Japan is not a very lovey-dovey culture. This actually fits my personality quite well. I have been told that I have a “personal bubble” the size of a large golf cart around me.
So when I moved to Japan, I did not mind that there is not much physical touch or affection. PDA = public displays of affection, or “icha icha” in Japanese is not that common. Just think about greetings – in Japan people bow from a distance, not like the friendly and intimate double-kiss in France and without even clasping palms like the relatively reserved American handshake.
After a year of living in Japan, an American friend greeted me with a casual friendship hug. The sudden physical proximity startled me.
At the same time, while certain forms of physical touch seem less common in Japan, I am also surprised that other forms of personal contact do exist.
One of my most surprising experiences happened during my third trip to Japan. I visited the Tokyo Imperial Palace for a tour, and I requested an English audio guide.
The tour staff approached me, holding the ear piece in her hand and a thick nylon strap attached to a digital audio player in her other hand. She briskly walked towards me (definitely into my golf-cart- sized personal bubble) and slipped the strap over my head. Then, with professional confidence, she said, “excuse me” and using her hand gently brushed the hair away from my ear and slipped the headphone over and into my ear. She then let my hair fall back down and stepped away.
Maybe this is my golf-cart- sized personal bubble speaking, but I was quite surprised to find a complete stranger gently touching my hair and ears. Touching near my face or head feels quite intimate and reserved for people I feel close to and comfortable around. Yet, the Japanese staff person had accomplished the intimate task smoothly and with little awkwardness.
For a country that has a reputation of avoiding most personal contact, the moment of intimate and very close, yet professional contact caught my attention. Here is a list of my experiences of the surprising presence (and absence) of physical touch in Japan.
#1 And be sure to clean behind my ears.
To start off, let’s discuss another ear touching experience from Japan! (It seems I am rather sensitive about my ears. Ha ha.)
One of my biggest fears when I moved to Japan was getting my hair cut.
This might not seem so scary but I was pretty intimidated by the entire experience. I was worried whether I could clearly communicate how I wanted my hair cut. I was worried that my not-at- all cool style would look horribly out of place in the extremely cool hair salons in Japan. I worried that my bare make-up-less face would be judged. What I never considered was the process of having my hair shampooed.
Now, I ended up finding a wonderful salon, and I never went to another place. I actually still go back to that salon once a year for a haircut from my favorite stylist. (Hi Nakagaki-San! You give awesome haircuts!) So I am not sure whether this experience is common to other hair salons but…
Whenever I got my hair shampooed, the person would delicately clean behind my ears. Then the person would gently dry my ears. Not in a haphazard way but they would use their finger wrapped with a towel to actually dry the nooks and creases of my ear.
I have never received this kind of careful attention in a United States salon. And I have received a lot of haircuts. Since college when I cut my hair short, I typically get my hair cut every 6-8 weeks. So that’s about…70 haircuts.
But again, just like my ear touching experience at the Tokyo Imperial Palace by the guide, the physical touch was not awkward. It was completed with such professionalism and skill that I never had a chance to feel it was strange or invasive.
LOVE this salon! Check out their Facebook page. The photographs are awesome.
#2 Friendly back scrubbing.
I saw another incidence of surprising physical contact in the Japanese public baths.
These baths are a form of recreation and relaxation. People visit with their friend, families, and even colleagues to chill out and take a long relaxing soak. Before actually soaking in the baths, people thoroughly wash their bodies to make sure they are clean before entering the shared bath.
I usually visit baths by myself (or with male friends, but they go to their own separate male bath), so I never had a chance to participate in this culture.
But I saw groups of friends scrubbing each others’ backs. It was such a friendly gesture and looked like a nice bonding experience. The last time I had my back scrubbed by someone was probably as a child, when my mom helped clean me.
This friendly bath culture in Japan seems to be shared with some other Asian cultures. I used to frequent a YMCA in Southern California, in an area with a large Korean community. When I would visit the pool in the morning, I often saw Korean women massaging, and scrubbing each others’ backs.
One woman greeted her friend by rhythmically pounding on her back and saying “hello hello” in Korean. Pretty sure if I could not request this kind of back scrubbing from a complete stranger, but maybe someday when I have the chance to visit the baths with my sister or mom, I can get a nice back scrub.
#3 You look healthy! But um… You haven’t looked.
Now for an incidence of the strange absence of physical contact… the doctor!
Thankfully in Japan I have been healthy and have not had illnesses that required serious medical attention. However, I have visited the doctor for physicals. (In Japan, job and academic grant applications seem to require proof of good health, usually in the form of a signed physical form. That’s why I have had several physicals in Japan.)
First Physical Appointment in Japan
My friend took me to my first physical. It was winter time, so I was bundled in lots and lots of layers. (Lots of buildings in Japan do not have central heating. I used to keep a blanket at my desk to wrap myself in when I was working on my computer.)
