An endless parade of books, advice columns, blogs, and apps are constant reminders that the search for a significant other is rarely easy. Looking for love in a foreign country adds an extra layer of complexity comprised of language barriers, unfamiliar customs, and countless cultural differences. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the isolation that came with it, made the last two years especially difficult for those seeking companionship, and many of Japan’s foreign residents have voiced their concerns in online forums and groups.
Our latest Kokoro Media Unfiltered conversation is a response to this state of affairs, delivered in our usual free-flowing format. This time, we’re joined by Alex Barnes, an American HR professional who has lived and worked in Japan since 2011. Read on for our thoughts on the following topics and more:
- Why dating can be difficult in Japan
- Ways to meet new people while enjoying the hobbies you love
- The best dating app to use in Japan
- How to date safely and protect your privacy
Additionally, learn more about Alex and the Kokoro Media team in the profiles at the end of this article.
The Challenge: Why Is Dating Hard in Japan?
Anthony: Today we’re talking about dating in Japan. Who wants to open our conversation…?
Amelie: Don’t speak all at once now [laughs]. Maybe I should start.
Anthony: Sounds good, Amelie. Please set the stage for us.
Amelie: One of the reasons we’re discussing this topic is that many people seem to have trouble finding partners when they’re in Japan. I’m part of a women-only Facebook group about living in Japan, and I’ve noticed many women of all ages saying that they’ve been here for a while—three or four years—and haven’t been able to meet a partner. They often ask for advice, so I thought we should share our experience here.
I agree that it can be difficult to meet people in Japan. According to my Japanese female friends, it’s hard for native Japanese people to meet each other. So, when you’re a foreigner, it can be even more difficult. If you hope to simply meet someone in public, by chance, it’s probably not going to happen. So, you have to be proactive.
Anthony: Before we move on to advice and tips, I’d like to clarify why it’s hard to meet people, whether you’re a foreigner or a Japanese person. We all have our ideas and theories, but for the sake of our readers, let’s try to clarify this.
Amelie: Unfortunately, we don’t have a Japanese person with us this time to check us if we say something stupid [laughs]. However, what I’ve observed over the last 10 years is that when people go out—even young people—they tend to go out with people of the same gender. Groups don’t seem to mix as much as they do in other countries. That might be one reason that it can be difficult to find a partner.
Also, I’ve seen many companies discourage or forbid in-company relationships. So, that may be another reason. There’s also the matter of time. People work a lot, so they don’t have a lot of time to invest in meeting new people.
Anthony: For the record—and just to add a different perspective—at least compared to the United States, it seems as if Japanese companies almost encourage intracompany relationships. I would say most of the married people that I know met their spouses at their workplace. It seems like it’s the most common way to meet people, but perhaps this is changing. Alex and Aree, do you have any thoughts?
Aree: For me, the main problem is language. I can speak Japanese but at an elementary level. This not only makes it hard to meet romantic partners, but also Japanese friends. There are Japanese people who speak English, but they are far outnumbered by those who can’t. So, that limits my options. Most of the people I know are people I’ve met through friends that I knew before coming to Japan—school friends from the Philippines. Fortunately, the people in this group speak English, and that’s a good thing for me.
Anthony: That’s a great point, Aree. It’s a numbers game, and if you don’t speak Japanese, you automatically have a smaller dating pool. Alex, any thoughts?
Alex: I think another aspect is the fact that the whole dating scene is awkward anyway. As an American, I think we’re comfortable with social environments that aren’t strictly defined because we’re often comfortable talking to people we don’t know—perhaps too comfortable, in some cases. However, in Japan, there’s a lot of anxiety around undefined social situations. So much so, that there are gokon events, where people arrange group outings with the specific purpose of meeting romantic partners. Add the fact that after one graduates from school, there are few contact points to actually meet new people. That’s probably why a lot of people might have met through work.
As a foreigner, this doesn’t leave you with many options when you are new to Japan. Personally, I struggled a bit with Japan’s more obvious dating environments. I was awkward in gokon situations, especially if I was the only foreigner there.
