Tourists coming to Japan from overseas are in the millions. In February 2015 alone, they have reached over a million. And that’s just for one month. They come from China, South Korea, Australia, Europe and the U.S.A. These countries have different cultures from those of Japan. They may come to Japan for business or leisure. Regardless of whatever purpose they have for traveling to Japan, it is important to note the simple, ordinary, yet significant gestures practiced by the Japanese. Like any visitor, one should know how each gesture is properly done and what they mean.
Bowing is a greeting used by the Japanese, not only to visitors and guests, but also to superiors or persons with authority. To westerners, greetings may be conveyed by shaking hands. To the Japanese, greeting is more like an art. Each time you make a bow of greeting, you must be attentive and not slouchy. If bowing to a superior or authority, the bow can go as low as a 90 degree angle from the waist – parallel to the floor. If you are greeting a guest, a bow that is about 30 degrees or so, will suffice. If you are greeting a peer, a simple nod will do. Be cautious, though. Even if the bow just involves upwards of the chest, it must be done courteously; all kinds of bows can be done while sitting or standing.
Speaking of sitting, this still requires proper posture. This is not the kind of position where you are lounging on a beanbag or by the beach. When in a tatami (a straw mat found in traditional Japanese homes and offices used as flooring), you must sit erect with your knees bent and both feet tucked under your buttocks. You can get to this position by kneeling and then sitting on your heels. As an alternative, you can sit cross-legged. This is most convenient for males. For the females, you can follow the position of the little mermaid. You don’t tuck both feet and sit on them, but you still bend your knees and position your feet to one side. In Japanese it’s referred to as yokozuwari. In English, it’s side-sitting.
Banzai is a word of cheer accompanied by raising both arms up. Contrary to what many may believe – as a word uttered only during war and refers to the banzai charge – banzai is similar to Westerners’ cheer of hurray. It is an act of jubilation and congratulations which is often uttered when a business venture has made a milestone or even to celebrate the success of a person. It is also stated to celebrate past successes and honor the heroes or the stars of a previous event like Constitution Day or Kenpo Kinenbi. You may even have heard it when it was announced that Tokyo will be hosting the 2020 Olympics.
Yay and nay
The Japanese might share the same gestures with other cultures when it says something in the affirmative or something agreeable. The sign for this is similar to the ones made by scuba divers – where the thumb and forefinger touch to form an O. The variation is forming an O using all the fingers in one hand. When it comes to indicating something in the negative or something that is not okay, the gesture involves the two arms forming an X.
When the Japanese count, it usually uses only one hand. As opposed to many other cultures, it starts with the hand spread out and the palm facing one’s self. When one is indicated, the thumb is folded down, followed by the forefinger and ends with the little finger – the little finger indicating five. When counting reaches six to ten, the little finger is then opened up and the entire hand is spread out at ten. When signifying a number to someone else, the hand is shown with the palms outward. This time, indicating one starts with the forefinger, followed by the middle finger and ends with the thumb. This time, too, both hands are used to show numbers exceeding five. This used to be the scene at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, long before the advent of computers.
So, there you have it. Five common gestures that you see in Japan practiced by the average Japanese. It is not just a non-verbal way of communicating. It is also a way of conveying courtesy.