A few weeks ago, my good friend Kayo and I decided to do a joint writing project about Japanese culture and society. After all, such a complex, deep and stratified social framework can’t be understood from any single vantage point—especially not that of white guy who’s only been here a few years.
The first topic we agreed to write about is dating. Specifically, dating Japanese people in Japan. Kayo wrote her piece from the perspective of an outgoing, independent, and overall badass Japanese lady. Be sure to check it out here.
As for my piece, well, I did my best to convey what navigating the Japanese dating scene is like for your average white dude. Enjoy!
I’ve been in Japan for about four years now. I’ve been single about half that time, and I’ve been on my fair share of dates. To give a ballpark figure, let’s say more than five, but less than a million.
As a 30-something, not particularly outgoing, average-looking white male, the most effective way for me to meet people has been dating apps. Since I can read and write in Japanese, I prefer Japanese apps to, for example, Tinder, although I’ve used both. There have also been a few people I met organically in real life, but they were few and far between.
Let me preface this piece by saying that as I’m writing these lines, I’m still single, and have been since a bit before the coronavirus (which has proven to be a very potent date killer). I’m not the least bit good at dating, although I’d like to think I’m slowly getting better.
With all of that in mind, let’s get into it. Here’s what I learned about dating in Japan.
A limited range of partners
Not being Japanese, the first thing you should know is who we are limits our options. There are a fair amount of women who don’t feel comfortable dating foreigners. Few will say it outright (although trust me, some will), but when you think about what dating a foreigner entails, you’ll quickly see that a majority of Japanese women would rather not go through the trouble.
Japan is an insular society with a heavy cultural emphasis on conformity. I’ve honestly found Tokyo to be open and welcoming to me, but there is a deep chasm between hospitality and intimacy. People here are curious about foreigners, so on an individual level it’s easy to have a conversation. However, unless you’ve grown up in Japan and have been through the school system, it’s very hard to make enduring, close Japanese friends—let alone find a significant other.
Then there is language. Japanese language is extremely high context, and the level of mastery you need for a healthy, fulfilling relationship goes far beyond what you need with friends or for business.
Let me give you a common example: Your girlfriend meets you on the weekend, after having had a horrible week at the office (not surprising, given Japan’s work culture). She’s frustrated and wants to rant about how unfair her boss is, how she doesn’t get paid enough, and how all this overtime is driving her crazy.
Unless you understand the context of the Japanese workplace, the nuances of the words she’s using, and the subtext behind what her colleagues said to her, chances are you won’t be much help. Things will probably get even worse if you interrupt your already burned-out girlfriend every two sentences to ask, “Sorry, what do you mean when you say…?
I don’t want to imply it’s impossible to date someone from a very different culture; it’s not. Just that it tends to require a lot more empathy and patience than dating someone from the same culture. Most people just don’t want to go through that much trouble. It’s therefore understandable that most Japanese girls would rather date Japanese guys.
Another thing I’ve learned through painstaking trial and error is that Japanese expectations of what it means to be boyfriend and girlfriend are different from Europe. It really depends on the person, but there are a few things that I now make sure to look out for at the beginning of our relationship.
The first is about having friends of the opposite sex. For some Japanese women it’s perfectly fine, but for many it’s not. I’ve personally been in a relationship where my girlfriend would get annoyed by me even messaging a female friend. She expected me to ask permission to hang out with them, and would only give it begrudgingly. When we finally talked about it, she said it was weird for a man to have female friends, and that I should have known she wouldn’t like it. Now I know.
The second is expectations about leaving Japan. I’ll go more in detail later in the section about the “gaijin hunter phenomenon,” but some girls see foreigners as their ticket out of Japan.
Japanese society is very conformist, and can be very difficult for people—especially women—who don’t fit into the societal norm. In contrast, places like my home country of Switzerland are portrayed by the Japanese media as being akin to heaven on Earth. Your average Swiss is shown as happily frolicking down mountainsides holding cute woven baskets filled with gruyere and baguettes.
Naturally, people who feel exhausted with their lives in Japan figure the grass must be greener at the chalet. Usually you can tell when during the first few dates, your romantic interest asks you how long before you plan to go home, and how wonderful it must be to live abroad.
Third is expectations about marriage and family. While the gap is not as wide as in other Asian countries, there is still more social pressure in Japan for women to get married and have children than there is in most Western cultures. In addition, while I honestly haven’t experienced it much myself, many foreigners living hear talk about the mixed baby fetish.
Standards of beauty in Japan are completely alien to me. I’ve been complimented on how big my nose is. Being tall, clear skin, double eyelids (I didn’t know this was a thing before moving here), clear eyes, and so on are all considered signs of beauty. From what I’ve been told, some Japanese women believe that by having a child with a foreigner, that child is more likely to inherit those “beautiful” traits. Therefore I’ve heard husbands complain that as soon as their children were born, their wives wanted nothing more to do with them.
Again, I don’t have much experience with this last point, so I don’t really know what can be done. Except perhaps being skeptical if, on your first or second date, Madame is already raving how beautiful your children would look.
All of that being said, I don’t think any of these should be deal breakers. If you don’t have any female friends and don’t want your girlfriend hanging out with other guys, maybe no friends of the opposite sex is perfect for you. If you’re planning on going back home soon anyway, by all means, take your girlfriend with you.
