Monday, January 21, 2008

Holding Hands

Quite some time ago, my husband did a language exchange with a Japanese woman in her mid 20s. This is a "classic" arrangement that most Japanese people dream of where both parties speak English for a designated time and then they both speak Japanese for an equal amount of time. I say it's a "dream" because it's a rare situation where a Japanese person can practice English without paying for it.

The arrangement was never really all that satisfactory for my husband because the Japanese woman did little to correct his speaking whereas she had all the benefits of an experienced English teacher. She also tended to ramble on at a level of Japanese which was too difficult for him to benefit from because the vocabulary was too high level and she spoke too quickly. Essentially, she just chatted away without making any adjustments or efforts that might help him gradually build his level.

Before he this arrangement ended, she told us a story that gave us pause. She had been corresponding with a foreign man who was in his early 50's and married. When I say "corresponding", I mean real letters, not e-mail. This exchange happened before the internet. I can't recall exactly how she got to know him, but I believe it was not through an initial face-to-face contact, but rather through some sort of pen pal organization. I do remember though that he received her letters at an address other than the one he and his wife resided at. It was also unclear whether or not the wife was aware of her husband's correspondence with a much younger Japanese woman.

During the course of the English portion of the exchange, the woman told us that he was visiting her in person in Japan and that, when they walked around Tokyo, they held hands. We asked her if he did anything more intimate than that like kissed her or hugged her and I believe she said he did hug her hello, but not much more than that. Both my husband and I told her that we felt the circumstances of their arrangement and the fact that most adult Western folks don't hold hands unless they are romantically involved or trying to keep a hold of a child suggested that he was after more than just a friendship.

The woman rejected the scenario we suggested was being played out and said he was simply a nice man and the hand-holding meant nothing. To this day, I'm not sure what became of her relationship with him or, for that much, what became of her. She moved to Yokohama after awhile and referred us to a different language exchange partner (who was actually more unsatisfactory and eventually my husband terminated the exchange with her). We never talked to her again.

In Japan, one thing you can't help but notice is that adults hold hands noticeably more often than they do in the U.S. Adult women in particular will hold each others hands on occasion in casual (non-romantic) situations that you wouldn't see adult women doing so back home. I can't say though that adult hand-holding between males and females is common. Usually, you only see it between those who appear romantically-interested in one another or have what looks to be a parent-child relationship. Given this, I do wonder why my husband's former language exchange partner was so sure the older fellow's intentions were free of romantic interest.

I've never discussed this topic with students or any other Japanese person, but I do wonder if Japanese women in particular are more comfortable with certain forms of physical contact between women. Somehow, I think two women holding hands back home would make people instantly think they were lesbians whereas it doesn't hold that connotation in Japan.

Another reason I believe they may be more comfortable with women touching other women is that, on more than one occasion, I've witnessed or been told about one woman playfully grab another woman's breast. In fact, there was once a Japanese T.V. commercial where a woman lost weight and her friend was shown visiting her for the first time since she'd slimmed down. The formerly chubby woman had retained her larger than average breasts and lost all her weight in her stomach, hips and thighs. The first thing the friend did was remark on how shapely she was and poke her finger right into the other woman's breast. Foreign women (including some of my former coworkers) teaching in Japan also have had their breasts grabbed by women they were teaching, though, fortunately, I have not been one of them.


lina said...

or it may be an Asian thing. It is quite normal for me to hold hands with female friends even hugging. My friends unfortunately have been known to touch all the bosom area too. You can see men doing it too, more so prevalent in Malaysia with the Bangladeshis.

Alex said...

I think it's an Asian thing. It's the exact same situation in Korea.

Kanagawa G said...

Same-sex physical interaction seems to be the norm. Women hold hands and poke each other in the breast and guys will grab at other men's crotches and do the "kancho" butt poke. Young boys will even sit on the lap of another.

I know a family whose jr. high aged son was going to do a homestay in LA to "internationalize" and they had me over for dinner to offer some advice (as if once would be enough). Among other things I told him to never ever ever ever poke another guy in the butt, grab at his crotch, or try to sit on his lap. I also told him to drop the fake gangsta apparel.

The family didn't understand why American boys don't do such playful things to show friendly affection. I still remember how horrified I was at my first welcome party at my first job in Japan when a new co-worker took my hand and put in on his crotch. His name was "Tachibana" and he was making a play on words that I should call him "Tachi" (like the katakana pronounciation of "touch"). We actually became friends later on, but he came close to getting a mouth full of chiclets when we first met.

