15 Unique Facts About Japanese Communication: Verbal & Non-verbal

Japan continues to attract travelers, culture aficionados, and tourists from around the world who are interested not only in the country’s unique culture but also in learning Japanese communication. It is without a doubt that being exposed to such an array of foreign customs can be fun, but often intimidating and confusing, too.

For those interested in a fascinating cultural adventure — or just curious about how communication works differently in Japan than in other parts of the world — we’ve got you covered! From gestures of disapproval to how to naturally and appropriately interject in a conversation, let’s dive into 15 unique facts about Japanese communication that can help you feel more confident in your interactions in Japan!

japanese communication thumbs up

1. Thumbs Up or Down

In Japan, the thumbs-up sign has come to be seen as a sign of approval and agreement thanks to Western influence. On the other hand, while the thumbs-down sign for many Westerners is an innocent gesture of disapproval or disagreement, it is considered rude, offensive, and interpreted similarly to the middle finger in Western cultures. While the jury is out on how this originated, one theory is that it’s associated with the gesture used by ancient Roman crowds to indicate a gladiator should be killed. Perhaps this negative connotation has persisted and the gesture is still seen as a symbol of strong disrespect.

Find out what other things are considered rude in Japan by heading to this article!

2. Muri, Muri!

In Japan, people commonly wave their hands in front of their faces with their thumb towards their face and their pinky facing outwards to indicate “no” or “not possible.” It’s common to hear a lighthearted, “iya, iya” (no, no) or “muri, muri” (impossible, impossible). This gesture is also used when apologizing, politely declining a request, or showing modesty when you’ve been complimented on something. It’s somewhat similar to the gesture Americans might make to show their disgust or disapproval of a smell.

japanese communication pointing fingers

3. Pointing Fingers in Japan

Pointing in Japanese communication and culture is fascinating because there is a very wrong way to use it and a socially acceptable way to use it, too. 

Pointing with your finger to indicate something is considered rude. Pointing at another person is almost unthinkable. Instead, it is better to use an open hand gesture when pointing at something or to indicate direction with your eyes if you want to draw attention to a person.

However, there is an acceptable way to use points in Japan. That’s when you are referring to yourself as if asking “me”? Japanese people do this by pointing or even lightly touching their index finger to their nose instead of the chest area as one might do in Western-style communication.

japanese communication

4. The “O” Sign

In Japan, the “o” sign is often used to indicate that something is correct or good. The sign is made by forming a circle with your thumb and index finger, with the other fingers extended straight up. This is also known as the “OK” sign in many other countries.

The use of the “o” sign in Japan is derived from the Japanese word “maru,” which means circle or round. The word “maru” is often used in Japanese to indicate that something is correct or good, and the “o” sign is a physical representation of this word.

It is important to note, however, that the use of the “o” sign can vary depending on the context and the people involved. In some cases, the gesture may be seen as too casual or informal, and other forms of nonverbal communication, such as nodding or bowing, may be more appropriate.

5. How to Count on Your Hands Like a Native

It is common to start counting in Japan with the pinky finger rather than the index finger, as is typical in many Western cultures. This means that if you want to indicate the number 1, you would hold up your pinky finger rather than your index finger.

Use both hands for larger numbers: When indicating numbers larger than 5, it is common to hold up one open hand signifying “5” and then hold the fingers of your other hand against that hand to signify 6, 7, 8 or 9. To indicate the number 10, you would hold up all fingers on both hands.

6. Gesturing for the Check

In Japan, it is common for the waiter or waitress to bring the check to the table when they sense that the customers are ready to leave. However, if you need to get the check or want to signal that you are ready to pay, you can simply make eye contact with a server and then make a small “X” with your fingers.

7. Eye Contact

In Japan, direct eye contact can be seen as impolite or confrontational, especially when speaking to someone of a higher status. Instead, people may intermittently make eye contact while mostly lowering their eyes or looking away slightly as a sign of respect.

8. Public Display Affection is Frowned Upon

Public displays of affection like kissing or hugging are not common in Japan and are considered inappropriate in certain settings. Overall, Japanese society is still modest in this sense. Personal space is highly respected and Japanese people are very conscientious of how others perceive them or are affected by their behavior. However, couples holding hands is slowly but surely becoming evermore prevalent here.

9. Restraint on Eating the Last Piece of Food

When eating with others, it is considered polite and respectful to avoid taking the last piece of food on a shared plate or dish in Japan. This custom, or the actual last piece of food, can be referred to as “enryo no katamari” which literally means “a piece of restraint”. 

There are a few different theories as to why this practice developed. One theory is that it shows consideration for others and a desire to share. By not asserting oneself or appearing too eager, leaving the last piece demonstrates that the person is not being selfish or greedy. It shows modesty and a willingness to put others before oneself. Going a step further, you may hear a person point out or offer up the last piece by saying, “遠慮のかたまり”.

10. Tabearuki

Tabearuki (食べ歩き) means “eating and walking”, and it’s a practice that is overall discouraged in Japan.

