Story by Paul Nakayama.
After decades of the singles scene in America, columnist Paul Nakayama discovers the good, bad and fetishism of modern-day dating in his ancestral home of Japan.
Why would I forsake the moderate temperatures of Los Angeles and spend six weeks in the freezing, ball-numbing winters of Japan? The same reason I’ve always tortured myself— a girl. Well, and ramen. Really, really good ramen. But mostly, it’s for a girl. And while I was there, I made a few observations about the dating scene in Japan. They aren’t about my personal experiences per se, because this is my column and not my diary — I mean, journal. Men don’t keep diaries … not that I keep a journal. Wow, jet lag is nature’s crystal meth.
I should start by explaining that I was in Fukuoka, which is in southwestern Japan. If Tokyo, where I usually party in Japan, is like New York, then Fukuoka is like Chicago. In Fukuoka, like Chicago, people tend to get married while they’re still in their 20s or early 30s. So many of my girlfriend’s friends were already married. Otherwise, the first words from the single ones to me were, “Do you know any single men?”
Despite the marital aspirations of most of the people I met in Fukuoka, there was a contradictory and disappointing social trend, one that I’ve seen often in Asia. Cheating is a common occurrence. I don’t know the official numbers, but I met a lot of married men with mistresses and a lot of girls that were dating married men. It’s no surprise that in 2013 AshleyMadison.com (the affair-friendly website) made Japan its first Asian market. You can’t see my face, but I’m frowning, like I’m tempted to drive around Japan in a pickup with a TV in the back streaming Before Midnight.
But to get back on a positive note and to get back to the single people that are in search of true love, how do they find one another in Japan? While online dating is on the rise, the predominant method is undeniably the goukon, or group blind date. Basically, it’s a system where a single man and woman who know each other invite approximately four friends to meet at a restaurant or gastropub. It’s safer and less stressful. And genius. Oh, how I wish this could’ve been a possibility in my earlier years. The money saved from failed first dates aside, I — I mean, my friends — would’ve been spared all the emotional scars of humiliation. You know, like those horrible moments of dance-walking up to a girl at a club where she vehemently shakes her head “no,” and then having to shuffle back to the bar in shame. At goukon events, it becomes pretty clear who’s interested in whom, and it’s already established that everyone there is looking for something serious, meaning attendees can’t use the “I’m not ready for a relationship” line.
As great as goukons are, they aren’t infallible. Everyone is a friend of a friend, so at least there’s a level of trust. But honestly, how many of you know the sexual proclivities of your friends? Whenever my friends start dropping details, I cover my ears and sing Katy Perry songs. I heard this great/awful story of one goukon match gone awry. Apparently, they dated for a few weeks, but the guy always came up with some excuse not to let her go to his apartment. She finally found out why: he was an underwear fetishist with huge stashes of ladies’ used underwear. He’d buy them from vending machines. (They actually exist! I was as shocked as you to learn that it’s not an urban legend.) He’d even wear them to work. I may be embellishing at this point, but he might have peed on her, too. You know, I take it back. Goukons are perfect. Someone please go out there, host a goukon event and send your favorite stories to the Audrey office.
Now, once you’re dating, Japan has a whole slew of interesting and unique cultural options. For example, many people still live with their parents (or their spouses) and lack privacy, so many couples go to “love hotels,” which is essentially an upscale, usually gimmicky, pay-by-the-hour motel. They usually come equipped with karaoke, which is what I like to combine with sex (I didn’t watch porn growing up; I watched music videos). Another interesting difference is in the holidays. Christmas is Japan’s Valentine’s Day. It’s the busiest night of the year for restaurants. Interestingly, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, girls give chocolates to boys. Then a month later, on White Day, boys reciprocate. I don’t quite understand it, but it is kind of sweet.
It was a fascinating experience to hear everyone’s dating stories during my time in Fukuoka. In my case, I’m a Japanese American dating a Japanese girl, so I suppose we can pick and choose the best of both dating cultures. I like the idea of having two major romantic holidays, so we agreed to that. It was also comforting to both of us that I have no interest in wearing her underwear nor does she in mine. There are no love hotels in the U.S., at least not of the same hygienic and entertaining quality as found in Japan, so any music we make in the bedroom will have to be of our own making. Katy Perry, anyone?
This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.