Common Gestures Used by Japanese People

Every country has its own unique gestures. Many of them are based on the culture and history of the country, and people from other countries may be a little confused… Today, we introduce some of the most commonly used gestures in Japan!

Pointing at one’s nose…?

We are not talking about the nose. This is a gesture of pointing at oneself. When Japanese people talk about themselves, they point to their own faces. Most people point to their nose, which is in the middle of their face, so if you see people pointing to their nose, assume that they are talking about themselves.

For example, if you suddenly talk to the person next to you, “Hey, did you finish your report?” Then, he points at his nose and says, “What? Me? (Did you just talk to me?)” We use it in these kinds of situations.

Too much nodding?

We nod our heads during conversations. I’m sure other countries do this as well, but Japanese people do it relatively often. Not only when we are asked a question, but we often nod many times throughout the conversation to show that we have heard and understood what you have said so far.

“Come here” gesture

When you want to call someone to come closer to you by saying, “Come here,” open your hand, palm down, and move four fingers from outside to inside (toward your body). It may look like a “Go away!” gesture, but if a Japanese person does this, that means “come here.”

Shooing them away with your hands

If you reverse the movement of the “come here” hand described above (move your hand from your body side to the outside), it becomes a movement for shooing away. It is mainly used to shoo away insects and animals, but when used towards people, it means “get lost” and is very rude.

Raising your hand in a restaurant

In Japanese restaurants, there is no system of having a server assigned to each table. Therefore, when you want to order or have something to do, raise your hand and make eye contact or raise your hand and say 「すみません (sumimasen / “excuse me”)」. In the more upscale restaurants like those in fancy hotels, eye contact is all that is required.

Begging with both hands held together

The form of putting your hands together is originally a gesture of praying to God. When it is done to people, it is used between family members or friends when asking for something. It is mainly used when making a request that is not easy, such as a request that requires little effort or money. This is used, for example, when a child asks his parents to buy him a new video game like “Buy me that new video game! please? pretty please?”.

This gesture is also used for casual apologies. In the picture above, many Japanese people might get the impression that she is apologizing cutely for being late to meet up with her boyfriend. 

We also put our hands together before and after eating a meal to thank the ingredients (including animals), the producer, and the person who prepared the food. Putting your hands together is a versatile gesture in Japan.

Make an X with your hand

If you cross your fingers or arms and make an X mark, it means “No.” In Japan, O (まる / maru / “circle”) means “Yes,” and X (ばつ / batsu / “no good”) means “No.”

On a test answer sheet, “O” means correct answer, and “X” means incorrect answer. (✔ mark is also used for incorrect answers here.)

By the way, making an X with your index fingers is sometimes introduced as “a gesture to ask for the check,” but it’s an old no-more-used gesture that most young people even don’t know, so there is no need to memorize it.

Who does the little finger represent?

This is a slightly old gesture. Many websites introducing Japan refer to it as a boyfriend or girlfriend, but that’s not true. It is usually used by men to refer to their girlfriends, wives, or mistresses. (Note that it is not used by women to describe their boyfriends, husbands, or [cheating] lovers.)

For example, when the boss is walking with a woman who is not his wife, you ask your colleague, “Who is she?”; Your colleague cannot say, “She is his mistress.” in a loud voice; So instead, your colleague would hold up his pinky finger. This gesture is used in this kind of situation.