It’s thought that one reason tabearuki is not prevalent is that public trash receptacles are scarce. It’s inconvenient to have to carry around plastic wrappers or empty bottles once you’ve finished consuming something on the street. Another reason could be that Japanese people believe there is a time and place for everything. When eating, one should sit still to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy the food. It’s hard to do that while you’re in motion.

Feel free to check out this article to learn everything you need to know about tabearuki!

11. Silence is Golden

Silence is a communicative act in many if not all, cultures, and it’s no surprise that it is highly valued as an essential form of Japanese communication. 

In its most positive form, silence can be linked to social discretion or deep thought. It is common to have periods of silence during conversations, especially in business settings. This is seen as a sign of respect and consideration, and should not be interpreted as awkwardness or discomfort.

Of course, if a question is directed at you, staying silent could then be interpreted as rude or defiant. This is not so different from many cultures.

You’ll have to gauge the context of the interaction and try to behave and communicate as appropriately as possible.

12. Honorifics and Humility

The Japanese communication has various honorific and humble expressions which indicate social status and humility. For example, honorific verbs and humble verbs are used to describe the actions of superior and inferior people in society, respectively. Furthermore, there are specific vocabulary and constructions used to address the Emperor, the Emperor’s family, and government officials. Even in everyday conversational language, adding honorific and humble expressions can enhance the politeness and sensitivity of the interaction, highlighting respect for the listener’s feelings and insecurities.

Some simple examples of honorifics are the following suffixes:

  • さん (san)
  • 様 (sama)
  • くん (kun)
  • ちゃん (chan)

You can read more in-depth about these suffixes here.

And just to demonstrate how vastly different a word can be in polite (teineigo), honorific (sonkeigo) or humble (kenjougo) Japanese. Here is an example of two verbs:

VerbCasual/Dictionary Form丁寧語 (teineigo) / Polite form尊敬語 (sonkeigo) / Honorific form謙譲語 (kenjougo) / Humble form
To eat食べる (taberu)食べます (tabemasu)召し上がります (meshi agarimasu)いただきます (itadakimasu)
To go行く(iku)行きます (ikimasu)いらっしゃいます (irasshaimasu)参ります (mairimasu)

13. Back-channeling in Interactions

“Back-channeling” or “conversational interjection” is when a listener in an interaction interjects responses as the speaker is talking. Examples of back-channeling in English are utterances like “yeah”, “yes”, “uh-huh”, “I see” and so forth. In Japanese, conversational interjection is called aizuchi, and it happens much more frequently in a Japanese interaction than in an English interaction. So it may be a bit awkward for foreigners at first. But just remember that it’s a way for listeners to show that they are paying attention to what the speaker is saying. 

Here are some common aizuchi:

  • 本当ですか /  本当  (hontou desu ka? / hontou?) : Really?
  • そうですか/ そうか  (sou desu ka? / sou ka?): Is that right? Is that so?
  • ええ! (ee!): Sound of exclamation
  • いいです / いいですね / いいね / いいな (ii desu / ii desu ne / ii ne / ii na): That’s good! Nice!
  • 確かに (tashika ni): Certainly.
  • なるほど  (naruhodo): I see; I understand.

That said, it is also worth noting that when Japanese people say, “hai” (yes) while you’re talking, they might actually mean, “I understand” or “I hear you,” not “I agree.” Therefore, to accurately comprehend and convey the intended meaning, it is essential to pay attention to the context of the conversation and the body language of the person you are talking to.


Japanese culture and language are rich in their use of gestures, norms, and etiquette to ensure communication is polite and effective. With the right knowledge, appreciating these unique and fascinating nuances can be a delightful and enriching experience. Hopefully, these unique facts on Japanese communication we have presented provide some valuable steps toward learning this essential etiquette. Feel free to add your personal observations to our compiled list and share them with others who are eager to learn about communicating in Japan!

Want to communicate fluently in Japanese? Join classes at Coto Academy!

Remember that each situation can call for different approaches, and the best way to learn to use these techniques is to practice and observe native Japanese speakers. At Coto Academy, students learn to communicate effectively in a variety of situations, from casual conversations with friends to formal business meetings. Want to get started? Fill out the contact form below to get started!

In Japan, the thumbs down gesture can sometimes be interpreted as which gesture in Western culture?

The thumbs-down gesture in Japan can have the same meaning as the middle finger in Western culture.

Is PDA okay in Japan?

In general, PDA is still rare and frowned upon in Japan. But holding hands with your partner is acceptable.

What is "aizuchi", and do you remember any examples of it in Japanese?

“Aizuchi” is when a listener interjects to let the speaker know they are paying attention. Some examples in Japanese are “そうですか” and “なるほど”.

What is the proper way to greet someone in Japan?

In Japan, it is customary to bow when greeting someone. The depth and length of the bow can vary depending on the situation and the person you are bowing to.

What is the significance of silence in Japanese communication?

In Japan, silence is often used to convey respect or politeness. It is also used as a tool for communication, allowing the listener to interpret the speaker’s intentions and meaning.

What are some common nonverbal cues in Japanese communication?

Nonverbal cues such as bowing, eye contact, and facial expressions are important in Japanese communication. For example, avoiding eye contact can be seen as a sign of respect, while a smile can convey friendliness and warmth.

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