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The first kiss of death for a single society

by Michael Hoffman

Let us pause for a moment to consider … the kiss.

So simple a gesture; so overpowering, sometimes, the effect. Who doesn’t remember his or her first kiss — and remember it with pleasure? First sex can be a painful memory; a first kiss rarely is. Sex is a wrenching initiation into a messy adult world. A kiss? Why, it’s innocence itself.

Legend attributes mankind’s first kiss to the ancient Phoenicians, circa 3000 B.C. Sunday Mainichi magazine tells the story: a dying child too weak to drink from a cup was saved by his mother passing water from her mouth to his. And so the kiss originated in maternal love. How it passed from there to Eros is a subject for another day.

Japanese lovers took slowly to kissing but, the threshold once crossed, threw off all constraint. That happened in the Edo Period (1600-1867). Kissing is absent from early erotic Japanese literature, the 11th-century classic “Tale of Genji” being the obvious example. Instead of the kiss there is the ubiquitous love note — a subtle poem written with nuanced calligraphy on artfully folded, richly scented paper attached, perhaps, to a suggestive leaf or blossom.

Edo wooers were a rougher breed. An Edo kiss did no double duty as greeting or token of friendship. It was bluntly erotic — one reason being, according to Sunday Mainichi, the simple and easily disposable clothing of the time. Genji and his ladies wore layers of kimono; Edo lovers, only one. Western clothing, with its male buttons and female corsets, took some getting out of; the Edo kimono was shed in a moment, a convenience conducive to frenzy and fatal to ceremony.

The succeeding Meiji Era (1868-1912), adopting Western dress and mores, buttoned down the lifestyle. Kissing retreated to the shadows. The West in the 1960s and ’70s was swept by a sexual revolution. Kissing flowered again. It became a public, almost defiant declaration of uncontrollable, Edo-like passion. If passersby didn’t like it, they could look away — to hell with them. That “liberation” Japan never knew. Its restraint went under the name of “Japanese modesty,” but it wasn’t really “Japanese” at all. It was “Meiji” — which is to say (metaphorically speaking), Victorian. Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), that incomparable observer of Meiji Japan, wrote, “Kisses and embraces are simply unknown in Japan as tokens of affection. … Japanese affection is chiefly in acts of exquisite courtesy and kindness.”

Sunday Mainichi laments that the Japanese don’t kiss more. Is something deeper involved than mere social-sexual convention? Japan’s recent indifference to sex, reflected in its strikingly low marriage and birth rates, is too well-covered a topic to need recapping here, but Aera magazine last month asked where it’s all leading and came up with a one-word answer: ohitorisama — people living alone, or at least single. Japan is becoming, Aera says, an ohitorisama society.

As recently as the 1970s, being unmarried beyond a certain age was unusual to the point of eccentricity. Even in 1990, barely over 5 percent of men and roughly 4 percent of women were “lifetime singles,” defined as people over 50 who have never married. By 2010 the percentages were 20.14 and 10.61 respectively, and the upward trend continues — to 30 percent and 23 percent by 2030, according to projections. Factor in divorces and the ohitorisama population swells further.

It’s a revolution rooted in socio-economic evolution. Few women 30 years ago could earn a living wage. Marriage meant (among other things hopefully, though not necessarily) marriage to a male salary. Japan’s dismal global rankings in categories pertaining to female emancipation notwithstanding, the gains made since the 1980s have opened career doors to enough women to change the nature of marriage as we know it. It’s now one option among many, not a necessity. Men woke up one day to find their attractiveness sadly diminished.

The stereotype is of women reveling in independence while men flounder in solitude. Parents provide generous support — to ohitorisama daughters living high and to ohitorisama sons coming sadly down in the world. Aera introduces a 44-year-old self-employed man whose ¥4 million annual income leaves him reasonably comfortable so long as he lives rent-free under the parental roof — but, he says, “A woman’s not interested in you if you earn less than ¥6 million.” A friend lately introduced him to a woman in her 40s, an executive with a securities firm. She’s nice but earns twice as much as he does. Was he to be seen as a sponger? Mortified, he shrank from pursuing the affair.

One way or another, for better or worse, the family is dissolving and single life taking its place. The corporate world sees it happening and responds accordingly. Smaller products designed for single-person consumption are jostling traditional family-size merchandise. Housing for one, convenience-store packaged meals for one, washing machines for one — this, increasingly, is the new normal.

Is it good or bad? If freedom is the measure it’s surely good, for no one is freer than the unmarried, childless adult. But is freedom the sole measure? Casting its pall is the prospect of a lonely old age — 65.4 percent of single men and 79.6 percent of single women are troubled by it, says Aera, citing its own poll of 1,000 single men and women in their 30s and 40s.

Among the respondents is a 35-year-old female executive with a Tokyo food-processing company. She earns ¥7 million a year and is in line for promotion. She has no money worries. “My time is my own and I can spend my money as I please,” she says, “but when I picture myself growing old alone, it’s very sad.”

“My first kiss? I was 20,” reminisces a woman in her 60s to Sunday Mainichi. “It was in a temple garden in Nara. Even now I see it in my mind’s eye. Later, we married. We were married 27 years, then we divorced. … My current boyfriend and I kissed on our first date — in an empty Ferris wheel, in the pouring rain. … In a temple garden, and then, 40 years later, in a Ferris wheel. Totally different atmospheres — but with this in common: the feeling that a kiss is more deeply spiritual than sex.”

Because it’s so much simpler, perhaps.