National / Media | Japan Pulse

YouTuber Koichi Kuwabara offers free hugs in a bid to bridge divide between Asian neighbors

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Thirty-five-year-old Koichi Kuwabara has been offering free hugs in cities around the world since 2011. His efforts certainly haven’t gone unnoticed on social media, with the first video he uploaded on YouTube since attracting more than 1 million views.

He shot his inaugural YouTube video in Seoul, a place he frequently visits.

And with diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea sinking to new lows over the past six months or so, Kuwabara felt the need to return to Seoul in order to insert himself into the discussion.

In late August, Kuwabara attended a demonstration in Seoul that had been organized to protest against the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and offered to give people in the vicinity a free hug should they want one.

He later told a Japanese reporter from msn.com that he wasn’t apprehensive about attending the demonstration in any way because he had previously encountered anti-Japan rallies in China.

“I knew what to expect,” Kuwabara told the reporter. “However, this rally was much more peaceful than the Japanese media would have us believe. I wanted to prove that not everyone in South Korea hates Japan.”

Kuwabara wore a blindfold at the demonstration in Seoul and carried a sign offering free hugs.

“I wanted to show how much faith I have in people,” he says, when asked in an email why he had chosen to wear a blindfold at the rally.

He placed a sign next to him in Hangul that read: “There are many Japanese people who wish for friendship between South Korea and Japan. I think there are similar-minded people in South Korea. I have faith in you and I hope that you have faith in me. If you agree, then let’s hug!”

Kuwabara stood at the demonstration for about 90 minutes, giving hugs to around 50 people who passed by.

Kuwabara describes his video project as “a Japanese guy trying to give out free hugs,” and it appears to have struck a chord online.

He managed to raise almost ¥2.9 million via a crowdfunding project earlier this year that he hopes to use to visit Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, along with Vladivostok, Russia, in an effort to mend ill-feeling over the dispute between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories.

Kuwabara first devised his free hugs project after graduating from college and backpacking across the globe. He had originally left Japan wanting to become an English teacher and, to this end, had even attained teaching certification. However, he’s decided to put his plans on hold for the time being while he continues his mission to spread peace around the world.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing, though, and he has attracted a certain amount of hatred on social media, especially in the comment sections attached to his posts.

“This guy graduated from Soka University and is really a Korean,” Twitter user @jingujiko wrote. “So gross.”

Another anonymous user said, “This guy should hand out a stick with his hugs, and then everyone can choose between hitting him or hugging him.”

On his blog, Kuwabara says he has been called a lot of derogatory things, with one person even describing him as being “a national shame.”

Kuwabara isn’t concerned, though.

“I just hope those people will be happy,” he says. “People have a tendency of having negative thoughts only when they’re not happy.”

The negativity certainly hasn’t stopped Kuwabara from continuing his quest, nor has it discouraged others from doing the same.

He has befriended several South Korean allies, one of whom is a woman called Suyeon who has been studying in Japan for the past three years and has embarked on a free hug journey of her own.

In 2016, Suyeon launched her own campaign in Seoul, wearing a Korean traditional garment and offering free hugs with a Japanese friend who wore a kimono.

When Kuwabara attended the demonstration in Seoul in late August, Suyeon organized a similar event in Tokyo’s Asakusa district.

Whatever you may think about Kuwabara’s activities, his campaign is bringing a little happiness to a drawn-out political affair that looks destined to continue for some time. It’s certainly more inspiring than watching social media fill up with people’s seemingly endless daily frustrations.

As for Kuwabara, he simply wants to break down the stereotypes that have become somewhat entrenched in East Asia.

“Don’t judge people too easily,” he says. “You might know them but you don’t know their story.”

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