Relationships vary by country and so do expectations for dating. However, different does not mean incompatible. Teaching and living abroad shouldn't mean putting your love life on hold. On the other hand, dating someone from another culture can be extra rewarding. Understanding and embracing differences is the first step towards successful dating in Japan.
1. Communicate Boundaries
One of the first things you might discover about dating in Japan is the fact that a majority of information about Westerners comes from American movies and TV shows. This is especially true during casual encounters with a Japanese person who has never dated a foreigner. They might be teeming with assumptions about you. Some of the common presumptions you might want to watch out for are:
- Western women are “loose”
- Foreigners, as a whole, are very open about their feelings, sex life, and personal issues
- Foreigners love PDAs (Public Displays of Affection)
If you are not comfortable taking your relationship to the next step (especially in terms of physically) make that clear! Intercultural relationships often have difficulties when it comes to communication. You don’t have to talk about all of these things with each dating partner, but you should definitely think about it especially with one that seems like it could evolve into a relationship.
2. Decide What the Relationship Is and Isn't
What are your end goals for dating? Are you looking for a casual hookup, a friend with benefits, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a future marriage partner? As mentioned before, you probably shouldn't actually discuss this, but early on in the dating process, you should figure out what you want from the relationship. Then, act on it.
If you are looking for a long-term relationship, set some long-term dates, like going to Sky Tree on Christmas or a romantic getaway to Okinawa during summer vacation. If you are looking for something casual, keep it casual and avoid meeting friends and family.
What you consider normal may be considered odd by your partner; don't assume you are on the same page.
Keep a contingency plan in the back of your head. What happens when your study abroad, volunteer, or internship experience is over? If you are planning on continuing the relationship, you might need to set boundaries and long term goals for the relationship.
Another important thing to consider is the possibilities of accidental pregnancies which happen more than you would think. This should always be a factor on your radar, but especially in a location like Japan where there is a lack of easily accessible birth control. A lot of Japanese couples are expected to get married in the event of an accidental pregnancy.
3. In the Face of Racism, Take a Deep Breath, Smile, and “Ganbare”
“Ganbare” is the Japanese way of saying “hang in there.” Japan is more liberal now than ever before, but racism still exists. Once you identify the source, you can take steps to react in a graceful manner. Take the context into account.
• With their friends: Dating a foreigner, especially a white foreigner, can be a status symbol. There are certain women that only try to date black men and men that only try to date white women. Are you ok with being a status symbol?
• With family: If you get to the point where you meet their family, expect a bit of resistance. While parents are increasingly more liberal, they might be worried about you dumping their son or daughter when you finish your study abroad, volunteering, or working in Japan. Or even worse, they might be worried about you getting married and taking their child back home to start a life abroad together that is thousands of miles away.
• With strangers: Japan is a very homogenous society, so people will stare. Even Asian-Japanese couples attract attention. Don't let it bother you.
Unfortunately, racism still exists in Japan. No matter how fluently you speak Japanese, how long you have been living in the country, or how “Japanese” you act, if you do not look Japanese, you cannot become Japanese. Dating a Japanese person will be different than dating someone from your home country. Being foreign will play into every date you go on. It's not bad; some people think it is a great advantage. However, it would be foolish to expect to be “treated Japanese.”
4. Breaking-up in Japan
Breakups in Japan are less like a breakup and more like a gradual fading away. That is because rather than a singular decision, made over lunch, by text message, or in a nasty letter, breakups in Japan typically involve one party gradually pulling away. The trigger can be anything, a bad date, a fight, some individual soul-searching, or making a bad impression on their friends.
When you're getting dumped, it can even take a while to notice! They take longer and longer to reply to text messages and emails. They don't return your calls very often. They stop “liking” all your status updates on Facebook. When you ask to meet, they say they are too busy. If you ask, “Is anything wrong?” they will usually say no. The more you push, the further away they pull.
Foreign women seem to have the most problems with this method. The more they want to talk about their feelings, how to fix the relationship, or new date ideas, the more the man pulls back (which often transcends cultures for some reason); breakups are breakups. However, if you really like the man or woman, give them space. If you have been on three great dates but can't seem to land a fourth one because they are suddenly busy, wait a couple weeks and try again. If a casual date starts pulling back, don't chase them. Then, two to three weeks later, try to contact them again.
Very rarely will you get a “real” breakup with closure. Most of the time, if there is a concrete ending in sight (you are returning to your home country, graduating, or moving) couples will “ganbare” on until the end rather than just ending it.
5. Clarity on Sex and Safety
This ties into some of the above points but needs a little extra emphasis. The physical parts of a relationship are fun, but you should be safe. As mentioned before, there are a surprising number of both pregnancies and STDs in Japan. As far as contraception goes, condoms are the best option. It is rare to meet a woman on birth control pills, because they are expensive and difficult to obtain. You can't fall back on Plan B to get out of trouble either, since it is even more expensive and can only be purchased with a date-stamped doctor's prescription. Condoms are your best option. It varies depending on the person, but a lot of men and women do not use condoms. If you choose to be sexually active, always carry condoms on dates (girls too).
Most Japanese clinics offer free STD and disease testing. It is not uncommon to ask your partner for a clean bill of health before becoming sexually active, especially since Japanese women (and occasionally men) lie about their virginity and number of sexual partners.
Dating in Japan is fun. You might have problems that stem from cultural differences, but all the best things in life require a bit of work. If you keep an open mind and an adventuresome spirit, you could end up with some great dating stories, a fun love life, a solid relationship, or even an engagement ring after a couple of months living in Japan.