Free Hug activist hopes to mend fences in Asia

Traveling feel-good activist says he's welcomed with open arms

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It was August 2011 when Koichi Kuwabara hit the streets of Seoul with a mission in mind.

He stood in the middle of the street, a nervous smile etched across his face, eager to make eye contact with passing pedestrians, as he held up a sign emblazoned with the Japanese and South Korean national flags that read, simply: “Free Hugs. For Peace.”

This is how Kuwabara, a 29-year-old globetrotter and aspiring schoolteacher, kicked off a Free Hug campaign that he has since repeated in cities around the world, including Seoul, Beijing and Taipei, over the past three years.

He has uploaded several video clips of his activities on YouTube, subtitled in English, emulating an Australian man known as Juan Mann, who is arguably the pioneer of the modern Free Hug movement.

Kuwabara has frequently enlisted the help of foreign friends based in different cities to contribute to his project, shooting videos and translating for him. During his first Free Hug stunt in South Korea, he hugged 100 people in three days.

Having spent the bulk of his post-college years traveling overseas, Kuwabara says he has made friends with many fellow Asians during his journey, and that his message in giving out hugs is clear.

“If you’re stuck in your own country, you often fail to understand how well you can actually get along with your neighbors,” Kuwabara said. “We may disagree over certain territorial issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. We’re all the same human beings. I wanted people who watch my videos to realize that.”

Kuwabara’s feel-good activism is particularly poignant at a time when Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, namely South Korea and China, appear as chilly as ever. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist policies, including his recent decision to lift the country’s long-held ban on collective self-defense, are stoking fears that the country is making a break with its postwar pacifism and assuming a more militaristic mindset.

A recent poll conducted by Japanese citizens’ group Genron NPO and the East Asia Institute, a South Korean think tank, revealed that 54.4 percent of Japanese respondents had a “bad impression” of South Koreans, while 70.9 percent of South Koreans held similarly negative sentiments toward Japanese.

Both sides cited historical issues as the main reason for their hard feelings, with 76.8 percent of Koreans criticizing Japan for its “lack of proper repentance concerning its wartime aggression on Korea.”

In what may have been a reflection of this long-festering enmity, Kuwabara’s first attempt at giving free hugs in South Korea got off to a rocky start. Less than 30 minutes after he hit the streets, he was confronted by an elderly Korean man belching what Kuwabara took to be indecipherable curses and gesturing for him to go away.

“I have to admit, I was shocked,” he recalled. “I knew this kind of thing would happen, and I thought I was prepared. But it was still very heartbreaking,” he said.

A Korean friend filming the campaign at the time also refused to translate the man’s curses, saying only that they were “really terrible.”

Only recently did Kuwabara discover that the man had called him a “Jjokbari (a pig’s foot),” a derogatory term used by Koreans to refer to Japanese citizens.

But this insult turned out to be the worst that he has had to endure, and Kuwabara says the majority of locals in China, Taiwan and South Korea have welcomed him, sometimes with offers of free snacks or bottles of water, and at other times simply with verbal expressions of support. He also noted that the younger generation are particularly open-minded, regardless of gender.

“Most of my friends want to hear more juicy details about how I struggled while doing this (Free Hug) thing,” Kuwabara said. “They say, ‘come on, but you must have been shoved away or spat on or something, right?’ I’d love to live up to their expectations, but seriously, I have no such horrible experiences to tell.

“It isn’t that hard, giving out free hugs to strangers,” he added.

But even easygoing Kuwabara found himself feeling unusually tense earlier this year when he decided to stage his campaign in a district of a city he described as “the world’s most difficult place for a Japanese person to give out free hugs in” — Nanjing, China.

There, Kuwabara says, some frowned at the mere sight of the Japanese and Chinese flags, displayed together on his sign.

Midway through his campaign in the city, he was accosted by a gang of solemn-faced policemen who told him to immediately stop what he was doing . They took him to a nearby police station, where he cowered in fear at the prospect of what awaited him next.

But when he looked up, he found the group of policemen smiling gaily at him.

“Man, you’re awesome. Good job!” Kuwabara quoted one of them as saying.

“I believe as policemen, they need to give the appearance of cracking down on people like me. But once we were alone, they were all friendly. We even took a photo together,” he said, describing their sense of humor as the exact antithesis of the stiff image portrayed by Chinese officialdom.

Kuwabara is temporarily back in Japan, but says he wants to continue his trip across the globe.

His ultimate dream is to get a job as a teacher, and he already knows just what kind he wants to be.

“I don’t want to just regurgitate theories written on textbooks. I want to tell the kids what I saw and learned first-hand” from giving free hugs worldwide, he said.