Dating is an interesting topic, because it may be one of the biggest differences I have noticed culturally. There are a few main concepts that are crucial for your ability to understand the timing of things here; tatemae, as well as kokuhaku. I learned these things through trial and error while living in Japan.
The ‘all or nothing’ mentality of dating in Japan
The expectations in terms of timing was really strange for me. Coming from America, I think we tend to take the stance that you go on a date to help you decide whether or not you want to…go on more serious dates. Then somehow or another someone makes a move and you’re dating right? Or, maybe you don’t even say anything?
My point is that we kind of ease into things in the west. At least a bit more.
In Japan, there is the tradition of kokuhaku, which makes the timing for dating very different
However, in Japan there is this concept of kokuhaku, which means things are expected to go from 1 to 100 (or more like 0 to 100) in an instant. This is because the Japanese word kokuhaku means confession, and with this kokuhaku tradition comes the expectation that a guy (typically) confessions his undying love for a female friend. (I’ll get into the wording of this later, because they’re not ‘dating’ yet…it’s confusing) So, this guy will take the girl he likes to some special place and ask her to become his girlfriend (honestly, I have no idea what the LGBT+ standard on any of this is), and then she will say YES or NO. This doesn’t sound that different, right? Maybe a little formal
But wait right there, I still haven’t talked about tatemae
What is tatemae?
Tatemae is one’s public persona (The Japanese characters literally mean to build in front). Tatemae is the equivalent of someone’s phone voice in the west, except it encompasses their whole mode of existence.
In Japan, there is this set concept of honne and tatemae. Honne, on the other hand, are one’s true feelings and what someone is truly thinking, but chooses to keep hidden away from the general public. This concept of transitioning from honne to tatemae is a common theme across all relationships in Japan, as becoming close enough to somebody to speak to them through casual Japanese, or tameguchi, is a clear sign of somebody opening up enough to you to show you their true intentions, and thus show you their honne.
The thing that’s interesting is there is a bit of romanticism attached to the idea of maintaining one’s tatemae properly. It shows that you have common sense, and a lot of respect for those around you.
When the kokuhaku and tatemae culture mix, things can get a little…weird
I’ll be honest, I usually don’t like to write off things as being ‘weird’ or ‘strange’, since that is a pretty bad attitude to have towards a culture as an expat, but I will say that the Japanese dating values can definitely come off as unnatural, in my opinion. Let me explain.
Since the expectation to maintain tatemae, and the expectation to confess or do kokuhaku exist at the same time, there is a tendency for people on the first date, first of all, to pretend that they aren’t on a date. In fact, people in Japanese use the same word for “play”, and “date”…which has made me feel like I’m 3 years old more than a few times. If you say that it’s a date, most people will find it to be too much, or too direct. This is because you are stating your intentions directly.
There’s no mystery or fun in somebody saying that they like you immediately, right? In Japan, there is the idea that there is no mystery if both people know that they’re both on a date…even though people call it a date…just…don’t call it a date…on the date? But everyone knows it’s a date…but don’t say it! I think it’s safe to assume that a guy and a girl hanging out, jus the two of them…that’s a date, but if you say it’s a date people get all weird about it.
Pretending someone who is your type isn’t your type…even though they are…
Anyways, for the first few times you meet with whoever you’re interested in in Japan, you’re supposed to pretend that it’s not a date. Appear aloof. Act cool. Honestly, even with staged shows like Terrace House (yes i’m calling it staged! Deal with it…) the way people come off on the first date (oops, I said it) is…honestly pretty robotic and weird…
In my personal experience that is!
Many people ask the kind of standard questions you would hear in an interview, NEVER hold hands, make little eye contact, and almost talk about the other person like they really want them to feel uncomfortable and put on the spot. I think a good example of this is that I have had girls often ask me the first time we were out who my ‘type’ is, and it always comes off to me like this weird verbal challenge. Obviously this person is my type because I asked them out, but if I describe exactly who they are it would be breaking my tatemae shell of coolness. Maybe I could get away with that as a tongue in cheek way of complimenting someone in the West, but in Japan you better keep up that air of mystery. You really have to build up that confession. So I’ll kind of describe that person, but not make it too obvious, and maybe throw in a few mini insults in there too to really keep things interesting!
Just kidding don’t do that
Really though, you hear this ‘type’ question come up all of the time in Japan. It’s a good example of a weird contradiction in Japanese culture, where something that might come across as bit too-forward in the west is something people just blurt out here without thinking. Just like how people in Japan also call each other fat if they put on 1kg, but can’t make eye contact with the cashier when they go to (dishonorably) return a pair a pants.
Huge generalization, but I’m cracking myself up so I wrote it anyways
Kokuhaku; The confession and how it’s done in Japan
Ahhh Kokuhaku, when all of the repressed emotions and sexual frustration come burstin from men’s pores. After pretending to be indifferent for a few dates (don’t call it that) it can’t be kept in any longer. “Eh, I could take it or leave it” is now “YOU ARE PERFECT AND ALL I WANT IN THIS WORLD!” …or, you know, something like that. No, really for me, it’s the sudden switch from ‘friendship’ to undying love that I find just a bit weird and unnatural. Instead of things gradually progressing, it’s like you’re asking permission to flip a switch from a strictly no-contact low-stakes friendship to becoming passionate lovers, or you know, something like that…
I have done kokuhaku a few times, and it’s gone both well a few times and not well a few times.
There are few things more awkward than riding the train home with a girl who just rejected you, pretending to not be bothered after something like that. Awkward…oh so awkward.
So really, it just depends on the person, but the way everyone handles these social standards tend to up end to be pretty cringey, more often than not. It’s just incredibly clear how disingenuous you are expected to be throughout the majority of the dating process in Japan.
The good things about dating in Japan
One of the good things about the expectations i’ve gone over is that they really do filter out any people you wouldn’t end up wanting to date anyways. Since this could only ever work with two people who genuinelly like each other for more than just looks, I can imagine that relationships in Japan probably last much longer than relationships in the west. Every girl I have dated has been somebody that I have liked enough to where I would be really happy spending time with them just as friends anyways.
The bad things about dating in Japan
I think that we tend to give people a bit more of a chance in the west, and this whole all-or-nothing approach to relationships is definitely not helping Japan’s aging population issue. The typical tatemae expectations and initial distant interactions can make first dates feel more like interviews, than just a test to see whether you can have fun together. I feel like the kokuhaku confession culture also places way too much pressure on people deciding to commit to somebody who they still don’t know that well.
If you are interested in how all social interactions work in Japan…
I wrote another article on making friends in Japan as a foreigner that I’m pretty proud of, so please check that out if you’re interested by clicking the article link below!