While language is a major way of communicating between cultures, a lot of information is packed in-between the lines. In every culture, there are subtleties to pay attention to in order to abide by social customs and rules of politeness.
Here is a breakdown on important gestures in Japanese culture, from the right way to sit on a tatami mat to how to point at yourself.
The Proper Way to Sit on Tatami
The Japanese have traditionally sat on tatami (a padded straw mat) at their homes. However, many homes today are completely Western in style and don’t have Japanese style rooms with tatami. Many young Japanese are no longer able to sit properly on a tatami.
The proper way of sitting on tatami is called seiza. Seiza requires that one bends the knees 180 degrees, tuck your calves under your thighs and sit on your heels. This can be a difficult posture to maintain if you are not used to it. This sitting posture requires practice, preferably from an early age. It is considered polite to sit seiza-style on formal occasions.
Another more relaxed way of sitting on tatami is cross-legged (agura). Starting with legs out straight and folding them in like triangles. This posture is usually for men. Women would usually go from the formal to an informal sitting posture by shifting their feet just off to the side (iyokozuwari).
Though most Japanese do not concern themselves with it, it is proper to walk without stepping in the edge of the tatami.
The Right Way to Beckon in Japan
The Japanese beckon with a waving motion with the palm down and the hand flapping up and down at the wrist. Westerners may confuse this with a wave and not realize they are being beckoned. Although this gesture (temaneki) is used by both men and women and all age groups, it is considered rude to beckon a superior this way.
Maneki-neko is a cat ornament that sits and has its front paw raised as if it is calling for someone. It is believed to bring good luck and displayed in restaurants or other business in which customer turnover is important.
How to Indicate Yourself (“Who, Me?”)
The Japanese point to their noses with a forefinger to indicate themselves. This gesture is also done when wordlessly asking, “who, me?”
“Banzai” literally means ten thousand years (of life). It is shouted during happy occasions while raising both arms. People shout “banzai” to express their happiness, to celebrate a victory, to hope for longevity and so on. It is commonly done together with a large group of people.
Some non-Japanese confuse “banzai” with a war cry. It is probably because the Japanese soldiers shouted “Tennouheika Banzai” when they were dying during World War II. In this context, they meant “Long live the Emperor” or “Salute the Emperor”.