Skinship is a Japanese term that describes the skin-to-skin, heart-to-heart relationship between a mother and child, as well as among other close relatives. This includes breastfeeding, cuddling, piggyback rides, bathing together, co-sleeping and even playing, anything which build intimacy. A child learns to care for others from loving touch. It is considered to be important for a child’s healthy development and the strengthening of family bonds. As children grow, skinship extends to friends and other trustworthy individuals. It is going to be less visible forms until they reach puberty.
While skinship is widely recognized in Japan, what many are unaware of is that it does not actually originate from English culture, but rather has its roots in Japanese culture.
During a World Health Organization seminar in 1953, discussing maternal deprivation, an American teacher introduced the word “skinship” to describe the physical closeness between working mothers and their children. The teacher highlighted the crucial role of skinship in nurturing children’s mental well-being. Dr. Nobuyoshi Hirai, a pediatrician and developmental psychologist in attendance, unintentionally associated skinship with an American parenting style, leading to the misconception that it originated from English. At the time, he wasn’t concerned about Japanese children, as traditional Japanese parenting practices was originally maintaining intimate physical bonds. However, with the arrival of post-war westernization, these practices gradually lost popularity. In the 1970s, as deterioration in mother-child relationships and the rise of mental illness in children became evident, Dr. Hirai and others recognized the need to restore intimate communication within families. They introduced the concept of “skinship” as a means to foster such connections, and eventually, the term found its way into the Japanese language.
Personally, the concept of skinship felt completely natural to me, even though I had never consciously thought about it or deliberately practiced it before. It was only after I was arrested in New York for my family’s snapshots of skinship, that I realized how unique and potentially shocking it could be in other cultural contexts.
Since then, I had carried unfamiliar discomfort within me. Though I couldn’t grasp the reasons behind at the time, I discarded all my dresses and lingerie that could possibly be perceived as provocative.
After the arrest, I was deported from America. This incident prompted me to embrace and acknowledge my Japanese identity more deeply. Having had the chance to live in both Japan and America, I gained the valuable opportunity to observe and compare the diverse cultural distinctions.
In 1876(Meiji 9), Emile Guimet, a French entrepreneur, visited Japan and witnessed the widespread practice of mixed-gender bathing in public bathhouses. In his book, “Promenades Japonaises,” he wrote: “We were dealing with Eve before the sin, unaware of impropriety, ignorant of what is shocking; and now, the curious gazes of gentlemen, the startled cries of ladies reveal an unknown sin. I declare it, shame is a vice. The Japanese did not have it; we gave it to them.”
In response to complaints from foreigners, the Meiji government implemented laws prohibiting mixed bathing in public bathhouses and public nudity. However, the Japanese tradition of co-bathing at home continued. We still hold onto the practice of “Hadaka-no-tsukiai”(naked association), where we engage in activities like visiting onsen (hot springs) with family, friends or colleagues as a means of nurturing stronger bonds.
Back in Japan, I gave birth to my son in 2012. There was no boundaries between our bodies; a symbiotic union. It was a feeling of oneness that I never experienced with another person. While breastfeeding, when my son looked at me, it felt as if I were being observed by myself. The act of nourishing a human being from my own body and watching him grow, was an experience that awakened a primal power within me as a mother. I became instinctively attuned to my son’s needs, breastfeeding him whenever and wherever necessary, without any sense of embarrassment of exposing my breasts to others. As I fiercely protected and nurtured my child, all feelings of shame and ego were washed away.
Motherhood liberated me from constraints; the sense of shame for my body and the hypersexualization of the female body. Photographing my son as he grows up and enjoys skinship has helped me heal the wounds from my past.
Takako Kido was born in Japan in 1970. She received a B.A. in Economics from Soka University in Japan in 1993 and graduated from ICP full-time program in 2003. She has exhibited work in solo and group exhibitions both in Japan and internationally including Foley Gallery in New York, Sprengel Museum Hannover in Germany. Her work has also been appeared in publications internationally. She was one of a Photolucida Critical Mass 2021 Top 50 photographers. In 2022, she received a grant from Women Photograph, was awarded the LensCulture Summer Open 2022 winner. She is currently based in her hometown, Kochi in Japan.
Jonas Cuénin is a photographer, journalist specializing in photography, and currently working as Director at Blind, an online magazine that tells visual stories about the world, through the coverage of photographic news; and cultural, social, and environmental phenomena. He previously worked as Editor-in-Chief at Camera and L'Œil de la Photographie. For 15 years, he's been trying to make photographers grow in the industry.
Leonor Mamanna is the Deputy Photo Director at Bloomberg Businessweek. She has also worked at New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, GQ, Men's Vogue, Money Magazine, and More. She was the photo director of the all-female magazine, Mary Review. Her work in these magazines has won her awards from The Society of Publication Designers, American Photography, Photo District News, American Society of Magazine Editors, Art Directors Club, Communication Arts, POYi, and more. She has served on juries for PDN Photo Annual, Photoville, Latin American Fotografía and ASME
Kurt Mutchler is an Editor at Large at National Geographic magazine. He was awarded the 2021 Magazine Picture Editor of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). He was awarded Magazine/Media Visual Editor of the Year in Pictures of the Year International (POYi), as well as Magazine Picture Editor of the Year by the NPPA for work in 2018. His work has also been recognized by the Overseas Press Club of America, The Association of Magazine Media, Society for News Design, and The Society for Publication Designers.
Roula Seikaly is an Oakland-based independent curator, writer, and Co-Director at Humble Arts Foundation. Her practice addresses contemporary photography and new media, social justice efforts in contemporary art, exhibition making, and institutional critique. She has curated exhibitions at venues nationwide, including Photo Center Northwest, Blue Sky Gallery, Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and SF Camerawork. Her writing is published in print and virtually through Photograph, Hyperallergic, BOMB, Aperture, and KQED Arts
Tracey Woods is the Director of Photography at The Luupe and a freelance creative consultant and producer. Prior to this she was the photo director at Essence Communications. As an artist and photographer, Tracey draws inspiration from beauty in the unexpected. During summer 2020, her signature artwork adorned the windows of Macy’s flagship stores in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Woods holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from Pratt Institute and earned her Bachelor of Arts in graphic design from Rhode Island College.