If you’re reading this blog, it’s a safe assumption that you have some interest in Japan and it’s culture. While there are many books on Japan, most focus on history, politics, or special interests. There are countless books on kendo, the tea ceremony, ninjutsu, the Warring States Period, and the rotating turnstile of prime ministers. There aren’t terribly many that detail the day to day intricacies of life and the culture. Probably for the same reason there aren’t many on the day to day intricacies of American life. Who would want to read about something so ordinary and common sense? But what is common sense for some is fantastic for others. My previous post on Japanese dating culture received a bit of positive feedback, and I intend on writing more articles in that vein. Something along the lines of everything no one tells you about Japan.
However, it is always good to have multiple sources on any topic of interest. Don’t believe everything you read, as they say. Corroborating information strengthens any statement. So while I would like my readers to trust me, some cautious optimism is best applied. I’m human, I make mistakes and I sometimes misunderstand things. For that very reason I would encourage you to seek out more literature on Japanese culture.
21st Century Japan: A New Sun Rising by Trevor W. Harrison
An excellent account of Japan’s more recent history and the country’s growth into its current global role. His discussion of Japan’s military and geopolitical struggles are especially worthy of note.
Japanese Culture by H. Paul Varley
This book deals with Japanese cultural history, primarily in the realm of the arts. A bit dry but a very informative read. A good book for building a foundation of understanding on the culture.
A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia
Titles like this normally don’t lend themselves to books of such quality. I was surprised at how accurate, well thought out, and concise a writing on the cultures and sub-cultures detailed of Japan. This book supplies an excellent primer to the life style of your average Japanese student, office worker, and many more. While many similar writings try to define the culture by a Western perspective, Hector Garcia does an excellent job of objectively presenting the reality faced by each facet of the population.
For more current and interactive information, the Something Awful web forum has a Japan thread run by an active group of ex-pats in numerous careers throughout Japan that discuss the culture and their experiences. The individuals on the forum are generally well spoken and well informed, discussing a broad range of topics.
Written May 12th
I had an interview last Thursday. The interview was with a Japanese mobile gaming company that I will not name. The division I was interviewing for primarily develops romance and dating simulation games, targeting women. This is interesting to me for a number of reasons.
One major reason is because there currently is no market for dating simulation games in the US. This could be taken one of two ways. One, this is an untapped niche market that nearly needs the right approach to be unleashed. Two, culturally the concept is incompatible and there is no interest (or not enough) to be economically viable to develop such games in the US. I’m leaning more towards the second, but I’m not 100% on that. My reasoning is that fan translations and imports of dating simulation games do exist, but they are a very small market and not one that pours a lot of money into their hobby (at least not to my knowledge.) These are primarily members of the otaku community, and primarily men.
The second portion of intrigue is who would be the target demographic. My fiancée is of the belief that given the rise of otaku culture in the US, the otaku community would be it. While I’m sure there would be some interest there, I’m convinced it’s still far too small to profit from. Those who are more than casually interested in otaku culture in the US are a small percentage, and it’s a small percentage within that group who are interested in dating simulation games. This is a very niche community.
I am of the opinion that targeting fans of Twilight will garner success. Twilight fans are sizable portion of the population. They are mostly female, primarily young teenagers, preteens, and a smattering of housewives. This demographic is very similar to the target audience in Japan. Additionally, these people have expendable income, enjoy romantic fantasies, and tend to enjoy pretty boys. They are social media conscious, but not in a social situation where they can live out their romantic fantasies, and thus seek out escapism. If the books are any indication, they also prefer a more passive role, and making choices about men who seek out them. I say this in contrast to the more active social mingling that relationships are otherwise formed from (meeting people at bars, parties, dances, etc.). Going back to the not being in a social situation to seek out their romantic fantasy (either due to being shy, rather young, married, or the fact dating can be complicated) being sought after may be more appealing to this demographic. I think they would love dating sims.
