Why is there a Lack of Skinship in Japan?

By Donnie | Articles

Do you remember the interview I did with Illya Anderson. Well, before I posted I was checking for errors and I came across the word skinship. I thought to myself, surely he must’ve meant kinship, so I changed it. But after asking him, I found out that he did actually want to use the word skin instead of kin. I thought to myself “What the hell is skinship, Illya?” It sounded like a movie perfect for the triple X theater. But today at work, I heard the word again. According to Illya, the word skinship is one person touching another. In response to my question “What don’t you like about Japanese culture?” One of his responses was “The lack of skinship.”

The Brug

I have to totally agree. One teacher was asking about how we greet each other in America and how mannerisms differ between Japanese and American culture. I mentioned that it really can vary from place to place. Where I come from, it’s quite common for me to see an old friend and give him what I like to call “brug” (bro hug). It’s hard to explain in words, but I’ll try. The first part, the handclap is almost like an arm-wrestling grip (maybe not as hard though). You and your friend kind of pull in at the same time shoulders touching (i.e.-right shoulder to right shoulder) and with your free hand you tap your friend on the back. It’s hard to explain, but it looks cooler than it sounds.

Of course I don’t give women brugs, because where’s the fun in that? The brug puts the shoulder in the way, making the hug just a little cooler and a bit more manly. With women, the full-on hug is MUCH better.

If you’ve been here a while, you may have an idea of what I mean. If I just walked up hugged one of my Japanese friends (even using the cool handclap/half-hug technique) some of them probably wouldn’t even know how to respond to it. I think hugging a Japanese woman might send the wrong message, unless you’re dating of course.

I guess the skinship in Japanese society just isn’t as outwardly done, but there has to be some kind of skinship going on, or there wouldn’t be any babies running around, right? Unless babies in Japan are created through some special, non-touch method that I don’t know about. Hmm…maybe in Japan, when a man and woman like each other very much, the man expels a ball of chi energy from hands, aims it at a woman’s stomach, and VOILA, a baby is made! I guess that’s my counter to the American stork story. But I digress.

When I was at the Tribe Called Quest concert last summer, there was another African-American guy there, who knew just as many lyrics as I did. We were both feeling the music. I don’t dance, but for that day I said “screw it.” I didn’t get the guy’s name, but for that short time Tribe was on stage, I had somebody I could relate to. It was hand claps and brugs all concert long, as my favorite group played jam after jam after jam.

The ultimate awesome is when I meet a foreign woman that’s cool giving hugs. I’m not talking about that as$-out, tap on the shoulder hug either. I like those good, “this is on purpose” type of hugs. I really like it when it’s a smaller woman who does the bear squeeze hug. It’s like going to a chiropractor, but it’s great. Sigh…it’s like a breath of fresh air here in Japan.

Could it be geographically related? Could it be because Japan is a more implicit society? Can it stem from ancient customs and protocol that endure to this very day?

I don’t want to say “I WANT JAPANESE PEOPLE TO TOUCH ME MORE!!” Because it makes me sound like the resident pervert. But I am curious to know why it’s not so common.

Donald Ash
P.S.-I wonder if the younger generation has a different take on skinship.

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  • Nanami

    The key is conditioning the people around you that know you well enough to be like um… Ok, he’s touching me but I won’t call the cops.. Just yet.. WTH? give them enough hugs so that they either just know to do the light tap on the shoulder hug at the least (the worst kind of hug!)! World needs more affection. Seriously.

    All joking aside, this is something that bugs me even here at home when I go outside of my circle of friends. People seem to either be all hands or stiff as if they’re pushing up daisies. It’s really weird!

    My guy friends are always deer in headlights when I come along because it’s like “Oh no here comes Qiana >_<!!" because they know whats coming. Oh yeah, time for the trademarked Nanami tackle!

    What you do is you squarely plant your feet just a little bit further apart than the breadth of your shoulders. Hunker down a little til you are in a position similar to a quarterback at the first whistle. Then literally run forward, and launch yourself at the person. It is Ga-run-teed to knock them over and much giggling ensues. My favorite is when I bowl someone over a couch/chair and we end up in it. No alcohol needs to be involved!

    Including squeaks if you're me, but I'm kind of odd. Granted, it helps if you're around my height cause most people here are taller. I'm not sure if I'd want to try it on any of my Japanese friends from grad school with the exception of a few of the boys who are very tall and I think, as you said above, it might send the wrong message.

