This article is mostly for the benefit of Western readers. However, I feel it can also help Japanese readers who would like to better understand the Western perspective of Japanese dating. I’ve included my thoughts as a Westerner on Japanese dating culture for that reason. Virgin or veteran, I feel for any Westerner or Easterner who dates or aspires to date inter-culturally this is worth a read. Who knows? You might just understand the other half a little better after this.
I’m going to start out with a disclaimer: Every person- and consequently every situation- is different. I’m sure people can find exceptions to what I am putting forth as general rules. But they are just that: generalities. I am by no means an expert. I am going off of my experience and some discussions with my Japanese friends and friends who have lengthy experience with the culture. Additionally, I am a man, so all of my understanding comes from the perspective of a man. I would love more input from the experiences of others. I would especially love to hear back from my Japanese friends with their thoughts and perspectives on the topic. Ladies especially. Any more I can learn will only serve myself and others better. That being said, let’s dive right in.
Japan, and as I understand it most of Asia, has a very different dating culture than that of the West. I can best describe it as courting with initial ambiguity. Things also move much more slowly than in the west.
Initial dating, or the lead up to dating, always begins in a group. You go out with mutual friends, or a group of your friends and a group of her friends together. You will probably only bring friends of the same sex. Bringing a friend of the opposite sex can often be misinterpreted. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but more of a rule of thumb. Being in a group diffuses the pressure and allows each party to take stock of the company the other keeps. Meeting their friends and having the friends’ approval can be very important, but not always. In the group, you focus almost solely on the one you are interested in. If you can, you may break off from the group as to only talk with each other. This is how you show interest.
After several outings like this, say five or six, you may ask to do something just the two of you. A movie, grabbing coffee or going to the park. Typical date type things, but generally in public. This allows each of you to gauge how you feel about being alone with the other. After spending time together outside of the group for a while, also probably five or six times, one person will confess their love for the other. This is called “kokuhaku,” and is in most cases done by the man. If the other returns those feelings, then they become boyfriend and girlfriend. The relationship then proceeds as relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends do. There ends any significant differences.
At the point of kokuhaku is where we consider two people to begin dating. Everything before that is considered getting to know each other in a friendly manner. In the West we would argue that dating is simply getting to know someone better with romantic intent to see if you would like a relationship with them, so that the time spent outside of the group would be considered dates. From my understanding the Japanese do not see it that way.
Also to be noted is that no physical intimacy occurs until after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. I don’t just mean sex, but kissing and I think even hand holding. All of that comes after the relationship. Attempting a kiss can make a Japanese person think you are only interested in sex or a physical relationship and not a serious or romantic relationship. A lot of miscommunication can occur here. For example, often a Westerner will want to kiss someone they are seeing and the Easterner doesn’t want to be kissed yet. The Westerner will think the Easterner isn’t interested in a relationship with him/her. The Easterner will think the Westerner only wants to sleep with him/her and doesn’t want an actual relationship. Since we in the West use kissing as an expression of romantic intent and as a stepping stone to building a relationship, it can be especially confusing and frustrating. So far as physical intimacy after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend: I believe everything is fair game. Eastern cultures don’t have the religious stigma of sex before marriage being a sin, so most are open to premarital sex. Obviously how soon they are willing to have sex after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend is based on the individual.
The use of kokuhaku is also a bit of a culture shock for Westerners. Love is a very powerful word and concept in English. Telling someone “I love you” in such a manner as kokuhaku is consequently very serious. In Western dating one would only tell someone “I love you” after being boyfriend and girlfriend for a good amount of time. One says those words only with someone they feel they want to spend the rest of their lives with. Westerners try not to say those words until they are sure of that feeling. We use the less powerful word “like” until then. But even telling someone “I like you” can be tricky. Saying those words makes the thing real and in the open. It makes you think about their feelings, your feelings and adds pressure to the situation. One worries about hurting the other person’s feelings and it turns a once playful situation very serious. For those reasons most Westerners prefer romantic actions over confessions of love. With an action you don’t need to think, simply to do. One will feel what they feel and it clarifies any concerns or confusions. Most commonly we use a kiss. Kissing is a very clear sign that someone likes and wants to date you. Unless they are drunk. Then all bets are off.
Because of the kokuhaku culture expressing interest in someone can also be tricky for a Westerner. The Japanese language does not contain gradations of the word like. All of the general words used to tell someone you have feelings for them in Japanese (好き suki, 大好き daisuki, 愛知てる ai shitteru) are equivalent to telling someone you love them. Each one is just a stronger way of saying that you love them. So far as I know there is no Japanese equivalent for “like” in the way it is used in English. This can be confusing as 好き which is generally translated into English as “like” isn’t used in the same manner when applied to people in Japanese. If a Westerner tells a Japanese person in English “I like you” or in Japanese “好きだよ” it will be interpreted as “I love you.” Most likely they will think you are giving a kokuhaku and asking them to become your significant other. The Westerner in this case most likely only wants to go on a few dates and learn if they would be interested in becoming boyfriend and girlfriend if things work out.
From a Western perspective this style of dating can seem a bit childish and immature. Some of that feeling stems from the Eastern style of dating being similar to how we in the West date during high school. Adult dating in the West moves a bit faster than the East. For adults in the West we use physical intimacy, kissing especially, as a way of determining compatibility. To remove physical intimacy from dating in the West is to make dating the same as building a friendship. If a person does not want to kiss us or be physical with us, we take that as a sign that they are not interested in us as a boyfriend / girlfriend. We assume they just want to be friends.
As I stated at the beginning, these are generalities and there will be exceptions. Easterners who have lived abroad, are a little bit older (late twenties on) or live in a major city may be more open to dating differently. With a Westerner, especially, they will expect there to be some cultural differences. They may even be aware of your cultural norms. But less traveled and young ones are more likely to be surprised by things outside of their cultural norms. There are also people who are just looking for- or are open to- one night stands, sleeping around or being friends with benefits. Roppongi in Tokyo is infamous for being rife with bars and clubs where Japanese women go to look for a one night foreign boyfriend. This is all well and good if that is what you are looking for, but seeking one night stands or a quick lay isn’t dating. Different rules apply. Some people find relationships this way but it won’t always be the best way to find one. It’s also a small subsection of the population. Not surprisingly one many foreigners find their way to.
For all the differences in dating culture one thing holds true in both: Dating can be confusing, trying and stressful. It can also be fun, wonderful and rewarding. Dating is called a game for a reason. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The more you play, the better your chances of winning. But it always helps to know the rules of the game.