Body Language

The monograph The Japanese Way (Takada and Lampkin) gives this advice: "Body language often has more impact than the spoken word [in Japan] ... and there are some sharp differences between Western and Japanese gesturing practices." Let's explore a few examples.

  • Me/Myself
    Japanese: Point to your nose.
    Western: Point to your chest.

  • Come Here
    Japanese: Turn your hand palm down and wave your fingers.
    Western: Palm up and curl your fingers. This is demeaning in Japan.

  • Excuse Me (Please Move)
    Japanese: Open hand held vertically, hand waved back and forth, nodding the head.
    Western: Gently tap people on the shoulder and say "Excuse me, excuse me."

  • Leave It to Me
    Japanese: Tap the chest lightly with an open palm.
    Western: Nod while talking, keeping a serious face or a confident smile.

  • Hesitation/Embarassment/Confusion
    Japanese: Inhale air audibly through the theeth.
    Western: Tilt your head slightly sideways with lips closed and say "Mmm..."

  • Power
    Japanese: Crossed legs, folded arms, when used by a junior member of a company or by a person younger than 40 can be taken as a lack of manners or as arrogance.
    Western: People in power usually keep talking if you try to interrupt them, without even the slightest hesitation or any notable change. A junior member of a company should make extra eye-contact when listening to a superior.

  • Thoughtfulness
    Japanese: Silence is considered an indication of thoughtfulness, wisdom, or deep appreciation for what is happening around a person. Closing one's eyes when listening to a speaker indicates concentration on what the speaker is saying and is not considered rude.
    Western: An occassional nod or "Mm-hmm" indicates an affirmation that you are listening. Asking positive or particularly thoughtful questions to the speaker indicates that you care about the topic. Silence and closing your eyes indicates that you are bored and are not listening at all.
As for bowing versus shaking hands, I'll cover that in a future chapter. For extensive details about Japanese body language, see also Japanese Body Language: Non-Verbal Communication in the Classroom by Robert L. Seltman.

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