Wanderlust: Japan hugs it out, uneasily 

More Japanese men are learning to display affection. Meet the "hug mat."

TOKYO, Japan — Michiko Odajima has been happily married for 36 years to a man who meets the criteria for a successful traditional marriage here: He loves her and provides for her.

“We are a good couple,” she said, summarizing their relationship as only somebody from a culture that has more words for “rice” than for “love” can. “We don’t complain. We don’t cheat,” she said.

But there’s one thing she yearns to change about her husband. “He never says ‘I love you.’ Never!” she said. “Japanese men never say it.”

In a bustling Starbucks in the center of Tokyo, Odajima gets teary-eyed when she describes countless romantic scenes from Hollywood movies in which men express their love verbally and openly “the American way” — often in public places for the whole world to see. There's the heart-wrenching romantic apology in front of a baseball stadium or the “I-have-loved-you-since-third-grade confession” at a school reunion.

“I envy American women,” she said, and then admitted she always wanted her daughter to marry a Western man in order to be kissed, hugged and adored. She was disappointed when her only daughter ended up marrying a local.

The phrase “I love you” doesn’t even have an equivalent expression in Japanese. The younger generation will sometimes use “aishiteru,” but usually it is considered too strong a phrase for couples to use on one another. Besides, many people here — especially men — claim that saying "I love you" out loud only cheapens the emotion.

Yet, there is no shortage of women like Odajima who crave emotional attention from men and aren’t getting it because Japanese men are not historically accustomed to be “touchy-feely.” Because local marketers are fully aware of the trend, the market for “displays of affection tools” has grown considerably in the last few years as women demand more expressions of love and men have no choice but get used to showing it while, of course, trying not to “lose face” in the process.

This year is the five-year anniversary of the “Aisaika Day,” or “Beloved Wife Day,” celebrated annually on Jan. 31. On this day, husbands are instructed to come home from work early — in Japan, that means before 8 p.m. — and hug their wives at 8:09. Read in Japanese as “8-9,” it sounds like the word for “hug.”

The man who started the project in 2006, Kiyotaka Yamana, said that Japanese men tend to be very shy when it comes to showing affection to their wives.

“The idea was that if we have more people who appreciate their wives, we can move closer to world peace,” Yamana said.

With this ambitious goal in mind, Yamana founded an organization called Scop (Social Communication Oriented Planning) to promote the lifestyle of “Aisaika,” or “Devoted Husband” in Japanese.

But hugging one’s way to world peace isn’t without its obstacles. Because Japan isn’t a hugging culture, Yamana first had to teach couples how to hug properly. So last year before the Aisaika day, his company created a special "hug mat," and had it printed in the centerfold of a daily newspaper. The footprint diagram illustrates how couples should position themselves to be in the best hugging range of each other.

Step-by-step instruction on how to cuddle may seem inane, but in a culture that loves personal space as much as Japan, hugging is as foreign a concept as bowing is to Westerners. It also takes just as long to master looking natural.

Kyoko Gomm, 36, never saw her parents hug. Because she married an American, or “somebody from a hugging culture,” she has gotten used to hugging and admits she likes it now. As for hugging as an expression of affection, she said it was a cultural difference, not an inability of the Japanese to be emotional. “Japanese know each others’ feelings through their hearts. Foreigners connect through physical touch,” she said. The communication through the heart or "ishin denshin" literally means "to tell with ones heart." It translates as "telepathy."

When Japan was still an isolated island, taking the time to decipher each other's minds and hearts used to work reasonably well. But ever since Hollywood supplied Japan with enough movies to create an explicit benchmark for what a romance should be, young people have started shedding emotional telepathy for the instant gratification of PDA.

Some applaud this trend as a way for Japanese women to finally get what they want, while others blame those who embrace it for “worshiping the West” or blame the West for further spreading their cultural imperialism.

Chizuko Ueno, professor in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo, wrote in her book "The Modern Family in Japan: Its Rise and Fall," that “the idealization of both the culture of Western home and the ‘Western man’ eventually led to self-contempt that the ‘Japanese man is an animal without any redeeming features’ which went as far as a recommendation of international marriage.”

And there’s no shortage of such marriages in Japan. Skeptics, of course, will quickly point out that — like in other countries which abandoned proven, traditional marriage methods for “touchy-feely” love marriages — divorce rates skyrocketed.

It has happened here too. According to government reports, divorce rates in Japan rose 73 percent from 1985 to 2002, and in the last decade, home separations are becoming increasingly common.

But that’s not stopping men like Yamana — who is also divorced — from creating new ways to encourage Japanese men to become more devoted to their wives. In addition to hug mats, his organization hosts regular events where men are invited to shout “I love you” from parks, buildings and vegetable fields to show appreciation for their wives.

But this trend goes beyond hugs and shouts.

Other companies have figured out different ways to capitalize on a woman’s ever-increasing desire to be loved and appreciated and men’s inability to appropriately show it.

Satoshi Fujita became a minor celebrity in Tokyo for starting the Pickup School for Men Who Can’t Get Any. The key to the formula he spent two decades researching in the streets of Tokyo led him to several conclusions. He finally bought himself a wig. Aside from a full head of hair, he figured that contrary to the popular belief, women are quite simple in what they want: being entertained and complimented.

Compliments, it seems, are the most popular affection display tool around. Local women will even pay a lot of money to hear them. At the Player’s Club Dios in Tokyo’s Roppongi area, they know the trick all too well. The host club is one of dozens of such establishments in Tokyo, a gender reversal of the traditional geisha-hosted clubs for men.

Even before visiting the club, women can choose online from a plethora of conspicuously feminine-looking men — based on facial features, blood group, height, among other things — to be their hosts for the night. Aside from pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes and escorting women to the ladies’ room, being a successful host means being able to master two essential tasks: deliver a constant stream of compliments to your clients and be able to listen to whatever they have to say.

A pretty young woman, who goes by the nickname Yukiko and comes to the club regularly, said that she didn’t come here because she couldn’t find a boyfriend or lover any other way. “I have a boyfriend. But he never listens to me,” she said. “In Japan, we are used to good service.”

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