Gesturing in Japan

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Speaking Japanese is frustrating. After six years of study, I am still bumbling around in the dark. To be fair, it’s not an easy language for a Devonian to learn. People say yes when they mean no, there are several different words for I and you, and the drink called Cider is actually lemonade.

Recently though, I have realised I don’t need words; gestures are far more effective. They save time and limit embarrassment.

The first ritual humiliation avoided comes at the convenience store. The staff will speak to you here, but you don’t need to speak back. Just copy the locals, nod your head in acknowledgement of their service, and then walk on.

An Australian I roomed with in Nagoya once made the grave error of speaking to the shop clerk. He tried to ask her if she was fine (genki desu ka?). He almost got away with it, except he forgot the word for fine (genki). He just repeatedly asked the terrified girl “Are you?”, “Are you?” (desu ka?, desu ka?). As well as omitting crucial vocabulary, he had also forgotten the basic principle of communicating in Japan, ‘speak only when your life/job is in danger’.

Some gestures can appear controversial. In restaurants for example, to get the bill, you just stick two fingers up. Just be sure to put them in an X, not a V shape, using both forefingers.

To move past someone, you don’t need to say excuse me. At the right moment, just crouch slightly, and walk with a hand in the karate chop position in front of your face. People will stand aside, trust me.

I discovered the strangest, and possibly oldest signal, in the book 70 Japanese Gestures. You need to wet your finger and moisten your eyebrow. Apparently this will prevent you being tricked by a racoon dog disguising itself as a human. The Japanese word for this is mayutsubamono (moist eyebrow story).

This last example highlights a flaw in Japanese gestures. They are not easily translatable to other cultures. I doubt they will work in Devon for example. Lord knows what moistening an eyebrow might signify in the primordial hill villages north of Exeter. I’ll buy a cider for the first person to try.

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