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?