A gesture is worth a thousand words – well known to the Europeans, the saying perfectly describes the culture and lifestyle of the people from the Country of Cherry Blossoms. Famous for their innate guardedness and self-restraint, the Japanese use hundreds of gestures, the majority highly rooted in the Japanese tradition. The non-verbal communications expressed through those small signs are used primarily to sustain appropriate, harmonious or hierarchic interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, staying in large cities, such as Tokio, we will quickly understand that in such crowded places, characterised by a quick pace of life, gesture is practically indispensable for efficient communications.

Japanese body language – bow

Japanese society is highly hierarchical and it uses a number of gestures to emphasise the importance of the members of a particular group and their mutual relations. A bow (ojigi) is one of the most important gestures used by the Japanese, perfectly reflecting the hierarchy in the group. People bowing to each other is a common view in Japan – they bow to greet each other, to say goodbye, to apologise, to ask for something and, primarily, when they want to emphasise their respect for the other person. An important gesture in the daily and professional life, bow is governed by a number of very clear rules.

How to bow properly? First of all, never look the person you are bowing to in the eye. Keep your legs together and your back straight. Men should press their hands rigidly to their body and keep them straight, while women should keep their palms on their thighs, with their fingers touching. When you bow to a person who deserves more respect (an elder, a better educated person or someone ranked higher for another reason), bow lower than that person and straighten up only after they turn away from you or close the door behind them. Additionally, a goodbye bow should be deeper than a greeting bow.

The angle of the bow is very important. The general rule is that the lighter the bow the more we are connected with the person whom we are greeting or saying goodbye to, and the deeper the bow, the more we want to emphasise the formal nature of the meeting. The nature of the bow is perfectly reflected in the angle at which we lean.

A slight nod is reserved for close friends.

Eshaku, that is a 15-degree bow, is intended for acquaintances. Keirei, 30 degrees, is for those whom we want to show our respect during formal meetings. Between eshaku and kerei, there is a 20-degree bow, used for players of opposite teams, for instance sumo competitors.

A 45-degree bow, known as saikeirei, means the utmost respect so it is reserved for special occasions.

Bows are so important that they are used almost all the time, sometimes even passing by cyclists bow to each other! Do not bow back only to those who bow to you because of their job, such as leaflet distributors, sales assistants.

Japanese gestures that may startle Europeans

Japanese body language is not just bows. Some of the gestures may be hard to decipher for Europeans but master OYAKATA will try to explain the most popular ones. If you want to point to yourself, do not point the index finger in accordance with European standards – towards your chest but direct it at your… nose. An index finger joined with the thumb to create a circle does not mean ‘OK,’ as it could seem, but it symbolises money.

Waving with an open palm at the level of your face, with your thumb pointing towards your face, means a negative answer. The same is denoted by hands crossed at the level of wrists.

A gesture that Poles use to demonstrate alcohol abuse, that is striking the back of your neck with the edge of an open palm, in Japan means being fired and it dates back to the samurai era, where it symbolised being beheading with a sword.

There is an interesting gesture symbolising oil being squeezed from sesame seeds – the right hand makes circulatory movements smashing the seeds which are in a bowl – that is hand in a cupping gesture. The gesture means criticising a person who is toady and dishonestly polite.

Anger or bad mood of another person is shown with “horns”, that is fist with extended index fingers held on both sides of your head.

If you want to use a gesture to comment on your interlocutor’s know-it-all attitude, hold your fist near your nose and make a forward movement from the nose – as if you wanted to imitate a too long nose of someone who is overconfident. If someone really annoys you with their smarty-pants behaviour, you can use two fists next to each other to enhance the effect. The gesture is a visualisation of the Japanese saying ‘to have a long nose’ (hana-ga takai desu), which describes a person who is arrogant and conceited.

When you see young Japanese girls (girls use this gesture more often than boys) whose little fingers of right hands are hooked, this means that they have just made a promise to each other.

The Japanese use gestures even to communicate that they are hungry – using hand movements they pretend they are eating rice, with the left hand holding an invisible bowl and the right one picking up the imaginary rice and bringing it to their mouth.

Tea ceremony – Japanese body language in bloom

The ceremony of brewing powdered green tea (cha-no-yu) involves many gestures. Let’s start with the already discussed bows. Three types of those appear in the ceremony. Two lighter ones – gyō and sō – are used between people at the same level in the hierarchy. A deeper bow – shin – is reserved for teachers and masters.

The ceremony starts at the house gates, where the host greets the guests with a bow and invites them to the garden with plants and stone composition. Before moving on to the tea house where they will drink the green infusion, the guests stop by a spring and draw some water to carefully wash their hands and rinse their mouths, thus symbolically cleansing their body and spirit. The tea house is entered through a low, narrow hole, symbolising the equality of all participants. In the past, samurai had to leave their weapons outside before entering the ceremony to emphasise they were equal to the remaining guests. Before serving the tea, the master of the ceremony raises the bowl to his face to briefly contemplate the purity of his own intentions – the gesture is to convey positive emotions and keep the harmony between the ceremony participants.

If you are going to Japan, make sure to learn the most popular gestures to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings and show the inhabitants of the Country of Cherry Blossoms your commitment and your willingness to consciously participate in their culture. After all, remember that following the small rituals in Japan is more than just courtesy – it is a way of showing respect. So rather than patting a Japanese on a back with familiarity, choose a seemingly simple gesture and bow with a light smile –this effort will not be left unappreciated.

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