2024.23 : A Warm Embrace

Mexico City Circa 2017

When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love

— Bob Dylan

Even by modern Japanese sensibilities, my friend Erika is reserved in her mannerisms. Despite this, she couldn’t resist taking us to a hamburger joint, surrounded on all sides by some of the best Japanese cuisine available. With a hint of apprehension, she informs me of her plans to move to Italy, where she intends to spend three to six months intensively learning Italian before seeking a job there and finding an Italian husband. This is just one example I’ve observed where Japanese women, while reserved in manner, often harbor a strong passion within.

In broad strokes, the attitudes of Japanese women toward dating internationally can be divided into three distinct schools of thought. The smallest percentage are the women who simply don’t find Japanese men to their taste and instead shape their lives to attract non-Japanese men’s attention. The most common school is the women who, like Japanese men, have nothing against non-Japanese men but expect them to speak Japanese well and have something to offer that most Japanese men might not. The second largest school belongs to those who do not find non-Japanese men attractive, would never consider dating them, and recoil at the thought of their children not being of pure Japanese blood.

Given the three schools of thought, if Erika were to be stereotyped as belonging to one of these schools, it wouldn’t be the non-Japanese-only school. However, Erika is the kind of person I admire most: those who defy stereotype, which, as a rule of thumb, is an accurate rule of thumb.

As the vibrant people of Shinjuku swarmed around us, we continued on in our little bubble, when a thought struck me: Erika and I agree that a foreigner with no Japanese language skills is preferable to a non-Japanese speaker who can speak Japanese but doesn’t contextualize their speech in Japanese norms, manners, and mores. A random analogy to demonstrate the point: using Japanese words with a New York manner of speaking is akin to another wearing your clothes; it’s just as jarring and unpleasant for Japanese ears. To be fair to my beloved New Yorkers, Japanese people actually appreciate doing business with them in English because of how direct and to the point those relationships are compared to the way Japanese do business among themselves.

With Italian-American passion, I explain to Erika that her reserved body movements won’t suffice when speaking Italian. The hands—oh, the hands—are essential. The gesturing isn’t just a stereotype; it’s a crucial part of speaking Italian. An Italian wouldn’t appreciate a Japanese person speaking Italian words while using Japanese body language. Erika realizes she would have done precisely that and vows to herself that she will learn to speak Italian as an Italian.

While walking off our late lunch, we pause at a stoplight, and I turn to her and ask, “Do you even know how to hug Western-style?” She sheepishly admits that no, she has never hugged anyone with the Western world’s hugging rules. Oh, Erika, that’s going to be a problem—a big problem for you. You need a quick lesson. At first, she isn’t sure if I’m serious or flirting with her again. When she sees I’m earnest, she says, “Okay, but not in public.” Since it will have to be in my apartment, she makes me promise I’ll be a good boy. I promise.

One thousand and one.
One thousand and two.
One thousand and three.

The hugging timer is explained: 1001 for strangers and her future husband’s male relatives; 1002 for other women; 1003 for those she loves and trusts. Plus or minus a second or two, using her intuition. I explain how to get out of creepy hugs and let her practice breaking off a hug in a polite way.

Chest, no breast, hips out. That is unless she wants to take a relationship with a man to the next stage. Hips in, breast in his chest. Erika blushed.

Then, the most important lesson of all: assuming her future husband’s family are huggers, when she receives the first of many hugs from his mother, I take a moment to be very serious with Erika: you can’t mess this up. If you’re stiff or pull away, there’s a risk it could sour her feelings about you. It will already be a challenge for the future mother-in-law to accept Erika as a non-Italian. I explain that whatever pressure his mom applies when hugging, return 90%, easing off 10% to respect the matriarchy. And under no circumstance release or, gawd forbid, pull away from the hug until mama does.

Erika tells me she’s astonished by the implications of a hug faux pas in Western-style hugging, and now she feels equipped to avoid it. I then jest that all this hugging in a small apartment is testing my good-boy willpower, and suggest we head back to the train station. We share the hearty laugh I had hoped for, along with her acknowledgment and thanks for my good behavior.

Two years later, she married a fine Italian gentleman, and a year after that, they welcomed their first child into the world.

And now… know the photograph.

Snapshots you might enjoy:

Photography & Story In Your Inbox
Newsletter : Fan Signup : Form 18

Let's not lose touch!

I invite you to join for free our ever growing community with your email address below. Each week you'll get the latest Photo Essay, where story and photography meet. As well as any news related to our community. 

Don't put it off. Join us today!

Rest assured your information is never shared nor sold.  Unsubscribe at anytime.