Amorous pairs peck away at Japan's taboo on kisses

September 27, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

In the soft autumn mist, the Tokyo parks are filled with young couples strolling together, doing what, more or less, their parents, grandparents and great ancestors have all done before.

It would all merge into the hazy fog if not for the jarring new act known to occur. A kiss.

Traditionally, the Japanese don't. Not in public. Not, it is said, even in private. Pornographic videos are sold at convenience stores, and there's nudity on late-night television. But lip-to-lip contact is something else.

"It's kind of gross," says Noriko Okubo, a 24-year-old Tokyo woman.

Affection is typically expressed in other ways. In the local soap operas, known here as "dramas," the poignant, tearful hug tends to get the point across. When a kiss does occur -- not often -- mouths are kept tightly closed.

"We don't have restrictions," said a spokesman at the Tokyo Broadcast System, one of the major producers of the dramas, "but we do practice restraint."

Recently, there has been a breath, a peck, a nibble, of change. This summer, a new commercial for a beauty salon chain featuring Seiko Matsuda, the Japanese Madonna, included (and what would you expect from the Japanese Madonna) a kiss. That she is married, a mother and that the person she kissed was not even Japanese made it all the more scandalous. The item, no surprise, to the Japanese, became news.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the only incidence of such behavior. Kissing is almost never seen on the street, but then, neither is the consumption of food and beverages, and people discreetly eat and drink all the time. Away from the bright lights, in the shaded dirt paths of the city's small gardens and the shadowy corners of train stations, and even (a real shocker) on a late-night train, kisses are rife.

To get a better grasp on the trend, Shiseido, the cosmetics manufacturer, conducted a wide-ranging survey and released it yesterday. About one-third of the respondents acknowledged having kissed in a public place, though, reflecting the ambivalent feelings on the issue, almost two-thirds of those who did so admitted feeling shy.

Shiseido, hardly a disinterested observer, probed deeper. Almost half of the men kissed reported that they had been left with an incriminating smudge of lipstick.

The consequence for more than 40 percent of this group was being teased at work or school. Twenty-five percent experienced still more dire consequences: A scarlet stain from either a kiss or a bump on a tightly packed train (the No. 1 excuse) led to the dissolution of their relationship with a wife or friend.

In response to this problem, Shiseido began marketing in July a lipstick that leaves no trace, and thus cannot be traced. Initial results, says a company spokesman, are record sales.

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