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Angry smiles and imaginary rice bowls — The Japanese body language

Japanese often describe their style of communication in saying — “ichi ieba juu wakaru” (hear one, understand ten). The idea is that when a speaker says 10%, the listener mostly will be able to understand the other 90% on the basis of non-verbal gestures and common context. As Japanese communication relies less on words and conversation and more on nonverbal communication, we collected some body language gestures commonly used in Japan to help you in your first encounters when you arrive at the land of the rising sun.


You and Me -

When talking about yourself, you might instinctively put your hand on your chest, however this gesture is coming from the western culture. In Japan, you might see the Japanese people point at their nose to indicate themselves. Also, when pointing at you, they will point to your nose rather than your chest.

Smile -

When is a smile not just a smile? The Japanese smile may convey feelings other than those familiar to the West: anger, embarrassment, sadness, and disappointment. Interpretation depends on context.

Agreement –

If you ever suggest an idea to your Japanese colleague and they respond by hitting their hand with a closed fist — fear not, this is not them asking for a fight — but their way of agreeing. A different version of this gesture would be to hit your thighs with your hands (make sure you slap them hard enough so that everybody hears!). This gesture can also be used when you come up with an idea yourself, after thinking long and hard.

Giving and receiving presents -

Gifts in the Japanese business culture are an important and very significant tradition. The action is done with both hands and extended arm movement, (remember our piece about business ethics and exchanging business cards in Japan? Read more here) slightly lowering your head like in a bow is optional. It is a good idea to open gifts privately, in order to prevent the embarrassment of the giver if the gift is not successful.

Referral to another person; Polite pointing -

An open hand with the palm up, directed at the desired person. To call someone to you — wave towards the person with your palms down.

Thinking seriously; dispute -

Mostly, this gesture comes with the hands crossed. If the eyes are closed, it means that the person is heavily considering the situation. If the eyes are open, given the context, it can also say that the person does not agree with you. Can also be considered a hostile gesture, Depends on context.

Extra -

  • When sharing a meal with the Japanese they will probably place their palms together while saying ‘itadakimasu’ before a meal, and ‘gochi sou sama deshtia’ after. It shows appreciation for the meal.

  • If someone looks at you and making a gesture that looks like he is holding an imaginary bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other, he is probably asking you to go eat together.


In Japan, words are important — but so are body language, gestures, tone, facial expressions, posture and “sounds that are not voices,” such as a whistling sound that Japanese might do when faced with a tough suggestion or a problematic situation.

For westerners who are accustomed to getting most of the information mainly from words and direct communication, the Japanese communication style may be a challenge at first, but with some patience and sensitivity you can understand the Japanese better, even without learning the actual language. Try using the tips above and being open minded.

Our team at Samurai Incubate Israel is dedicated to taking ventures from the very basic stages to greater heights, and to later connect them to the Japanese market. With our large community in Israel and our strong connection to the corporate world and the ecosystem in both countries, our team is constantly looking to create and strengthen the bridge between Japan and Israel by combining Japan’s industry with Israel’s cutting edge technology and innovative spirit.

For further information, check our website —


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