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Japan Teens Pucker Up In Public

Bowing's Out

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 1998


Takashi Yoneda remembers the time, about 25 years ago, when he kissed his high-school girlfriend in a public park in the middle of the afternoon. He swears it was all very chaste, but it was too much for a woman minding children nearby. She sent a policeman, who told the couple to take it somewhere else.

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Japan can pretty much kiss those days good-bye.

Recently high school junior Kotoyo Ide cuddled and smooched Yoshiomi Netsu - also in a public park, also in the middle of the afternoon - without a care for the eyes of others. And nearby, Toyoki Furuya was about to kiss his girlfriend as they sat on a bench.

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," a suave Mr. Furuya says of kissing in public. His look is retro debonair - a cardigan, white pants, black loafers. "In the old days people would say, 'Don't do that,' but not anymore."

All this is pretty heady stuff for a nation where people don't even shake hands, much less put their lips together in public. But these days an increasingly popular activity - hito mae kisu - or "kissing in front of people" - is generating a lot of smooching in parks, on sidewalks, and in train stations.

The experts are divided over the meaning of all this public affection. Some say it's the globalization of romance - the byproduct of the near-universal influence of Hollywood and MTV.

Others say Japanese young people are struggling to make contact in an age when many relationships are transacted through technological devices like cellular phones and beepers.

Still others say hito mae kisu is nothing more than a fad and that Japanese will return to being restrained and private in their expression of romance. In frank moments, most Japanese admit that kissing itself is a Western import.

For that matter, the idea of a lifelong union based on romantic love is something of a post-WWII phenomenon in Japan, where marriage has for the most part been a practical arrangement.

When Auguste Rodin's sculpture, "The Kiss" went on display in a Tokyo museum in the 1920s, according to cultural anthropologist Vaughn Bryant, it created such a stir that curators had to put it behind a special bamboo curtain.

"The Japanese used to be, and to a degree still are, quite uptight about kissing," says Professor Bryant, who teaches at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

"I don't feel any hesitation about expressing my affections in public," says Mr. Ide, the modern-day high schooler, who was happy to interrupt his midafternoon cuddle to talk about hito mae kisu. He attributes the trend to a newfound sense of freedom among Japanese men. "If I feel like doing something, I do it," he says.

Ms. Netsu was a little more reserved, but says she has no sense of shame about kissing. If her parents were to happen by, she admits, they'd be surprised, even angry. The two live an hour-and-a-half away from each other and only meet two or three times a week. In the meantime, they communicate by cellular phone, calling an average of 10 times a day.