Skinship In Japan – A Touchy Subject

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A dog and cat

It’s no secret that Japanese culture is less than ideal for touchy-feely people. The concept of physical contact, “skinship” (a wordplay on “skin” and “kinship”), is known to most but practised by few. To expats coming from cultures where every day physical contact is commonplace, the lack of it can take a heavy toll.

Japan is often accused of having an extremely low tolerance for social touching. But in fact, they are not completely alone in this; many of their neighboring Asian countries have similar approaches. On the European side, Britons are distinctively more uncomfortable with hugging than for example Italians or Finns, and overall men are less comfortable with physical contact than women.

This complex research area is growing in the West, while receiving relatively little attention in Asia. But when the cultural norm is no touching, the following question becomes highly relevant to the expat: is quenching your instinct to hug a friend a sign of cultural assimilation, or simply a repressed human need?

Most human communication is non-verbal. Gestures, grimaces and touch can convey as much as – if not more than – words. A pat on the back for comfort, a squeeze of the hand for support, a high five to share success. When somebody touches our skin, the sensation is translated into emotions through our nervous system. We can feel happy, comforted, loved or disgusted by somebody’s touch. But what happens when we don’t get any at all?

We Become Crippled Without Touch

Let’s put culture-based normative behavior to one side for a moment and have a look what science has to say about the significance of physical contact to human beings. Starting from the conclusion, it is absolutely essential in early years of life. In the 1930s, the trend in medicine was to isolate infants in sterile environments to protect them from the “germs” that could kill them. This resulted in a mortality rate of up to 40% in some hospitals, baffling hospital staff as they witnessed babies wither away inexplicably. Early and mid-twentieth-century experiments on children, sometimes referred to as “forbidden experiments,” paint a sickening picture of how grave the lack of physical contact can be.

In the 1940s, Austrian psychoanalyst and physician René Spitz conducted a controversial study of infants. He compared infants raised in isolated hospital cribs who received almost no physical contact to those raised by their own mothers. The results were staggering: 37% of the infants kept in the hospital ward died before the age of two. Those who survived developed strong behavioural, physiological and cognitive issues, while none of the babies raised by their mothers died or had any pronounced issues.

The infants who had no one to hug, hold or caress them developed cognitive delays, problems with the immune system and stunted growth.

American psychiatrist Harry Harlow, active in the ’50s and ’60s, carried out a strongly unethical animal experiment on monkeys. Wishing to study monkey behavior, he reared his own monkeys in isolation by putting them alone in cages. The primates grew up but became severely emotionally disturbed, aggressive and intolerant to stress and pain.

The human tragedy of Romanian orphanages in the ’70s and ’80s saw more than 170,000 children living in such facilities at its peak. The infants who had no one to hug, hold or caress them developed cognitive delays, problems with the immune system and stunted growth. These neglected children were later observed by a Harvard team that found that those who had been deprived of physical contact had problems coping and regulating emotions, poor impulse control and poor intellectual functioning.

Skinship for Adults

The importance of touch in early years of life is irrefutable. But when it comes to adults, the waters are somewhat muddled. While some psychologists use the term “skin hunger” to describe the need for physical human contact, research remains unclear on how and to what extent adults are affected by the lack of skinship.

Empirical studies have found that hugs can protect against, and decrease, stress.

However, the benefits of touch are solidly proven. Empirical studies have found that hugs can protect against, and decrease, stress. Hugs also increase production of oxytocin, which is a hormone that positively influences our bonding and nurturing behaviors. As a bonus, serotonin and dopamine are also released through positive touch.

It is a long-established fact that touch in form of massage can help to alleviate depression, reduce pain, stress and improve immune functions. A research study by two scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, found that NBA teams whose players touched each other more, through for example chest bumps and high fives, won more games, establishing a link between bonding through touch and success.

The Japanese Approach

When touching is not a big part of one’s culture, human relations take a different shape. Most Japanese adults would, for example, tell you that they don’t hug their parents or family – that it would feel strange to do so. This is doubly true for friendship relations, and public affection is not even on the table. Instead, you might see groups of girls meeting, waving frantically in each other’s faces (“hisashiburi!”) to express how happy they are to see each other. While this may seem alien to an outsider, it is natural to the Japanese.

The truth is that Japan’s current cultural norms have been around for some time – and it would be an outright lie to say that the Japanese can’t form meaningful and long-lasting bonds because of these. However, there is no denying that Japan – and the world – is turning into a more isolated place.

With no or little human touch, fluffy robot seals and the like have been introduced at some facilities to stave off cravings for human touch, interaction and affection.

The UK made history in 2018 when they became the first nation ever to appoint a minister for loneliness. While Japan is yet to follow in their footsteps, there is no denying that human relations are deteriorating. Japan tops the OECD list of people who say they have no social intercourse outside their family (15%) while also being home to the 20% of citizens aged 20 to 34 who consider themselves “lifetime singles.” Love-life and intimacy is simply dying out and 30% of Japanese men have never dated and an entire quarter of the population under 40 are virgins.

Lack of skinship is not only prevalent in the romantic sense. Hikikomori is by now a well-known phenomenon that encapsulates the trend of isolation in a sweep. But perhaps the hardest hit by solitude is Japan’s large elderly population. With no or little human touch, fluffy robot seals and the like have been introduced at some facilities to stave off cravings for human touch, interaction and affection.

Human Interaction For Sale

A part of Japan’s population lack severely in skinship and human affection. To remedy this, Japan has turned human interaction into a commodity, with a sometimes-hefty price tag. The abundance of host clubs and kyabakura parlors attest to the existence of a market that is craving interaction, conversation and flirting.

Digging into this demography, we have now seen the emergence of families, friends and even partners for rent. One can for example rent a friend for an afternoon to go shopping together to glean that warmth of friendship. But the companionship only lasts as long as your money does. The fact that these hollow echoes of actual human bonds keep appealing to buyers is a sobering reminder that there is much cooking under the surface of Japan.

Ear cleaning cafés (mimikaki ten) is another option where one is cradled by (mostly) a lady who gently cleans one’s ears.

There are also places that are specifically designed to fill the gap of human touch and care. In cuddle cafés (soine ya), one can lie down and cuddle with a stranger for a while to experience some kind of intimacy. Ear cleaning cafés (mimikaki ten) is another option where one is cradled by (mostly) a lady who gently cleans one’s ears – a sort of social grooming. At the very edge of the spectrum lies soaplands, borderline legal establishments that take advantage of a loophole in the law to sell sex.

Expats with Skin Hunger

So should you refrain from hugging your friend? Perhaps. Neither science nor I can answer that question for you, but if you are an expat who is used to more physical contact there may be a few options. Taking advantage of Japan’s wide supply of massage and body care is never wrong, and might also cure you of an ailment or two in the process. Finding hug-willing fellow expats and/or locals is probably the most straightforward way – they are out there. If all hope is lost, I am sure the guy with the “free hugs” sign in Shibuya would be delighted to give you one.

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