Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Dating Game

You can get your own octopus dumpling cell phone strap from Strap-ya (image pinched from their web site here).

Despite the fact that only 2 of my current crop of 11 students are married, very few of them date. Some of them are a bit mature for dating, but several are certainly young enough and sufficiently attractive to consider playing the field. All of the single women say they want to marry and have children some day except one, so it's not like they're disinterested in finding a future mate.

Dating in Japan is rather difficult if people can't find someone they like in their offices since men typically work long hours and socializing outside your immediate circle is difficult. It's one of the reasons various forms of "arranged" meetings still go on. One of the most common is called a "go kon" where 5 men and 5 women meet and socialize in what can be considered a "group date" of sorts. Usually, there is at least one member of each group who know a member of the group of the opposite sex and they arrange to bring everyone together. Some of my students have gone on these meetings at bars or restaurants, but none have been successful in finding someone they liked. My husband has had a few students who have met their mates via these 10-person "dates", so they can be helpful in expanding your horizons when it comes to finding a mate.

Given how rarely my students date, I don't tend to hear much about that side of Japanese life, but one of my students told me today about an experience she had on a one-to-one date. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that she wasn't aware that this was actually going to be a true "date" until she started interacting with the fellow. She thought this was an old high school friend (who now happened to attend the same university as her) meeting up for a chat. I would say this is the sort of wackiness that ensues in a culture where ambiguity is a common part of communication, but I'm not so sure this doesn't happen in other cultures as well.

The date in her estimation, was a serious close encounter with a dork. She told me that he was "not a gentleman". I didn't tell her that the implications of this in Western culture could range from his not holding the door open for her as they entered the restaurant to his attempting to surreptitiously probe the contents of her bra, but rather I asked her what that meant in Japan. She told me that it was traditional on dates for men to pay for the meal (or at least offer to do so), but he said they should go Dutch. Not only did he say each should pay his and her own way, but also he out-drank her by a fair margin and made her foot 50% of the bill. Those who live in Japan know that booze is where the lion's share of the cash is spent in a meal and you can seriously influence a tab's total with copious imbibing.

Beyond his profligate drinking partially on her dime and ungallant assertion that they split the bill for a meal he invited her to partake of with him, she said he assumed a presumptive posture by using a very informal form of Japanese for "you" (omae) when speaking with her which she believed should not be used given their level of intimacy at that time. She told me she felt using it indicated he already considered her his "girl".

He did make one gesture which could have been romantic, but, at least in her estimation, he botched it as well. A little gift was proffered as part of the date, a cell phone strap. When I asked her if she liked it, she screwed up her face like she'd just smelled something bad and said, "no!" The strap apparently had a plastic bit of takoyaki (octopus "dumpling") as the ornament on it. She told me that this gift demonstrated to her that he had no idea what women liked and that she passed the distasteful object on to her mother.

Despite the not uncommon unclear communication between Japanese folks, this fellow overtly "confessed" to her that he desired her as a romantic partner and asked that she not go to America to attend university for a year as planned. Considering he had all of one date under his belt, this was more than a little presumptuous. My student didn't respond to his declaration of "like" for her, but later decided to e-mail him and say just one thing, "I'm sorry." She told me this was all it took to let him know that she was rejecting him and, despite the ambiguity of the message in English, he'd get the message loud and clear in Japanese.


Jon said...

..Wow...that is so weird to think about, you know? How "I'm sorry." is so ambiguous in English - "Okay, why are you sorry? What are you talking about?" - but in Japanese he would simply get the message. She didn't like him. It's very interesting to think about. Thanks a lot of the post! Sometimes I really am glad I've grown up where I have. I have read about several social problems in Japan - and guess what they all continue to lead back to! Men having to work extremely long, hard hours! Having to catch naps on trains or in capsule hotels just to be able to keep their eyes open for the next amount of hours, and then do it all again. Men have no amount of time to pay any attention to their wives, or their families (if they even had time to create one). And young boys and girls have a difficult time trying to date, and end up resorting to arranged meetings and marriages.

To sum it up, Japan could fix the majority of its social problems by somehow (I have no idea how, but...) cutting back those insane hours, and teaching men how to care for their wives and family, and guys how to date while being a gentleman :P

Shari said...

Hi, Jon, and many thanks for your kind comment and for reading.

Your are absolutely right that a plethora of social problems stem from the long working hours. The government knows this yet make no meaningful effort to stop the overtime. They have campaigns that are supposed to "encourage" men not to work so much but this is all window dressing. The truth is the companies want them to work overtime and the government wants the companies to have their way.

