As an American, I’ve often hugged strangers upon first meeting them. Usually, it doesn’t freak anyone out too much in the U.S. or any Western country. But there’s a bit more risk of awkwardness when doing that in Japan.
In this post, I’ll explore how Japanese people view hugging—and how that’s changing with younger generations. I’ll also discuss PDA in general, including some very interesting examples from Japanese wedding ceremonies and “cuddle cafes.”
What Does Hugging Mean in Japan?
Hugging means roughly the same thing in Japan as it means in Western countries—it is a way to show affection. However, in Japan, hugging is a bit less common, more romantic, and more often private. Being hugged may seem more serious to a Japanese person than a Westerner.
However, this all varies depending on the individual. Younger people in Japan seem to be more relaxed about displays of affection like hugging. Older people tend to view it more seriously.
Japanese people who have lived in the West may also be more accustomed to hugging. And another difference is that Japanese women tend to hug more often than men.
Japan is not the only Asian culture that includes less hugging than the West. China and several other Asian countries have a similar view.
Something else to consider: If you’re clearly a foreigner, some Japanese may cater to you, as they know hugging is more common in your culture. So they may hug you even though they would rarely hug other Japanese people.
Is Hugging Always Romantic in Japan?
Hugging is not always romantic in Japan, but it is more often viewed that way than in the West.
In America, platonic friends and family members hug often. Sometimes, you might even hug someone when first meeting. But in Japan, hugging is less common in those non-romantic scenarios.
When Japanese people meet, they will more often just greet each other with words, with waving, or even with bowing or a handshake (more formal).
If you watch anime, you may recall scenes where a boy and girl hug for the first time, and the girl has an expression of shock/surprise on her face! This reflects that hugging has a bit more serious and romantic meaning in Japan, in general.
But there is a lot more hugging in Japan today than in the past. It is an aspect of the culture that is changing. So, don’t read a lot of meaning into one hug necessarily.
Is It Rude to Hug a Japanese Person?
Hugging a Japanese person is not necessarily rude, but it may surprise them or make them feel uncomfortable, depending on the person and the context. It may be a moment of culture shock.
The YouTube channel Ask Japanese has a video on this exact subject. She asked a number of Japanese people if they would be comfortable with a handshake, hug, or kiss (on the cheek) when meeting a foreigner.
Most responded that they would be willing to hug a foreigner. However, most would not be comfortable with a kiss on the cheek (European style).
It’s funny to watch when the host tries hugging them, though. You can tell that several of the Japanese people find it awkward. They don’t appear to be accustomed to hugging casually.
Why Don’t Japanese Hug?
The simple answer to why Japanese rarely hug is just cultural norms. Every society has norms for what greetings and social interactions are considered normal.
You would get a similar answer if you asked why Americans don’t bow when meeting each other. It’s just not part of the American cultural norms.
There is just a lot less social touching in Japanese culture. It’s not just about hugging. If you reach out and touch a Japanese person on the arm or shoulder while talking, they may feel awkward about that, too.
Many Japanese adults only rarely hug their parents and other family members. So of course hugging with a stranger or new friend would feel strange.
Is PDA Allowed in Japan?
Public displays of affection (PDA) are a bit less accepted in Japan than in the West. While public hand-holding is increasingly common, hugging and kissing are still usually kept private in Japan.
That said, it all depends on the context and the people involved. As noted above, the Japanese culture is changing rapidly in these regards, and younger Japanese are far more liberal than older people.
It’s far more rude to show PDA in a setting like a restaurant or cafe where you are close to others. If you were cuddling in a park, that would be less offensive, but kissing in public is still taboo to most Japanese people.
In fact, this view of kissing even affects Japanese wedding ceremonies.
In contrast to American weddings, where the kiss is often long and passionate, Japanese weddings usually just have a kiss on the cheek or a short “peck.”
In fact, one website conducted a survey of 100 Japanese weddings. They found that, in those 100 ceremonies, the groom most often kissed the bride on her:
- Left cheek: 73 ceremonies
- Lips: 16 ceremonies
- Forehead: 7 ceremonies
- Nose: 2 ceremonies
- Right cheek: 0 ceremonies
And this carries into the way couples typically interact in public in Japan. Often, they will interact as if they are just friends or acquaintances in public.
But again, it’s worth mentioning: If you’re clearly a foreigner, you will be viewed a bit differently. If you’re a Westerner visiting Japan with your partner, you could probably make out in a public park without even causing too much of a stir.
Especially in an international city like Tokyo, Japanese are accustomed to seeing foreigners with different cultural norms interacting in public. They’re not going to be too shocked.
Skinship in Japan
Skinship refers to the emotional closeness and bonding that comes from human touching. Interestingly, it’s actually a Japanese word, although many Japanese assume it’s an English word. (source)
There are some interesting discussions you can find online about whether it’s a good or bad thing that some Asian cultures have less hugging and touching.
Research on children and animals has shown a deep need for physical touch from parents and loved ones.
Individuals raised with a lack of physical touch will suffer cognitive delays, weaker immune systems, physiological problems, and more. (source)
This raises interesting questions about the relative lack of social touch between adults in Asian cultures like Japan’s. Does it cause any social or even physical health consequences?
Interestingly, Japan has several industries that sell human touch and social interaction, in ways that are somewhat novel to foreigners. Some people believe these industries are an attempt to fill an emotional need left by the culture.
In fact, this CNN report mentions a cuddle cafe that was selling 5-second hugs for about $13 USD each! Quite pricey in my opinion!