath.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

One of the most ridiculous questions posted here.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I've seen some guys do this as well. Probably some confused notion to do with cuteness or innocence or whatever

0 ( +5 / -5 )

I've seen some guys do it too. The people I see doing it usually have some serious snaggletooth or discoloration going on, so I'm guessing that's the reason despite Japan's general lenience toward bad teeth.

0 ( +6 / -6 )

A etiquette strictly observed by women from the ancient times during the Nara period in Japan was not to bare one's teeth in front of others when laughing and not opening one's mouth wide showing the inside of the mouth. To prevent that Japanese women dyed heir teeth black. During the Muromachi period, girls who reached nine years of age dyed their teeth as a mark of having attained adulthood. During the Edo period, all married women dyed their teeth. Hesitant about showing their blackened teeth, women hid their mouth with their hand or kimono sleeve considered as an act of courtesy that reflected refinement.

10 ( +13 / -3 )

I dont understand why "bad teeth" was flagged off topic... bad teeth are the primary reason.

3 ( +10 / -7 )

Something about people back then having black teeth?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

it is because in the old days people's teeth were not very good

Kinda' still holds true today. Every now and then we all see a couple trap-jaws, who'd otherwise be cute if their teeth were decent.

-3 ( +6 / -9 )

I think novenachama nailed it.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

It's the same as Victorian era upper class females covered their mouth with a fan when speaking or laughing.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I do not think it is the teeth, as the British have even worse teeth and they never cover it up.

I think the hand is replacing the fan which used to be used for covering up and only showing the eyes,

-7 ( +5 / -12 )

Chinese women do that, too. And Korean: http://www.sutiben.com/note/have-you-seen-asian-girls-cover-their-mouths-while-laughing.html

If everyone's teeth were not very good, I don't see why anyone would have to cover them up. No orthodontists in the old days.

It could be from old customs. Was surprised a while back to hear some Korean words from youtube sounded like Cantonese. Looked them up and apparently they shared common roots, from Middle Chinese (before Putonghua/Mandarin took over).

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I think the old etiquette and custom Novenachama mentioned is definitely the origin and made covering your mouth an common/acceptable thing to do (unlike in Britain), but it's been taken up and continued today mostly by people with bad teeth. How else do you explain guys doing it?

This is anecdotal, but I have a male Japanese cousin who only started covering his mouth after his front teeth started falling out due to poor dental hygiene. I'd feel bad for him, but apparently he never brushed his teeth.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

How else do you explain guys doing it?

Sometimes you need to blend in with your target.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

During the Edo period, all married women dyed their teeth. Hesitant about showing their blackened teeth,

And this is where the oft-repeated and rather trite reason tends to not make much sense. If it was accepted practice then why would blackened teeth be embarrassing? Would these women be hesitant about their married status?

You will often find that stated reasons are not in fact the real ones when it comes to custom and habits. You have to look to the way emotion was expressed or repressed in a very controlled society.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Some talk about blacked teeth in the Nara era and the like, but I don't think my grandmother and her generation would be aware of that. She just said it was because frequently their teeth were bad of miscolored, so they would hide their mouth. I'm not saying that the Nara story is wrong, just that it seems not relevant to my grandmother's generation.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

With the greatest of respect to your grandmother, gokai_wo_maneku, she is probably not the ideal authority. She may have rationalised her habits that way - perhaps this was a common rationalisation - but that doesn't mean it is true. Suppression of emotion is shown to be more common in collectivistic cultures for fear of upsetting social harmony. And I think that covering the mouth is part of that. At the very least, the emotion does not seem so overt when the mouth is covered. (From Wikipedia: Miyahara, referencing a study conducted on Japanese interpersonal communication, purports that the Japanese "are low in self disclosure, both verbally and non-verbally....Most of these attributes are ascribed to the Japanese people's collectivistic orientations".[4] The study conducted showed that Japanese individuals have a relatively low expression of emotion. And this would have been even more so in the past than now.) However, the expression of hardship is widely signalled, perhaps as sign that the person is trying to persevere, which is widely accepted as a mode of behaviour.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

@gokai,

It`s no longer the old days though. They should be taught that a smile is an amazing thing to see.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I do not think it is the teeth, as the British have even worse teeth and they never cover it up.

Oh for god's sake shut up!

I think the black teeth reason is the correct one. It certainly comes across as an older mannerism, like yokels tugging a forelock or similar gestures.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Japanese cover their face when they laugh so as not to show their laughing face, because laughing is a bad manner.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I think it has to do with old customs, but I've also heard that back then blackened teeth were "fashionable" to an extent. There may have also been dental hygene reasons for laquering the teeth. It's also notable that Japanese language is generally spoken without the top front teeth showing. I think this is going away in younger generations, while often smile a lot when speaking, but if you speak with older people in particular you can often notice that usually only their bottom teeth are visible when speaking Japanese. This is also one of the biggest challenges in teaching Japanese people English pronunciation, as quite a lot of it is pronounced using the teeth (and showing your top front teeth). I used to teach pronunciation classes and it was quite a struggle to get many of the students, people older than their late 40's in particular, to show and use their front teeth. So perhaps part of this also comes from people generally not showing their front teeth at all?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It's just what they do---get over it.!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Taught behaviour which becomes habit. Like pointing to one's nose to indicate self.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Taught behaviour which becomes habit. Like pointing to one's nose to indicate self.

Or pointing at one's chest to indicate self.

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

They cover their mouths with their hands the same way women in other cultures do, and used to do in the West. It's a sign of "feminine modesty". It's not just a Japanese thing.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

A true story - altho I'm not so sure about the validity of the contents.

A middle aged guy at a bonenkai a few years back said women cover their mouths when they laugh, because they're always talking when eating so its to stop / cover the food coming out.

When I proceded to tell him, many men also eat and talk at the same time he said, "We don 't care because we're men."

True - he believed that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A misguided notion that feigning embarrassment at being joyful is somehow cute or vulnerable.

I disagree very strongly - there are few things more attractive than a good-looking woman giving a full-throated, hearty, unabashed roar of laughter.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Somehow there is money to be made with this societal covering-mouth trend. Probably not big selfie-stick buyers though.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

As with all ancient protocol it doesn't necessarily have any rational explanation in the modern world, it just happens to be considered the proper, cultivated way of laughing. These things are hardly unique to Japan.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@MrBum

How else do you explain guys doing it?

Because men were the primary actors in the theaters such as Noh and Kabuki and pretended to be women.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Moonrater: Out all the comments on this subject, your would be the best reason why. Really I think you hit the nail on the head. This could be why there is so many Festiveals in Japan. This allow the public to celebrate and be Joyful and the rest of the time is devoted to your local lord or Demio.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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