This is something I wished I had paid more attention to before coming to Japan / that would have been nice to have been included in Tokyo orientation….. While I am familiar with these general gestures, the last one, and probably the most important one, I didn’t know. So here you go! Some common Japanese gestures.
1. Gesturing to yourself
In America, if someone calls out to you but you didn’t hear / aren’t sure if they mean you, what do you do? I point at my chest. “Me?” I mouth to the other person.
In Japan, you point at your nose instead!
2. Gesturing to others
While not particularly polite, you can point at someone in America. It’s not the worst thing you can do, but not the best either.
Japan is basically of the same opinion, but pointing is seem as slightly more rude than in America. I rarely see people point at each other, except for kids to other kids. The more common thing is to gesture with your whole hand towards someone else.
3. “Come here” gesture
When you look up how Japanese and American gestures differ, this one will always be on the list. There are a few “come here” gestures in America. One is holding your hand palm up, extending only your index finger and bending it towards you. The other is the same general gesture, just bigger; instead of just one finger, you bend all your fingers, or you move your whole arm too if you’re really excited or need to convey that the other person should hurry.
In Japan, this gesture is actually pretty similar. Instead of your palm facing up, it faces down, and then your fingers bend toward you. This looks a bit like a “shoo” gesture in America, espically because Japanese people don’t tend to really emphasize the finger-bending-towards-you part. But no, they don’t want you to go away, they want you to come closer!
4. Gesture for something is good/bad
This is the dangerous one. In America, the gesture for good is thumbs up and the gesture for bad is thumbs down. Simple as that.
In Japan, the gesture for good is to make a circle(maru) with your hands and arms in front of you or above your head (I haven’t seen this much). The gesture for bad (which I see everywhere) is to cross your hands at the wrists in front of you, making an ‘X’ (batsu).
Random fun fact: true/false in Japan is maru/batsu.
Sooooo what’s the problem? The problem is that in Japan, a thumbs down is essentially the equivalent of telling someone to go to hell. Of course, I didn’t learn this until I did it in class and I got some weird looks from kids. I looked it up after that class was over. It’s not a HUGE big deal (most people understand that you’re not Japanese, and that this must mean something different where you’re from), but I would caution you against using it when dealing with specific kids (Asking the class, “Is Takeshi thumbs up or thumbs down?”)as this could lead to bullying, as well as with elementary school kids. My co-worker, who is on his third year of JET, did this in an elementary class one time, and while it didn’t phase most of the kids, one of the students wouldn’t let it go. He kept yelling about what that gesture means in Japan and started doing it to other kids, which caused some… tension… SO. Tryyyy not to do a thumbs down. Better to just avoid it and use batsu instead, which is more fun to do anyway.
There you go! A simple guide to gesturing. Hope you found it interesting and informative!