The most important fact one observes while studying Japanese language is the gesture of the speaker and the listener involved. As a matter of fact, study of any language also involves the study of non verbal parts like accent, intonation, body language, gesture, countenance and so on. With a language like Japanese that evolved in an island indigenously, a lot needs to be observed with the gesture of a speaker in order to learn Japanese in a better way! But this should never be mistaken for the abundance of facial or bodily expressions in Japanese conversation. For an alien visitor, the first language lesson starts from the gesture of the airhostess, when she welcomes with the famous Japanese bow “rei” (礼) saying “irasshaimase” (Please come in)!
In Japan, it is very common to find people bending at acute angles facing one another and thanking with “Arigato Gozaimasu” (=Thank you). There are even people showing great respects by bending again and again sometimes almost at right angles, saying “iie, iie” (No, not at all). This definitely makes a first timer feel a comic scene or “something wrong?” about the bending exercises! On the contrary, one can also find simple bows exchanged between two well acquainted salary-men greeting “konnichiwa” (Good after noon) or “doumo” (Hello), when there is no actual bow at all, except for the nodding of the heads in a unique pecking pattern. And among co-workers these nods are so routine and frequent that there is no actual verbal greeting exchanged between them. An alien working with them starts enjoying this silent pecking action of the heads like a comic scene. There are some people who greet all co-workers at once as they walk down the corridor from the entrance saying “ohayou gozaimaaaaaaaaasu” (Good moooooooorning!) aloud until they reach their seats, without nodding the heads. Now a days, fresh graduates entering the companies have a new, low toned and very short greeting style, like an “ouz” (short for – ohayou gozaimasu!!) with the pecking nod at each person! Many foreigners working with Japanese co-workers feel that one can surely learn Japanese in a fun-filled manner by following the Japanese ways of expressions.
As a matter of fact, often I have heard many “gaijin” (foreigners) say that the Japanese people can communicate effectively with their nods. It may be because the vertical and horizontal movements of the head mean definite things in Japanese. A “hai” (yes) or a “sou desu” (that’s right) is always accompanied by a vertical nod indicating the assertiveness, while an “iie” (no) or a “chigaimasu” (no, it is not so) has a horizontal movement of the head associated with it. During simple conversation with Japanese people, this nod is a weather cock in distinguishing between the meanings of sentences like “sou desu” (that’s right) and “sou desu ne” (Let me see). So, a beginner who tries to learn Japanese must always have an observing eye for catching a ‘nod’ from the speaker to get a right direction to the conversation!