Are Japanese Facial Expressions Meaningful to You?-Learn From the Quake in Spain

May 19, 2011 Juju Kurihara 1 Comment

Exactly two months later from the earthquake in Japan, on the 11th of May it hit a small town, Lorca in the south of Spain. I heard that someone predicted an earthquake in Rome and some how it moved down to Spain. 

terremoto lorca 11 de mayo 2011


I heard the news and opened Spanish newspaper, el País´ page. There were fotos of people´s faces in shock, crying and shouting. I thought ¨it must´ve been a huge quake¨. 

Then I saw the letter M5.2.

My first thought was is that all?¨.



I know it´s nothing like ïs that all¨ about in any disaster. Each one of them are serious and tough. So please don´t take it personal if you are Spanish but I´m from a country of earthquake and must say that M5 is a regular quake. Of course you can feel the shake but it´s nothing serious. 

Then how come Spanish quake looked more serious than Japan by the look?

I realised it was the facial expressions.



This woman had just lost her family.

japan collaps

This Japanese woman also had just lost her family.



Spanish people in shock


Japanese women in shock


oh no

Holds her scream looking at a collapsing building.

Holds her sadness.


men crycry

Spanish men do cry

look downjapan_shit

Japanese men don´t cry



A car´s been crushed


A car´s landed on the tree


As you can see, Spanish people are very expressive or you can even say that Japanese people are expressionless. The major difference I can see is Spanish people tend to up their face whereas Japanese people tend to down the face. When they cry, Spanish people will shout, scream and cry out, while Japanes people will just shed tears or sob.

Even the gestures are different. My teacher in the secondary school told us that it´s not so educated way to talk with your hands. She said it means you don´t have enough vocabularies to express yourself. Is it really?


I was always amuzed by American TV or film characters express themselves loudly. I thought they were exaggerating. Then I was even more amuzed when I saw my English teachers got super excited about a little present we gave them. Her face broke into huge smile, eyes wide open, screamed ¨wooooooooow! then started giving kisses and hugs to everyone. Have I ever seen any Japanese people have such facial expressions? I can´t recall it.

On one hand we are quite jealous of them expressing themselves so easily but on the other hand for us, it looks a little too exaggerated to get others´ attention.

There is a saying in Spain ¨No lloras, no mamas¨ means ¨if you don´t cry, you don´t get any food¨, and this is true, this seems to be a reality in Western world. Whoever shout louder will get what he/she wants. On the contrary in Japan we say ¨Awateru kojiki wa morai ga sukunai (慌てる乞食はもらいが少ない)¨, means ¨a desparated beggar receives less help¨. 


When a Japanese person comes back to Japan after living overseas for years, often notice the change of the face, even the shape of it. It seems to be noisier, in the sense of, as if the face itself is chatting. When this person talks, the eyeblows and the eyes move, even the mouth moves much more than usual. Of course they talk a lot of gestures, the soulders, the hands and body. 

Then some of their friends may say that person looks like gai-jin (外人/ foreigner) and some may say he or she is ¨acting like gai-jin¨.



Japanese people may have less obvious facial expressions than westerners and yet, we can feel others´ feeling quite well. We transmit people´s feeling. 

This photo might be one of the most known one and as you can see, the girl is wailing. Japanese people can express their feeling but they grow up learning to control their feeling, to pull themselves together all the time.

Perhaps this is a disadvantage for them, not being able to be understood well and I personally still like their modesty, try not to be all over the place or not to bother others. But at the same time, makes me so happy when my Australian friend smiles and screams when she sees me at the airport after four years since we saw last, or a Spanish friend just repeats ¨woow, wooow, woow¨ and keeps eating a little cake I made. Facial expression is a simple way to show their feelings even though sometimes it seems a little exaggerated and too comical.  

Is it possible to be somewhere in the middle? Not too attention seeker but not too subtle either? I´ve learnt the importance of facial expressions from the earthquake in Spain.

1 Comment

  1. Ying Leng 7 years Reply

    Wow, a good article. Finally, someone he has noticed the lack of facial expression of the Japanese. I spent awhile in Japan, and always felt that something was always off when I interacted with them. I did not understand what, but it made me uneasy. Then I realize that the Japanese did not have much facial expression, especially around the upper part of the face which was really strange to me. How could you have so little facial expression?!
    But then I thought of Western examples, esp. the Southern European types, etc… Italians, etc.. then realized that we Chinese have comparatively less expression than them (except in regions really southern where we start making funny exaggerated facial expressions). Perhaps, it’s the same thing. In China, we have regions where people have really exaggerated facial expression (much more as you move South), and gets less as you move North. But I find living amongst people who have culturally less facial expression than you is a bit unnerving. I don’t know why. It scares me a bit. I find it more comfortable to live with cultural strangers who make more facial expression than you than less.
    But another thing I remember is that they tend to categorize japanese people who make lots of facial expression to be 下品 – vulgar. Maybe that’s why too.People originating from Osaka and lived there for hundreds of years have much more facial expression though and they’re not to be looked down as 下品!
    Anyway, my brother’s japanese wife’s family is also kind of like this. Another reason I suspect might be that they might not possess as much coordination on their facial muscle. A japanese relative of mine is very expressive like the reunion airport example you gave. She smiles alot, laughs alot, shrieks alot, but it feels that her facial expression repertoire is very limited. A test for whether you possess a good facial expression repertoire is whether you can wink without straining your face that much, and I gave quite a few tests to Japanese friends – even westernized ones – and it seems a large portion have trouble with it. The ones that didn’t already had more varied facial expressions. Maybe it’s both cultural and biological somewhat – kind of like the amount of blonde people a country have – Japan just has less of them.

    Anyway, here’s an incoherent rant, hope it makes you think about something new.

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