gestures-top

Do these gestures in Japan and all you’ll get are looks of culture-gap confusion.

Some types of body language are near-universal: smiling, laughing, frowning, the look of confusion when not even the internet can figure out the “mystery gift” you got in your lucky bag… the list goes on and on.

But there are some types of body language that are unique to each culture. We may think they’re universal because we’ve grown up around them and use them all the time, but all it takes is one blank look from someone from another country to show us how wrong we are.

That’s why today we’re counting down the top five hand gestures that Japanese people don’t understand. Get ready to explain yourself after using one of these, because either you won’t be understood, or you might unintentionally imply something very different than you intended.

So let’s get to it! Starting off with…

Honorable Mention: Pointing at your chest

In the U.S. and many other Western countries, we point to our chests when indicating ourselves. When someone’s been taking more than their share of cookies out of the office lunchroom, and everyone is looking at you as the prime suspect, you point to your crumb-covered chest and say, “Who, me?”

But in Japan, in that same scenario, you would instead point to your nose.

This can be a bit confusing and one that takes a little getting used to. When I used to point to my chest to refer to myself in front of Japanese friends and coworkers, they thought I was pointing out something on my shirt. Now, years later, I’ve gone too far in the opposite direction: I point to my nose around my family in the U.S. and they have no idea what I’m doing.

This one is only an honorable mention because it’s pretty easy to explain and figure out through context, unlike the next item on our list…

#5. Crossing your fingers

Crossing your fingers can have two meanings in the West, either that you’re lying (usually crossed behind your back) or that you’re hoping for good luck (usually crossed in front of you). Neither of these exist in Japan.

I’ve never personally crossed my fingers to indicate lying before, but I have instinctively crossed them when wishing for good luck in front of Japanese people. It’s one of those situations where you don’t realize how ridiculous you look until the blank stares hit you a few seconds later.

It’s hard to explain why crossing your fingers means hoping for good luck, it’s just something that’s so ingrained in our brains. My Japanese coworkers theorized that it was related to the “peace sign” that Japanese people often make in photos (because peace = luck?), so I just went with that. I was thankful that at least Japan isn’t like Vietnam where crossing your fingers is an obscene sign!

#4. The fist bump

You’re almost always going to be left hanging in Japan.

While high-fiving is pretty common in Japan (where it is known as the “high touch”), fist-bumping hasn’t really caught on yet. If you want to congratulate your buddy after they manage to devour an entire 1,050 bacon strip burger or 1,000 cheese slice Whopper, and you hold out your fist to them, chances are they’ll just wonder why you look like you’re about to punch them.

Like pointing at your chest, this one is similar enough to a high-five that most people catch on quickly. Just be prepared for a few awkward times where you fist-bump and they high-five and you end up punching their palm.

#3. Blowing out your brains

I’m not sure how common this one is outside of the U.S., but one thing’s for certain, it does not exist in Japan.

For anyone unfamiliar, this gesture has you basically turn your hand into a gun, and then you pretend to blow your own brains out. It shows that something is driving you crazy and that you’d rather die than do it anymore. It would be a proper response to, say, if someone asked you if you wanted to beat Pokémon Sun/Moon only using Magikarp.

But in Japan, where guns and gun culture are virtually zero, this gesture just results in confused looks. Though not identical, this gesture is similar to the Japanese way of showing that someone is crazy: having your hand “explode” next to your head.

So if you insist on showing people that using only Magikarp is driving you crazy by “blowing your brains out,” don’t be surprised to see Japanese people have exploding hands next to their heads when they talk about you.

#2. Giving the thumbs down

If you’re hanging out with Japanese friends who don’t speak English, and you don’t speak Japanese, then you might have to rely on a lot of gestures to understand each other. One simple gesture that you might use would be the thumbs-up sign, to indicate that you want to do something like eat ramen or fuse together to fit inside a four-sleeve shirt.

But then when they ask if you want to jump across the train tracks for fun, you give them the thumbs-down sign to show that you’d rather not. And they look at you in horror for making such an obscene gesture at what they intended to be a joke.

That’s because in Japan, giving the thumbs-down is very similar to giving the middle finger in the U.S. – it means something like “go to hell.” Very odd considering they use the thumbs-up sign no problem, but hey, it’s hardly the first time Japan has confused the crap out of us.

If you want to give a gesture meaning “no” or “that’s bad,” then just make an X with your hands or fingers instead.

▼ Unless you’re Shigeru Miyamoto,
then you can do whatever the hell you want.

And the #1 hand gesture that Japanese people don’t understand is…

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1. “Air quotes”

Oh yeah, this one was “really” unexpected.

From my personal experience, air quotes are one of the most common hand gestures in the U.S., used to express sarcasm or euphemisms, but they mean nothing in Japan. Every single time I accidentally use them around Japanese people, I get the same looks of confusion and have to go through an explanation of what the air quotes mean.

And for anyone who has never had to explain what air quotes mean, it’s not easy. It’s made especially difficult by the fact that sarcasm in Japan isn’t quite the same as the English-speaking world, so even if you do the best job ever of explaining it, you might just get a polite nod that’s covering up a brain full of confusion.

I’ve had to go through the awkward explaining process myself many times, and I’ve found one of the easiest ways is explaining it as a euphemism marker, since that’s a bit easier than sarcasm. Here’s a few examples:

Tomoko said she couldn’t come because she had to go out with a “friend.”
The food isn’t rotten, it’s just “finely aged.”
Our family’s cat passed away, but I told my kids he went to “live on a farm.”

▼ Oddly enough, this scene from Friends does a good job of summing
up what it’s like using air quotes around Japanese friends.

So there you have it, the top five hand gestures that Japanese people don’t understand. Have you ever had any cross-cultural body language misunderstandings before? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to tell us if it resulted in one of the top five most annoying sounds in Japan: hearing someone go “heeee?!”

Top image: PAKUTASO (edited by RocketNews24)

W.T.F. Japan will be back next Thursday. In the meantime, give me a follow on Twitter and let me know if there’s any topics you’d like to see covered. See you next week!