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Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2006

IT'S JUST HUMAN WARMTH, NOT KISSING BOOTH

People slow to embrace offer of free hugs


Staff writer

Standing 20 meters from a crowd watching a street performer bend forks, psychic Yuri Geller-style, Tomoko Matsui and her two friends tried to lure passersby in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, with their own attraction: free hugs. They weren't proving a draw.

News photo
A free-hugger (right) embraces a passerby in the rain in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 19. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTO

Sporting a homemade "Free Hugs" cape, Matsui and her cohorts found people leery of their offer of kindness.

"Some girls came over and talked to me few minutes ago. They wanted to know if I was being punished for something," the 25-year-old said.

"There was a guy who asked if I was advertising . . . (for) a sexual massage shop," added Matsui's friend, Takeru Kawanobe, who was armed with a placard reading "Hugs for Free."

The idea of offering free cuddles to strangers was apparently inspired by a man in Sydney doing just that and posting a video of his exploits on the popular social networking site YouTube. Before long a global trend was born, making its way to Japan.

But in a country not known for public displays of affection, where a reserved bow is the preferred greeting and the Western-style handshake can still find awkward moments, Matsui and her friends face an uphill struggle to get people to embrace hugging.

The cuddling movement caused a sensation on the Internet after the video got 70,000 hits in less than four days. A similar clip on Japan's largest social networking service, Mixi, soon followed.

Noriyuki Igarashi, a resident of Sendai, became in late September the first person in Japan to create a free hug community. Approximately 2,000 participants joined his group and have since been busy setting up times and places for their hugging drives.

"I was moved by the YouTube.com video," 28-year-old Igarashi said, explaining his decision to embrace the people of his hometown. No preparation or special skills are needed -- other than a placard and the courage to smile at strangers with open arms.

It would be hard to call Igarashi's campaign a hit. After a day on the street, he had only four takers, experiencing many more dubious looks and stares than warm fuzzies from pedestrians.

"A roommate I had from another country used to say Japanese are very shy and now I agree with him," Igarashi said matter-of-factly.

Still, he wasn't discouraged, saying the simple gesture of a hug soothes the mind.

Among the skeptics is Yoichi Shimomura, an assistant professor of behavioral science at Osaka Kyoiku University, who said the Western-style embrace may not sit well with Asians.

A case in point is China, where several free huggers in Shanghai were taken in custody by police in November. Authorities warned them not to engage in similar acts in the future.

Shimomura said there are good reasons why some people cannot accept this simple act of kindness for what it is.

"The distance between two people tends to get closer the more they are associated with each other. It ultimately hits zero as physical contact is made," Shimomura explained. Because people in Japan and other parts of Asia rarely make physical contact with strangers, a hug is often laden with sexual connotations -- making people in those cultures understandably uncomfortable with anonymous cuddlers. Many would consider the act as a form of sexual harassment and a social taboo, he said.

Shimomura also compares the movement with the flower children of the 1960s, who protested the Vietnam War with "Love and Peace" slogans and sought to explore their spiritual connections with others.

"It could be that people are once again searching for connections with others through the simple gesture of hugs," he said, in reaction to the more impersonal relationships of an Internet-driven society.

The best chance for the movement to catch on in Japan would be for the free huggers to get favorable media coverage. This would help people feel it is OK to walk up to a stranger and get a hug, Shimomura said.

But some sign-holding huggers say talking about success and failure in terms of the number willing to be hugged is missing the point.

Mariko Minato, a 41-year-old eurythmics instructor in Tochigi Prefecture, said she isn't concerned with how many people she hugs during her efforts.

"You can't force someone to hug you, so numbers don't matter that much."

Instead, the mother of two claimed to be on a mission to spread the importance of making physical contact with loved ones.

As a eurythmics instructor, Minato teaches parents how to improve their kids' musical ability through physical movement such as rhythmic dancing. But she fears mothers and children have less and less physical contacts these days.

"Hugs always bring peace of mind even if someone is angry," Minato said, explaining how people, even those just watching, smiled when she and her friends first organized a free hug event in November in Tochigi.

The human touch has huge power and can even be a counterforce to such social woes as child abuse and bullying at schools, claimed Minato, who said she frequently cuddles her two children, although she jokingly said she seldom hugs her husband.

Minato has embraced the notion that hugging is a "basic instinct that humans are naturally born with" that just needs to be brought out.



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