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November 19, 2007

I’ve wondered for a long time how Japanese people got to know each other. They’re so formal in dealing with each other that I don’t really get how people become friends. It seems that friends can only really be born out of constant contact – schoolmates, or coworkers, or things like that. Getting to know someone who you have no real connection to is something that doesn’t seem to happen. That’s where it’s handy to be a foreigner. We don’t tend to have any real hang-up about talking to strangers, in certain situations. There’s no real strict societal rules that we feel we have to follow, where for example neither party will ask the other for any contact details or chance to meet again, out of fear of imposing themselves on someone who is only speaking with us out of their own politeness. Introduce two Japanese people who you know, who don’t know each other. Watch how politely and formally they speak to each other. It’s annoying.

I was with a friend of mine a few weeks ago when she got a phone call from somebody. She talked to him briefly then hung up. It turns out he was a foreign guy she had met in a bar and had talked to. When they parted ways, he asked her for her number and she gave it to him. So he was ringing her. And she was shocked. “Is this normal for people overseas?” she asked. “I don’t even know him. Why is he ringing me?”

I asked how Japanese people ever got to know each other. Aside from coworkers and old school friends, she didn’t really seem to know. She guessed it was just from meeting friends’ friends. A little while after that, as Christmas is approaching, I started hearing about “Goukon” from a couple of people (otherwise known as “conpa” – I think it’s the same thing). Basically, it seems to be the staple of Japanese dating. Since Japanese people don’t seem to be able to approach one another directly, these things get set up. Some guys and some of their female friends/acquaintances set up a group of single people, made out of other friends/acquaintances who don’t know each other. Then, they’re all told to meet at a certain place at a certain time. So, the group of several guys and several girls (the same number of each) find themselves in a situation where they have other people around them who are open to conversation… but there’s no real pressure on any one pair to speak to each other. Ideally, they pair off throughout the course of dinner/drinks. My Japanese friends were amazed I’d never heard of this, as it’s such a huge part of Japanese culture! (their words).

So, I was in a bar a couple of weeks ago, and ended up chatting with some random Japanese guys. Somehow Goukon came up, and they said that they were planning one soon, and would I like to join? I jumped at the chance. I don’t have a girlfriend (per se), but more importantly, I wanted to see how these things work, and what I was missing! So I told them to take me along. I went to that last weekend, but unfortunately it wasn’t very good. It was meant to be three guys and three girls. One girl didn’t turn up. And one of the girls who did was friends with the other two guys. So it largely became just a dinner and drinks evening with friends. Which was fine, although I was kind of hoping to see some awkward Japanese courting. I did get a load of Japanese practice though, as the guys’ English wasn’t too hot, and the girls couldn’t speak it at all. They’re going to have another one probably next month, and said they’d invite me to that, too. I’ll cross my fingers 🙂

Aside from the fact that Japanese people seem to have such a hard time meeting partners in the first place, staying together doesn’t seem to be that important either. Fidelity doesn’t seem to be the big thing here. I don’t have a girlfriend, but I do have a girl who I am kind of seeing kind of regularly. Actually, I kind of have two. And they’re both students at the same University. I haven’t been seeing either for very long, and things aren’t particularly serious with either of them (I don’t think). One of them has been on her own Goukon since I’ve started seeing her. But still, I do feel kind of weird about it. And I’m sure that if I continue along this path, I’ll get found out sooner or later. But what I’m not sure about is how they’ll react. Throughout my year here, every time people have heard I have no girlfriend, they refuse to believe me. Including girls who I have been currently hooking up with. They’re all convinced I must have one, but be out looking for more. At my primary school out in the mountains, children used to not ask me if I had a girlfriend, but rather how many girlfriends I had.

But it’s not just specific to guys. This expectation seems to lie on girls, too. If I’m out by myself in a place with people around, girls will still give me a seductive look and a devilish smile, even while they are hanging on to their boyfriend’s arm. It’s all a bit much. One of my first-years at school (16 yo) has “multiple” boyfriends. I don’t know how many that is, but it doesn’t sound good. I once told one of my students as a joke that I had 10 girlfriends right now. Not only did she believe me, she wasn’t even surprised.

I was talking to one of my students after school last week. She asked me if I had a girlfriend, and I said no. She was, as usual, shocked. She asked me why not. I said I hadn’t really found anyone I was that interested in yet. She looked confused. “But you could definitely get one,” she said, totally ignoring my answer. It almost seems like boyfriends/girlfriends are just something to have, like an accessory. You just pick em up for the sake of having one. She told me an apparently good pick-up spot. “Go down there, approach a pretty girl, and say ‘wanna go out?'” she said (or rather, the Japanese equivalent). “Some might say no, but you’ll definitely get one.” I explained that I wouldn’t even know these girls! And that maybe the kind of girl who would accept a proposal like that probably wasn’t the kind of girl I was after, anyway. She didn’t see the problem. “If you don’t like them, then just… ‘see ya’,” she said, making a pushing-away gesture. This girl is 17 and really pretty. I worry about how much experience she has with this system first-hand.

Speaking of which, I saw on my way home last night, a poster had been stuck to a telephone pole. It had a bunch of little tear-off things advertising what was essentially prostitution. A bunch of them had been torn off. It’s got a pretty inappropriate picture in the background, and written over top is a bunch of phrases. “Business trip?” “cheat on your wife” “young wives” “widows” “ripe girls”, and a certain four-lettered English word which almost made me laugh as it’s just sitting there. Down the side is written “Now hiring girls”. I was pretty shocked to find this just smack bang in the middle of the main road – especially right outside a subway station that services a main all-girl’s middle school/high school. I had to grab one.

But anyway, I guess all cities have their red-light areas and seedy underbellies. Kyoto’s doesn’t seem half as bad as some of the other areas *cough*Osaka*cough*. It was just another example of this total expectation of infidelity, which is something that I find pretty startling.

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