Tinder in Tokyo

On a Saturday night in Boston from Harvard Square to Back Bay, millennials scan the streets, looking from the lit screens of their smartphones to passing strangers—waiting for their Tinder date. This year Forbes voted Boston the 5th best city for singles. With more than a 100 colleges in the Boston-Area it makes sense that 70% of the population is unmarried; however, that same college population is utilizing online dating services and apps to date as oppose to the “old fashioned way.” That statistic rung all too true my second year at Wellesley.


Though my women’s only education was giving me a relaxing environment to explore my newfound college interests, Wellesley lacked access to the XY chromosome. It didn’t take too long before I became an expert at handling Tinder. There were of course the obvious pitfalls of online dating (profile pictures that didn’t quite match up with the reality, alpha male harassment, and endless swiping), but, aside from one instance, Tinder became my only means of dating.


During my first month in Tokyo, I completely forgot about Tinder; the app left untouched on my cellphone. Yet once I got back on a university campus I took up my habit again with newfound gusto.


At International Christian University, Japanese students with the Tinder app on their phones weren’t uncommon, but don’t let that sample fool you with the rest of the Japanese population. The majority of ICU’s students had some experience abroad, and most likely had downloaded the app while they were in Britain and America. While abroad those select students had not only learned of Tinder, but also its implication—hook-up culture. On the opposite end of the spectrum were those who had downloaded the app in hopes of getting foreign friends, gaikokujin.


As a female gaikokujin on Tinder in Tokyo, I got a lot of messages from guys hoping I could be their conversation partner. My only actual Tinder date was with a graduate student of the engineering department at Tokyo University, Michi. Though relatively good looking and nice, Michi turned to Tinder as a means of dating after he joined the predominately male Engineering department. Beyond his lack of access to female candidates, the ones he did meet were usually shallow and mean.


While I wasn’t sure if Michi’s treatise on the Japanese women around him was an honest picture of the entirety of the population, I did learn from other friends a bit more about Japanese dating culture. My Australian friend, Markus, actually spent the entirety of his abroad experience in an on-and-off-again relationship with a Japanese woman. When he was on dates or working as a paralegal, I often saw Markus at our local pub, pushing back beer and complaining about his girlfriend.


“She just wants things a certain way,” he described to me one night. These ‘things’ were apparently intimate dates that occurred not just once a week but everyday, and involved primarily the two of them. The constant intimacy scared Markus who longed for a human buffer or third-wheel on one of their many dates. Ironically, he continued to explain, the beginning of their relationship was very distant. He courted her by taking her out to a nice restaurant before taking her back to her door, without being invited inside for a nightcap. Yet, once their relationship became official, his girlfriend showed no restraint and insisted on intimately spending every night together.


Perhaps for Markus this was a weird shift in personalities, but for me I found her behavior quite normal. Similarly I once told a male friend that while I would make-out with him, we couldn’t have sex unless he officially asked me to be his girlfriend. Call it the lure of commitment, or call it the lure of Beyoncé—if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it—either way this wasn’t a behavior limited to Japanese women.


But that girl who was unwilling to sacrifice her morals for anything less than true love in the form of a Facebook status update, began to change her tune in Tokyo.


With Michi, I found myself a little disappointed with each date. We’d talk in Japanese, laugh and smile over drinks for hours and yet each night I would take the train back to my campus dorm without so much as a goodbye kiss. After a month I finally boldly suggested that Michi take me to his one bedroom apartment. He blushed but acquiesced, and that night he asked me to be his girlfriend.


The next couple of days played out exactly as Markus had said. In public we were like two friends exploring the city, but at night in his apartment there was an expectation of an erotic version of myself that I often couldn’t meet. Michi was actually shocked when I told him that I was an American virgin, as if that was an oxymoron.


It wasn’t long before our relationship fizzled out the way most relationships do, through a slow dissolution of texts. Mika, my best friend, told me that based on her knowledge of Japanese relationships this was normal. “Relationships are about convenience not love, so when things get to be less convenient they just silently burn out.”


Months later Markus was dealing with the demise of his own relationship. Apparently his time abroad was finally coming to an end, he’d have to go back to Melbourne, graduate and reapply for jobs in Tokyo a year later. His girlfriend, who Markus had described as cold and using him only for his foreignness (gaikokujin powers), had all of sudden become very sad at the thought of Markus leaving her behind. She wanted to make their relationship long-distance, but Markus wanted to finally put an end to it all.


“I just don’t know how to end it without her getting upset. Last time when I told her I thought we should break-up since I was moving away, she started to cry.” Though Markus is a friend, his pain was lost on me. Him and his buddies wondered if he should break-up with her through text. But Markus would get so worked-up over hurting this girl he wondered if he should just leave for Australia without ever texting her anything at all.


Maybe Markus and Michi weren’t so different despite their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps they were just men.


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