What do you mean? 10 Japanese gestures to learn

Foreign languages can be difficult.  Although language apps and classes help, they will only get you so far. Have you tried to speak Japanese over the phone or listening to the podcast in Japanese? When you cannot read a person’s face and body language, it hinders the communication. Therefore,  learning some Japanese body language or gestures can really help you to communicate in Japan, especially when your limited vocabulary fails! However, they may be a little bit different from what you are used to back home. Let’s take a look and practice together!

1. Come here

Stretch your arm out and wave your hand towards you with a full arm means to come here.

Examples: When you spot a beautiful lady at a bar,  “come here and join us for a drink!” (Wave your hand towards you)

2. No way

Wave your hand in front of your face. Bonus points for not moving your elbow around much. This one can be tricky for newcomers, who often confuse it with the western “something smells bad” wave. It actually means no, or when something is different.

Example: “So this is your mum?” “No way! She is my girlfriend.” (wave)

3. Counting

To count with your fingers for others to see, raise your hand and face your palm outward. Holding no fingers up in this position (a fist) is zero. Extending your index finger indicates one, and extending the other fingers (in addition to the ones already up) going towards the pinky indicates the numbers 2-4. Finally, extending the thumb outward, so that all five fingers are up, is the number five. The other hand is added for numbers above five. 

Take a look at the demonstration of finger counting from 1 to 9.

4. Showing directions

We are always told that it is rude to point at someone since we are a kid. In Japan, you always see people holding their palm face up with elbow bent, and extending the arm out towards the proposed direction. Japanese usually use this gesture to show where thing and the direction is, in a graceful way.

Example: You are looking for a bookstore inside a mall, the staff said “go left and you will find the store in the corner.” (with hand pointing towards the location)

5. Me

Do not get confused when a Japanese point to their nose. They are not trying to tell you that there is ice cream on your face, but to refer to themselves.

Example: “Hey ! can you help me get the ice cream in the fridge?”, “Me?”

6. Money 

The Japanese gesture for money is a circle made with the thumb finger and the index finger, which looks like the gesture for ”okay.” Many people have mixed the two of them up, but the sign for money is usually made with the fingers out laying flat. So next time when a Japanese shows your this gesture, just bear in mind that it is not an ”okay”!

Example: When your friends ask you to hang out with them, but you are running low on cash, so you tell your friends,“sorry, I don’t have the… (gesture for money).”

7. No

When Japanese people want to say “no,” or express the meaning for wrong, they will make a big X with their arms across the chest. This gesture means “dame” (だめ) in Japanese, which indicates “no” or “cannot.” This big cross can also mean “false” or “incorrect,” When you answered a question wrong, you may receive this gesture of “batsu” (ばつ) in Japanese. Have you ever noticed that there is an emoji of this gesture on the iPhone?

Example: “Do you want to eat natto?” “No! I hate natto.” (with the big X gesture)

8. Passing through

There is a particular gesture to use when you want to pass in front of someone in Japan. Japanese people will make a slight bow and shake their hand upwards and downwards. Next time when you want to pass through a crowd, or trying to make way, you can try to make this gesture together saying the word “sumimasen!” (すみません) which means “Excuse me!”

Example: When passing throng the crowd, say “sumimasen” alongside with this gesture.

9. Eat

Shape one hand like a bowl in front of you, then make “chopsticks” with the first two fingers of your other hand. Then motion the “chopsticks” towards your mouth like you are shovelling in some delicious udon! You friend will understand the message “let’s eat” right away!

Example: It’s 8pm and you finally finish all the work, “let’s go grab some food I’m starving!” (Shovelling with your “chopsticks” super quickly)

10. Check please

When you want to ask for the bill after having a lovely dinner at a restaurant, simply make a “x” with your index fingers to the waiter, and your check will come along soon. This is a pretty practical one especially when the waiter is far from you.