I still remember what I was wearing. I was wearing four layers – a thin cotton undershirt, a woolen undershirt, a long sleeved shirt, and a sweater – plus a coat and scarf.
After a short wait, the doctor called my name. My friend offered to go with me into the examination room. I felt shy, since I imagined myself having to take off my street clothes to wear a paper hospital johnny (like I usually had to wear in the U.S.). At the same time, I did not want to go by myself and have trouble communicating. So I accepted her offer.
Inside the room, the doctor asked me to sit on a swiveling stool. He asked me a few questions about my health. Then the doctor pulled out his stethoscope and asked me to lift my sweater. I did and underneath was my long sleeved shirt. The doctor and my friend both laughed. Can you lift that too he asked? I did and underneath with my woolen shirt. Everyone laughed. How many layers do you have?? That’s fine that’s fine the doctor said. You can just leave the rest.
He listened to my heart through my woolen undershirt and cotton undershirt, halfheartedly moving the stethoscope around my chest. I am still skeptical that he could really hear anything through all my layers.
And that was it! No physical examination. No checking my pulse or feeling my joints. No probing my stomach. I was pronounced healthy. He signed my form and off we went.
#4 Politely Restrained PDA – Don’t hold my hand!
Between couples in public, there is relatively less physical affection in Japan compared to the US. I think this is slowly changing. I see more couples hugging and holding hands. But generally, that affection behavior is reserved for the home, and even then not practiced with other members of the family present.
Recently K and I were discussing the question of affection, when we were answering the “36 Questions That Lead to Love.” Did you get swept up in this craze? These questions received quite a bit of attention last year in the popular press. The 36 questions were developed by psychologists in a study exploring how intimacy can be created between strangers.
One of the questions is – What role has affection played in your life?
K and I both felt that we are not terribly affectionate people. Reflecting, K felt this might have come from growing up in Japanese culture, where there is not much hugging and cuddling. K said one thing he has learned in the United States is how to be more affectionate and now it seems quite comfortable, and he even likes it.
To demonstrate, he said, let’s pretend you just flew to Japan and I came to meet you at the airport. First, pretending to greet me in a more typically Japanese way, he stood arm’s length away and patted me on the shoulder, while saying “welcome back!”
(This is a scene I know well from flying into Japan many times. Couples will pat each other on the arm, or in some cases, simply fall into step next to each other as they exit to the car, without barely a glance.)
Now, he said, imagine I greet you like this – and he gave me a friendly hug, saying “welcome back!” Isn’t it nicer? he asked.
I would have to agree. A hug is nice. But the truth is that we tend to greet with modesty and restraint. It seems that we both still have something to learn about affection.
#5 Smushed together but pretending it isn’t happening.
One place that you will (potentially) have a lot of physical contact is on the train.
Japanese trains have a reputation of being extremely crowded.
Honestly, it isn’t normally that bad. But.. sometimes public transportation can get quite crowded. When the trains and buses get packed, I am always amazed by how close people get to me without making it feel awkward.
One day, there was an accident on the train and a heavily used commuter line was rerouted to a smaller regional line. Everyone poured off the train and crowded onto the other platform. It was the most intense crowd I have ever experienced in my life. The train arrived and everyone pushed tightly onto the train. I was smashed and squeezed by the bodies and bags around me that it was actually painful.
Even though one woman’s face was inches from mine and another guy had his belly pushed into my side, we managed to preserve a sense of distance from each other. It was all psychological but people somehow respected each others’ space, even when there was absolutely no space between us at all.
I contrast this with a recent trip on the train in Chicago. The train was slightly crowded. The man next to me, irritated by the crowded train car, kept heavily exhaling blowing into the side of the face with enough force to gently waft my hair.
I know we have to be close together… but can you at least try to keep your distance?
#6 Slap slap your face.
One last surprising incidence of physical contact – attention to skin care.
Before going to Japan, I had a pretty simple skincare routine – wash face, lotion. Done. I used just two products. No make-up.
Now my skincare routine alone (never mind make-up) involves 11 products – face wash, toner, eye cream, lip cream, evening cream, morning lotion, sunscreen, acne medicine, that other acne medicine, face oil.
And each product has to be applied gently with particular motions. I learned this in Japan. Before I used to rub products on my face willy nilly without much concern. In Japan I saw women patting, rubbing, slapping, tapping, and using all manner of motions to apply products onto their face.
Japanese fashion magazines encourage readers to massage their face in the evening using a gentle outward pressure on my forehead and soft circular motions around my eyes.
Honestly the topic of skincare probably deserves its own post. The careful attention paid to physical contact towards your own face and skin really surprised me in Japan!
And it completely revolutionized my own skincare.
In your travels, have you been surprised by PDA or other kinds of physical contact? I would love to hear your experiences. Leave any stories, comments, or questions below.
Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.