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Why, Japan, Why? SPECIAL EDITION

Why is it harder to get a Japanese boyfriend than a Japanese girlfriend?

In The Last Tea Bowl Thief, Robin Swann has had a longer relationship with her goldfish than with any man since she arrived. She occasionally vows to get out more, maybe even sign up for a dating service, but after eight years in Japan, she knows her chances of finding a Japanese Prince Charming are slim to none. (Unlike herself, even at her skinniest and in flats.)

Is she wrong to quit trying? Let’s look at the baffling question of why it’s so hard to get a Japanese boyfriend.

Charisma Man with lots of Japanese women

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Japan was that there was something odd about the mixed couples I saw in Tokyo. The foreign guys with Japanese girlfriends WAY outnumbered the Japanese guys with foreign girlfriends. But why?

At first I wondered…

Are the foreign men who come to Japan a lot more attractive than the foreign women?

Charisma Man comic

Not to put too fine a point on it, no. And in case you don’t believe me, there was a famous comic called Charisma Man that chronicled the amazing phenomenon of ordinary Western men who landed in Japan and had hot girlfriends in no time.

Okay, could it be that Japanese men aren’t attracted to Western women?

Fair enough, some Japanese men will never be attracted to Western women, just like some Western women will never be attracted to Japanese men. It’s just not their thing. But if you look at Japanese popular culture, it’s pretty clear that “Western” looks are far from undesirable.

How to glue your eyelids instructions
Products like eyelid glue strips that make Japanese eyes look “rounder” remain popular, as well as hair bleached lighter than its natural black

So yes, some men only date Japanese women, but it’s not because they think Westerners are ugly.

Could it be a size thing?

Sometimes. The average Japanese man is 168cm (5’6″) tall and weighs 62.5kg (137 lbs). The average American woman is 163cm (5’4″) and weighs 77kg (170 lbs). All around the world, there are men who refuse to date women who are taller and/or heavier than they are. This is true in Japan too, but, like everywhere else, there are also plenty of men who don’t care about that. In fact, there are men in Japan who seek out women who are taller than they are, because they associate tallness with models.

So..maybe it’s a language barrier?

There’s a little truth to this one—Japanese women tend to be better at English than Japanese men, and less embarrassed if they don’t speak it perfectly. But again, judging by the number of phrasebooks with pages upon pages of English pick-up lines, plenty of Japanese men are willing to take a chance, at least after they’ve drunk enough of the universal language enhancer.

But this is where it starts to get sticky. It’s apparently not that hard for foreign women to hook up with Japanese men, it’s just hard to get into a real relationship. And even in a real relationship, when it’s time to move on to a serious commitment, things tend fo fall apart, fast.

There’s a clue to this mystery at the American School in Japan. A certain percentage of the students there are Japanese “returnees” from Japanese families who lived in America while the fathers worked there. These kids are all fluent in English. When they returned to Japan, they enrolled at the American School, keeping their English level high, sticking with the American curriculum, and aiming to go back to university in the US.

But there was something strange about this group. They were almost all girls.

It turned out that most of those families had boys too. But when they returned to Japan, the sons were sent back to Japanese school, so they would be prepared to get into a prestigious Japanese university, get a job in Japan at a good Japanese company, and stay in Japan to take care of their parents in their old age.

The daughters, however, were encouraged to keep up their English, aim at a foreign university, and shoot for a career at a foreign company, because they would be treated better and have more opportunity for advancement than at a Japanese company.

But what does sending Japanese daughters to the American School have to do with foreign women getting a date?

A lot, but it’s actually the sons who were sent to Japanese school that’s the key info. Remember how it’s the son who’s traditionally responsible for taking care of the parents in their old age? It’s actually not him, it’s his wife. Many Japanese sons (especially eldest sons) are expected to marry women who will live in the same household as their in-laws (or nearby, with regular meals together) for their entire married lives, and take care of them in their old age. Japanese wives are exponentially more likely to find this normal and acceptable than foreign wives.

Unsurprisingly, the aging parents vastly prefer to be taken care of by a Japanese woman too. In their old age, they don’t want to be struggling with a language barrier, forced to eat foreign foods (or badly-cooked Japanese food) or display their frailties to a foreigner. They also find foreigners to be less willing to grant them the kind of deference that age and seniority command in Japan.

And then there are the grandchildren. It’s not so much that the children would be mixed race—plenty of popular entertainers have made being half-something-else envied and fashionable. But children who don’t have a Japanese mother—to teach them Japanese songs and stories, make their Japanese lunches, and interact with their schools in a proper Japanese way—aren’t considered to be truly Japanese. That’s why it’s okay for daughters to date and marry foreigners, but it’s pretty frowned upon for their sons to do the same.

But isn’t this kind of jumping the gun? Why not go on a date and give it a try and see if things work out, instead of assuming they won’t?

Some men will. And some will make it work. The younger men are, the more likely they are to give it a try, especially in the years before finishing college or graduate school. They’ve got time.

But once men start working, their time shrinks to zero. Long hours, and only one day off every week. The time and energy left over for dating shrinks with it, and so does their willingness to invest that time in a relationship with so many potential strikes against it. Getting deep into a relationship with anyone who might not work out is something most Japanese men avoid, especially when they’re ready to make a commitment.

“An immersive page-turner, meticulously researched and perfectly plotted. Without question, the best book I have read all year.” —Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori mysteries and CLIMB

Two women from opposite sides of the globe have nothing in common, until they discover that both their futures depend on possessing a tea bowl that’s been missing since before they were born...read more

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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