The Story Behind the V Sign

Language comes in many forms; it’s not just about what’s communicated verbally, but also the ways that one expresses him or herself without the use of spoken or written words. Here, you have the world of signs and body language; an entirely different, yet interconnected realm that gives significance to different body movements and formations.

It’s come to many people’s notice that when posing with people for a photo in Japan, it was a common act for the Japanese to form the famous “V sign”. What is a v sign, how did it become such a huge part of Japanese culture, and where did the practice of forming the V sign for pictures originate from?

The Origins of the V Peace Hand Sign – It’s Not Japanese

Though the v sign may be very popular in Japan and have a completely different meaning attached to it, the earliest recorded origins of this gesture are speculated to have European roots. Long ago, during the Hundred Years War, specifically Battle of Agincourt (the Kingdom of England versus the Kingdom of France), the longbowmen from England and Wales who seized by their French enemies were punished by means of chopping off the fingers used to fire their bows, which so happened to include the middle and index fingers. This was used as both a means of torture and as a blow to their ego because they would soon be summarily executed anyway.

It would be no surprise then, that the longbowmen who escaped their enemy’s wrath or were victorious overall, would supposedly show off to their enemies the fact that they still possessed their index and middle fingers. They would do so by protruding them, waving it in front of them, thus creating a form of salute. However, some historians argue that longbows used during that era used three fingers, not two. Only modern bows are handled using two fingers, disputing the idea that the salute was made up 2 fingers only.

How to Make the V Sign

There are mainly two different gestures of v signs. There’s one version where the palm is faced inward, while the other has the palm faced outward. To make the V sign, your pointer finger, together with your middle finger must be sticking out, with a bit of a distance from each other. Depending on what you want to convey, you choose whether you want your palm facing yourself (the signer) or outwards. Then, you simply flash it, flip it with a flick of the wrist, keep it still, use it as a salute, or wave it around.

Different Usages of the V Sign

Depending on the elements combine to perform the gesture; how you conveyed it, the context behind it, plus all that information in conjunction where you are, the v sign can be used it to express an array of different meanings.

The V Sign As an Insult

The V Sign, during the 19th and 20th century around the U.K., was considered an insult. An early record of the gesture being used as an insult was in the United Kingdom – Rotherham, to be exact. Data about this was retrieved in November 2016. Apparently, it was 1901, and someone was using a camera near the Parkgate Ironworks. A seemingly disgruntled worker among the crowd wasn’t all too pleased with the idea of being filmed, gave the cameraman a gesture; the v sign, with his palm facing inwards.

This gesture would be known all around London and the U.K. as an offensive one, though the connection of rudeness to the gesture would only be known about exclusively inside the British Isles and some Commonwealth nations, according to a group of anthropologists. It is still currently known as an offensive gesture, mostly in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

How to Perform the Gesture as An Insult

The v sign has other names when it is used as an insult, namely “the forks” (Australia), or “the two-fingered salute”. The gravity of its insult is comparable to that of “the finger” gesture, where one shows the back of the hand, all fingers down, lifting only the middle finger. The two-fingered salute, on the other hand, is performed a little differently. Here, the v sign has the palm facing the signer and is flicked going outwards, as one places a hand in the elbow to steady the flick. It is usually done in an act of rebelliousness to an authority figure, or to express contempt.

Over the decades, the sign has been used in revolts against politics and feuds in the entertainment industry, mostly in the UK. Then again, because it’s used for other purposes around the world, many foreigners who visit Commonwealth countries sometimes make the mistake of making this gesture for other reasons but is taken as an insult by locals.

The V Sign, Used for Other Purposes

It’s been established that doing the v sign with the palm facing the signer, flicked with the elbow, is an insult. However, there are other purposes and significances that are attributed to the same sign, performed in sometimes similar, and mostly different ways. For example, there are two generally accepted meanings attached to the backhanded v sign. When someone performs this supposedly malicious v sign, they may also be trying to convey the American sign language of the number 2. It can still mean number 2, even if the palm of the hand is facing outwards.

The V sign can also mean the letter V when it comes to the American Sign Language. It can be used to signify air quotes when the palms are faced outwards, and the fingers follow the motion of bending and straightening twice. Many political parties all over the world also use this sign to represent their cause or movement.

About its Usage to Represent Victory

The story of the gesture completely changes once the palm faces outwards. It can mean victory, mainly because the word victory begins with the letter v - which is the letter the gesture form. The former Belgian Minster of Justice named Victor de Lavelye notably popularized it around January of 1941, when he talked about it in a radio show, using it as a gestural representation of victory or “victoire”. The Dutch word for freedom also happened to start with a v; “vrijheid”, making it more convenient to use during such a revolutionary time as World War II.

