Japan’s dating culture is quite unique. From the “confessions of love” (kokuhaku) to White Day (March 14th, the follow-up to Valentine’s Day), there’s a lot to figure out. Today, we look at hand-holding. What does holding hands mean in Japan?
Holding hands has a generally romantic meaning in Japan, as in other countries. Holding hands in public used to be taboo in Japan, as the culture is fairly conservative about public displays of affection (PDA). But in recent years, hand-holding is more common, especially in bigger cities.
In this post, I’ll give you a view into how Japanese people view hand-holding and other forms of PDA. We’ll look at interesting examples from Terrace House to Shinzo Abe, to see how the media views hand-holding in Japan!
Is Holding Hands a Big Deal in Japan?
If you ask 100 Japanese people whether holding hands is a big deal, you’ll get a wide variety of answers. That’s partly because Japanese culture has changed a lot when it comes to this issue.
Older Japanese people may recall a time when holding hands in Japan was viewed as something you simply didn’t do in public! But younger folks have grown up in a different social climate.
(That’s not to say that only young people ever hold hands in Japan. You’ll occasionally see an older couple holding hands, too. In fact, I’ll mention a high profile example below.)
There also seems to be a divide between the attitude in the big cities vs rural areas.
All over Tokyo and Kyoto, you’ll see couples holding hands or women holding onto their guy’s arm. But holding hands is more rare in small towns. According to some people, it may even result in you getting a dirty look.
And of course, there’s an element of personal preference, too. In any age group or area, you can find shy people who would rather not hold hands in public, versus others who are completely fine with it.
Overall, hand-holding has become quite common for couples in Japan. But the historical cultural association still shapes the way that hand-holding is viewed today.
Certainly, some Japanese people still seem to consider hand-holding as more serious than Westerners. Savvy Tokyo states: “many Japanese women usually hold out until the third or even fifth date before holding hands with their date.”
Is Holding Hands Always Romantic in Japan?
Holding hands usually has a romantic meaning in Japan, as it does in other parts of the world. However, platonic female friends will sometimes hold hands in Japan, too.
Platonic hand-holding mostly only happens between female adult friends, female children/teens, and parents with their kids. You don’t really see platonic male friends holding hands in Japan.
Hand-holding seems to have two possible meanings, then, but the primary one is romantic.
In one survey, 13.8% of Japanese women said that holding hands with your date is a sign you’re in a relationship. So, although it’s romantic, it’s not always a sign of a serious relationship.
Hand-Holding on Terrace House
I remember an episode of Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City that discussed Japanese views on hand-holding.
In the episode, Arman went on a date with Arisa. I believe it was their first date, some sort of hike to a summit. When they were approaching the summit, Arman grabbed Arisa’s hand and held it while they walked.
I remember the hosts of Terrace House commenting that it was a pretty big deal for Arman to hold Arisa’s hand in that moment. They made a point of saying that holding hands is a big deal in Japan.
Although Arman was born in Japan, he grew up for many years in Hawaii in the U.S. And the hosts explained how it was probably the influence of his American cultural upbringing that led him to hold hands so early with Arisa.
The Tadaima Podcast, which is all about Terrace House, has an episode where they discuss this, too. They reaffirm that holding hands is a “big deal in Japan.”
Prime Minister of Japan Holds Hands in Public
One particularly high-profile example of hand holding in Japan was the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe. They’ve often been seen holding hands in public.
You know that holding hands in public is not seen as too rude or impolite if the Prime Minister and his wife did it. Clearly, it’s not viewed as actually obscene or shocking.
However, if you read the article I linked above, you’ll also notice the interesting way the journalist wrote about it:
The writing here clearly suggests that it’s notable that they held hands in public. It suggests that it’s unusual behavior for a Prime Minister and First Lady to hold hands in public like that.
And that’s a good summary of how hand-holding is seen in Japan: It’s not that shocking—I mean, the Prime Minister and his wife did it. But at the same time, it’s notable enough that journalists viewed it as a bit of a bold move.
PDA in Japan: Hugging and Kissing
Everything I mentioned about hand-holding above is basically multiplied 3x or more when talking about hugging or kissing in public in Japan.
I recently wrote a whole post about hugging in Japan. I described how many Japanese people may understand a hug to be more serious, romantic, or private than a typical Westerner.
But this is extra true when it comes to kissing. Kissing in public is still quite taboo to many Japanese people.
In fact, in my post about hugging, I mentioned an interesting study of Japanese weddings. It seems that cultural views of kissing in Japan have led their wedding kisses to be shorter than most in the West. Often, they just do a kiss on the cheek.
The sense I get is that most Japanese people don’t actually view PDA as immoral in any significant way, though. It just feels embarrassing, or they feel shy about it.
You’ll sometimes hear Japanese people say they admire (or envy) how foreign couples express their love openly in public. It seems that many Japanese would love to do that, too—but it’s just not the custom, and they don’t want to be judged for going too far outside the norm.
To summarize: Hand-holding has become quite normalized in most parts of Japan, but long hugs and kissing in public are still considered taboo.
How Do Japanese Show Affection?
If you feel like your romantic instincts are all being thrown off by these culture differences, check out this post from GaijinPot. It has 5 “dos” and 5 “don’ts” for dating in Japan.
You can also read this guide to kokuhaku (confessing your love) from Tofugu. Ultimately, if you’re being sensitive and doing your best, you can navigate these cultural differences.
As I mentioned above, it seems that Japanese views of PDA mostly just affect what many people feel comfortable doing in public. But humans are humans—we all mostly want to experience love and affection in similar ways.
And of course, Japanese people will also understand that you’re a foreigner. They know your cultural norms are different, and often, they will conform to your expectations, rather than expecting you to conform to theirs.
So, just be tactful and open to learning the finer details of the culture as you get feedback, and you should be fine.