This brings me to my point of primary interest. Japanese dating culture functions very differently than Western dating culture. I asked about this in my interview, and how the company is accommodating for the cultural differences. I was given an off-hand “localization is handling that” response that leads me to believe that the company isn’t very aware of the differences. Not surprising and very forgivable as even people in cross cultural relationships aren’t always aware of the differences.
Actions aren’t much of an issue as they can be explained away. For example, kokuhaku (the confession of love made when seeking a relationship) can easily be adapted, and it isn’t terribly outside norms for American dating. That’s no problem. It’s more the unspoken rules, which so much Japanese culture rests upon. Applying them in such a game may seem like arbitrary punishment and frustrate the user. For Americans, maybe you like a person as more than a friend and you want to express that. So you kiss them, as it clearly defines you are interested in them as more than friends. That is normal. If you know your crush is spending time with a friend of the opposite gender, it might make you jealous. So long as they’re just friends, though, it’s okay. You have to have trust.
That isn’t the case with Japanese culture. Japanese couples don’t kiss until they’ve established the relationship as boyfriend – girlfriend. If you’re interested in someone, you don’t spend time with a different person of the opposite sex (even if you are just friends.) These would be very normal actions for an American man or woman. For Japanese these are the actions of a playboy, or player. Such a person is uncommitted and not to be trusted. How are the users to know about these cultural nuances? Should they be applied or modified for the American market? I believe this will have an impact on how well the games are received.
I, however, am not the target demographic. My perspective is one of an outsider and while I have no interest in such games I am interested in seeing how they are received. I’ll be keeping an eye on this matter, and seeing how it proceeds. I’m wishing all good fortune to the company.
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.
Kids say the darnedest things. That’s why Bill Cosby was able to extend his television career with a show about it for several years after the end of the Cosby show. My male students, like young boys anywhere in the world, are obsessed with dirty words. I can’t count the number of times the my students shouted “Penn iss!”as I passed in the halls. Recently, they have upgraded their usage. Since last week, two of them now occasionally say “Keith-sensei, big penn iss. Elephant.” Japan does wonders for my ego.
Today in class we reviewed “I like ~” and some vocabulary to accompany it. We reviewed some sports as a matter of course, one of which was table tennis. On the third set of repeats, I hear a loud, clear voice declare “Table Penn Iss!” Half the class went quiet with confusion and the other half laughed. I replied with a “Nande aho na koto yuta?” (Why are you saying such foolish things?) But secretly I was proud.
I’m faced with my own special brand of honne and tatemae. As an authorty figure I am meant to discourage bad behavior and foul language. Yet in my heart I am proud they are making an effort to learn more of the language and are focusing on the parts that interest them. The teacher facade presents a sense of naivety when they say penn iss, and pretends to misunderstand the word as tennis. Meanwhile, the true teacher in me wants to correct their pronunciation. That could be bad though. The last thing I need are a a bunch of ten year olds running around shouting “PENIS!”more clearly and correctly than before. This is more reasons I am proud he made the table penn iss joke. The joke shows he is paying attention in class and retaining what I’ve said.
A great deal of Japanese culture is about what is expected. No matter how long you studied or how well you’ve mastered the language, some things just can’t be taught in a class room. A lot of the initial culture shock for foriegners coming to Japan are the culture’s intricacies. What to do when, how to do it, who you do it for and who does it for you. Experience is irreplacable in certain situations. As a foreigner we are often exempt and forgiven for the lack of knowledge of many of these things, at first. Part of what is expected is that you don’t understand any of the expectations. Honne and tatemae are part of this, and speaking your mind openly can be done relatively safely. As time passes though, one is expected to learn the culture and adapt.
I wonder as the year passes if the candid nature I posses- a Boston trademark- may have to be something I must reign in. I am always polite and tactful, yet tatemae also means conforming to the group. If I am to teach my students “penis,” “boobs” and “poop,” I suppose now would be the time to do it. I may not be able to get away with it later.