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Japanese as a second body language

by Amy Chavez

Continuing a lifetime study of how the Japanese can be so darn polite, today we look at body language.

If you study Japanese as a second language, then I suggest you also study Japanese as a second body language too. Once you have learned this second body language, you will have unlocked yet another phase of Japanese politeness.

The Japanese are often described as elegant and graceful. Is this a form of politeness? Well, there’s nothing elegant or graceful about being rude.

1. Movement

One of the keys to Japanese elegance is movement. Japanese people never make sudden movements or gestures. When they walk, they glide.

For women, high heels proclaim elegance. A Japanese woman would not leave her genkan without them. The only shoes she ever wears that don’t have a heel are the toilet slippers. At least there is no pressure to be elegant in the toilet. High heels will force you to take smaller steps, to tiptoe rather than heel strike. Tiptoeing is polite, which is why people do it when they are trying not to awaken someone. If you have to run in high heels, you’ll look elegant too, like a prancing Arabian horse.

“Isn’t tiptoeing around the city tiring?” you ask. Absolutely. Haven’t you ever wondered how all those taxi drivers can make a living in Japan? At one taxi stand, there can be 50 or more taxis waiting. The country socially pressures women into wearing heels all day so they can’t walk home.

This is also why Japanese women are so thin. Believe it or not, studies show that wearing high heels works all four muscle groups and is the key to a flatter belly and thinner thighs. Even when the girls have gotten out of their taxis at home and are laying on the sofa, with ankles wrapped and slathered in liniment, their muscles will continue to burn fat for up to 48 hours. This is why Japanese women are so slim. And slim is polite.

2. Posture

The Japanese always have good posture. They do not lean on walls, buildings nor lamp posts. They do not rest on one leg while waiting for the light to change at the cross walk. They stand up straight, hands at their sides or folded neatly in front of them, and wait at attention for the pedestrian light to change. It’s respect for the light.

The Japanese even have good posture when walking their dogs. The reason so many people carry smaller dogs when walking them is because they don’t want to be embarrassed into poor posture when Fido pulls and tugs at the leash, or runs circles around their high heels forcing them into a scrimmage game of Chinese jump rope. And they always put clothes on their dogs! There will be no naked dogs on Japan’s streets.

Japanese people do not slump over tables or hunch over on their stools. Exception: high school students at McDonald’s. McDonald’s seems to be the quasi homeless shelter for kids who are tired but too lazy to go home to sleep, so they sleep at the tables in McDonald’s. Go figure.

3. Poise

Japanese people do not hoe into their food. Hoes are for use in gardens, the extreme pre-meal phase of cooking. So, no hoeing at the dinner table. To be polite, you should eat bit by bit in tiny bites, with ample time to take rests, and breaths, between morsels. Occasionally put your chopsticks down on the designated chopstick rest, and take a moment to listen to your dinner table mates’ discussion.

If the conversation is boring, or if you’re by yourself , you can take in the joy of the food in front of you, or savor the flavor of the last bite. If you have not used your chopstick rest at least five times during the meal, you are hoeing. I have even seen Japanese people eat ice cream slowly, letting it melt and drip everywhere because they just couldn’t muster up the rudeness to hoe into that cone.

“Quick, eat it before it gets cold!” doesn’t go over here. Believe me, there is no hurry because the food is already cold anyway. The Japanese prefer much of their food room temperature, which is why meals are often set out well in advance of your arrival. The hot items (miso soup, rice, tempera, etc.) will be brought out later, after you’ve settled in and gotten acquainted with your meal.

As an aside, tongues remain inside the mouth in Japan. Even licking ice cream cones can be difficult for some women. Women tend to cover their mouths when they laugh, preventing you from observing their tongue or that cavernous array of dental work.

4. Indicating

Whatever you do, don’t point! Not even if you see a rare rabbit dashing through the brush and you want to alert your friend standing next to you who has a Ph.D. in haretology.

No, the polite way to indicate something is by using the entire hand, while saying in a calm, cool, manner, “Please take note of the rare rabbit dashing through the brush over there.” And don’t even consider hunting here. The reason guns are not popular in Japan is because no one has the nerve to point them at something, not even an animal. And most certainly not a human.

5. Mind your own business

Keep your head down and mind your own business when you’re standing and waiting for your matcha latte at Starbucks. Head up, scanning the crowd and making eye contact with everyone makes people nervous. They’ll either think you’re a terrorist, or that you’re going to suddenly start break-dancing, neither of which they want to be a part of.

6. Hide your anger

Displaying anger through facial expressions, gestures or by crossing your arms in front of your body is always rude. If you must, leave the room and come back when you’ve calmed down. Always conduct yourself with grace.

So there you have it, Japanese as a second body language. Good luck practicing!

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.