By Carolina Dulcey
Dating is something everyone is curious about and, by the end of college, thanks to movies, friends or first-hand trial and error experiences, we all have a pretty good idea of the rules for how it’s done “back home.” But how does dating work in a different country? How do people date in Japan?
The first thing the gaijin about town must get to grips with is that Japan is a group society. What that means for your dating prospects is that, realistically, if you don’t belong to a group, getting started on the dating scene can be a little difficult. Most Japanese people meet new people through introductions by friends, family members or colleagues, or sometimes by hiring a middle man to find someone for them as is the case in お見合い (omi-ai = arranged marriages).
Omi-ai are strictly for people in the market for marriage, and since they are conducted through special agencies, the procedure is actually very business-like. People tell the agency what they are looking for in a partner and they pay a fee for the service. The representative finds the most suitable choice and sends the pair on an introductory date. This ‘date’ is very formal (think business meeting) and usually takes place with the match-maker present. If all goes well, families will be introduced to one another and a wedding will take place soon after that.
The only age restriction on omi-ai is the legal age for marriage (16 for women and 18 for men) so young people can certainly go to the agency if they so desire. However, most young people today want to have a 恋愛結婚 (ren-ai kekkon = marriage for love) instead of an arranged one. There are times when parents will seek an omi-ai for their unmarried child but, in the end, it is up to the individual if they choose to marry or not.
While omi-ai are not as common as they once were, they still happen and it seems to me that there is more shame connected to it for women than for men; especially as the majority of the women who sign up for it are definitely past their Christmas cake date*. As an example of this, a part-time teacher at my school had a sister who was 29. It was a secret within the family that she was going to have an omi-ai, and everyone was hoping that the couple would get along. The teacher told me that if they both liked each other her sister might be able to get married before she hit 30, which at that time was about 6 months from the first scheduled meeting date.
However, for those who would rather find love for themselves, one of the most common and popular ways for Japanese people to meet others is through a 合コン (gokon = group blind date). So how does one go about procuring an invite to a gokon? Or better yet, how can a gaijin make one happen? To be invited to a gokon, you have to know someone who either knows something about them and perhaps goes to them him/herself since gokon are all about networking. If you have a friend who goes on gokon a lot, just let them know you’re interested and the next time they plan one you might be invited to join in.
The way a gokon works is very simple: you have one girl and one boy who know each other and work as the organizers of the party. The boy invites three of his guy friends and the girl invites three of her girl friends, then everyone meets at a restaurant for dinner where they get to know each other better.
Often foreigners will be invited to an intercultural gokon (half foreigners / half Japanese). These gokon are very different from the ones with only Japanese people. The foreigners mix gokon has the usual “everyone meeting for dinner and drinks” air about it while the Japanese gokon has the feeling of people meeting with the honest purpose of finding someone to go out with. At a Japanese gokon, as the evening progresses the group members will usually slowly start to form unspoken pairs (if they find someone they like, that is) and may go on to a 二次会 (ni-ji-kai = after party) when they leave the restaurant, perhaps involving some karaoke or another bar. If not, they will simply exchange phone numbers and bid their friends goodnight while going on their merry way – even if love wasn’t in the cards, new friendships have been made.
Where might they go after the ni-ji-kai? They could walk around the city, go to a bar, go to a club or, if a girl and a guy really hit it off, they might decide to take their relationship to the next level, in which case they will often head to a ラブホ (rabu-ho = love hotel). Love hotels are easy to spot as they usually have strange names and even stranger façades. They have no reception desk as they want to offer their clients as much anonymity as possible. On a wall there will be a light-up board with pictures of available rooms, prices, and a little panel with vending machine-like buttons. The modern day love hotel boasts of being more than just a place with a bed: some rooms have karaoke, small swimming pools, massage chairs, and themes like Hello Kitty or baseball. You select what type of room you want from the machine, which will then issue you with a ticket, then you pre-pay for your privileges at a small window with stained glass (to retain anonymity).
The prices for love hotels vary depending on where you go and what room you choose. Prices quoted outside don’t include extra, like costumes or toys, all of which are sold separately from vending machines within the hotel. There are also 3 different types of prices offered. The first possibility is the “rest” option which is usually for 2 or 3 hours and start at around 3,000yen. The second one is the “over-night” option which usually is from 10pm to 10am. The time schedule for this, though, varies from hotel to hotel. You can probably stay the night at some love hotels for about 5-8,000yen. The last possibility there is, is the “No-Time” option which is offered at SOME hotels from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (when hotels are not so busy). Prices for this choice start at around 4,000 yen.
But Japanese people are shy. Very few Japanese girls will walk through the main entrance of a love hotel and risk being spotted by someone they know, so love hotels have one main entrance and two very discreet entrances, usually on the side or at the back of the building, where couples can come in without being noticed. Once you are in the room… well, what you do is up to you.
If you’re thinking about staying overnight, be aware that if you leave the room, you often can’t go back in. Some more modern love hotels have replaced keys with automatic locks; when guests pay, the door is unlocked until they enter the room, at which point the door locks automatically behind them. There are also love hotels where you don’t pay on arrival, but when you leave – there is a chute in which to send the money down to reception. Until you do this the door stays locked, leaving you trapped inside.
What if you want to go on a date with a Japanese person? If gokons aren’t your thing and instead you want to ask a Japanese person out on a conventional date, the same rules as “back home” apply – if you’re creepy or smell of desperation, a date just isn’t going to happen. Picking someone up is called nanpa ( 軟派 ) and it has rather negative connotations in Japan, but you might get lucky – some Japanese people might be so flattered or shocked by the fact that a foreigner asked them out that you could end up with a phone number and a date. Japanese people are as curious about dating foreigners as foreigners are about dating them, so they may come up and talk to you but that is very unlikely if they’re not confident in their English skills (or, alternatively, completely drunk). Unless you have “I speak Japanese” stamped on your forehead, Japanese people will have no clue that you do, and speaking Japanese to some extent is almost essential (probably more so for girls than boys) if you want to get a date. Once you speak some Japanese, you may be able to try out nanpa or, better yet, find yourself a part of a group of Japanese friends that might lead you to your first gokon – thus jumpstarting your rabu scene in Japan. Time to take that at-home study course just a little more seriously.
So with all of this insider information safely stored away, head forth and mingle, gaijin guys and gals! Be sure to let me know how you ‘get on’.
*The Christmas cake date refers to the fact that people are only interested in Christmas cakes until December 24th – after that they lose all of their appeal and will rarely leave the shop shelves. The same is traditionally said of a Japanese woman – once she turns 25, she is like an unwanted Christmas cake. Many Japanese people will assure you, however, that this belief is antiquated and that modern Japanese women are perfectly happy to be single well beyond the age of 25.