Dating Culture in Japan

Cultural differences can be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in a relationship, even when two people are deeply in love. These differences sometimes lead to unnecessary misunderstandings. Even I, a native Japanese, understand that Japanese dating culture is confusing at first, especially to non-Japanese individuals. It has its own particular customs and rules, and once you understand these, I am sure your relationships with Japanese people will be so much easier. 

In Japan, romance starts with a certain order;

1. Dates: 1~5 times
2. Commitment (告白)
3. In a relationship (付き合う)
4. Get physical

This process is singular to Japan, so it’s not surprising for those coming from a western culture to feel confused. Even the meanings and implications of some words are different from those of English. 

1. Dates(デート)

Getting started, let’s be clear about the definition of ‘date’. The meaning of ‘date’ is more or less the same as in English but can be a little bit different in Japanese. In a broad sense, a date is when two people go out and do some activities together such as having dinner, going to see a movie, walking around the park, chatting at a nice cafe, etc. Of course, you can do these activities with friends of the opposite sex(you can also go on dates with the same-gender person, but let’s keep it simple here). Dates involve romance, or the possibility of romance, just as in English. You go out with someone you might want to be in a relationship with, and it is a date. When you are officially in a relationship and have dinner with your girlfriend/boyfriend, it is also considered a date. However, Japanese people do not ‘date’ as Americans do. 

When you want to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, you need to ask a person to go out with you. Normally men are expected to take care of this part, but sometimes women also ask. When we ask someone to go on a date, we do not say “Let’s go on a date”. Instead, the Japanese say, “Shall we have dinner sometime?” or “Let’s watch the newest コナン(Case closed) movie if you are interested!”. We also use those exact phrases when we ask friends to hang out, so it is sometimes obscure whether or not it is a date. When we are the ones being asked to hang out, we usually do not clarify with the person what it is exactly. Thus, it is often the case that you may think you went on a date, while your partner just thinks it was a casual meeting as friends. However, there are clues that can make it clear. For example, if you have a reservation for a fancy restaurant, it looks like a date night. Or, if a man pays for the woman’s meal, she might notice it was a date. Until then, it is simply a mystery.

Moreover, what makes dating in Japan especially peculiar is the fact that, while dating, the Japanese people do not get physical. No holding hands, no kisses, not to mention anything farther. I’ve heard that some people do, but I personally am never comfortable about doing these when we are in this dating phase, and I am pretty sure, neither do most Japanese women, but let’s save this discussion for later.

2. Commitment(告白)

After continuing dates, Japanese people make a decision about whether they will be in a relationship and take a step forward or not. 

Most of the time, men ask women, “Will you be my girlfriend?” And women say, “yes” or “no.” It is sort of the same concept as a proposal of marriage, and we call this action 告白(kokuhaku), literally meaning ‘confession’, and it is understood as a confession of love. After this commitment, they officially become a couple, or in other words, begin their relationship. 

This proposal is generally made after 3 to 5 dates, which takes 1 to 3 months, and sometimes longer. If you are from a western background, you may think this is too fast to make such a commitment. But it really isn’t because the concept of a committed relationship in Japan is different from that of western culture. Let me explain.

3.  In a relationship(付き合う)

She said yes, and you are officially in a relationship. We call this status as 付き合う(tsukiau), literally meaning “being together.” 

There are a few unspoken agreements if you are in this stage. 

  1. It is a girlfriend/boyfriend, monogamous relationship.
  2. You are not allowed to date someone else.
  3. It is OK to get physical.

Being in a relationship is not as big a deal in Japan as it is in western culture. Even if a woman is not sure whether she likes the guy or not, she might still agree to be his girlfriend, thinking he might have the potential for making a good relationship. In addition, physical relationships are usually not allowed until after the commitment, so some women might commit for a further step just because they want to try that part. Two people being in a relationship does not necessarily mean they are in love. For instance, when two people are friends for a long time, and even if the man intended to be dating her, maybe she had not noticed his intention and would be surprised at the sudden confession of love. In this case, there is a possibility that she says “yes”, thinking she wants to try another relationship with him. Or she might postpone the answer for a while. Anyways, being in a relationship means they have at least started liking each other or seeing the potential for a long-term relationship.

