Kissing is one of the most special forms of communication among humans. There are as many interpretations of the practice as there are kinds of kisses and cultures. Here is a rough overview of kissing in various cultures, ranging from those where it is not seen at all to those where it is the chief form of greeting.
In Asian cultures like the Far East, South-east Asia or South Asia, kissing has traditionally not been part of mainstream cultural expressions of romantic love. These are some of the oldest cultures in the world and thus its sexual practices are multi-layered and highly complex, the consequence of several millennia of influences, both local and foreign. The earliest of many Oriental cultures like Japan were nature worshippers probably due to the primacy of the simple agrarian economy. During these times sexual expressions were free and open. From the ancient days of the Nara and Heian periods of Japan, the Man’yoshu, a late eighth-century collection of ten thousand Waka poems, many of which are love songs, and the eleventh-century Romances of Genji, fifty-four volumes of love stories by the woman novelist Murasaki Shikibu, convey the attitude that love and sexuality were an important part of everyday thought and behavior of the times and a natural expression of human nature1. Over time though increasing complexity of social groups resulted in hierarchies where one of the basic ways of differentiation was sexual behavior. In the upper castes as in the Brahmins in India and Samurais in Japan, strict codes of sexuality were practiced which forbade expressions of romantic love like kissing. And yet those of the so-called lower castes continued to practice a more open sexual code even though social groups aspiring to higher status often adopted the stricter morality of the upper castes and hence forbade kissing and other expressions of romantic desire among its couples.
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Eventually in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, waves of foreign influence either by trading parties or invading armies forced many of the Oriental cultures to adopt uniform and extremely strict codes of sexual behavior, both as a way of differentiation from foreigners as well as to prevent free sexual mingling of the population with foreigners. Later waves of nationalism and militarism in different parts of Asia further strengthened the moral codes resulting in the idea that a man is to serve the nation and a woman is to bear children. Any consciousness of sexual equality or sexual desire was thoroughly repressed and continued to be forbidden in public.
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It is only with the influence of modern systems like democracy, free market economics and especially western cultural expressions through media that notions of kissing in Oriental cultures have come to be seen as expressions of romantic love. Even then couples kissing in public are still rare in Asian cultures though there are wide regional differences. Metropolitan cities for instance may be more accepting of kissing in public as compared to semi-rural or rural regions. Also cities like Mumbai and Tokyo may be more permissive as compared to Jakarta or Hanoi where religious and political regimes wield greater cultural influence.
Kissing like any other physical contact between men and women is expressly forbidden in the public in Islamic cultures. These cultures have a long tradition of gender segregation and still strong patriarchal underpinnings. Interestingly such prohibitions on public display of affection does not depend on regions but is practiced whichever country follows the Islamic code – ranging from West Asian and North African countries, to Pakistan in South Asia and Indonesia in South East Asia. In personal space, kissing may be allowed between members of the same gender as expression of affection or even greeting but this is truer of Islamic population nearer to Europe and the Mediterranean rather than towards the East in Asia.
In countries largely influenced by Mediterranean culture like Italy, Spain, Greece, France and other places in Southern Europe, kissing is not only practiced as the expression of romantic love but is indeed an important form of greeting. Here people kiss each other on the cheeks upon meeting and it is even accepted as the way strangers can say hello – the equivalent of the handshake in the US. The particular kind and number of kisses – for instance on one or both cheeks and whether on the lips too, though may differ from one country to another. The Mediterranean cultures have been historically Catholic where kissing is even enshrined in religious practices. This, apart from the more openly emotional basis of social and interpersonal interactions, has led to the prevailing ideology where love and sexual desire are expressed through practice as kissing. Love is presented as a necessary precondition for sexual relations, while happy sexual relations are generally considered necessary for the success of a love relationship. Thus public displays of affection are usually visible, kissing in the open is quite common, not only among lovers but as a way of greeting.
Western European cultures have been historically associated with Puritanism which laid stress on moderation and austerity in all matters including sexual expressions. Remnants of this kind of sedate behavior is still seen in places like England where kissing is rare as a kind of greeting but is allowed in public as an expression of romantic love. Continental countries on the other hand have escaped the isolated influence of England and have freely adopted kissing in mainstream social behavior – both as expression of romantic love and as a social greeting. In the Netherlands for instance, people kiss three kisses – right, left, right – upon meeting each other. Indeed the act of kissing here has even acquired political and nationalist overtones as part of the “inburgerings-examen” or integration test for future migrants into the country in which a shot is shown of two gay men kissing2. The exam includes a question on how to behave when witnessing two gay men kiss in a public place and the answer is used to evaluate whether the migrant is suitable to be allowed into a country where principles of equality and non-discrimination are held supreme.
Latin/South American culture
Partly owing to colonial Spanish influence and partly to the earliest tradition of nature worship, social behaviors in countries of Latin America and South America are openly physical. People are known to be quite touchy-feely here with a lot of kissing and hugging in social interactions. They are more comfortable in entering personal spaces as opposed to people in Western Europe and America. Kissing is thus not only openly indulged in by romantic lovers but also forms part of social greeting.
North American and Australian culture
Kissing is allowed in public in North America and Australia. Even in the most multi-cultural places of these countries – which include people of Asian, Arabic and African origin - kissing is part of mainstream courtship and dating ritual and is firmly entrenched as expression of romantic desire. However in these cultures, kissing as a social greeting is not common though it may be practiced among particular ethnic groups such as people of Italian, Greek or Latin-American origin.
Like much of the history and politics in this continent, sexuality is a highly complex issue in African cultures. On one hand traditional cultural systems and orthodox religions forbid open expressions of sexual desire but on the other pre-modern nature worship and contemporary western influence make way for freer sexual practices. An evidence of the complexity of situation is in the high rates of teenage pregnancies and incidence of HIV/AIDS but the reluctance of mainstream social institutions to tackle the issue for fear of “legitimizing premarital sex” and succumbing to “western permissiveness”. In general kissing is not openly practiced in African cultures even though lesser intimate displays of affection like holding hands may be tolerated in cities with a longer history of Western influence.
Japan (Nippon) by Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D., and Tsuguo Shimazaki
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