Hand Signs 1
Generally listed in order of frequency, hand signs are very circumstantial. Men use them more than women, though this will depend on who is watching. As a foreign male, students generally feel freer using hand language with me, than, for example, with my wife who is Japanese and commands more authority and thus more respectful formality. Also, as I wish to be aware of the feelings and opinions of my students, I often intercept messages not meant for my eyes.
1. 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 yelling.
(often accompanied with the English loan-word "bye-bye") Fingers fully extended, the hand moved left and right rapidly. Compare with the Japanese Come here #1.
Waving the hand, thumb towards the face, back and forth as if fanning in short strokes, means no, not me, or no thank you, depending on the situation. Used a great deal by students who do not know the appropriate English expression, or to avoid being embarrassed about their inability to speak English. The more emphatic the wave the more emphatic the No.
4. Excuse me (Sumimasen)
Used when cutting between two people, or as a general apology. Derived from a Buddhist sign for blessing, similar to the two-handed salutation used in Southeast Asia but with only one hand. Hand flat, thumb near the nose, head and back slightly bent, eyes averted downward.
5. 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.
6. Peace/Victory Sign
Can on rare occasions have the meaning of Peace, as in I didn't mean to make you angry, yet most commonly used as a playful gesture when posing for snapshots. Also commonly used as a symbol of success, as in the successful completion of a difficult question. Primarily used by students when clowning for friends, this is sometimes used as a greeting to foreigners.
7. Jan-Ken (Choosing)
This is the first hand game learned by children. This important game is used often by students to choose someone from a group of two or more, as when determining who goes first or who gets the last piece of candy.
Players shout "Jan ken pon!" and simultaneously form their hands into one of three possible shapes. Gu a stone, Choki scissors, or Pa paper.
A stone defeats scissors, because scissors cannot cut a stone. Paper defeats a stone, because paper can wrap a stone. Scissors defeat paper, because scissors can cut paper.
Opposite to that of the West, when counting start with the fingers extended, and then fold fingers into a fist, starting with the thumb and finishing with the little finger. Using the same hand folded in a fist raise the little finger for six, and continue until an open hand again.
Adjusting to this system quickly can prevent misunderstandings during game playing, remember, for example, the Japanese sign for two reads three to the Western eye.
9. Indicating numbers
With a closed fist, raise the index finger for one, middle and index for two, etc. using the thumb last.
10. "Something smells" (Kusai!)
Very similar to the West, these can be used quite innocently, or to be insulting. Describes all bad smells including bad breath and body odor, but not in the American sense of "That movie stunk!" (That movie was bad). Done by pinching the nose with the index finger and thumb, And/or by waving the hand, as if fanning away a bad smell, in front of the face.
I have found that Japanese students are generally sensitive to smells. At times I too have been tempted to use the gesture, but do not, for in Japan cleanliness is next to Godliness, and accusing someone of smelling, justified or not, can be a grave insult.
11. Oni (goblin)
Indicates an angry person. Both Index fingers extend upward and slightly forward, on either side of the head like horns, usually the head is tilted slightly forward. Wiggle the fingers for emphasis. Often used by students when talking about their parents, I've seen one class use it to warn the next class of my bad mood.
12. "Let's go eat."
Index and middle finger extended in front of mouth to resemble chopsticks, as if shoveling food from the other hand, which is cupped like a bowl. Students have used this to remind me to break for lunch.
13. Laying it on Thick
A hand gesture of grinding as if with a mortar and pestle, is used to describe someone exaggerating or complimenting in order to seek favor.
Fingers in the shape of a coin. Similar to an OK sign with an accent on the roundness. Traditionally discussing money was considered vulgar. Samurai seldom touched money. So this sign, though common among males, is not encouraged.
15. Pa! (Coo-Coo!, Crazy!)
Place a fist along side the head and open it quickly, suggests someone is stupid or crazy. Used both in fun or in criticism, as in the West.
16. Tengu (Long-nosed goblin)
Describes a conceited braggart. A clenched fist held in front of the face, suggesting a long nose, like the goblin Tengu.
17. Clashing Swords
People are quarreling, can be indicated by hitting the index fingers together as if in a sword fight.
18. Let's go for a drink/We went drinking
Imitates a sake cup tipped for drinking. Fingers, as if holding a small sake cup, tilted towards the mouth as when drinking.
Though originally used by business men, college students use this when talking about their drinking escapades. More recently, chugging a beer glass symbolically has replaced the traditional sake cup.
Resembles how sushi chefs prepare sushi and is used when talking about sushi. Index and middle finger of one hand slapped into the palm of the other. As sushi is a special kind of meal this means only sushi and not for eating generally (see #12 for eating in general).
To make a solemn promise lock little fingers with someone. Though a bit childish I have actually seen the Prime Minister of Japan use it to accent a point.
21. Father Figure
The thumb raised can mean father, the boss, or a superior.
Raised little finger, can be some what vulgar when suggesting a married man's lover. It is often used recently in humorous TV commercials and so now in classroom humor. Suggests a woman is involved in some way .
23. To steal
Traditionally used among thieves to suggest stealing or when talking about a thief. I have seen this used among male college students, in both seriousness in discussing a loss or in humor. Hook the index finger. Students have used this with a nod to suggest a wrong doing, without actually mentioning any names.
A subtle sign for pregnancy is vomiting, used primarily in theater and on TV, though I have seen students use this when teasing each other.
A more direct hand sign is to move the hand in front of the stomach in a rounded arch, depicting the shape of a pregnant women. This is not considered rude unless of course the pregnancy is unwanted or a secret. Usually used instead of actually saying what may be a delicate matter.
This was used in my class once, to explain a student's absence. I assumed she was having an abortion. It was also used after students learned my wife and I were expecting a child. Students when not knowing appropriate Western etiquette will often use body gestures before asking directly.
There are a variety of Japanese gestures for sexual acts, as well as students who may have learned the Western equivalents, and I see them used among male students often, much in the same way they are used by male students in the West, though generally not as overtly.
1 - Illustrations were assembled utilizing Enzan Hoshigumi's Japanese Clip Art (traditional Japanese graphics prepared for computer with MacPaint); or created by the author on a Macintosh SE/30, with Super Paint 1.1-2.0 MS, a graphics program from Silicon Beach Software