Japan’s ever-growing popularity continues to attract people from various backgrounds — piquing their interest in the country’s culture and encouraging them to learn Japanese to better understand it. Being exposed to such an array of new customs is undoubtedly fun and exciting, but it can also be confusing and intimidating. Nonetheless, if you still wish to learn more about Japan and understand its language, getting to grips with the nuances of Japanese communication is vital. From properly interjecting in conversations to showing gestures of disapproval, communication works differently in Japan.
In this article, we outline the key mannerisms that can help you better navigate your interactions with other Japanese speakers.
1. Muri, Muri!
People in Japan typically wave their hands in front of their faces to say “no” or “not possible” and politely decline a request, apologise, or show modesty when complimented. Specifically, this gesture involves lifting one arm with elbows bent and bringing it at face level, straightening the hand flat, and waving it fast in front of the face, similar to how one would try fanning away an unpleasant smell in the air.
This movement is commonly accompanied by saying a light-hearted and informal “iya, iya”, meaning “No, I would rather not”, or a string of muri’s like “muri, muri, muri” to say “That is impossible, I cannot do it”. At the same time, this hand waving can also be a polite way of saying “That is incorrect” by pairing it with the formal “chigaimasu”.
2. Thumbs Up & Down
Due to Western influence, the thumbs-up sign has become a sign of approval in Japan. However, it is worth noting that the thumbs down is a rude and offensive gesture to the Japanese, unlike the more innocent disapproval that everyone else is used to. While the jury is still out on where this negative connotation originated, one theory suggests that the locals associated it with the same gesture used in ancient Rome, where crowds would give the thumbs down to indicate that a gladiator should be killed.
3. Pointing fingers
In Japanese communication and culture, there is a socially acceptable way and a very wrong way of pointing your fingers at something. As a general rule of thumb, doing it to indicate something is considered rude, while directing it to another person is outright offensive. That said, pointing towards yourself as if asking “me?” in certain situations is perfectly fine. If you’d like to draw attention to something or indicate a direction, using an open hand gesture or pointing with your eyes is more appropriate.
4. Eye contact
In Japan, eye contact can be interpreted as confrontational or impolite, especially when speaking to a person of higher status. That does not mean that making any eye contact is forbidden, but rather doing so intermittently while mostly looking away slightly or lowering their eyes is more common and is a sign of respect.
Remaining silent is an act of communication in many cultures, and it is no different in Japan. In fact, silence is an essential and highly valued form of Japanese communication.
Silence can be associated with deep thought or social discretion in its most positive form or as a sign of respect and consideration during conversations. Due to the latter reasoning, it is best to avoid interpreting it as discomfort or awkwardness when speaking to locals.
Of course, if you are asked a question and remain silent, you will naturally come off as rude or defiant, which is the same in other cultures. In short, it is up to you to gauge the context during conversation and behave and communicate as best as you can.
6. Aizuchi or conversational interjections
Also known as back-channelling, this involves a listener making interjections while the speaker is talking. In English, this is similar to utterances like “uh-huh”, “yeah”, and so on. Due to their prominence in every Japanese conversation, these interjections have an actual term called Aizuchi. Hence, while it may be awkward to hear phrases like “hontou desu ka?”, “naruhodo”, “tashika ni”, and more, just remember that it is just the way Japanese listeners show that they are paying attention.
The Japanese language is rich with etiquette, norms, and gestures that make communication polite and effective. By learning all these bit by bit, you can better appreciate these unique and fascinating nuances that enrich your experience and improve your Japanese fluency.
Learn more of the ins and outs of the Japanese language by enrolling in a Japanese lesson in Singapore today! At Japanese Explorer, we provide structured classes taught by native Japanese teachers for a more authentic learning experience that helps you reach your learning goals sooner than later. Don’t hesitate to contact us anytime if you want to learn more about our Japanese course in Singapore!