CHAPTER 1 THE USE OF THE HANDS
Body motion, as a whole, is more reserved in Japan than in the West. Yet where Japanese body language may lack in grandeur, it gains in subtleness of detail. The Japanese predisposition for well chosen delicate gestures is born from necessity, for 125 million people live on these small mountainous islands. Here the hardship of overcrowding has flowered into a cultural aesthetic for building beauty into small places.
Japanese living quarters and public places are usually overcrowded. People must share space continuously at home, work, and play. It is frightfully easy to physically violate another person's space, so the Japanese do all they can to avoid it. The Japanese are raised to detest pushy and argumentative behavior in public. To avoid such unpleasant exchanges, people tend to keep their hands, feet, elbows, and knees closer to their frame. Being polite, reserved and aware of one's own and other people's body movements, is an integral part of being Japanese.
Hands when extended outward generally suggest meaning, and so the languid relaxed postures of foreigners, with limbs stretched out comfortably, can appear rather self-indulgent and aggressive. It is not uncommon for foreigners first arriving in Japan to accidentally irritate people on the train or other public places with their body gestures.
A code of physical behavior seems to exist almost everywhere in Japan. People generally do not talk loudly, touch each other unless forced to by overcrowding, or make other disturbances in places traditionally considered public. People keep to themselves when among strangers. However this can quickly change when their group, e.g., classmates, coworkers, club members, take psychological possession of a space, as in a train filled with teenagers from the same school, a senior citizen group on an outing together, a family around the dinner table at home, or a drinking hall filled with friends. Yet even among friends, there are always subtle codes of behavior to consider, a code for what you can and can not do with your hands and feet.
Children, particularly young boys, are allowed to behave freely in public up until they enter school, at which point they will be pressured by both teachers and peers to adjust to the rules of the group. Teenagers and drinking businessmen may violate social graces on the streets at night, but in the morning, back in school or the office, the prevailing code regulates all areas of their social interaction. Even within the bosozoku (juvenile bikers) and yakuza (organized gangsters), there is a very precise code of behavior, often more strenuous than the public's, though sometimes a comical parody of the norm.
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 all these examples the signs would be different from those used in the West.
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. A favorite English idiom used by my students is for your eyes only and hand gestures, done discreetly, work nicely. Students can sprinkle hand signs throughout their conversations, particularly when spelling out the message might cause embarrassment or criticism.
The oni (goblin) sign, with the index fingers of both hands placed on either side of the head as horns (see #11 next section), can describe the grumpy mood of the teacher, or the disposition of a parent. The observer can interpret this as either a little joke or a hard criticism. This ambiguity is an important quality of sign language. A furrowed brow and grimace, or a gentle smile and laugh, can help clarify a bit of the ambiguity without ever accusing anyone of anything specific. An oni sign, at the appropriate time, can relax a tense situation or help excuse an imposition. It should always be remembered that Japanese people are usually reluctant to confront others directly and try to change their behavior. 1
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.
Exercises and games which require touching among students can be very successful if the teacher takes into consideration the full spectrum of meaning, respecting the students' need to be reserved. For example, the usually innocent exercise of learning how to shake hands, needed because many Japanese men shake hands with a limp wrist, can create giggles and embarrassment even among seasoned businessmen. The Japanese are not sexually naive, but there are subtle differences in the meaning and occasions for touching other people within their own culture. It seems natural that EFL teachers, as new members of the community, would want to understand and show respect towards the customs of the host culture in the area of nonverbal communication and the use of the hands.
1 Barnlund, Dean C., Communicative Styles of Japanese and Americans. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1989.