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Non-verbal communication in Japan


Nonverbal communication is usually understood as the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless (mostly visual) cues between people. Messages can be communicated in different ways, so there is a list of different types of nonverbal communication, which are considered to be:

1)      Gestures and touch;

2)      Body language (or postures);

3)      Facial expressions;

4)      Eye contact.

Becoming aware of nonverbal signals helps you improve your ability to control these elements in your own communication. 

Talking about Japanese nonverbal communication, we should understand that this country is totally different. Sure it’s not only about the process of communication itself. The culture, traditions, behavior of people, mental behavior differs from the norms we used to face in our lives. There’s a lot of different features of nonverbal communication in Japan, but I tried to mention most interesting and  well-known ones to talk about.

Gestures an touch. Hand gestures are plentiful and useful, particularly when you want to relay a message without drawing attention from those around you. In the office, hand signs can invite someone to a drink or meal, tell others the boss is angry or has a girlfriend, or simply explain that you've just been fired. In the classroom students signal to each other "I'm sending a note", "I haven't done the homework", "be careful teacher is watching", or a hundred other messages not meant for the teacher. Therefore here are some examples of gestures uncommon to us:

"Me?" ("Boku?" or "Watashi?") – A combination hand and facial expression used in the same way as Westerners pointing to their chest and asking "Me?", except the Japanese point to the tip of their nose. This is a very common sign and is also accompanied with signs of astonishment, false or genuine surprise, indifference, or joy, depending on the situation.


The "Baka! (You Fool!)" head slap, meaning, ‘You silly person you, why did you do that?’. People may think it’s kind of being rude, still in Japan it’s absolutely normal. 

‘Come here’ (Chotto...oide)Used when calling someone towards you, this gesture resembles a Western-style good-bye, often confusing foreigners. With a somewhat limp wrist, flap four fingers in the direction of the person you want to attract. Generally not recommended for superiors, it is still considered preferable to yel

Writing Kanji (Chinese Characters)A form of thinking out loud, or spelling out a message, Japanese often write with their finger, onto the palm of their hand, on their thigh when sitting, or into the air. By visualizing the character it helps to distinguish which character from several with the same pronunciation.


Body language (or postures)

Sitting on desks, Standing on chairs

Japanese people think shoes are dirty. So they always take them off before standing on a chair. Also, they do not usually sit on desks and tables. Recently some punk-dressed students have started walking on chairs with shoes on and sitting on desks. This is bold arrogant behavior designed to look fashionable, or rebellious. Also I have noticed among students who have traveled in America, sitting on desks can be a symbol of Western behavior and used in conversation classes to show enthusiasm.

 There’s also a lot of interesting facts about touches, which also considers body language. Touching others, a sign of friendly affection in East European and Mediterranean cultures, is generally a taboo and public displays of affection, such as kissing or holding hands, are rare and are a serious statement for young couples. If students need to attract the attention of another student, particularly someone of the opposite sex and not a personal friend, first they will try whispering politely and then gently touch a shoulder, not too near the neck, or an arm, usually not on the hand.

In Japan a physical relationship between a teacher and a student, at any grade level, is always grounds for dismissal. Many teachers make a policy of never touching a student and the friendlier the relationship, the cooler the body language. Flirtation is a very delicate nonverbal series of eye and head motions, leading to subtle ambiguous touching of the hand or other innocent contact. If a teacher is not prepared to face the consequences, it is far safer to avoid physical contact completely.

Examples of exaggerated body language can be found in Japanese comic books, television, and contemporary theater. There are also classical art forms, e.g., the tea ceremony, Noh and Kabuki theater, Kyogen comedy, martial art, which have contributed to the evolution of Japanese body language, as well as historical and religious factors.

What about facial expressions and eye contact, here are also some facts.

Since the Japanese strive for harmony and are group dependent, they rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels. They often trust non-verbal messages more than the spoken word as words can have several meanings. Nevertheless most Japanese maintain an impassive expression when speaking, there is also a row of different nonverbal expressions that may contain some important meanings. Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Expressions to watch out for include inhaling through clenched teeth, tilting the head, scratching the back of the head, and scratching the eyebrow.

What about eye contact, I can say that it is considered disrespectful to stare into another person's eyes, particularly those of a person who is senior to you because of age or status. Sure if you have a Japanese friends then it’s okay to look in the other’s eyes and you shouldn’t consider the friends age (depends of how strong and trustful your friendship is), but in any other case, and especially business, you should follow all the rules of the nonverbal communication to show you respect the opponent. It also considered that in crowded situations the Japanese avoid eye contact to give themselves privacy.

There’s also one really interesting thing about eye contact and the business cards. It’s very important part of business communication, when people exchanges their business cards with each other. Business cards are exchanged constantly and with great ceremony. You should treat te business card’s given to you as a new acquaintance. You should examine any business card you receive very carefully. It doesn’t mean to look at it for a couple seconds and to put it away. You should receive a business card and start examining it no matter what it’s written there no less than 30 seconds. As if you were really interested in the information written down on it, or as if you were memorizing it. It means you respect the person you deal with, and it’s considered to be really polite from you. Then you may also give yor business card to exchange.




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