Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kissing In Japan

I read somewhere (probably Wikipedia) recently that kissing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Japan. Up until about 1900, if an unsubstantiated quotation is to be believed, there just was no romantic kissing. Coming from a culture with a long history of kissing, romantic as well as in greeting, this is hard to come to terms with. Kissing seems like such an obvious, natural thing to do, how can one not kiss? But there are in fact cultures that do not kiss.

I first came across this notion, that kissing is not an instinctual act but a learned custom, in a novel (I forget the name). A Bronze age Germanic chieftain attains immortality and travels around the world, ending up in India where he first encounters kissing. Sure enough, India was one of the first kissing cultures. This blew my mind. Then, sometime recently, I started wondering about the history of kissing in Japan.

There is very little information about this online (in English, at least). But from what I know about kissing in Japan today, it could very well be true that it is only a recent import.

First of all, it's my understanding that traditionally the mouth was considered an unclean place. This is why women cover their mouths when they laugh, and married women in the feudal age blacked out their teeth. You also clean your mouth as well as your hands with water to purify yourself before praying at a shrine or temple. If it's unclean, it makes sense you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time in another person's mouth.

Kissing in public is considered bad manners. Kissing seems to be associated specifically with sex, and not with the more innocent showing of affection as it is in the West, where greeting kisses are common. This article in the NY Times from 1995 talks about young people kissing in public and how horrible it is to the older generation. It also suggests that public perception of this is changing and soon won't matter so much. I don't think I've ever seen people in Japan kiss in public, so it must be more entrenched than they thought in 1995. In fact, couples don't really even hug in public. The only way you can tell that a couple is indeed a romantic couple is when you see them together all the time.

The kissing as foreplay argument is covered here, in an excerpt from a TV show where foreigners argue with Japanese men about showing affection to your wife with a kiss. The Japanese men counter that kissing is something they do when in a heightened emotional state (i.e. foreplay), so why do it any other time?

I find this endlessly fascinating. Has anyone else come across any information on this subject?


  1. I remember people were saying about the couple as バカップル when they see any affectionate couple in public (kissing, hugging, or even holding hands) because Japanese people thought "that's a really private thing, why don't you do it when you guys are in private place!? No one want to see your いちゃいちゃ in public".

    ....It is culture difference because you know, Japan is still somewhat "saving face"culture and it's changing.
    As you mention, young people aren't more afraid of showing their affection and now I totally think that's cool.

    One thing I thought it's really tough to live in Japan with Sully (if we ever going to live in Japan)is,,,,,whenever we are affectionate to each other in public, people will look at us as we are some kind of shameless バカップル (and interracial couple would still stands out in Japan).....

    I really think basically Japanese people are polite, but I know they can be really mean to our own people.
    But like I said, it's changing. Japanese people will be more affectionate to each other in public because we will be less scared about showing our feeling and less scared of "what other people might think"......which I think it's a good change.

  2. And one more thing, if you are non-Japanese, (yeah, gaijin), that's totally okay thing to do (kissing hugging in public)because when you guys do it, it looks cool. Isn't that twisted??

  3. It's OK if gaijin make out in public? Even in America making out in public is kinda too much. It's one thing to hold hands and hug, but face smash?

    Also, I was surprised when I went to Korea how much PDA there is. They don't make out but everything else seems OK. Then again, it seems like a much more touchy feely culture than Japan, with friends often walking arm in arm and holding hands.

  4. Huh, this is very interesting. My wife stated that kissing is relatively new to Japan, and I saw similar stuff elsewhere in Asia. I never really thought about it as relating ot foreplay only, but I guess that makes sense. That actually explains a lot.

    Actually, I got used to the less-affectionate-in-public way of relationships, through dating Japanese girls. It took some getting used to, and we somehow meet halfway. I realized that Japanese girls express their love in the open differently, but no less than Western girls. Once I figured this out, I think it made me appreciate things my wife did for me a lot more.

    I hope there's more studies on this, and not in a "Western-centric" way. The conservative, Confucian approach seems dated to someone like me, but I think there's a lot to understand under the surface to appreciate and udnerstand.