Updated March 27, 2024

Cracking The Code: Japanese Nonverbal Communication


Japan Dev Team

Japan Dev contributor

If you find communicating in Japanese a challenge as a foreigner, you’re not alone. Many people who come to work here go through a specific type of culture shock, primarily due to the subtleties of Japanese communication.

The challenge often lies not within the Japanese language itself, but in the nuances implied through gestures and context, which make up a big part of the daily communication in Japan.

When communicating in Japanese, people don’t always say what they mean directly (see my post on Honne and Tatemae), which, to put it lightly, can be confusing if you're not used to it.

That said, learning about some of the key concepts in Japanese culture goes a long way in terms of communicating correctly. If you know exactly what to refrain from, you’ll learn to navigate Japan just fine.

So, here’s a guide to cracking the code of Japanese nonverbal communication, and understanding the key values that navigate daily interactions.

First Things First: Silence In Japanese Communication

If we’re talking about nonverbal communication, what better way to start off than with silence?

Silence is a powerful tool to keep in your arsenal when communicating with Japanese people, and is often a point of confusion for many Westerners.

For instance, as a person from the United States or a southern European country, you may interpret a person’s silence as passive-aggressive or disinterest in you or the conversation.

However, this can’t be further from the truth as silence in Japanese communication often comes from a place of deep consideration.

For one, Japanese people often choose to stay silent instead of going into a conflict to preserve societal harmony, which is key to Japanese politeness.

That said, a person’s silence can also come from a place of respect for others. 

It’s common for many Japanese people to take a brief moment before answering a question. By carefully contemplating the question to provide a thoughtful answer, they prove their respect to the person they’re speaking to.

Finally, another point about silence has to do with the concept of active listening. While the Western culture interprets active listening as nodding, making approving sounds, and asking questions, in Japanese culture, it’s more about letting the person speak their mind without interference.

Reading The Room: All About High Context


The next thing you need to understand about Japanese communication is that, for the most part, it’s high context.

This means that what’s being said is often not what a person means. However, this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because societies that communicate in high context share critical knowledge that’s known among all members of that society, allowing them all to interpret ambiguities in everyday speak in common, specific ways.

Japanese language relies heavily on this sort of high context because of the culture of respect and politeness, and the tendency to preserve harmony in society. So, most people learn to read the room, a concept called “Kuuki wo yomu (空気を読む)” in Japanese. 

Among themselves, Japanese people can understand each other perfectly thanks to social cues and their cultural predispositions. So, as a foreigner, learning to observe your surroundings and utilizing your observations in your communication can help you do the same.

Not Too Much: Bluntness and Hand Gestures In Japan

While nonverbal communication does play a big role in Japan, it isn’t the hands that do the rest of the talking. If you can think of the exact opposite of Italian people, you’ll get Japanese people’s approach to hand gestures: keep it at a minimum.

Generally, you won’t see many Japanese people flailing their hands around when speaking, which can even be considered rude in serious settings or when talking to your elders.

Similarly, being too blunt and always speaking your mind can also be easily interpreted as rude. I talked about this to a great extent in my post on the Japanese concepts Honne and Tatemae, but essentially, Japanese people are taught from a young age to keep their private feelings separate from their public images.

This means that no matter what a Japanese person truly thinks, they will choose to speak and act in the most agreeable way possible. This ties in with the concept of preserving societal harmony, and is about politeness conquering the potential of awkwardness at all times.

Another theme that the concept of honne and tatemae bring along is being indirect with your words if the direct way means getting into conflict or disrupting societal harmony.

“No” Is a Hard Word In Japanese


As mentioned, getting into conflict or even breaking the flow of the conversation by openly disagreeing are undesirable scenarios in Japanese culture. So, even if it’s technically okay for you to disagree or reject someone, communicating this openly by saying “no” is a challenge.

I have a whole post dedicated to this where I explain all the ways you can say no in Japanese, but essentially, showing sensitivity to the feelings of others is an important concept in Japanese culture, and is called kikubari (気配り).

As a result, you won’t see many Japanese people using direct words that mean “no”, or openly disagreeing with someone. Even if a Japanese person absolutely wants to say no to a question directed at them, the most they’ll do is rub the back of their necks and say “Yeah, I don’t know.”

This isn’t your only sign to figuring out whether a person is actually in disagreement with you. If you see the person you’re speaking to divert their gaze to the ground and make thinking noises in response, this already is a precursor to a subtle but likely refusal or disagreement with what’s being proposed.

However, keep in mind that answers like “I’ll think about it”, “I’ll consider it”, or “It’s difficult” are definitive indicators that your conversation isn’t going as agreeable as you may think, as these are usually veiled “No’s.”

