The Gaijin Gleaner Online Issue 44 - August 1996

Leuers At Large

Who Nose?

I like the Japanese pointing gesture. Japanese often point to their nose to indicate "boku" or "atashi" i.e. "I", themselves. Gaijin reactions to this gesture vary. Some think it is cute, funny or idiotic, others have thought that "boku" is the Japanese word for nose. The Japanese gesture system is definitely confusing. The Japanese sign for "No thanks" (waving the flat of the hand held vertically in front of the face) might be taken to mean "that stinks" and the gesture for "money" (holding the tip of the forefinger and thumb together) could be more insulting; it resembles the British gesture meaning "onanist". The nose pointing gesture should not however, be dismissed as merely an idiosyncrasy - it may reveal the nature of the Japanese self. Surveys show that nose pointing is more common among Japanese women and children than adult men and that it decreases with social status. Japanese children learn this gesture at an early age; when just learning to speak, toddlers may point to their mouth and say "kuchi", their ears and say "mimi" and their head and say "atama" but pointing to their nose they often say their own name. Men with high status between about 30 and 50 seem to be the most likely to point to their chest in a Western fashion. This could mean that the difference between "nose pointing" and "chest pointing" is linked to a person's degree of self confidence or individualism. But even a Japanese who points to his chest to indicate "watashi" is different to a chest tapping English speaker because the latter will say "me" and not "I".

For Westerners "I" can not be pointed to. "I" is the name for our inner identity while "me" is the name for ourselves that can be pointed to and seen by others. The Japanese, however, use the same word for "I" and "me". Perhaps because the Japanese feel a much stronger identification with their nose, face or visual image in general. This is probably not because they think they have cute noses. But it could be because the Japanese think that they are essentially something which can be seen. If so, this difference has important consequences. It is said that while Westerners feel guilt, the Japanese feel shame. But what is the difference between the two? The sense of guilt arises when the voice of our conscience cannot justify our behaviour and it can be argued that we feel guilt because we have internalised (or there exists) a super ego (or God) who listens to our thoughts. Shame, in contrast, arises when we feel someone's stare. But when no one is around to stare at us we do not feel shame. What about the Japanese? They do not seem to have much problem with guilt. But they do feel shame even when no-one else is around. This could be because they have internalised a "super ego" who rather than LISTENS to their thoughts, WATCHES them. Hence, they feel there is ALWAYS someone watching, that they are ALWAYS seen. And hence they point to the centre of their visual image, their nose, to indicate "watashi". I point to my nose and say "boku", I am ashamed to say. This does not mean that I have thrown off guilt and taken on board shame. But I do have an ungainly nose.

Tim Leuers


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