As you know, Japan is in the Far East and its culture is quite different from that of the West. Sometimes their hand signs are very different from what you are accustomed to and get you confused, so I’m going to introduce some of them here.
OK hand sign means money
Making a ring with your thumb and index finger represents money in Japan. The tricky thing is, it can also mean “OK,” and the only difference is the angle.
When you make the OK sign, all you have to do is just make a ring with your thumb and index finger with your palm facing outward, but when you make the money sign, you need to flip your hand so that your palm faces your chest.
In general, the Japanese don’t want to talk about money directly, so they make this sign without having to explicitly say the word “money.”
The sign comes from the Japanese currency unit “yen” which means circle. With your thumb and index finger, it’s very easy to make the yen (circle) sign. Straight forward, isn’t it?
Once my friends and I held a surprise birthday party for a friend, and after the party the organizer abruptly showed this money sign without saying anything. At first I didn’t understand and said “what?,” and the organizer said “the payment!” in a hushed voice. He wanted me to pay for the food and drink without making the birthday boy notice it. Of course I knew what the sign meant, but it was my first time I actually saw someone showing it to me and it took me a while to understand the meaning.
Sticking small finger up means female lover
If someone sticks a small finger up, that person might be referring to your girlfriend or wife. Sometimes it can refer to the wife/girlfriend of the person him-/herself who is sticking his/her own small finger.
The origin of this sign is uncertain, but traditionally small fingers meant women in Japan probably because it’s the smallest finger. An interesting history around this finger is that prostitutes in Edo Period cut their small finger and handed it to their steady to show their fidelity to them.
But this sign is old and I don’t believe people of the younger generation (under 50) don’t use it nor understand the meaning.
Small finger also means promise keeping. When someone (A) wants another person (B) to make promise, A and B cross their small fingers to make B keep his promise.
Thumb up means male lover
The same as the small finger goes for the thumb. Giving a thumb up doesn’t necessarily mean “good” or “like” in Japan, especially among old people. It means someone’s boyfriend or husband. If someone gives you a thumb up saying “hey, how are you doing with this (referring to the thumb)?,” he is asking how you are doing with your boyfriend or husband.
However, the Japanese use the exact same sign for “good” or “like” too. There is no way to distinguish the BF sign and the “like” signs from how they look, so judge the meaning from the context.
The origin of this sign I think is the same as the small finger. Thumbs are the biggest finger and thus means men.
Once an acquaintance of mine who is over 60 years old walked towards me and gave a thumb up without saying anything, so I gave him back a thumb up. Then he was like “no, I mean your husband! Where is he?” He wasn’t liking anything about me, but was looking for my husband, haha.
Again, this sign is only used by the older generations. This is why I didn’t understand what my acquaintance was doing (I belong to the younger generation).
Hand chopping gesture means “let me pass through”
If a Japanese wants to pass between you and something/someone and does a chopping gesture, it means “excuse me, may I pass through?”
But why the chopping gesture? Does he want to chop you???
The answer is yes and no.
The sign is called “hand blade” (“手刀” (shuto) in Japanese), and by doing this sign, the person tells the others whom he wants to pass through that he is going that direction but doesn’t have a weapon.
Even I didn’t know it until I looked it up now, and I guess everybody just uses this sign without knowing the meaning either.
The “shoo” gesture means “come here”
In the West, you wave your hand with your palm down to “shoo” something (or someone). But in Japan, they use almost the same sign for a completely different purpose–they use this sign to call someone.
Not only the meaning, but the gesture itself looks a bit different from the Western shoo gesture. When the Japanese does this sign, the direction of force is completely different from shooing. While the force of shooing sign is directed outward, the force of the calling sign is directed inwards. You will see the difference if you watch carefully.
Hope this article was of interest. If you ever come to Japan, observe people and see if they actually do these signs.