They should start gradually instituting a "lights out" and lock up by 8:00 pm for any business that doesn't absolutely have to operate late at night every Friday then gradually expand that policy to other days of the week. This would not only force people to go home but also help with energy consumption.

It'll never happen, mind you, but it's one of the few things that might help.

Thanks again!

Sarah said...

What a jerk! While his behavior was unbelievable for a first date, I think a lot of it also describes why these guys are so intolerable to be with as a boyfriend or husband.

And like you said, a plethora of this country's social problems come from the work culture, and the intensive study culture throughout school that leads up to that point. I read an article about a woman who had researched into the lives of married Japanese women and why they didn't have sex. While there were a variety of factors, the main one of course was due to the husband being overworked.
Working and studying too much robs people of energy and social outlets. This fact alone contributes heavily to difficulty finding a mate and the need for arranged marriages/go kon, the need for maid/butler cafes, and dissatisfaction within marriage, which in turn contributes to the proliferation of things like hostess clubs, prostitution, chikan, depression and suicide. Need we mention declining birthrates?

I agree that Japan could fix the majority of its social problems through cutting back the amount of overtime worked, along with the amount of hours spent studying or participating in (often gendered) after-school activities. If teenagers are not inadvertently segregated by gender and given enough time of their own to learn how to build a social life by themselves, they would not only begin to question being overworked as adults, but they would also have the interpersonal skills in which to make use of their free time and build a more fulfilling personal life.
But as it is right now, kids become adapted to long overs and overwork at such a young age, and all they see around them is enough to reinforce the stereotypes of "Mama the homemaker," "Papa the breadwinner," "unmarried women = sexualized object," etc.

Sorry for such a long rant! By the way, "go kon" doesn't have to be 5 vs 5. I've seen them much larger and much smaller (a bit ashamed to say it, but I met my last boyfriend at a 4-on-4 go kon). 合コン is actually a combination of 合う-to match, and コンパ, which just means party.

Shari said...

Hi, Sarah, and many thanks for your very interesting comment.

I'm afraid I know little about go kon or such arranged meetings aside from what my students tell me, though it doesn't surprise me that they could be a different configuration than 5x5 (though it does seem misnamed if it's not 5 people, eh? ;-) ).

I've added your site to my blog listings and will be following along. As someone who enjoys writing as well, we're kindred spirits.

Charivarius said...

When I lived in Osaka, I went on a few of these arranged dates, but down there, if memory serves, it was 4 guys / 4 gals, and it was called something like a "kom-pa." The first couple times were pretty weird... definitely not what one's used to, everyone being there with the official knowledge that they were on a "date," which suggests intimacy, when no intimacy naturally exists. And it's tough to gauge chemistry when everyone's nervous about being in an obviously contrived situation. Then, the social dynamics of two close-knit groups where, typically, only one person from either group knows anyone in the latter group is very strange... I never cracked the code on the formula one was supposed to follow, but I did end up meeting some interesting people I never wouldn't have otherwise, so it was worth it.

It's not a system that'll soon be seen in the West.

Emsk said...

What a gruesome experience for your poor student! There are, of course, plenty of men in the west who are similarly unadept at the dating game and are presumtive enough to imagine that they're having a Big Romantic Date when they're not. Too many guys are physically presumtive about moving in when you've given no such signals that you want them to put their arm round you, etc. Plenty confuse friendship with the possibility of Something Might Happen Sometime when you've tried to be as kind as possible about showing them that you only want to be friends. (I know that women can also be presumtive!)

It must be a nightmare dating here. Most of my female students tell me that they want to get married, but haven't found anyone, and a great deal even say that they'd like a foreign partner.

I do hear, however, of Japanese men getting quite serious much earlier on than most western men of my experience. My Japanese co-worker has just started dating a nice enough sounding (Japanese) chap. In western terms they're at the stage where you might still be seeing what happens, but he's asked her to be his girlfriend. There'S nothing wrong with this, of course, and it's actually refreshing to know that if a man and woman like each other they're prepared to say so and not act cool and defensive. It is different to my experience of dating British and American men though; I'm not saying one is better than the other, except that as a British woman I'm more programmed to expect to take things slowly, with no expectations that things wil end in marraige, children, etc.

I haven't dated anyone since I've been here. I would not be adverse to dating a Japanese man, and do quite like one I know, but I don't pretend the working hours wouldn't drive me mad, as much for the fact that it would upset me to see someone I loved wrecked by mental and physical exhaustion as not being able to see much of him myself. I think I'd ahve to persuade him to move to New Zealand and start a farm!