A non-Japanese-speaking friend of mine was telling me a story of how he once tried to talk his way onto a dinner cruise, even though he knew all the seats were booked. Persistence, he figured, plus his clumsiness with the language would work its “gaijin” spell on the English-burdened clerk, who he just knew would eventually relent and find one more place setting.
Yet the clerk would not budge and soon both men became hot under the collar.
“So I had no choice,” my friend reported, “but to resort to the international language.”
“You mean you bribed him?”
He glared at me. “No . . . I gave him the finger.”
So some gestures do indeed cross cultures, with this specific motion perhaps being an educational byproduct of Hollywood, which can make people laugh, cry — and teach them how to be obscene with their fingers. Such is the magic of movies.
The communicative magic of Japanese gestures — on the other hand — doesn’t always stick. At least not for those fresh from the plane. So let the following words be a primer for the gesticularly challenged. Don’t worry — I promise this will be much easier than kanji. Really.
One of the more unique Japanese gestures is the pressing of an index finger to the nose to indicate oneself, whereas in the West such indication is usually done by pointing at one’s chest. That Japanese press their noses is sometimes cited as a reason why the Japanese proboscis is so blunt. Really. Yet even though the Japanese are famously self-conscious about the length of their noses, they all continue this potentially harmful gesture. Think of it like smoking or gambling. Some habits are hard to break, no matter what the personal risk.
The proper way to indicate someone other than yourself is to stick out your finger and press it upon that person’s nose. Really. If in doubt, just try it. You will be amazed at the communicative results.
Another colorful Japanese gesture is the raising of your pinkie finger to indicate another man’s wife, girlfriend or mistress — or possibly all three, depending on the man. (Note: When yakuza raise their pinkie finger, the gesture means roughly the same, except that the woman has been decapitated. Really.)
If you’re wondering how to use this gesture, here is a model situation:
A visitor steps into your office, looks around and then (after first pressing your nose) says, “Where’s your boss?”
At this “point” you nod at the broom closet and raise your pinkie finger. This tactfully tells the visitor that your boss is in the closet with his wife, girlfriend or mistress — or possibly all three, depending on the boss and the amount of noise coming from the closet.
Still another quaint Japanese gesture is the covering of one’s mouth while laughing. Only women do this, however. The reason is because women are forced to put up with so many sappy lines from bonehead men that by covering their mouth they can pretend to giggle, and stick out their tongue at the same time.
Meanwhile, men, especially the bonehead ones, cover not their mouths, but their eyes. Really. This means you should never make a Japanese man laugh while he is driving, chopping wood or about to press your nose. In this last case, you could lose an eye.
My favorite Japanese gesture is the framing of one’s head with both index fingers, one on either side. No, this does not indicate a bull, as if what I am about to tell you is full of it. Rather, this is emblematic of a horned Japanese ogre, called “oni,” which are usually bright red or blue, wear almost nothing and are perpetually angry. Which you might be too if you were red or blue and had no clothes.
Anyway, the “oni gesture” indicates that someone is upset. Interestingly enough, the gesture is often applied by a man when referring to his spouse. Of course, I have never used it to denote my own spouse because she rarely gets upset, even with the nose-pushing pranks of her clever husband, whom she just adores. Really.
“Are you making fun of my culture again?” she calls from the other room. “Don’t make me come over there.”
Now, this would be the perfect time to flash the oni sign but instead I cover my eyes, laugh, and say: “Uh, no, dear, I was just mulling over my love for Japan. Japan has four seasons, you know. Plus the Japanese language is the world’s most expressive, especially with gestures. So you can put down that ball bat, ha ha.”
She responds by spinning an index finger pointed at her head and then opening all the fingers at once, as if casting confetti skyward. This gesture means that the recipient is exceptionally bright. Really. I know, as I see it all the time.
The ultimate Japanese gesture is the act of bowing. “Most foreigners are crappy at bowing,” says my wife. “Something is always a little off. They end up looking so . . . foreign.”
The correct way to bow is to face the person you wish to address, place your hands at your sides and then lower your head while bending slightly at the waist. Where foreigners have been known to screw this up is by either holding their arms out like airplane wings or by spinning around and bending in the opposite direction. The airplane faux pas I did myself for years. Really.
There are, of course, many more. Because actions speak louder than words, these handy gesture hints will surely make your stay in Japan much more communicative. And, I bet, more interesting as well.