I’d just like to advocate in favor of cultural awareness and understanding. In other words, know what you’re getting yourself into.
The “gaijin hunter” phenomenon
Within the category of Japanese women who will date foreigners, there resides a fairly sizable sub-category of women who will only date foreigners. They are often referred to as “gaijin hunters” (外人ハンター, “gaijin” meaning “foreigner”) or “gaisen” (外専, short for 外国人専門, gaikokujin senmon, meaning “specializing in foreigners”).
I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with only dating certain types of people (although as a foreigner, I’m obviously biased in favor of the women who want to date me). Keep in mind that Japanese women who won’t date foreigners outnumber those who will date us, let alone those who will only date us.
That being said, if you realize the girl you’re with is only interested in foreigners, I’d suggest asking her why. I’ve found that some women only wanted a casual relationship with me in order to improve their English or French. I’ve been on dates where my romantic interest shows up with a textbook full of post-its notes with questions she was planning on asking me.
On the flip side, there are also plenty of foreign men who will take advantage of Japanese women to get free Japanese language lessons. And there are girls who don’t want to say they like foreigners, so they disguise their interest by saying they want language lessons. Basically there’s a bit of everything out there, language is a double-edged sword, so be careful how you wield it.
Another thing is because of the way Western culture is portrayed in Japanese media, some women have an idealistic perception of Western manners. They expect their foreign dates to have a “ladies first” mentality (which is literally how you say it in Japanese, レディースファースト). They may even think all Western men behave like stereotypical characters from American romantic comedies: attentive and caring to the point of creepiness, as well as prone to grandiose romantic gestures.
If you’ve chosen to model your dating persona on the characters from The Notebook, you’ll probably be fine (actually probably not, but for other reasons). For the less romantically inclined, just be aware that the way the average Japanese person perceives you is very different from back home, and you may have to answer to those stereotypes.
You should also know that “gaijin hunters” tend to have a bad reputation. Some Japanese people think gaijin hunters hate Japanese men, or are an insult to Japanese culture. Your girlfriend may get criticism for dating you instead of a Japanese boy.
And finally, some ladies see foreign men as trophies. The same way some foreign men see Asian girlfriends as trophies. To be clear, I don’t mind having preferences for dating certain types of people. I mind when the type starts to matter more than the individual. In Japan, I see that quite often.
So whoever you are, when dating in Japan, if you feel like your partner sees you as being completely interchangeable, it may be best to get out of that relationship. Otherwise it probably won’t end well.
Rules of engagement
If you’ve gotten this far and are still adamant on wanting to get into the Japanese dating game, there are a few things you should know about the rules of engagement. The process itself can be very different from the West—albeit not necessarily. Every relationship is different.
Still, let me tell you a bit about Japanese dating conventions.
First, there is the meeting. As I mentioned before, I usually bypass this step by using an app. You can also potentially meet people through friends, at bars, clubs, and so on. However, as to be expected from a highly-regimented society, there are events you’ll only find in Japan that are great for starting relationships.
The most famous is the go-kon (合コン), which is basically a group first date. Many Japanese people are nervous of just meeting one-on-one, so instead they meet two-on-two, or three-on-three. A group of single ladies will meet with a group of single men, and couples will be formed.
I was also surprised by how many couples are formed within companies. Japanese employment is usually for life, so the company can be a second family. When you spend most of your time with colleagues, romance will naturally ensue.
I’ve never dated anyone from my company, but I asked the couples around me how they got together. The two most common answers were either at a nomikai (飲み会, an afterwork company drinking event) or during bukatsu (部活, company club activities, because yes, in Japan companies have clubs: hiking, movie, board games, cafe, music, you name it!).
Once you’ve found someone, the dating begins. Japanese dating starts with slowly getting to know each other. Usually, there is no physical contact in the beginning—not even holding hands. Japanese couples are famously discrete, and public displays of affection are perceived as very rude.
During this phase, couples tend to spend time together in fairly public places. It’s frowned upon for a boy and a girl to be together in a private setting, so probably no karaoke, let alone having her over. Don’t be disappointed if your date ends with a wave and a “see ya.”
The next phase is the declaration, known in Japanese as kokuhaku (告白). Honestly you probably won’t have to do this—I’ve only done it a couple times, and only with girls who had never dated a foreigner before. It’s basically the equivalent of declaring your love in Western dating culture, except it comes quickly and before any physical contact. The declaration is pretty simple: tell her how much you like her, that you would like to be boyfriend and girlfriend, and ask if she accepts.
Sadly, sometimes declarations fail. If she friendzones you, tough luck. On the bright side, you get to use one of my favorite Japanese phrases, furareta (振られた, meaning to get rejected)! Might as well turn it into a learning experience.
If your declaration goes well and she accepts, congratulations, you’re officially dating (tsukiatteiru, 付き合ってる)! Now you can delete all your dating apps together and start holding hands. So many new and wonderful experiences await. You can even do that “pair look” (ペアルック) thing where couples dress the same, if that’s your jam.
And that’s about it! You are now fully equipped to enter the Japanese dating game. I wish you best of luck, and a mutually fulfilling relationship.
If it doesn’t go well, who knows, maybe someday I’ll write a follow-up on Japanese breakups.