There are also clubs in Japan that are geared toward foreigners, but these are also too obvious. They bring too much attention to the fact that everyone is there for dating, and it creates an awkward hyper-awareness of the situation.
So, if you compile everything we’ve discussed so far—the awkwardness, the language barrier, and the few opportunities to meet people organically—the deck is stacked against you.
Dating in Japan: Tips to Consider
Anthony: So, we’ve outlined the problem. Let’s start talking about solutions. To start, I’ll go back to my comment about this being a numbers game. This means that, at a basic level, you have to go out and encounter a lot of people. You have to get out there and experience life. Granted, this is difficult for introverts, but you don’t have to go out with the goal of dating in mind. Do the things you love to do but in a social environment: go hiking, run marathons, participate in language exchange events, and so on.
The cool thing about Japan is that even though social interactions are highly categorized—running clubs, cycling clubs, gokon events, and so on—there is some overlap. Spontaneous socialization in Japan may be difficult, but there are all kinds of organized activities that anyone is welcome to join. In addition to participating in the events that you enjoy, if someone invites you to try something new, don’t hesitate to take them up on that invitation. Don’t have a fixed mindset. When you step out into the world, you never know who you’ll meet. In other words, live life just as you would in your home country by engaging in the activities that you love. Even if you don’t meet a romantic partner, at least you’ll have a good time enjoying your hobbies and practicing Japanese while making new friends.
Amelie, how about you? Do you have any tips or advice?
Amelie: Based on my experience last year, I noticed that dating apps are part of the solution. I had never tried a dating app before, but last year, partly due to the pandemic, I was encouraged to do so.
Dating apps solve at least one problem: having a limited dating pool. With an app, you may find people that you wouldn’t have met otherwise. You can also set up all kinds of filters, such as location, which can make things a lot easier.
Anthony: So, what is the best dating app in Japan?
Amelie: I didn’t try so many, so it’s hard for me to say, but the one I liked the most is Bumble. The main difference between this app and others is that men cannot start the conversation. Two people can indicate that they like each other, but the woman has to send the first message. This can be reassuring, because sometimes there are weird people on these apps who are going to send you inappropriate messages. However, on Bumble, this kind of thing happened rarely because of how messaging works.
Anthony: Aree, how about you? What advice do you have for our readers?
Aree: I would also recommend dating apps, and the only dating app that I’ve used is Bumble. It feels safer to use than apps like Tinder. Anthony, you mentioned the challenges that introverts face, and I think dating apps are a good way to go for introverts. You can put yourself out there but not fully. You can talk to people at your own pace, so you don’t feel pressure to interact with people when you don’t have the energy to do so. However, I do want to advise our readers to be very careful. Don’t give out your personal information too soon.
Amelie: Yes, and if you end up meeting someone in person, make sure it’s in a public space. And don’t give out your LINE ID or your phone number too quickly. I’ve heard stories of women being harassed over the phone. Dating apps like Bumble usually have built-in tools to chat and make calls without having to give out additional personal information. It’s sad that we have to think like this, but it’s better to be careful when it comes to privacy.
Anthony: That’s very important advice, Amelie and Aree. Alex, let’s wrap up with your advice.
Alex: I recommend checking out local community events because you have the benefit of simply having fun and learning more about Japan while meeting new people. The main reason I like the idea of connecting at community events is that a potential relationship won’t have to be defined by being a foreigner dating a Japanese person.
I think that’s always going to be lingering over your head in one way or another, and if you were to go to a nightclub in Roppongi, for example, that has the potential of defining the way you meet someone. So, if you have a chance to connect over something else you can escape that label. For example, when I first started spending time with [the person who is now] my wife, we would go to a music studio and just play guitar together. We were just two people who loved the same music.
This also helps overcome the language barrier. If you are new to learning Japanese, every interaction can be intimidating. However, by engaging in a common hobby or activity, you can at least realize what you have in common, even if you’re barely able to speak. It’s a good way to start getting over that hurdle.
In summary, trying to find events to attend is a great start. I know plenty of people who have met their partners at random events such as summer festivals. Otherwise, you’ll most likely need to rely on connections through people that you already know. Attending events and club activities can expand your social circles.