Still Clueless (2/2)

Pssssssst… (I like you.)

In last week’s blog entry, I wrote about the first of two cultural surprises I encountered during my current stay in Japan to study calligraphy at Shikoku University. The subject of this entry is the second surprise, which involved…

Attitudes towards Dating
A while back I was talking with a friend/classmate, and during the course of our conversation he offhandedly mentioned that two people in our class that were dating. He saw I was surprised to hear this, and inquired “Well at least you know that So-and-so & So-and-so have hooked up, right?” This piece of what was apparently common knowledge was also news to me.

I wasn’t so much surprised that I was out of the loop; my Japanese comprehension isn’t exactly perfect so I miss a lot, and my classmates have several other classes together that I’m not in. What really surprised me is that I can’t remember ever seeing the respective boyfriends & girlfriends so much as even talk to each other. Like, ever.

In the days that followed, I creepily watched the members of the two couples out of the corner of my eye (just out of curiosity, honest), and indeed; they treated each other like complete strangers. Other than an occasional “Good Morning” at the beginning of the day, not a word between them. I don’t expect them to be french kissing in the back of class, but not even a quick chat during the day? When and where did they ever get to know each other well enough to start dating?

The answer to that question is still a mystery, but I’ve come to realize that having a significant other is treated as an unofficial secret. If someone directly asks you if you’re attached, you’d probably answer honestly, but otherwise, the subject of who you spent the weekend with magically never comes up, and if your partner is a classmate, you coincidentally never have cause to talk to them in public.

So why all the secrecy? I asked a smart-alexy Japanese friend of mine.

“It’s because Japanese people like to have affairs!” He offered. Hardy-har.

Taking a more serious stab at the question, he speculated that attached classmates conveniently avoid mention of their relationships because if they made a big to-do about it, they’d be less likely to get invited to social gatherings. Like platonic male friends would stop inviting romantically-attached girls out (even in groups) in deference to the boyfriend, or something. Seems a little old fashioned to me, but whatever, every culture has its own set of rules.

My newfound awareness of the Japanese “cloak-and-dagger” appraoch to dating notwithstanding, the following still caught me off guard a bit:

A couple weeks ago, a cute friend of mine sent an e-mail to my cell-phone, wondering if I’d still be at school later that afternoon. She had something she wanted to tell me, she wrote.

“Hell yeah I’ll be around!” I thought, and then jotted off some causal reply about maybe being around, or whatev.

While waiting around for the appointed time, I mulled her e-mail over. “Something to tell you…” why so vague? Or for that matter, why even send an e-mail at all, why not just wait until we ran into each other randomly? Unless it was something important… I entertained a myriad of unlikely possibilities.

When I ever so causally bumped into her later that day, all my beautiful theories were put to rest by the ugly truth: she wanted me to help her write an e-mail to her boyfriend, whose birthday was that weekend. She thought he’d get a kick out of getting an e-mail in English. An e-mail to the boyfriend I didn’t know you had after knowing you for four months? Sure, pass over the pencil & paper, let’s compose a birthday greeting to that asshole!

Rereading her e-mail to me again later, I saw that she hadn’t written that she had something to tell me, but rather that she had something she wanted me to tell her. Japanese can be tricky, I tell ya…

  • MH

    First of all, I want to apologize for sounding like some kind of authority in last week’s comment. I have nothing but respect for you and your attitude towards Japan, so don’t feel self -conscious about a thing.

    As far as this topic goes, I think that the friend who first told you about other classmates dating is trying to express that you are a close enough friend to gossip with. It may not be common knowledge, so keep that in mind if you pass that info on.

    It has been my experience that secrecy is not always the case. I occasionally run into student couples off campus and I blurt out “Love Love da!” and just about every time the two nod their heads and giggle. Maybe they feel busted or something, but I think they just feel friendly towards me so they can admit it. I would never do this if I didn’t know the student(s) well enough.

    Even for students I don’t really know well, I occasional see a big fat hickey (or “kissu ma-ku”). Kind of hard to keep it a secret if you got one of them.

    As far as somebody admitting they are in a relationship if you ask them directly, I ain’t sure if that a safe assumption. Have you have ever had the experience of the Konpa, the group date? In this situation (in my experience) many people stone face lie about having a girlfriend/boyfriend. Not because they want to fool around, but because they are probably there because of the single members asked them to go and if they admit they have a significant other, the Konpa giddiness kind of goes away.

    The theory of not getting invited to social gatherings if everybody knows you have a steady is surprising to me, but maybe I am clueless too. My experience (and the girls I dated) that when you part of a group of friends, they bug you even more to go out once you have a steady than when you were single, but I have never been a college student in Japan, like you, plus I haven’t been in the dating action for 6 years now.

    Anyway, my two cents. I fully admit that I am no authority on Japan, just a long winded old guy. Just the fact that you notice things means that you will come to your own understanding in your own time.

  • Naoya

    “What are you doing after school? I have something to tell you…..very important….”

    It happens all time.
    Girls love it.
    I hate it.

  • Lars Martinson

    Hey MH,

    Oh no, I very much appreciated your taking the time to comment; like I said it’s great to get the perspective of a foreigner who has more experience with the university setting.

    Yeah, I’m pretty discrete when it comes to things that may or may not be secrets, since I don’t have a clear sense of which is which yet. This made for one awkward moment when I told a white lie to Friend A to protect Friend B’s “secret”, only to found out that Friend A already knew about it. Ah well.

    I wonder if your school is in a big city where maybe the attitudes are more liberal? Because I don’t think I’ve ever really seen rabu-rabu student couples out in public here, and I sure as hell have never seen a classmate with a hicky. Not that I’ve been looking for them really, but…

    And no I’ve never been on one of those group dates, but I always thought they seemed really cool; a much better, lower pressure version of an American blind date. I’ll keep in mind that the single girls may not actually be single though, if I ever go on one…

    Hey Naoya, thanks for the comment! See you next week!

  • MH

    I live in Kanazawa. Not really a big city, but maybe more urban than where you are. I also teach in Toyama, which is a bit more in the sticks.

    I forgot, but aren’t you in the graduate program? I would imagine that hickies are not so cool for grad students. I teach mostly freshmen, so that may have a lot to do with it.

    Group dates can be fun, but most of the time, in my experience, they do not produce many relationships (not even one nighters). If the blind dates are not so much fun, …well, you may wind up sitting in a Karaoke box at 3am bored to tears. For the cultural experience, you should try it once, for sure.

  • Eugene

    How sad is it, then, that some of my best nights here in NYC have been sitting in a karaoke box at 3am?

  • Brad

    Do most Japanese people today (younger generation) know how to speak English? Are they even taught mandatory English there? Thanks!