(Photo by takahiro taguchi)
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.)