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By Grace Buchele Mineta
The first time I tried to kiss my husband, he went in for a hug and awkwardly stroked my head instead. Back then, we had only been dating for a couple of weeks and were living in America. He was a Japanese exchange student and I was the outgoing Texan girl who offered to show him around our college campus because I thought his butt looked cute.
It worked. We started dating and moved to Tokyo together one year later. America is a liberal country when it comes to public displays of affection (PDA), so I didn’t understand the Japanese aversion to kissing in public. Japan is a country that typically rewards those who are able to keep their emotions in check, so my husband couldn’t believe I had the nerve to kiss him in the college cafeteria – and I couldn’t believe he patted me on the head like a small child. However, I’ve since learned that if you do not respect your partner’s culture, intercultural relationships are nearly impossible. If you’re having trouble over PDA with your Japanese partner, or if you’re on holiday in Tokyo and wondering just how serious the locals are about this unwritten 30cm rule, here are some tips…
DO: UNDERSTAND THE REASONS
While some countries have laws against PDA, Japan more or less relies on social shame and disapproving glares to make sure everyone keeps their hands in their own pockets in public. Expats living here sometimes complain that Japanese people are emotionally repressed. However, rather than ethnocentrically judging another because they express their emotions in a different, subtler way, keep in mind that Japan has some significant cultural differences. My husband and I had ‘the talk’ after our second month of dating, and again during our third week in Japan (long before we got married). Both times I outlined what I thought was acceptable, he countered with a much lower offer, and we met somewhere in the middle. Quick kisses were okay, but no tongue. Hugs shouldn’t last more than 10 seconds. No kissing in front of his friends, co-workers, or family, but he should kiss me in front of my (non- Japanese) friends and family (in Texas).
DON’T: TAKE IT PERSONALLY
Your Japanese girlfriend isn’t stopping you from pushing her up against a wall at Shinjuku Station and sticking your tongue down her throat because she doesn’t love you; she’s stopping you because PDA is taboo in her culture. Learn the difference. You might disagree about key cultural issues because you were each raised with differences that manifest in unexpected ways. This does not mean you’re incompatible.
DO: TALK ABOUT IT
You have a large kissing-inspired elephant in the room. Yes, talking about ‘acceptable levels of PDA’ sounds awkward and about as much fun as getting your teeth pulled. But do you know what also sucks? Making your partner feel uncomfortable because you habitually do things they don’t like.
DON’T: IGNORE THE TABOO IF YOU’RE WESTERNERS
Maybe you’re a couple of Europeans on a romantic honeymoon in Tokyo or perhaps you’re an American couple, backpacking through Japan together during a gap year. Your age, gender and country of origin don’t matter, because if you are travelling in Japan, you have to respect the cultural aversion to PDA. Holding hands is okay. In smaller towns, you might get a dirty look if you’re walking with an arm around your partner. Try to avoid snuggling up on a public bench, in queues or at restaurants. And don’t stare lovingly into each other’s eyes when others are around. Keep the butterfly kisses, pecks on the cheek and smooches for behind closed doors. Sorry if this takes the romance out of your honeymoon in Tokyo, but at least you have a world of sex shops and love hotels to make up for it...