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Sunday, July 25, 1999


Gesture your way to Japanese fluency

Yesterday I went into a convenience store to buy some aspirin. I asked the clerk using the English loanword "asupirin." The clerk pointed to the freezer section and said, "it's over there." "No, not 'aisu kurimu,' asupirin," I said. "Pudding?" he asked. At that point, he did what all befuddled clerks do when they can't understand the "gaijin," he disappeared. Moments later another person came out and said, "Can I help you?" I said, again, I requested asupirin and told her that I had a headache. She said, "Oh, you mean 'zutsu yakuhin' (headache medicine). You have to go to a pharmacy for that."

I couldn't help thinking how much easier Japanese language would be if you didn't have to speak it. Sometimes I wonder if we would be able to communicate better through sign language. I admit that my sign language is limited to that for "You--drive--me--crazy," but gestures should count for something. It would be very helpful if we could come up with a universal system of gestures. This would be perfect for those who don't want to learn an entire second language. Today I will share with you some entries from my unpublished book, "Esperanto Sign Language."

The Traffic Cop. Everybody is familiar with the traffic cop's gestures for routing traffic on the street. But you can also find hostesses in restaurants using traffic-cop gestures to direct foreigners to an open table. The hostess is thinking, "My God -- foreigners! What if they don't understand Japanese?!" and the arms start flailing and pointing in the direction of an open table. It works.

Shoo Fly. Waving the hand back in forth in front of the face, as if trying to shoo away a fly is used to mean "wrong" in Japan. In the United States we use it to indicate a bad smell as in, "Who cut the cheese?" This gesture could also be used for special circumstances when you need a gesture but, for some reason, there isn't one. For example, you could use the Shoo Fly gesture to mean: You're spitting on me while you're talking.

Let's Eat. The Japanese have a great gesture for eating. Hold an imaginary rice bowl in one hand and with the other hand use two fingers as chopsticks and shove imaginary rice into your mouth at enormous speed. We could further adapt this gesture to different kinds of foods: Let's eat noodles would be the Let's Eat gesture accompanied by a sucking sound, let's eat fish would be indicated by sucking in your cheeks and moving your lips like a fish, let's eat sushi would require puffing your cheeks out to make gerbil-sized pouches full of sushi, and let's eat natto would be accompanied by the Shoo Fly gesture for smelly.

Me?: Japanese people put their index fingers on their noses to indicate "me." Americans point to their chests. Most Americans haven't put their index fingers to their noses since they were in elementary school and amused their friends by focusing their eyes on their index fingers as they drew them closer and closer to their noses until their eyes crossed. This is extremely funny if you are an American elementary-school student. I think the Japanese pointing to their noses is fine, but they really should cross their eyes. Life would be much more fun.

Air Smooching. I learned from my Japanese students that many of them have never kissed their parents. Though Asian people don't touch each other the way Westerners do, I think all parents should be kissed. If Japanese people are uncomfortable kissing their parents, they can at least kiss the palm of their own hand, then blow on the open palm to send a kiss. I know Air Smooching works because I used to blow kisses to my father as he left for work in his car. I worried that the kisses wouldn't get to him through the car windows, but he assured me that they did. He even said that sometimes the kisses would get lost and arrive on his cheek later in the day while he was working. Very convenient. But I'd add blowing coughs and sneezes to people you don't like.

Now I am bowing while holding my head in my hands. That's Esperanto sign language for "Goodbye, I'm going to the pharmacy to buy some headache medicine."

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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