On the Ground Perspectives

On Embracing Another

6937889330_166d9d3eab

Even if you grew up in an expressive environment, if you have spent a lot of time in Japan and worked to acclimate yourself to the culture, your greeting instincts become scrambled and reset. You learn that hugging Japanese friends and family makes them uncomfortable and then you become unsure of what to do when you see your foreign friends who also live there. Do you hug only if you haven’t seen them in a long time? You forget if you hug friends every time you see them or if there is some other algorithm involved. It starts to strike you as odd when you are home and you hear your friends and family ending every phone call with “Love you!”

From the Foreign to the Familiar: On Embracing Another

[box]From the Foreign to Familiar will address the complexities of being a foreigner in Japan and the importance of learning through observation and engagement. This column will debunk the unique customs that are often deemed weird or strange by Westerners, and provide insight into deeper meanings and definitions of intimacy, family and community in Japanese culture. [/box]

I am back in Japan and waiting at Umeda Station to meet a close friend for dinner. It’s the first time we have seen each other in three years. He’s an old college friend who also moved here shortly after graduation and has stayed ever since, a couple of decades. As I see him approaching from across the station a smile spreads across my face and when he gets near, reflexively I open my arms to step in for a hug. He responds in kind and remarks, “Man, I miss hugs living here.” That went well. Other times I’ve had old friends stiffen up or awkwardly respond in kind after a startled pause to this physical style of greeting.

This screen in the Hankyu Umeda Station, known as Big Man, is a popular place to meet up with friends in Osaka. Photo by jpellgen.

Hug, Bow, or Shake Hands?

Even if you grew up in an expressive environment, if you have spent a lot of time in Japan and worked to acclimate yourself to the culture, your greeting instincts become scrambled and reset. You learn that hugging Japanese friends and family makes them uncomfortable and then you become unsure of what to do when you see your foreign friends who also live there. Do you hug only if you haven’t seen them in a long time? You forget if you hug friends every time you see them or if there is some other algorithm involved. It starts to strike you as odd when you are home and you hear your friends and family ending every phone call with “Love you!”

You rarely see people hug in Japan. They don’t hug their friends, their romantic partners or their children. Certainly not in public and for many, not in private either. The casual, affectionate physical contact that is a part of American and European cultures is not really found in Japanese culture. It’s not that Japanese culture lacks affection and emotion. These things are expressed by other types of actions or are felt but never overtly expressed. It’s considered embarrassing and childish to make a showy, public display. Maybe direct expressions of affection focus too much attention on the individuals involved. At any rate, it isn’t done.

Photo by mr. hayata.

Discussions about the lack of public affection in Japan usually focus on romantic relationships and whether or not kissing or holding hands with a romantic partner is socially acceptable or taboo, but the way we express affection to family and friends is equally as important for our emotional well-being. It’s not uncommon to see couples or same-sex friends holding hands, but you rarely see couples kissing in public unless it’s late and they are drunk or teenagers. This nearly exclusive focus on the romantic discounts all other types of relationships, the kind that may very well make up the bulk of your interactions in Japan.

Relationships between Japanese and non-Japanese partners that start outside Japan will most likely see big changes when the couple goes to Japan compared to when they are abroad. Even if it seemed natural to kiss or embrace your partner in another type of setting and atmosphere, once you get to Japan it’s often hard for the Japanese partner to cast off all the social conditioning associated with home. Some individuals’ behavior changes so dramatically it almost seems like they are entirely different people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean feelings have changed. It’s something that is hard to anticipate and confusing until you realize how deeply ingrained the cultural assumptions and behaviors we are raised with really are.

Body language and coordinating outfits. Their affection is apparent even though there is some physical distance. Photo by sskenne

How many of us were told as children, “Go give your auntie a kiss!” at family gatherings? You did it because you were supposed to even if you thought it (or she) was weird and then it became a thing you always do “naturally.” If you grew up never doing that imagine how you’d feel if suddenly that become what you’re expected to do? There are a lot of ways you might react, but being open-minded and willing to try to understand other ways of connecting is a good approach. Sometimes despite all your efforts you might find another culture’s way just doesn’t fit your personal style, but you will grow and learn, about other cultures and yourself, as long as you give it an honest effort.