Chalk it up to cultural differences.

Interesting bit on your hubby's language exchange experience. I have friends who have had similar experiences doing a language exchange. It seems a lot of people want to take more than they can give. I am currently learning Chinese via langugae exchange and we are very careful about the balance to avoid just that. We are both fluent in Japanese but at a relatively low level in our respective third languages. The people sitting around us in the cafe always give us strange glances as there is a constant mix of English/Chinese/Japanese coming from our table.

Shari said...

Thanks to all for the input.

I'm curious about theories or opinions about why this occurs mainly in Asia. In my experience, most cultural difference stem from environmental, social, philosophical, or psychological differences. In this case, I attribute to heightened senses of the body being off limits in Western countries in certain ways (particularly any sexualized areas) rather than anything about Asia, but that's just a guess.

KanagawaG: I've read about kancho in several other places before and am generally pretty appalled as it seems geared mainly toward embarrassing others, but maybe those who it is done to are good sports.

I'll admit, most of my exposure to Japanese men has been with adult males who are working or retired and I never saw any sort of physical horseplay between them, though they did often say things to my Australian boss (make fun of his clothes or something) which one wouldn't do in the West.

I guess I'm too uptight because I'd be horrified if anyone put my hand on their crotch as you experienced. The thought just freaks me out. When I read about your experience, I was thinking that that is exactly the sort of thing people should be taught might happen before coming here, but generally you just get told about taking off your shoes and the Japanese toilets.

It was interesting to hear that you also had similar language exchange issues (though not surprising). I don't think people mean for it to be unbalanced but just that they have no experience educating people in languages and don't really realize what they should do.

Alex: I'm sorry I've been remiss in adding a link to your blog! Sometimes, I miss a person here and there.

ターナー said...

We may see some differences with female and male friends, but what about in dating situations? What Japan Thinks has two good articles regarding physical responses:

Chris ( said...

I remember coming down from a mountain last year and meeting an old chap at the bottom who was on his way up. We discussed the route, and as I left and bid him a cheery "gambatte", I got a firm slap on the butt in exchange! I thought it was quite funny..

Shari said...

Chris: Heh, I think a slap on the butt is fine by most Western folks as it happens in "manly" sports all the time. A hand in the crotch, well, maybe not so much. ;-)

tornados28 said...

You say that adults holding hands is more common in Japan then the U.S. Did I read that wrong or misunderstand because I believe it is completely opposite.

Hand holding is very common in the U.S. and to me it seems rare to see couples holding hands in Japan.

Were you refering to female friends holding hands?

Shari said...

tornados28: Just to clarify, I was only referring to same-sex hand-holding (particularly between women).

mike said...

I have to wonder what happened to my comment. It is in a bitbucket somewhere, I'm sure.

I forget most of what I said, but one thing I do remember is that here in the states, touching of the crotch or bosom area is liable to land you in the hospital or jail! :)

Shari said...

Mike: Well, crap! I never got your comment, as you may guess. I only boot rude comments (which I'm sure yours wasn't).

I have noticed that my comments to at least 4 other people's blogs haven't gotten through at all. I don't know what's up with that, but comments I've left on Chris's, Penguin's, Mari's, and Joseph's blogs were never sent for moderation to them. In the case of Joseph's, it's happened multiple times. I'm not sure why it happens, but it's really irritating, particularly when you write a long and detailed one.

wintersweet said...

In Victorian photos, American men have more physical contact than they seem to now. (They could wear lace, too, but that's beside the point--or is it? Sometimes I think the 20th century led to a new kind of Puritanism, expressed through homophobia...) In Taiwan my female research assistant often held my hand in crowds (I'm female too). I thought it was quite practical and friendly, but it took some getting used to.

I was just watching the first season of "Gokusen," and the amount of friendly physical contact between the boys was very striking. I wonder if being as hands-off as American boys are isn't kind of unnatural.

Point? No, I didn't have one. :) Just thinking out loud.

dhlt25 said...

Yeah, I think it's an Asian thing too. In Viet Nam female especially like to hold hand and hug each other. My girlfriend and her best friend is a good example of this, if westerner look at them they might think my gf is a lesbian lol.