gestures & japan

When I asked a station attendant at Narita if the incoming train was going to Tokyo he crossed his forearms like he was going to karate-chop me. After a few hours I realized that crossed forearms –or crossed hands, or crossed index fingers- is simply the Japanese sign for “no” or “nothing” and also “stop asking me stuff in English, tourist! I don’t understand!”

This is the interior of a Japanese train. Notice the unsoiled plush seats and the spotless floors. I felt like licking everything.

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Turns out not many Tokyoites understand English very well and most speak it even less. Much fun is to be had when asking a waiter who doesn’t speak English about a Japanese menu. We chose a restaurant without the ubiquitous bi-lingual menu, of course. We rattled off all the Japanese foods we knew until we hit the jackpot. Tempura? (crossed arms.) Sushi? Unagi? (crossed arms.) By now there is a waitress hovering nearby to watch the entertainment. Udon? Soba? (crossed arms) but they had somen, a kind of thin wheat noodle, that we ordered which was really good. Miso soup? Yes!  (Then, gestured: with something inside.) What, chicken? (crossed arms! -I think “chicken” was the first word that the waiter understood- Points to a drawing of a crab on the menu.) Miso soup with crab? Sure! The crab ended up being small delicious mussels. 

We had less than 24 hours in Tokyo, due to a forced layover. I hope I can spend some more time there someday.

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3 Responses to “gestures & japan”


  1. 1 chiara.u June 8, 2009 at 09:21

    It’s a strange thing that somewhere they don’t understand what you want to say! It happens me in Moscow: it was really frustrating… you try to explain and the answer is “crossed arms”! Well not in Russia, but the result was the same 🙂

  2. 2 Claire June 8, 2009 at 11:10

    I didn’t know this fact…thanks for the tip! Happy travels =)

  3. 3 Jackie @ PhamFatale.com June 12, 2009 at 15:11

    Great tips if I ever travel to Japan. I used to live in Paris and believe me Parisians are NOT welcoming with tourists, at all.


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I really like the phrase "always an adventure". I am a Reiki Master and work as a therapist in Manhattan, in my private practice and at a cancer center. I also freelance as a translator in the New York City area and beyond.

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