by Frank Lev, Apr 16, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

I was really surprised when someone at lunch the other day said, "Frank you have a really big nose."

While this would be an insult perhaps in the US, in Japan it is a compliment. Japanese people are embarrassed about their small noses. They think that they have no nose at all. While it's not true for all Japanese, many of them have a nose bridge that dips down almost even to their face.

I think it's beautiful, but maybe it's just a case of wanting what the other person has.

I have teased some of my Japanese friends and told them that the reason their noses are so small (in the negative sense) is that they are always poking themselves in the nose.

This is true. When an American refers to him or herself with a pointing gesture, they point to their chest, about the heart region. However a Japanese person points to and sometimes pushes right to the nose area. I didn't know what to think the first time I saw someone I was talking to start pointing to their nose.

Another thing, you must not point your finger at another person. While this is also rude in the US, it's like a criminal offense here.

Its terrible because I do it all the time and I'm not even aware of it. It is ok to point with your entire open hand. This looks funny to me, like you should be saying, "Right this way Sir".

I embarrassed my Japanese co-worker the other day because when I asked her if that was her husband over there, she pointed at him and said, "Yes that's him". Teasingly, I quickly admonished her and told her that in Japan you must never point. She flushed and then joked back that it was ok to point at him because he was her husband and so it was perfectly ok to be rude to him.

Other gestures are different in Japan as well. An interesting one is the way people count. Count to 10 using your fingers right now. If you are like me, you made a fist with your right hand and then opened your fingers one by one starting with the index finger, the middle finger, the ring finger, the little finger and then the thumb. Then you go to the left hand.

A Japanese person does it differently. They start with the hand open and start folding in the fingers one by one. First the thumb, index, middle, ring, and pinky. They end up with 2 fists. We start out with 2 fists.

Also if a Japanese person wants to show you a specific number say, "7", they would hold up the left hand open and place 2 fingers on the palm. This works great for 6,7,8, and 9. As an American I would hold up 7 fingers in front.

Sometimes a Japanese person will make a negative gesture by crossing both forearms in a big X in front of them. There is no mistaking what this should mean. But it looks very extreme and strong to me like they are about to defend themselves.However its not meant to be a physical threat, its just a normal way to say no.

Another way that people say no is by putting their hand right in front of their chin area (fingers pointing away from them and palm perpendicular to the floor) and then waving that hand back and forth quickly, as if they were fanning someone who happened to have their head right there.

If you're getting the idea that a lot of people are saying "no" to me, well that might be right. What can I say, it's not as easy as I thought it would be here. But I won't give up.

In a future letter I will report more ways that Japanese people say no.