In January 2004, members of a Japan Ground Self Defense Forces contingent headed for Iraq were shown on the news being seen off by their families. It was an emotional moment, with plenty of misty eyes in evidence; but not one of these gallant young soldiers going off to war was seen exchanging a kiss or embrace with his spouse.

“Japanese are unskilled at expressing their affection,” explains Dr. Naohiro Hohashi, professor of Child and Family Health Nursing at Kobe University. “In Japan, the custom of hugging is not prevalent, but tacit feelings exist. In America, spouses always anticipate expressions of love from their partner, but Japan’s culture tends to suppress displays of feelings.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Hohashi wholeheartedly prescribes a dose of affection. “For spouses to exchange expressions of love strengthens their relationship, and ensures family functions,” he advises.

Timely advice indeed, as Howaito Dei (White Day, March 14) — when males customarily reciprocate the Valentine’s Day chocolate they received the previous month — is just one week off. In a country where even experts acknowledge the natives as being poor at expressing affection, how can we, as latecomers to the language, ever hope to get it right?

What’s more, aside from trial-and-error experiments on real people — risky at best — where can we obtain this information? My university’s intensive Japanese program covered everything from ordering sushi to Einstein’s sotaisei riron (theory of relativity), but never got down to the nuts-and-bolts of conducting a torrid romance.

No wonder, then, that some learners, out of desperation perhaps, turn to books like “Making out in Japanese” by Todd and Erika Geers. Well, who knows? Someday you might actually have use for an expression like Honto ni boku no ko? (Are you sure the kid’s really mine?).

I was encouraged, therefore, when I picked up the February 6 edition of Spa! magazine and found a humorous five-page article entitled “Nihon Danshi, ‘Aijo Hyogen’ no Shin-kijun (a new standard in ‘expressions of love’ for Japanese males).”

The magazine polled 150 male subjects on “How do you convey your feelings of love or affection to your partner?” The top five responses were Suki desu (I’m very fond of you), with 33 percent; Tsukiatte (let’s be friends), (28 percent); Issho ni itai (I want to be with you), 7 percent; Aishiteru (I love you), 7 percent and the nonverbal (“I kiss her”), with 4 percent.

Spa! also asked the guys what expression made them happiest to hear from a gal. The top five were Taisetsu da (you mean a lot to me), 27.3 percent; Shiawase da (I’m so fortunate), 17.3 percent; Aishiteru (I love you), 12 percent; Kawaii (darling), 12 percent; and Suki da (I’m very fond of you), 4.7 percent.

” ‘Suki’ expresses your feelings at the moment, but ‘aishiteru’ is a more enduring sentiment, something like a promise,” a 28-year-old salaryman was quoted as saying. “It’s pretty serious.”

Spa! proceeded to introduce numerous awkward examples of declarations of affection, including a couple of real whoppers.

“Once a freeter (a job-hopping part-time worker) said to me, ‘Omae wo shiawase ni dekiru no wa, ore shika nai (Only I can make you happy),’ ” a 29-year-old housewife recalls. “He wasn’t very persuasive.”

“Ore no koto dono kurai suki? (How much do you like me?)” another man demanded to know.

“An honest response would just make him mad,” remarked a 37-year-old housewife. “So you’re forced to give some sort of ridiculous reply, like, ‘all the way to Pluto,’ or ‘to the edge of the universe.’ “

Mellowing out, one husband threw his arms around his wife and crooned, “Uchi no inu ni sokkuri (You’re a dead ringer for our dog).” Oh, woof.

“Nante suteki na heimen-gao da (That flat face of yours is so nice),” came another back-handed compliment.

One wife, struggling against buildup of cellulite, was aghast when her husband jokingly addressed her as “Seruko (Cellulite girl).”

“My husband’s bashful, so if I ask him if he loves me, or if he’s happy, he’ll only respond ‘Ma-ma (Well, I can’t complain),’ ” a 37-year-old woman told the magazine. “These days, that’s his favorite way of praising things.”

A Kansai housewife related: “When we first started going together, he nervously blurted out, “Mari-chan-tte, amari shaberanai na. Demo issho ni iru dake de nani yattetemo tanoshii na! (Mari-chan, you’re awfully quiet. But whatever we do, it’s so much fun just being with you).”

“That really made me happy!” she beamed.

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