Physical contact

I’ve recently started working as a kindergarten teacher in an international kindergarten. This has caused both the slowing of posts on Bijinjapan, and a few realisations about kids, both Japanese and in general.

Japan is, well, not famous exactly, but to put it another way, not known for having a very touchy-feely kind of culture. It’s kind of a paradox in that hugging and kissing are not seen in public, but everyone fully expects to be squished up against strangers in trains and pushes people out of the way in order to get out of said trains. Naturally this is not because everyone wants to be close to everyone else but because there is no space, but it’s seen as しょうがない: something that can’t be helped, so it’s accepted.

Australia is kind of the opposite in both of these things: it’s normal to hug and/or kiss friends and loved ones and to physically express affection (to a point), but I think most people would avoid contact with strangers. That being said, people in Australia are probably getting more used to having other people in their face/armpit/back on trains and buses as the population grows in the cities.

Adults and adults

Having been in Japan on and off for about 5 years, I’m used to not making physical contact with anyone in Japan other than a significant other. As an ALT of course there were many many high-fives and tag games, and thumb wars, and getting hugged by kids I wasn’t allowed to hug back. But with other adults and people I meet as friends, nope. Waving, bowing, just saying bye… it’s got to a point now where when I have other foreign friends from hugging cultures, it’s kind of awkward waiting to see if one of you is going for the hug or not. And then there’s this thing where people go for group dinners and then everyone’s saying goodbye, and it somehow gets to hugging everyone one by one, kind of lining up creeping-death style, which can get an extra level of weirdness if there are some in the group you don’t like.

The cheek bump, a.k.a. kiss. Image: the Globe and Mail

In Australia I don’t remember it seeming such an issue. As I might have written before, men usually do some sort of handshake thing, or occasionally a back-clappy hug, and when women are involved it’s cheek kisses and/or hugs. Greeting hugs aren’t great hugs, to be sure, but they’re a thing.

As also mentioned before, friends of the same gender do hug each other in Japan, and it’s less homophobic than Australia for boys.

Baseball kids. Image: this livedoor popo blog

The physical contact that does seem accepted in Japan the way a hug would be in Australia is hand-to-hand contact. Not just handshakes, but double high-fives between excited friends, or even occasionally kind of grabbing onto the other person’s hands and holding on tight for a few seconds. Of course, that really is a special occasion one. A drunk co-worker who was always fairly quiet and hard to read did this to me kind of emotionally, saying ‘thank you’ at the end of a farewell party. It felt as expressive as a hug, though in a different way. The only people who have held my hands in such a way in Australia are my mum and grandma. But at that party, I realised this sort of exchange was why I could see all the other people parting ways doing the same thing. Hands are powerful emotive tools in Japan… maybe that’s why it’s popular to wave with both?

The thing is in Japan, I’ve worked as an ALT until now, which in my case has meant working in public schools. I’ve been an ALT at a total of 16 schools in 4 prefectures, including elementary, junior high and senior high schools. So I’ve worked in 16 staff rooms and seen the working environment at a couple of Boards of Education, as well as watching various office-based TV dramas. And I can say with confidence that other than handshakes or adjusting the clothes on another teacher who is more junior than you (happened to me at least twice), people don’t usually touch other people at work. This probably doesn’t sound weird – it’s work, after all.

So it was quite a surprise when I came along to the international kindergarten and another teacher touched me on the arm, as in, held my arm for a second, when she said hello. I’d forgotten that some people do that. Then I noticed that quite a few people in the office had this kind of friendly touching going on in their interactions. It wasn’t out of place to see 2 workers (who are obviously friends) sharing a hug this morning. It really is an international environment, and it was strange for me because it both made me feel more at home and less like I knew how to behave at work.  We went to a work party and the principal hugged everyone.

To be fair, in Australia I’ve only worked in a limited number of places, so I don’t know what most working environments are like. Does this sound unusual to you? Maybe it’s normal for a kindergarten or childcare centre?

Adults and kids

In Australian families, I think that while it varies between families and individuals, hugging and kissing family members is seen as totally normal and expected. Everyone has probably had the experience of dreading giving the mandatory kiss on the cheek to some older relative who we find gross for some reason.

