Japanese coupling

At an Osaka nightclub, the evening starts with a little piece of string. Where it leads is anybody's guess.

By Simon Moran
Published August 7, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

Mark, from Kenya, is skirting around the dance floor in a nightclub in Osaka's Amerikamura -- American Village. "I just need one more, I've got three at the moment, but I'm looking for just one more." Mark is talking about his girlfriends. He met the third of his current three in this club last month, at its first International Blind Date party. Tonight is the second party.

The idea is simple: Japanese women who want to meet foreign men, and vice versa, pay 2,000 yen ($18.19) admission, play a series of ice-breaking games to get in the mood, meet some new people and as the flier says, "Who knows, find a special relationship."

As usual at these events, the women outnumber the men by about 3 to 1; as if that wasn't tempting enough for the males, some events only charge an entrance fee to the women. Inside, everyone is handed a piece of string, grabs a drink, sits down and begins to eye everyone else a little uncertainly. The more bold and beautiful ones have immediately begun to make approaches, and by the time everyone has had a few drinks, the games start.

Pens and short questionnaires are handed out to the men. To discourage clichid opening lines, help with the language barrier and put everyone on the same footing, questions are written in English and Japanese. The men are given five minutes at each table to find out names and hobbies, make contact with as many people as possible and maybe get a phone number.

Thirty minutes into the game, most are chatting away furiously, though Hisako Ikeda, 28, is sitting alone. "I didn't really want to come, but my friend said she would be lonely without me." She looks over at her friend dancing with a handsome young foreigner and idly twirls her piece of string. "Plus I thought it would be a good chance to practice my English."

David, 24, from Michigan, has a clear objective. "The girls obviously want to meet foreign guys -- so here I am. The only trouble is choosing which one. Who do you think is best?" He shows me several Polaroids of himself with a succession of pretty young women. "This is so cool, I could never get this many girls back home."

Despite David and Mark's level of success, finding a suitable partner in Japan, especially for marriage, has never been easy. In a country where people readily acknowledge their shyness, particularly outside their immediate group, help has often been sought.

Omiai kekkon -- arranged marriages -- have been common practice in Japan for centuries. Considered more a merging of households than individuals, they were popular among the samurai class as a way to cement alliances. This type of marriage then spread to the lower orders from the 17th century, and in prewar Japan, the majority of all marriages were omiai kekkon.

A nakodo, or go-between, is appointed to find someone a suitable partner, paying particular attention to family, educational background, common interests and, of course, the man's income. Tsurisho -- personal histories -- and photographs are exchanged, and if everyone likes what they see, the nakodo then arranges an omiai -- literally a "see-meet" -- usually at a hotel or restaurant. The nakodo guides conversation so that both parties, often including the parents, make a favorable impression on the other. The couple will be left alone for a while, and if all goes well, can begin dating. Polite refusals are made through the nakodo, who tactfully expresses regret to avoid loss of face to either party.

Though the average age at marriage has risen from 25.9 years for men and 23 years for women in 1950 to 28.5 and 26.3 in 1996, people of a marriageable age -- women especially -- often find themselves pressured by parents or employers to try omiai. Others try it just for fun, though the reality is often far different. Today omiai make up only 10 percent of Japanese marriages, and many who use the system may lack the social skills necessary to find dates of their own.

Naoko Murayama, 27, has been on several omiai and has found them all hard work. "The men are all really serious, it's almost impossible to get any conversation out of them. The last guy I met was so boring I was desperate to go home, but after dinner he asked me to go for a drive. He was a friend's cousin so I couldn't refuse. Normally you'd go and look at an interesting night view, but he just drove me 'round the city for a while without saying a word."

Yuko Matsuoka, 38, had an arranged marriage when she was 24. After having been in an affair with a married colleague for one and a half years, she'd tired of the secrecy and told her lover of her intention to approach a nakodo. He agreed it was a good idea and asked their boss to fill the role.

A meeting was set up with a suitable, rich gentleman. She met with him, had tea and cakes, exchanged small talk and went for a drive. Both decided they would meet again. Matsuoka thought he was gentle and had nice, white teeth, "But he was not sexy. We dated for three weeks but it wasn't interesting, there was no color to him. I didn't want to see him again, but the nakodo asked me to meet him once more and he proposed during a seaside walk."

"I told my parents and they pushed me to marry him. I said I wasn't interested, but my mother cried and said if I didn't dislike him, I should marry him. I didn't love him, but I accepted. My parents wanted my life to be sorted out and I wanted a baby -- more than I wanted a husband. The marriage was not for me, but for my parents."

Today omiai kekkon are regarded as old-fashioned, and the remaining 90 percent of marriages are renai kekkon -- love marriages -- reflecting Japan's gradual westernization since the war. Nampa -- chatting people up -- is still thought of as slightly sleazy, and in most bars, seating is intended for groups and mixing is not easy.

