Flirting in Japan
Flirting seems like a misnomer. It’s more like an absense of flirting. If you like someone in Japan, there are a couple of different ways of showing it and/or approaching them, none of which really resemble flirting in the west.
1. Nanpa (the “pickup”)
First off, only guys do nanpa; in the rare case that girls do it, it’s called gyaku-nan (“reverse nanpa”), but I never heard of gyaku-nan actually happening, it always seemed like it was more of an amusing theoretical idea, rather than something girls really did.
Nanpa only refers to the case when you don’t know the other person at all, and you want to pick them up. Nanpa is direct. “You’re cute. What’s your name? Do you have time? Let’s go somewhere.” That is the classic script of nanpa. It can be shortened to just: “Kawaii yo. Jikan aru?” If you hear that, you’re being nanpa-ed. Of course, if you are a non-Asian foreigner, you will probably never hear that, because Japanese guys are too shy to try and nanpa a white or black woman. Most Japanese guys are too shy to nanpa at all. If you ask a Japanese if he has ever done nanpa, he’ll probably say, “ZOMG! No way! I’m too embarrassed!” since nanpa is direct, and mostly, if you are Japanese and you like someone, you embark on a series of subtle, indirect stealth manoeuvres, because liking prohibits action, especially for women, but also for men.
Why is this the case? Japanese social interaction is all about intuiting the other person’s wishes without discussing them openly, at the same time that they are intuiting your wishes without discussing them openly, so that although nothing is ever verbalised, the two of you will always exist in a compromise position of equilibrium. If you like someone, that intuitive part goes into overdrive, because you should be able to understand everything about that person without them ever telling you, and you should be able to please them without ever asking how, even more than you would with a normal person. So it’s more important than ever to be indirect. Which leads me to:
2. Negotiating through a third party
Again, it’s not really flirting, but since flirting is showing your feelings openly—that is, pushing your feelings onto another person, which is direct and rude—it’s better to show no sign to the other person and meanwhile exploit the back channels. Sort of like in high school. So that convoluted human chain whereby: you like Hiro and you tell Junko that you think Hiro has a nice smile knowing that Junko will intuit that you want to know if Hiro likes you back, since Junko is friends with Goro who is friends with Hiro and Junko will talk to Goro and Goro will bring it up with Hiro etc etc etc etc etc etc. Once everything is confirmed, Hiro will ask you out. (The girl ask the guy out? Ahahahaha. Be serious.)
If you don’t have a third party to negotiate for you, you may be forced to use other methods, all of them so subtle that a westerner may not even notice them at all.
3. Subtle signals
Shyness. Pronounced shyness is form of flirting, since it’s a sign of liking, especially from girls, but also from guys. She interacts with everyone else more than him, she doesn’t sit next to him, she doesn’t talk much to him, she doesn’t initiate anything with him. – Attentiveness. You make life easier for the other person without being asked to. For example, when you got to a restaurant in Japan it’s normal to share food, so flirting means not ordering what you like, but ordering what s/he likes, which you already know without asking, because you’re observant. Stuff like that.- Eye contact. It’s the opposite to the west, where you gaze deeply into someone’s eyes if you like them. Direct eye contact is a bit rude in Japan at the best of times. If you’re flirting you look down and away a lot.- Indirect compliments. I can’t think of a good example. It’s pretty rare to give direct compliments and even more rare to compliment someone’s looks. (It’s especially rare for guys to compliment girls directly.) I wish I could think of a good example! I’ll come back to this one.
Sex in Japan
It’s really different. It’s just so completely different. The first time I had sex with a Japanese guy was easily the most bamboozling experience of my entire life.
Before I launch into anything, I should say that while I lived in Japan for five years, I have had sex with only a select few people, and that was within long term relationships, so it’s not as if I have personally taken a wide sample. But I had a network of Japanese friends (mostly female) and every time I encountered a cultural difference I immediately pumped them all for information, asking my millions of questions. I make generalized statements only when something that I personally experienced was confirmed as The Norm.
The biggest difference is that sex in Japan is not a mutual sharing experience with both partners spontaneously doing whatever they feel like or enjoy whenever they feel like doing it. Sex has rules and sex has roles just as every social interaction in Japan has rules and roles. There is an active partner and a passive partner. Active means moving; passive means unmoving. In heterosexual sex, the active partner is always male, and the passive partner is always female. In gay sex you work out your roles beforehand: the seme is active, the uke is passive (for gay guys); the tachi is active, the neko is passive (for gay women). If you are familiar with seme/uke conventions from yaoi manga, you can use them as a way of relating to what I’m talking about, because those conventions are not a fictional construct, randomly decided upon by a group of yaoi mangaka. Straight people have sex like that too, in reality.
So there is an active partner and a passive partner, which causes various flow on effects. You can’t have “Whoo-hoo! Go for it!” sex because both partners are constrained by their roles. The passive partner (obviously) because she can’t move, and the active partner because he has to take care of the passive partner, instructing her on what to do and exerting himself so that she has a good time.
Japanese guys are generally more stressed out by sex than western guys and that is because they are responsible for the sex; as the active male, the sex is their burden, they have to do everything, it’s all up to them. Sex equates not only (sometimes not even primarily) with ‘fun’ or ‘pleasure’, it also equates with ‘work’ and ‘obligation’.
