PDA: Public Displays of Affection. If you are from America like me then you have definitely seen it on the streets, in a restaurant or store, or on the train. People there are very touchy feely and openly display their affections with their lover. Deep kissing and groping are not uncommon sights, and I have witnessed them quite often when I was living in New York.
But the standards in Japan are very different. It’s a completely opposite world. Kissing and groping, and even hugging are big NGs in this society, with holding hands being the norm. At the very most, linking arms around the hips are the upper limit for what is considered acceptable here.
People often feel uncomfortable not just displaying affection, but especially witnessing two strangers being overly sexual with each other. If something is to happen in public, it must be done discreetly, which usually means when no one else is around to witness the act. Of course young, romantic couples still go ahead and do what they want to do, but they will be scoffed at by witnesses. Women who do such acts in public are considered promiscuous, or may be interpreted even as a prostitute who is working with her client.
I think the most likely time you are going to witness PDA is in a bar or izakaya, AFTER the couple gets drunk enough to lose sense of their surroundings. It’s still not exactly considered acceptable, but it is more tolerable.
Now that we have talked about Japanese couples in Japan, let’s address foreign couples in Japan. After asking around a bit, I have discovered that Japanese people tend to think differently of PDA in their country when done by internationals. Apparently, they are not revolted so much as curious. Most people have had a lot of exposure to Western media and culture, so they are already aware that Westerners are more open and touchy feely with each other in public. So rather than be disgusted, they think of it as a matter of obvious behavior, although people may still feel uncomfortable to witness anything overly sexual.
So if you’re a foreigner in Japan bringing along your beautiful partner, don’t worry about the standard here too much. Feel free to play the gaijin card.