I’ve heard that in Japan, kissing is seen as reserved for sexual relationships (that seems to fit with how you never see it in public, I guess). It’s seen as so intimate that a lot of the time, even a romantic drama will culminate in a hug and you won’t see an on-screen kiss… so kissing would be seen by some as perverted to do it to your kids. I’m not sure how true this is, or rather, for how many people this has any truth. But there is definitely less kissing of children in Japan than in Australia, especially in front of others and especially between opposite-gender parent and child, I think.

What about kids kissing their parents in Japan? I can’t yet comment with any accuracy, but I can tell you that my kindergarten kids kiss their teachers. Maybe a third of my class is on the cuddly side, and one kid is always grabbing and kissing my hand (which is usually about said kid’s head height). This kid and one other do like to kiss my face when I’m at their height too. One Japanese friend tells me that those who are inclined to kissing and hugging may do it a lot, and other kids may not be so inclined – that sounds pretty much the same as Australia to me.

The other thing you get with kids in Japan that I never heard of outside Japan is the dreaded kancho (浣腸, かんちょう or カンチョー, Dad and Ed) which translates to ‘enema.’ Kids do it to each other and to teachers too. Not usually to woman teachers, luckily for me. I’ve also almost never seen girls do it, but boys I have, plenty of times. To kancho someone, clasp your hands together and point the index fingers together – the middle fingers too as an option – and then try to poke them up the behind of your victim. This excellent Tofugu post has some strategies on coping with kancho and other things Japanese kids like to do to their teachers, including boob grab, crotch grab and others.

Kancho. Image: Quora

Political correctness and workplace etiquette

In Australia, though it’s quite a hugging society, school teachers these days don’t touch kids for fear of anything going awry, being misunderstood and getting sued. I don’t know what it’s like in childcare and kindergartens, or even primary school, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of parents suing high schools for their kid getting an injury after leaning back on their chair and the teacher trying to make them stop. And everyone is terrified of paedophilia. So I have the impression that most teachers and schools are very careful about their policies on what kind of contact (if any) is acceptable. This ‘No Touch Teachers’ article is a bit old but explains what I’m referring to here.

This is the kind of hugging you get in kindergartens here. Image: a Nara kindergarten in nobinobi blog

Japan doesn’t seem to have compunctions about touching kids. I’m not talking about corporal punishment as such, but at primary schools, a kid who’s being silly might get lightly boffed on the head, or a crying child might get a hug. As an ALT I was told not to hug, but my companies often suggested activities that would involve patting kids on the head, and high-fives are pretty much mandatory. Through junior high school and maybe even high school, arm wrestling and thumb wrestling are also pretty common ALT activities. Teachers of the man kind will manipulate boys’ bodies into various stretches or positions for sports training, as will woman teachers with girls (this is me trying to be PC with my gender terminology here, if ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sound weird to you in this sentence instead of male and female). I think this is probably seen as a bit risky in Australia these days – Australian readers, does that sound right?

Some sort of training with teachers helping students. Image: Interaction school blog

Think that’s all on this for now. I’ll try to write again soon; with the job, moving house and a Japanese test coming up in the next few weeks it’ll be short and hopefully sweet. As always, thanks for reading!


6 thoughts on “Physical contact

  1. Sounds about right, Cathy. As I work in a school where my daughter attends, I know some of the kids really well, some since they were born. I am constantly aware of the touching taboos in Australia. I must say, I’m a bit cuddly, though, so I have lots of students who will defs go in for the hug…..
    I found that my friends in Japan are certainly open to hugging, but they have traveled a lot and it did seem a little awkward for them 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting post- especially that weird Kancho thing, as well as the various grabs. These are big cultural differences! Lots of room for misunderstandings, I reckon…!!!!
    There was also a lot of physical contact between kinder/prep kids and teachers in Guatemala when I was there recently which made Australian visiting teachers feel very uncomfortable!


  3. Pingback: 18. | Change – IGIRISUJEN

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