A Sign of Respect: Bow In Japanese Culture

A big part of nonverbal communication in Japan has to do with the act of bowing, especially when showing gratitude, but not exclusively.

As I talked about in my post on mastering Japanese greetings, bowing also accompanies greetings, or saying “welcome.” Additionally, a bow can be used for congratulating someone or showing your appreciation.

That said, bowing can also have serious undertones. For instance, ceremonies are often initiated by bowing. You also want to bow when you’re apologizing, as it shows your humbleness as well as the grandness of the person you’re acknowledging.

As a general rule, keep in mind that the deeper the bow, the more serious the setting should be. Alternatively, a deep bow is also required when you want to apologize profusely.

Gestures and Body Language: Eye Contact, Posture, and Nodding in Japanese Culture

Bowing isn’t the only prominent physical gesture you’ll see commonly in Japanese communication.

For instance, while elsewhere it might be a sign of confidence and showing interest, too much eye contact in Japan can put you in the “awkward” zone without you realizing it. It goes without saying, but staring at people in public is considered flat-out rude.

When it comes to body language, keeping a good posture is also important in Japanese culture, as it shows your interest. 

Slouching, as shocking as it may sound, can easily be interpreted as inattentiveness or disinterest in the topic being discussed. It may even be considered disrespectful in certain cases, which, I say, is a good motivator to keep a good posture all the time!

Finally, nodding while someone else is speaking, as you’d expect, is also fine as long as it’s not too much. That said, nodding doesn’t mean a person agrees with you. In Japan, it’s usually a sign of politeness rather than agreement.

The Peace Sign: It’s Not Cringe!

Speaking of body language and gestures, another prominent hand gesture that’s significantly Japanese is the peace sign. I explained the origin and the historical background of the peace sign in a separate post, but just know that it’s actually common and normal to use it in Japan.

You may attribute it to anime, or the kawaii Harajuku culture as a foreigner, but using the peace sign is a common way to say hi in informal settings or when greeting your friends. 

In fact, the habit might just rub off on you even without realizing it, as it’s simply contagious, and you won’t know what else to do with your hands when posing for pictures once you get used to it.

In addition to greetings, the peace sign can also be used in a celebratory way. So, throwing the good old V-sign up when you’re excited and happy is also totally fine!

Common Hand Gestures and Their Meanings


Body language isn’t always about what you unintentionally put out there with your posture or facial expressions, it’s also about how you use your body to communicate. 

So, in addition to the peace sign, you may want to learn some of the other common ways to express yourself using body language and gestures in Japan.

For starters, when speaking about themselves or pointing at themselves, Japanese people use their index finger to point directly at their own faces, while you may be accustomed to pointing to your torso with your thumb.

Speaking of pointing at things, when gesturing toward a direction or person, Japanese people point with a flat, open hand rather than their finger.


Another minor quirk has to do with which fingers you use to start counting. 

If you start with a closed hand and count by unfolding your fingers, you’ll immediately identify yourself as a foreigner! Japanese people start counting by folding their thumbs into their palms first. Then, the “two” is the index finger folded in, which looks like the “OK” sign (it’s the same in Japanese!), and so on. 

Last but not least, another thing that may surprise you is the way people ask for the bill at cafes and restaurants. You may have seen this, but to ask for the bill, all you need to do is cross both your index fingers and make an “X” sign, which should do the trick.

Stay Humble and Polite: You Have Nothing To Worry About!

That’s it! You now have a good understanding of how nonverbal communication goes in Japan. 

The most important things to remember include the following:

  • Silence isn’t your enemy, know when to use it, and make sure you do use it.

  • Read the room: Japanese is a high-context language, and a lot lies in what’s not being said out loud. 

  • Don’t be too direct with your words, especially when in disagreement, as you still want to seem polite and use your body language to disagree instead of causing direct conflict.

  • Embrace bowing. While it may seem stereotypical, it’s actually a big part of the culture, and you need to master it to truly show respect to others.

All that said, the gist of it is that you need to be polite, considerate, and most importantly, humble. As long as you navigate your life in Japan by these values, you generally won’t offend anyone, at least not to a degree an apology won’t fix.

When being praised, remember to praise others. Thank the person complimenting you, find something nice to say in return… You can’t go wrong so long as you choose to act in compassion and kindness, which are, thankfully, universal.

Additionally, if you want to learn more about Japanese culture, check out my posts on how to say sorry in Japanese and how to say thank you in Japanese, both of which contain vital information to help you survive as an expat in Japan.


Japan Dev Team

This post was written by our Japan Dev editorial team.