Embrace the Difference

A couple of months after moving from Japan back to the US my daughter, then in elementary school, came home and told me, “My friends say my hugs suck.” She spent her early childhood in Japan and hadn’t learned to hug friends, even though she was hugged at home. I would see her tense up and stiffen when her American grandfather hugged her, too. He confessed to me once when she was younger that it made him sad that she seemed so formal and foreign with him. It took her a couple of years before she finally “got” it. Even now I feel a rush of warmth when I see her step in to give her grandfather (my dad) a big hug when she sees him.

Most people with even a little awareness of Japanese culture know that Japanese people bow in greeting, as well as in apology. (Watch this parody video about bowing in apology for a laugh, just remember to take it with a grain of salt! 

Business people may also know that shaking hands in an international business setting is something that is commonly done.

I had a conversation with a Japanese college student once who told me he thought American mothers didn’t love their children as much as Japanese mothers do. Of course, I was stunned. What did he mean?! Turns out that he had been on a home-stay with an American family where the mom worked full-time and the kids, who were high school age, had to get up and make their own breakfasts in the morning. This made the mom an unloving mother because in his view a mother shows her love by getting up before everyone else in the family and making a hot breakfast and bento lunches for them. A loving Japanese mom cooks, cleans, does laundry, takes care of all domestic duties and makes sure her children attend to their school work. These actions and ways of being are demonstrations of her love and affection. I pointed out to him that from my perspective Japanese moms can seem a little cold since I seldom saw them hugging their kids or offering words of encouragement or praise. Eventually we came to an understanding that mothers in each culture love their kids as much as in the other, they just express that love in different ways.

At Japanese kindergarten with my daughter. Creating a spectacle.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

I have a theory about why Japanese seem to be averse to physical demonstrativeness. The country is small and most of the land is mountainous and inhabitable, so the population is heavily concentrated in the Pacific urban corridors. The population density is 836 people per square mile, compared to 650 in the United Kingdom and 84 in the United States. The trains at rush hour can be so packed that you could sleep standing up because the sheer mass of humanity around you leaves no space to fall down. If you are an urban commuter you are used to spending a lot of time in physical contact with strangers. There are unspoken rules for riding a crowded rush hour train. These include not making eye contact, not holding loud conversations, not eating or drinking and no excessive volume coming from your headphones. It’s common to focus your attention on your cell phone, a book, or something else that takes your mind away from the fact that you are trapped in a crowded train car. If possible, it’s best not to stand face to face with someone. I think the situation in the packed trains can be described as a crowd of people trying to imagine they are someplace else.

Japanese homes tend to be small. The average total floor area for a Japanese residence is about 1,020 square feet, with urban apartments and condos often much smaller and homes in rural areas much larger. So it works out that spending time in close physical proximity to family and strangers is nearly unavoidable in urban Japan. I think this causes people to develop coping mechanisms that help them maintain psychological distance so things don’t become too overwhelming. A combination of a lack of physical and psychological space leaves no room for an individual to just be.  If you take every point of contact personally, you will quickly become extremely frustrated. The balance is to be found in accepting that not all contact is meant to be felt and not all emotion is overtly expressed. I’ve ridden plenty of packed trains and endured the jostling and lack of any semblance of personal space. To some extent I developed the capacity to build a mental shield in order to cope with it, but it’s really one of those things that just eats away at me and saps my energy. Eventually, I took a job with off-hour commuting times and then moved to a part of the country where I only took the train if I was going out of town. Changing yourself is sometimes the quickest way to a solution.

No eye contact. No standing face-to-face. Photo by Elijah ven der Giessen.

Pam Ikegami
Pam Ikegami lived in Japan for twelve years as an adventurer, student, wife, mom, translator and teacher. Ever grateful for all the lessons Japan has taught her, she is now a teacher of Japanese language and culture in the US. Some of her happiest and proudest moments are spent with her students, many of whom go on to study, work and live in Japan.

Leave a Reply