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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

Dating divide

Cross-cultural relationships can be a romantic minefield


Two guys walk into a bar. . . . Er, no, that already sounds like a bad joke. And first impressions can make all the difference in the world.

In a packed Tokyo nightclub, the music's pumpin', lights are flashin' and drinks are flowin'. Two tall blond guys approach a couple of petite, pretty Japanese women.

"Mushi," says one guy with a wink. "Mushi mushi," says the other with a sly smile. The women erupt with giggles, and frantically waving their hands in front of them, scamper away.

Not discouraged, the two men, who must've been fresh off the love boat, continue to try to charm the ladies with their linguistic prowess.

Little do they know they were making their rounds with cordial greetings of "bugs" and "humid."

But fair enough -- "Nampa" (pick-up lines) is a universal play in the game of dating and not one line or another can guarantee a score.

In Japan, most think foreign men have the ball in their court, but it's not that simple. When you cross cultures, the rules of the game may change, and if a connection is made and courting commences, a few major differences between cultures should be expected.

The "uchi-soto" concept outlines how Japanese behavior may be different in public than at home. Society puts a lot of pressure on its members to be respectful and considerate at the expense of having one's own needs met.

So public displays of affection, for example, are taboo.

"On my first date with my 'ex' we obviously clicked so I expected at least a little kiss at the station before we went our separate ways, but all I got was a stiff hug," says McIntosh.

"I analyzed it to death and a friend who had been in a relationship with a Japanese man for three years told me that I was lucky to get a hug in a public place. I wasn't expecting to make out in front of everyone, but I did get irritated when he would never hold my hand or touch my knee on the train."

Some Japanese women also feel put off by uchi-soto and are attracted to the Westerner's attitude of "what you see is what you get."

"Japanese men conform to fit a role because of cultural expectations. They act in a particular way, but that's not the way they are. After you peel away the layers, they may be a different person," says Junko Hasegawa, a 23-year-old who has just begun a relationship with an Australian.

"He's a natural person. Everything he feels and says is very honest and I can see that."

But many psychologists and couples say this honesty and openness often causes problems in relationships with Japanese.

The "amae" concept explains how Japanese assume or guess at each other's feelings, while foreigners are usually very verbally communicative.

"Ways in which feelings, and love in particular, are expressed can lead to frustration," says Ana Maloyan-Kishida, Ph.D, a psychotherapist in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

"(Westerners) expect more direct verbal expression and physical contact, whereas the Japanese partner may not feel comfortable with this kind of expression. Nonverbal communication, subtle signs are highly valued in Japan and if they are not noticed by the Western partner, frustration and resentment follow."

And the cycle of communicative breakdown can keep getting worse.

Michel Habets, 48, of the Netherlands has known is wife for 17 years and still feels a communication gap.

"If I want to talk and she wants to be silent, that makes me want to talk more and her want to be more silent," says Habets. "(Those) communication problems are unsolvable. And we accepted that."

While differences are often too easily excused as cultural, each case should be considered based on the people involved.

"What may be an individual struggle with closeness or a deeply seated fear of intimacy may be interpreted as a cultural phenomenon," says Dr. Maloyan-Kishida.

"I have seen people who have tolerated bizarre behavior in their partner, justifying it as cultural difference. Only later on, have they become aware that this was pathological behavior, even within the cultural context."

So when it comes down to it, no matter who you are or where you're from, as the old saying goes, "it's what's inside that counts."

Many differences between Japanese and foreign rituals stem from dating being a social part of growing up in the West, with high school proms and games of spin the bottle, versus the Japanese focus on studying hard as students and then until the last few decades, "omiyai" (arranged marriages).

This indirectness in finding a partner is still prevalent today as many attend "gokon," the group form of blind dates, which is most often an excuse for meeting new people and having a drinking party.

"I've been on loads of gokons," says Jason Maitland, a 27-year-old self-described "active gentleman" from Canada, but it took him a lot of attempts before he met the girl of his dreams.

Maitland's girlfriend admits she was a bit reluctant at first to date a foreigner.

"I don't like the 'kanchigai,' which means 'to be mistaken,' " says Maitland's girlfriend, Ryoko Tanabe. "All the guys who think they're cool because they're here in Japan."

But according to Roppongi-based psychologist Chie Okuda, Ph.D., many Japanese feel suppressed by their culture and idolize foreigners based on stereotypical images of freedom portrayed in movies.

"Even Westerners' demeanor or the way you sit and smile is very open and free. Consciously or subconsciously, Japanese are very attracted to that," says Dr. Okuda. "They want to expand and go beyond their own culture and express themselves. For example, women are not inhibited sexually; they are spontaneous."

Many foreign men admit to this phenomenon and suggest Japanese women often encourage such an attitude.

"People from my home country who are ugly, uninteresting, unfashionable, unfit and nerdy, come here, teach English, go to a foreign-style bar on a Friday night and pick up a beautiful Japanese girl who thinks they're rock stars because they're white," says Jason Somerville, 33, from Scotland.

"Their confidence goes through the roof and they'll never go home again. I've got a lot of foreign girlfriends who are single, but all my foreign guy friends either have a girlfriend or lots of flings," says Somerville.

But that supposed rock star status doesn't seem to attract the same number of groupies for foreign women.

"Basically, we have only got a chance to see Western girls as a teacher or in Roppongi. They're like a celebrity so we think they don't care about short guys, with low noses, who can't speak English," says Shigeru Kawachi, 30.

"But the paradox is, when we become friends with Western girls, they start telling us that Japanese guys never care about them."

Foreign women, used to guys picking them in bars, supermarkets, or anywhere, should understand Japanese men aren't as socialized to approaching women and may do so in a more introverted, subtle or indirect manner.

"Foreign women often have to take the lead," says American Jen McIntosh, 28. "We have to be open to take a chance on anyone here."

For those interesting in taking a dive into the sea of international date prospects, the next speed dating party will be held at The Black Lion on Nov. 19. Reservations should be made in advance at (03) 3491-2312. Roppongi-based clinical psychologist Dr. Chir Okuda is currently trying to establish a support group for those in international relationships. She can be contacted at okudacc@yahoo.co.jp

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