    There seems to be this strange taboo on touching in some places. I understand that we should be respectful of each other and show modesty.. but if you're happy to see me, man, give me a big tight hug! It says so much more than words can! Nothin chases the blues away like the genuine warmth of a friend's hug.

    I know my Chinese friend's parents from Toronto, who have adopted me as part of their family, weren't quite sure what to think the first time I gave them hugs after a visit. I was really touched by how nice and warm they were inviting me into their place and didn't know what to say, so I thought I would show it. At first they were kind of thunderstruck and I was worried I had offended them. My friend just explained that they aren't a "hug" family. However, everytime since then when I visit–when I say goodbye both parents give me hugs. Sometimes my adopt-a-dad even cries. It's really cute.

    I think it's something that people can adjust to once they get the initial shock done and over with if they are a friendly person to begin with. It's just a new idea for some and needs to be introduced either very slowly if you're a guy (since there are always some weird thresholds to be crossed there) or just really quickly if you're a woman to break that ice. We girls get away with a lot more when it comes to this I think.

  • miyuki

    As my mum explained me once, the reason she never gave/ gives me hugs or it is very hard for her to say “I love you” is that she never experienced that when she was a child, it does not mean that she was not loved by her parents but maybe they show their “love” in a different way… but which way `? this is something that I did not catch yet. I would say as long children will react as their parents did (I mean, do not hugs their child or giving them kisses) Japanese will continue to be Japanese 🙂 Arghh it is very hard to explain these kind of things when it is not your mother tongue 🙁 do you speak French ? lol 😉

    but I think this is very specific to Japanese people if you compare Japanese vs Korean, this is totally different, I did not believe my friend before coming to Korea and see how people like touch each other, especially men, between them also.

    Like for example we went shopping, and salers gave hugs, held my hand or just touched my arm, I was a little bit surprised lol even in Europe people do not that !

    • Donald Ash

      Whoa, if I need some good hugs, I’m just hop over to Korea, it’s not so far. Yeah, but you’re right sometimes the whole affection thing can be the result of a person’s upbringing, I was quite common around the Ash family household. If hugging wasn’t so common for you coming up, are you hugger now? Or do you like to kinda keep your space?

      P.S.- I do speak a little French actually. 🙂

  • I’d have to agree, while in Japan that was one of the gripes I had. I mean where I’m from its so common for me to give “brugs” and hugs to friends and family. While in Japan, if I saw a friend I hadn’t see in sometime, I naturally want to give them a hug…but it seems awkward for them while for me its perfectly normal.
    I guess its our different cultures, but for me what better way to say hey to someone then with a hug? The bowing all the time left an empty kind of feeling lol hard to explain.

    • Donald Ash

      Right!?! Ahhh brugs and hugs.

  • Jeffrey

    Interesting to see the old Japlish phrase of “skinship” popping up again. There was another connotation of “skinship” from the bubble era associated with “internationalization.” It had nothing to do with increased physical contact within Japan or with foreigners (expect in Roppongi and other night spots, but that was different). It was a typically squishy concept of being more open with foreigners and being more direct in the service of doing better business.

    • Donald Ash

      I didn’t know that Jeffrey, that a whole new spin on the skinship concept for me. I appreciate that.

  • man, you know my feelings on this topic… next time i see you good ole fashioned bear hug coming your way! I could use one too!!!

    • Donald Ash

      Okay, I’m gonna hold you to that, Regina 😀

  • Bethany

    also i notice smiling i am from a texas we tend to smile to everyone dose not matter if i know you or not if im walking and we happen to make eye contact you better believe i will give you the best simile i have. when i was in japan i notice people rarely look up and if they get a little freaked out if a total stranger smiles at them.

  • icarus

    This is really interesting! I guess it depends on where you are or howclose you are to a person. I’m always hugged by my brother and father but I never initiate the hug. Actually, whenever I’m hugged, I’m rooted to the spot. I just stand still. The only person I’ve probably hugged more than once is my mom. All my friends are huggers so whenever they hug me, I’d just tap their back so that they’ll let go. In conclusion, I don’t mind being hugged but I won’t make the first move.

  • Bart Foster

    There is a difference between two people giving Huggs and Japanese Skinship. As I was learned and quite enjoyed, skin ship is the stripping down and bathing together buck ass naked. Truly a unique experience that would make most folks from the west (America) quite uncomfortable. Its about trust as well.

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