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JET Tales from Aomori

The Unspoken Language

In the twenty years JET has been in existence, more than 46,000 young college graduates have passed through this beautiful land of Japan. Some come to learn about a new culture, some come looking to add experience to their resume, while others just come because they aren’t quite sure what they want to do and want to experience a bit of excitement before they have to decide. I decided to embark on this journey because I had fallen in love with Japan during my study abroad three years ago. Little did I know that I would fall in love with a Japanese man my second time around.

The other day I went to an izakaya (bar) for a birthday party and one of my friends whom I haven’t seen in some time says to me, “I heard you were married!” The JET community, like any other community, definitely has its share of gossip. And to clear things up, I’m not married. I have, however, found myself a Japanese boyfriend. I am one of the few who have broken through the foreign-woman-dating-a-Japanese-man barrier.

Dating for foreigners in Japan is an adventure in itself. For those who voyage outside of the JET community, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about Japanese culture and a great way to learn the language. I know my foreign language teachers always used to say if you want to learn the language fast, get a girlfriend or boyfriend. If you are single and a man, it probably isn’t too difficult to find a date. But if you are single and a woman, some would say you’ve drawn the short stick when it comes to dating. It’s much more common to see foreign men with Japanese women than the other way around. I observed the same thing in America and always used to ask myself why. Why is it that you rarely see non-Asian women with Asian men?

I don’t have an answer to that question regarding the trend in America, but I have an idea of why it happens in Japan. In Japan, I have found that foreigners are seen as “kakko ii” or cool. American television shows like “24” and “Prison Break” are quite popular in Japan as well as American music. It’s almost as if Americans and American culture are “cooler” than Japanese. And because of that, I think Japanese men are intimidated by American women. Why would American women want to date Japanese men when the Americans are so much cooler?

That may sound a little ridiculous, and I’m sure it’s a gross overstatement but I think many Japanese men feel that way. Therefore, they rarely take the initiative to ask American women out. If an American woman wants to date a Japanese man, I think the woman almost always has to take the lead. I definitely had to. I had been admiring my current boyfriend for a few months and always wanted to talk to him, but I couldn’t muster up the courage. One day my friend forced me to talk to him which led to our first date. Sure enough, he told me that he had been interested in me as well but figured I wouldn’t be interested in him because he was Japanese.

Once we got over that hurdle, a number of others followed. One of the most difficult hurdles for me to overcome was the language barrier. I have many friends who are Japanese and I feel comfortable conversing in Japanese for any length of time. But I still have trouble understanding the unspoken language. Within the Japanese language, directness is frowned upon. Indirectness, on the other hand, helps avoid conflict or making another person feel uncomfortable. Sentences are often left hanging because it is assumed the full meaning is already understood.

For example, my landlord passed away a couple of months ago. In Japan, when someone passes away, you give the next of kin an envelope with the equivalent of $20 to $30 to show your condolences. When you give the envelope you are essentially saying, “I am sorry for the death of your husband. Please accept this envelope as a token of my condolence. It must be very difficult and I hope this small token can help.” But all you really say is, “Please accept this envelope,” with the rest of it already being understood.

Sometimes this can be beneficial because you don’t need to worry about finding the perfect words to say. But in other instances, it can lead to confusion. And boy was I confused for the first half of our relationship. I could never tell whether my boyfriend was accepting or declining an invitation because of cliffhanger responses. “I have work, so it might be a little difficult,” means no, maybe next time. “Yeah, that sounds nice, but I’m not sure when I’ll be free,” means yes, it’s a date!

Now we communicate with ease. He understands that I need for him to be more direct sometimes, and I better understand those hidden nuances. Once we were able to communicate more, our relationship deepened and it continues to grow. I can’t speak for all Japanese men, but if you can break through those cultural and language barriers, you might find something you really like. And if you’re lucky as I am, you might find a very sweet and loving partner. But it takes time, patience, and a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh at all those cultural blunders and misunderstandings, don't bother asking your friend to ask the cute Japanese guy from Japan for his number.

© 2007 Allison Reed

dating JET relationship

About this series

This column was contributed by Allison Reed, a second year Assistant Language Teacher on the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program in Aomori prefecture.