BBC would then create a campaign named “V for Victory” which would kickstart its existence in popular culture. In this campaign, de Lavelye spoke of how, if everyone unified and used this sign as an act of strength and solidarity, the enemy would realize that they are watching out for the minute they have their “first moment of weakness”. Protesters started to write graffiti on walls with the letter V as a symbol of their support for this. This gesture would then be used throughout Europe in the following years of the war, as well as following wars to come.

Over time, the definition of the gesture morphed, especially during the Vietnam war. When the United States military won the Vietnam war, then-president Richard Nixon used this gesture to signal their victory. However, there were many movements that did not necessarily agree with the context that Nixon was using it in. Instead, in true counterculture essence, protestors used it in their marches to connote and promote peace. Any peace org that would attend these anti-war protests would gesture with the V-sign, palm facing outwards, saying “peace”, thus the correlation. After much public use became one of the official signs of peace.

The “Plus Sain”, and Why It’s Popular in Japan

In Japan, the v sign is known in Romaji the “plus sain” (ピースサイン), which was supposedly adapted indirectly from hippie culture during 60’s, specifically from protests against the Vietnam war. Performing the pisu sain gesture is incredibly popular in Tokyo and Osaka, and you would automatically notice this when you see Japanese people take pictures of themselves, or when they pose for an informal shot. The pisu sain gesture is done with the palm facing outwards.

The origins of exactly how it came about to be so popular in Japan is undetermined, however, some people speculate that it all started in the 1970’s, with Janet Lynn. During 1972, the Olympics (ended Sep, ’72) were held in Japan, and an American figure skater named Janet Lynn was performing. She was expected to win the entire competition but fell in the middle of her performance. When she got up from her fall, she smiled. In Japanese culture, one would bow their head or frown over their mistake, but Lynn was still smiling.

The fact that Lynn was still smiling captured the hearts of the Japanese watchers, and she was treated like a superstar for being such a positive person. Because Lynn was an activist for peace, she would often make this gesture when she would pose for photographs. The Japanese populace quickly noticed this habit, which snowballed into a cultural phenomenon.

Slowly Seeping into Popular Culture

Aside from Lynn being the sole source of this phenomenon, others speculate that it could have also come from the emotional father and son bonding moment in “Kyojin no Hoshi”. Translated to “Star of the Giants”, Kyojin no Hoshi is a comic about baseball. The star of the show, Hyuuma Hoshi, looks up to his father, who was one of the best baseball players of his time. Right before an important competition, his dad cheers him on by showing him the v sign in support. That gesture was such a hit that a manga called “Sain wa V!” was created after. In English, Sain wa V means V is the sign, but this time the manga was about volleyball. The manga was turned into a TV show later on, recognizable with its catchy tune that spells out "victory".

Currently, the v sign can be found as an emoji because of how popular it is in Japan. The emoji’s Unicode sequence is U+270C.

All Thanks to an Advertisement

Another theory for the boom in the use of the v sign in photos could also have possibly come from Jun Inoue. Jun Inoue was a famous Japanese singer and “tarento” (celebrity). Konica cameras hired him to be their celebrity spokesman. When he posed for a shot for their print commercial, he made an impromptu gesture that so happened to the v sign.

Combine that advertisement with an array of other emerging factors in popular culture, such as kawaii (cute culture), more media targeted for the female market, and the easy availability of cameras, and you have a recipe for the gesture soaring into a massive trend, being used as a pose by many women in Japan.

Not Only in Japan

Other Asian countries have adopted the practice of making the v sign when posing for both a casual and formal shot. Some of these countries include Hong Kong, South Korea, Mainland China, and Taiwan. While it is most popular for signifying an insult or peace as previously explained, it has a different implication now, signifying happiness and positive cheer. The trend has also become widespread in K-pop culture.

Famous People Who Have Used the V Sign

The only way that a sign would turn into a trend, or part of popular culture, would for it to have been used by an influential figure. Many people – important and semi-important - over the course of history, have used this gesture to mean different things. Here are a few examples of them.

Winston Churchill was famous for accidentally gesturing the v-sign as an insult, as he didn’t know it stood for an insult and did it appropriately after it was explained to him.

Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president of the united states, would often use the v sign on both hands, palms facing outwards, with his arms raised out. Richard Nixon would later follow suit, doing the exact same thing, making it his trademark – especially after he used it when he resigned from his post. Famous singer Robbie Williams has been photographed doing the v sign as an insult to the photographer, while Steve McQueen, arrested for drunk driving, held the v sign up (palm facing front) in his mugshot.

Conclusively, tradition and culture – no matter what country - are always morphing. It’s always good to be open to new changes, and embrace the direction and new elements that emerge with time. Visit Japan, be it April or June, and see how this little gesture has changed a fragment of Japan’s culture.