4. Get physical

Until being in a relationship, there is no touching or kissing. But, once the commitment is made, it is finally time to have a physical relationship.  

Japanese people kiss for the first time after establishing a relationship. Some of you may find this weird, thinking, “What would they do if they don’t have the right chemistry?”. It happens often, and when it does, they simply break up. Because of this, more than a few relationships last only a month or so. There are those who have even been in a relationship with more than ten people, despite being in their 20s. Japanese people sometimes say things like; “I have been in a relationship with eight people, but 5 out of 8 don’t count.”, meaning with the five people, the relationships were very short-lived, or were not that serious; just ‘dating’ in the same sense that American people say, “We’re just casually dating.”

But some people might want to know about their physical chemistry before their commitment. You can get physical beforehand, there is no law prohibiting it after all, but it is considered a hookup, and normally does not lead to a serious relationship. If you are fine with not being in a serious relationship, it is OK to kiss or something more before the commitment, but if you kiss a woman with whom you might want to have a serious relationship, she might think you are a womanizer, or just want a one night stand. By avoiding a physical relationship before the commitment, Japanese women feel they are respected, and will give them a good impression of you. 

It is not too much to say that commitment is the most important aspect of the dating culture in Japan. When a man makes a commitment, it means he will not get involved with other women, or at least promises not to, so she does not need to be insecure. This is very good in regards to avoiding sexual diseases. For instance, 1,758,668 cases of Chlamydia, the most frequently reported bacterial STD, were reported in the United States in 2018. In Japan, Chlamydia is also the most reported STD, but there were only 25,467 cases, which is about 1.4% of the Chlamydia infections reported in the U.S. Notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. has a population three times the size of Japan, it is pretty safe to assume that Japanese people are less inclined to get STDs. There is a combination of reasons for this, but I think one of the reasons is that Japanese people usually make a commitment before getting physical.

Recently one of my male friends went on a date. He and his date had a nice Japanese dish, drank Sake, laughed a lot, and had a great time together. At the end, he thought the mood was right, and held her hand. But after their date, he didn’t received a good response from her. I told him that the only possibility that I can think of, from the perspective of a (Japanese) woman, was that he was holding her hand. Most of the time, Japanese women do not willingly accept physical advances while still getting to know each other.

In truth, everlasting love may start with something physical, but normally it is not considered as a good thing conventionally in Japan and most Japanese women do not prefer it. Also, from the perspective of Japanese men, if a woman accepts his physical actions, he might think she is slutty, or she might not be asking for something serious at that point. 

So, what should you do when you date a Japanese person? Some Japanese people recognize that dating culture in Japan is unique and different from the ones abroad, so they will be careful when they date foreigners. Therefore, if you ask them that you want to try the dating culture in your country, they may understand, especially those living abroad as they generally respect and accept the dating culture in the country they are currently residing, thinking “when in Rome…”. So too, are you (for the most part) expected while you are living in Japan, to do as the Japanese do. 

Once you are in a relationship with someone, you are not allowed to date other people. Some Japanese people are offended if you have a one-on-one meeting with someone of the opposite sex, and it is taken as cheating even when you are not yet serious about the partner. Few people in Japan know about the concept of open relationships and think of relationships as purely monogamous, so I don’t think they will be accepting of behavior like this.

However, what may be the most difficult thing to deal with when you are in a relationship with a Japanese person is, even to other Japanese people, they do not say their feelings aloud. When you say to your Japanese girlfriend that you are going to have dinner with your female friend, and she says she is OK with it, it does not necessarily mean she is actually OK with it. Japanese people do not expose their true feelings so openly. When the time comes that she can’t handle it any further, she suddenly explodes or just becomes quiet without explaining why. But it is troublesome since not all Japanese women are like this. Some Japanese women are pretty open-minded about their boyfriends having close female friends, as long as it is not going to be physical, and they might want to keep up with their male friends too. 

In the end, you need to look into an individual carefully and need to find your own way. But knowing about the cultural background and the social convention will truly help ease the romance process. 

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