No Sex in the City: What It’s Like to Be Female and Foreign in Japan
“We usually have a tough time keeping female teachers here,” my boss informed me on my first day of work as an English teacher in Tokyo. “They usually don’t last more than six months.” I looked up from studying the roster list of teachers (30 — all male), in surprise.
“No, I mean … in Japan.” He shrugged. “Tokyo’s a tough city to be single … If you’re, you know … a western woman.”
I stole a quick glance at the photos that were mounted on the wall behind him. Four middle-aged White Dudes. All of them were bearded and balding. All of them resembled the aging, stringy-haired members of the band Metallica. And all of them were pressed up against the model-thin bodies of a heavily made-up Japanese Beauty Queen.
I don’t think I’ll have a problem, I thought.
It wasn’t that I was beauty queen gorgeous. Far from it. Slim, medium-height, with hazel eyes and freckles, I was at best ‘cute’ and at worst, average. But I had something that the competition didn’t: long, naturally curly, blond hair. Furthermore, I was bilingual, well-traveled and college-educated.
But as I realized a few weeks into my stay in Japan, I was also mysteriously, frustratingly invisible.
Cute baristas at Starbucks wouldn’t look at me, business men on bicycles ran over me and college students hurriedly backed away from me with mumbled apologies whenever I tried to strike up a conversation about the weather or ask for directions. They wouldn’t even give me the time of day. Literally.
“You’ve got to be assertive,” my Japanese girlfriends advised. “Japanese guys are shy so you have to make the first move.” So I smiled invitingly at men in bars and on busses. I asked for help reading restaurant menus and subway signs.
“Do you have any book / drink reccomendatioins?” was my usual line as I stood near them in bookstores or sat next to them on barstools. But the ‘come hither’ stare or conversation starter doesn’t work if the other person refuses to look at you. If they met my gaze at me at all, it was just to shoot me this panicked look, like I’d just asked them to father my unborn children. My boss had been right. It was hard to be a single, western woman in Japan. But why?
I turned to the Internet for advice and was surprised to learn that the Dateless Western Woman was a familiar character in the expat world, at least judging from the score of postings on expat forums by lonely, single females.
But as wide-spread as the problem seemed to be, it was one that many women avoided talking about. Understandably it was a tough subject to discuss without grossly overgeneralizing fifty percent of a country’s population or worse, sounding like a racist or a man-hating, snob.
The pervading theory though, among expats and Japanese alike, was that Japanese men were in fact attracted to western women but were just too intimidated to do anything about it. Western women in Asia were like the Jennifer Anistons of the expat world. Strong, independent, assertive and outspoken, they were interesting to admire from afar, but no man would ever dream of striking up a conversation with one. Western women were so different, so foreign, they were virtually un-datable.
Not true for their Y-chromosome-carrying expat buddies though. While the female expats spent Saturday nights alone, crying into their Ramen bowls, their male counterparts drank freely from the dating pool like they owned it. Which in a way, they did.
If you’ve ever visited Asia, you’ve likely seen the pale, rail-thin, greasy-haired white boy walking hand-in hand with a perfectly made-up, mini-skirt wearing Asian chick. This would never happen anywhere else in the world. Because everywhere else, Barbie ends up with Ken, not his underemployed, socially-awkward, samurai-sword-collecting neighbor, Kevin. But in Asia, dating rules defy all logic or evolutionary law. In Asia, the nerd is king.
Not that I wished it otherwise. For the most part, I was happy for them. These men wouldn’t have been able to score a date at home if they’d been a calender but in Asia they’d nabbed the prom queen. They were true success stories. Who could blame them for taking advantage of a magical loophole that allowed them to date women out of their league? If such a nirvana existed for Western woman, I’m sure I’d have moved there too.
But although the occasional coupling sparked the “Is she really going out with him?” question, it was easy to understand why Japanese woman saw Western men — even the nerdy ones — as attractive dating prospects. They were straight-forward and open-minded, for one thing. And through their Western, wire-rimmed eyes, they viewed relationships as an equal partnership, which was something the more traditional, close-minded of Japanese men still struggled to do. I figured that so long as they treated their girlfriends well and both partners were happy with the arrangement, what did it matter if their peculiar quirks and bizarre comments got lost in translation a little? Even the socially awkward deserved to love and be loved.
But it was hard not to feel jealous. Especially as I spent weekend after weekend, bravely facing the club’s dance floor alone while my dorky expat brothers expertly flirted for phone numbers and first dates. They were like kids in a candy store. The Japanese women were gourmet truffles, while the western women were the three-year-old tootsie rolls melted to the bottom of the barrel. The Japanese men might have been frightened of us but the other expat men just flat-out ignored us.
But as I often reminded myself, I hadn’t come to Asia for a boyfriend. I’d come because I wanted to master Japanese and explore a culture drastically different from my own. But I just hadn’t expected that moving my life to Japan would mean leaving my love life at home. As much as I’d enjoyed my life in Tokyo, it just didn’t seem like a fair trade.
Not that the female dating situation in Japan wasn’t without the occasional success story. I knew of a few women who’d come to Japan and left with husbands or fiancées in tow. But they were the minority. Most western women came to Japan single and stayed that way.
I was walking from work one Friday evening when it dawned on me that I’d been in Japan for nine months. I inwardly congratulated myself for having beat the odds. I’d proven my boss wrong. But as I trudged home to face another evening of reruns of The Office and left-over sushi from 7-11, I wondered at what cost. Most days I felt unattractive, unwanted and worst of all, unfemale. When not even a short skirt or slinky top attracted more than a passing glance and even construction workers, who could usually be counted on for a leer, regarded me with bored, blank expressions, I felt like a Martian. And very, very alone. Perhaps I’d been wrong not to leave when the last shipload of foreign women sailed away to brighter horizons and better dating odds.
Because the truth is that Tokyo’s a tough city to be single … if you’re, you know, a Western woman.