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Body language is almost as integral to speaking and understanding a language as the words themselves.

Japanese people have just as many hand gestures that make zero sense to outsiders, and being able to understand them is an important step in becoming culturally fluent.

That’s why today we’re counting down the top five confusing Japanese hand gestures. All of the gestures on this list have to have some sort of meaning behind them, so we won’t see things like the “Japanese peace sign” used when taking photos, since it doesn’t really mean anything other than “you’re taking my picture.” But worry not! It will have its own spot on another list soon enough.

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

Honorable Mention: The sorry chop

Even though bowing is the more internationally well-known way of saying “sorry” in Japan, another extremely common gesture used to apologize is what you could call “the sorry chop.” It’s more informal than bowing and basically consists of putting your hand up to the side/front of your head and making a tiny chopping motion.

Typically the “sorry chop” is accompanied by a gomen/sumimasen (“sorry”) or suman (“my bad”), making it pretty easy to understand, which is why it’s only an honorable mention. But sometimes you can see a “sorry chop” with no words accompanying it when a car lets a pedestrian go first at a crosswalk, or when a friend/coworker shows up late at a restaurant.

One of the funniest uses of the silent “sorry chop” is when someone is making their way through a crowd, especially in a train. Putting up the “sorry chop” is the equivalent of attaching a snow plow in front of your body and lets you freely break through crowds, all the while “apologizing” to each person you push out of the way. Be wary of using this one yourself though, since even though you’re an apologetic snow plow, you are still technically snow plowing the people, and they might not appreciate it.

#5. Demon horns

The funniest cross-cultural hand gestures have to be the ones that almost make sense in another language, but not quite.

Take the “demon horns” gesture, for example. It basically consists of putting both hands to the sides of your head and extending your pointer fingers, giving yourself “demon horns.” When I first saw a Japanese person do that, I had no idea what they were doing, so I asked them what it meant. Their response was just: oni (“demon”).

Now when I think of the word “demon,” I think “evil” or perhaps “trickster.” And since the person I was speaking to was using the “demon horns” to refer to a coworker, I figured that meant he thought our coworker was “evil” or a prankster of sorts… which made about zero sense because she was the most serious person in the office.

Of course that’s because my interpretation was off. The demon horns mean “angry,” not “evil.” My coworker was using them to say that the woman was “angry” today, not that she was necessarily doing devilish deeds.

#4. Pinky up

Another type of hand gesture that can result in some cross-cultural mishaps are the ones that mean something completely different in another culture.

For example, in the U.S. and many other countries, putting your pinky up is usually a sign of pretending to be fancy.

But in Japan “pinky up” doesn’t mean “fancy,” it means “women,” usually referring to someone’s girlfriend/mistress/love of their life, not someone that they just met five minutes ago.

For example, you walk into the office one morning and notice that one of your male coworkers walks in bright and smiley with an extra stride in his step and eyes that are far too bright and happy for 9 a.m.

You discreetly ask another coworker what’s up with him, and instead of outright telling you, she just holds up her pinky finger. She’s not trying to tell you that he had a great tea party last night, chances are instead that he has a new lady in his life. Also, you use the thumb to do the same for men.

#3. The neck slice

In the U.S. and other countries, running your finger across your neck is the sign for “you’re gonna get killed,” often accompanied by a delightful “kggghhtttt” sound. Since the average person doesn’t usually talk about murdering people, this gesture is usually regulated to mobsters and the movies.

In Japan though, the same gesture has a very different meaning. Instead of “you’re gonna get killed,” it means “you’re gonna get fired.”

The reason for this is because the expression for “to get fired” in Japanese is kubi ni naru, which translates to “get your head chopped off.” While that may seem extreme, “getting fired” or “getting axed” doesn’t exactly sound too happy in English either.

So when a Japanese person runs their finger across their neck, it’s your job (and not necessarily your life) that is in danger.

#2. Coin curl

Aside from the “thumbs up,” one of the most common hand gestures in Canada in my experience is the “okay” signal: touching your thumb and pointer finger together and extending the rest up. It’s a bit of an odd gesture, for sure, but I guess the circle that the fingers form kind of looks like the “O” in “OK.”

In Japan however, the same gesture (or often turned upside down with the fingers extending to the side or to the ground) means something completely different: “money.”

▼ Just about as round and justifiable as the Western meaning.

The reason this one is so high on the list is because it can generate some hilarious cultural misunderstandings. For example, when I was working as a lowly teacher in Tokyo, I went out with a few coworkers to a fancy restaurant after work one evening. Before deciding to go inside, one of them asked me if “this place was okay for me” while making this gesture, and I naively and stupidly assumed he was asking if this place was okay for them to treat me to dinner since I was the still relatively new foreign intern. (You may commence groaning.)

Of course after the meal when the bill came and everyone paid up, I realized that he wasn’t asking “if this place was okay for me” as in was it up to my imaginary high standards, he was asking if it “was okay for me” price-wise.

I silently swallowed my shame, paid up, and then somehow managed to survive on 100-yen store food for the rest of the week. Cultural understanding can come in handy, my friends!

And the #1 confusing Japanese hand gesture is…

#1. Mortar and pestle

Sometimes there are gestures that get misinterpreted between cultures, but other times there are gestures that make absolutely zero sense between cultures. Case in point: the Japanese mortar and pestle.

This one, like the picture above shows, is simply putting your fist into your open palm and then rotating your fist as if grinding with a mortar and pestle. What exactly are you grinding, you ask? Simple: sesame seeds.

In Japanese the expression goma suri literally translates to “grind sesame seeds,” but is actually a Japanese euphemism that means “brown-nosing/sucking up.” So when you do the mortar and pestle gesture, you’re implying that someone is laying on the flattery just a bit too hard.

The origin of “grinding sesame seeds” meaning “sucking up” is about as bizarre as it gets. Supposedly the phrase came about because when you grind sesame seeds, they turn into sticky sesame oil, which has the same “sticky” feeling as words used to try and impress someone.

It’s certainly not the most intuitive connection, but at least it’s less embarrassing than the explanation I have to go through every time I explain to a Japanese person the origin of the phrase “brown nosing.”

So there you have it, the top five confusing Japanese hand gestures.

Have a great day!


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