TOKYO — 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.
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.
The cell phone is firmly entrenched in Japanese society - more than a fifth of the population has one - but some observers feel that it and other gizmos such as beepers are making young people yearn for the human touch. This yearning has brought kissing out in the open, as young people put on public displays of affection as evidence of solid, tangible relationships, says Mihoko Yamada, a television writer who tracks affairs of the heart in Japan.
Japanese distinguish between "dry" or distant relationships and closer, more intimate ties that are described as "wet" or "sticky." In an increasingly technological world, says Ms. Yamada, Japan's young people are searching for the latter.
Takashi Tomita, a Tokyo-based psychologist, agrees that technology has made relationships seem shallow and that young people want assurances of security. But hito mae kisu is "just a trend," he argues.
"The norms have changed," offers Sumiko Iwao, a social psychologist at Tokyo's Keio University. "The Japanese are becoming more expressive - which I think is good. They're becoming less restrained, less constrained, [and] more capable of human warmth."
Kissing may retreat back into the private sphere, but its hold on Japan is here to stay. Where Japanese in their 60s might never kiss, and those in their 40s might do it despite thinking of it as a foreign activity, those 20 and younger apparently don't think twice. One young woman in the same park as the other smoochers acknowledged that she'd never seen her parents kissing. But for her, she added shyly, kissing is "natural."
Mr. Yoneda, who got scolded as a teenage kisser, now says he feels no compunction about kissing his wife, in public and in private, in a "casual way." True, he acknowledges, at some level kissing is considered foreign here. "But it's getting more difficult all the time to draw a line between what is foreign and what is genuinely Japanese."
A Longing for Old-Style Wooing
It's sad that Japan is losing its traditional forms of expressing affection," sighs Mihoko Yamada, a television writer who specializes in issues romantic. In an era of cell phones and public kissing, some Japanese worry that the old ways of wooing are being forgotten.
In traditional Japanese romance, the anticipation's the thing - not to mention restraint, pining, and distance. But in modern times, when young people carry their own phones and beepers, it isn't difficult to reach out electronically and touch the object of your fancy. Young people have no sense of pace, Ms. Yamada worries. "If they like each other, they just call each other up."
"Young people these days don't seem to write love letters," adds Nobuko Takagi, a romance novelist who lives in the southern city of Fukuoka. While she applauds young people kissing and hugging in public, she says such affection must be accompanied by verbal communication. "Without it, once the hot times are over, they don't know where to go from then on."
A stereotyped image of Japanese affection - two lovers parting, one on a departing train and the other on a station platform - now seems hopelessly quaint.
Oddly enough, Yamada says a big impetus for public kissing was a railway advertisement that appeared on television several years ago. It depicted two lovers reuniting on a station platform - and greeting each other with a hug and a kiss.