A solution to all this is the kompa party. Usually one member of an office will use his contacts at other companies to set up parties, typically four men and four women who meet in a restaurant and sit divided by the sexes, facing each other. Kompa veteran Tomonori Yasumoto, 32, explains: "Nampa is seen as being just a way to find a one-night stand, it's not for relationships or marriage. Kompa is a good way of meeting a lot of people and staying safe within a group. Japanese people are very wary of meeting people they know nothing about or have no connection with. Introductions are very important."

It is also a convenient way to mask your true intentions. "Most men, when they go to kompa, are after sex," says Yosumoto. "We always get together afterwards, and at least one guy is always successful."

Central to kompa is the Osama game. Osama -- meaning king -- is written on a disposable chopstick and others are numbered from one upwards. Lots are drawn and one person becomes king, ordering the others to perform dares. Played after drinking heavily, the object is to embarrass, and to introduce a little smut into the proceedings.

Differing numbers will be commanded to kiss each other -- particularly amusing if the two are both male -- take off clothing or eat long snacks from either end to meet in the middle. A refusal will result in cries of omoshirokunai! -- boring! Or samuii! -- cold! The emphasis is on not letting the side down by spoiling the group fun; compliance to most commands is assured. Things can get bawdy, and Yasumoto and his friends try to cause as much embarrassment as possible. "I always get someone to kiss someone else's ass."

At some point in the proceedings everyone visits the toilet to discuss who they like and to rearrange the seating. A visit to a karaoke bar usually follows, the lucky ones also visiting a love hotel.

As with omiai, status is important in kompa and Yasumoto got particularly excited last year about a party with girls from Japan Airlines. He succeeded in getting two phone numbers, but was a little disappointed. "It was the ground crew staff we met, not the stewardesses. I think the stewardesses would have been more beautiful."

In a region that prides itself on commerce, special kompa magazines in Osaka offer men the privilege of paying 5,000 yen ($45.50) to eat and drink with young nurses. Women pay the same to meet doctors and lawyers.

Kompa, regarded as merely a bit of fun, occasionally leads to a more serious commitment. Yasumoto eventually wed Ai, an employee at Kansai airport, herself a kompa veteran. "One of the girls at the airport was always arranging kompa, and we all used to go, just for a laugh. I met Tomonori when we went out with some people from Matsushita."

Matsushita, the parent company of Panasonic and Technics, has a reputation for paying high salaries. A year after their first meeting, Tomonori and Ai were married. "Tomonori has a good job and we'll probably get the chance to live abroad for a while, all thanks to kompa."

For foreign residents not well connected or fluent in Japanese, kompa is not a possibility, though other avenues exist. In Osaka, several English-language magazines, all of which have a high Japanese readership, carry personal ads. These range from the obscure -- "Woman wanted for sex in department store changing rooms" -- to the ordinary -- "Want to play Frisbee?" Most, however, make their intentions clear. A foreign man after a Japanese woman, or vice versa.

Most, it would seem, get what they are after. Ben from New Zealand has slept with six women he met through personals and has such a busy schedule he has had women walk in on him while he was heavily involved with another woman. His roommate, Tom, advertised for a Japanese teacher and started learning with a 17-year-old high school student who told him she was a cherigaru -- a cherry girl, or virgin -- and asked him to have sex with her.

Etsuko has slept with 10 foreign men in the last year, all of whom she met through the same magazine. She fields dozens of phone calls a night and applies a strict selection process. Height, weight, shoe size, star sign and a full head of hair are all important. "A lot of men lie. They say they're handsome, then these fat, bald, ugly guys turn up."

A meeting is arranged in a public place, then things usually take their course. Ben leaves no doubt about his intentions. "I get as much sexual innuendo into the first conversation as possible." He employed this approach with Tomoko, "a little vixen who told me all the positions she wanted to try."

Mike, from Canada, however, placed his ad because he was tired of trawling the bars and his contract at his English conversation school prevented him from dating students. "I got a few normal calls, but a lot of strange ones. Man, there are a lot of lonely, weird people doing this."

The editor of the largest circulation English-language magazine, who recently withdrew personals from his publication, points out there are also some dangerous people doing it. "We have had letters from people who have married after using our personal columns, but [the personal ads] were the thing that our Japanese staff most disliked, and recently we were contacted by the police about a local woman who had met a foreigner after reading our magazine, and was subsequently severely beaten up."

Back in Amerikamura, nobody seems to have such worries. Mark is leaving to meet girlfriend No. 3. "I got six phone numbers. I'll call the nice ones tomorrow, then we'll meet up. I think I can get one more, no problem." David seems to have chosen which image he'd like to transfer from Polaroid to real life and is busy in the corner. Most people have either paired off or left. Hisako, still sitting alone, spots me leaving.

"Wait, we didn't see if our strings matched length." For each piece of string there is one of matching length held by a member of the opposite sex, the idea being to find your partner by comparing sizes. Mine is a good 3 inches longer than hers. Disappointment flashes briefly across her face, then she smiles. "I've got some scissors in my bag."

Simon Moran

Simon Moran is a writer in Osaka, Japan.

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