I also can’t emphasise enough just how passive the passive partner is. The way a woman kisses is by submissively opening her mouth, not moving her tongue unless she is cued to do so; if she’s really feminine she won’t open her mouth at all, until she’s told to. Sometimes women will move around a (very) little during sex, but mostly not at all. The slang term for a woman who lies completely still in bed is maguro (tuna). For me, with my western sensibilities and preconceptions, calling someone a ‘tuna’ in bed sounds like an insult, conjuring up images of cold dead fish, but in Japan that word has a very positive connotation. Tuna’s an expensive delicacy.
Part of what was so bamboozling the first time I had sex in Japan was that I didn’t know there was a Way of Sex, with strict gendered roles, and I just was happily doing my own thing, throwing my partner into total confusion. Seiji told me much later that dating me made him feel like he was gay, because I was active in bed, and he couldn’t connect that with anything except masculinity.
When it came to the guys I dated, even though it was completely outside their experience, they sort of (kind of) eventually adjusted their thinking and accepted the fact that I was active (because I was Foreign and Foreign Women Are Different) but the thing I could never completely change was the fixed idea they had that someone must be passive. Yes, I could be active in bed, but they had no template for how to react to that other than the female/passive/uke template. So at best we could alternate “active periods”, and though the lines between active and passive blurred a little over time, they never blurred completely. And total shutdowns still happened: thirty seconds tick past and my partner hasn’t moved at all … oh, okay, I get what’s happened.
If I’m making cross-cultural sex sound like a bit of a nightmare: yeah, it was. In this case, once I worked out what was going on, I thought all my problems could be solved by a simple conversation or two, explaining the more free-form nature of western sex, and encouraging my partner along the lines of, “You don’t have to act a certain way, you can act however you like! You can relax! Enjoy yourself! Doesn’t that sound great?” but that was also a failure to understand the Japanese psyche. It’s not liberating for a Japanese person to be told there are no rules, it’s frightening. I was inadvertently terrorizing my partner by dropping them into the middle of a scary foreign wilderness and telling them to make do without a map.
Sex and hygiene
Sex in the west can be spontaneous, but sex in Japan isn’t, or at least, not in the same way. In Japan, you can’t get in the front door and immediately start stripping each other’s clothes off in the hallway. Well, you can, and your Japanese partner will probably acquiesce because they are Japanese, but deep down they will be hideously uncomfortable and thinking, “Sex? But I’m not mentally prepared! I haven’t done my kokoro no junbi! And she hasn’t had a shower! And I haven’t had a shower! This is kind of gross!”
Shower is important. You should shower directly before and after you have sex. Before is more important than after. This makes me sound like I only ever dated people with OCD, but it’s the norm. The way I first found out about this was in conversation with my friend Natsue.
Me: I was at Seiji’s place hanging out and he randomly told me that I could use his shower if I felt like it. Don’t you think that’s weird? Natsue: *cracks up laughing* Cat, that means he wants to have sex with you! If a guy mentions having a shower, he is saying that he wants to have sex. Me: But isn’t it kind of rude to imply I needed to shower first? Like, it was a date, obviously I had showered before going over to his apartment! Natsue: Well, I suppose so… *sounding unconvinced* … but didn’t you say he lives in Yokohama?Me: What does Yokohama have to do with it?Natsue: Well, you went on the train to get there … it’s better to have another shower. If a guy had sex with me without showering first, it would make me really uncomfortable.
Sensing yet another cross-cultural disaster in the making, I began the investigation, hitting up all the usual suspects for information, including my friend Tomoko, who was dating a western guy called Andy.
Me: Sorry to bring this up suddenly, but does it weird you out that Andy sometimes initiates sex without showering first? Tomoko: YES! I’m so glad I finally have someone to talk to about this! Cat, are all westerners like this? It’s so dirty and I can’t relax! It makes me feel like we are just animals!
After I heard basically the same story from all my Japanese girlfriends, I went back to Seiji.
Me: First of all, westerners don’t always shower or have a bath before sex. However, I will try to accommodate you on this because the idea of sex without showering seemed to horrify everyone I talked to right down to their very bones. Secondly, when you suggested that I shower the other day, and I said no, I was not rejecting you. I didn’t understand that it was your Japanese signal that you wanted to have sex. If I had understood that, I would definitely have said yes. Seiji: *spits tea all over the table*Me: …this is one of those deeply unspoken Japanese things that I’m not supposed to talk about directly, isn’t it.Seiji: Yes.
Another thing that is considered rather icky and unhygienic is ejaculate. Guys are really embarrassed by it. They will be desperately scrabbling for a tissue almost before you realise they’ve come at all, since it is really bad form to get ejaculate anywhere, without cleaning it up immediately afterwards (and immediately means immediately). This is yet one more thing that men are responsible for as the ‘active’ partner. The more of a nice, polite guy they are, the more stressed out they will be about it. It’s also yet one more way that the sex is prescribed and controlled; the guy can never really let go, because even at the moment of climax, he’s already worrying about cleaning up, or trying not to make a mess in the first place.