In Japan any type of physical contact, such as hugging, kissing, holding hands or even just patting somebody on the back is known as Skinship or in Japanese pronounced “Skinshippu”(スキンシップ).
The word origin is from the Japanese made up pseudo-English word of „Skinship“, which is a mixture of the words skin, friendship and kinship. It originally described the closeness between a mother and a child. If it comes to that, physical contact between mother and her baby might be higher in Japan than in most western countries. Japanese families usually do not hire babysitters, because mothers take their child along wherever they go. Since buggies are not so common, the mother normally carries her child on her back, which is called “Onbu” (負んぶ). More and more women in the west discover this caring method and are convinced of the positive effects resulting from this close relationship between mother and baby.
Nowadays the term is used for physical intimacy in general. You will see much less physical contact in Japan compared to the western world, where it’s quite common to give a good friend a hug or your partner a kiss. Shaking hands or backslapping should be avoided as well. Japanese people tend to keep a much larger distance to their opponents than in the West when socializing or having a discussion.
In Japan, showing affection for someone in public is not very popular as Japanese people are very shy. Therefore, most of the time it is difficult to say if some people are actually a couple or not. Kissing or close body contact is also rare in Japanese movies. Moreover continuous eye contact during conversation might be perceived as a form of attention in the West, yet in Japan it is seen as offending. Long eye contact can be considered rude, uncomfortable or even seen as a sign of aggression.
To make sure that you have smooth interactions with Japanese people, here are a few tips:
• Try to restrain too much physical contact. Even if you like a person so much you just want to run towards him/her and give him/her a huge hug. This could make your companion and the people around them feel uncomfortable. Better wait and see the other person’s reactions.
• Shaking Hands becomes more common for Japanese, who had some experience interacting with foreigners. However it is not common to the Japanese culture and not required to perform for greeting people.
• Don’t get too close to fellow people. Keep a short distance slightly larger than common in the West. Also don’t overdue actions like tapping shoulders or someone’s back.
• Try not to stare at your conversational partner’s eyes for too long. It might be a sign of respect and politeness in the West, yet could lead to discomfort for the opponent. Look at another direction from time to time, or not directly in the eye but at the head for example.
Other than that don’t forget to smile and make a lot of friends while you are here. At the end of the day, Japanese are very friendly to foreigners.