Onuki was 15 when he had his first experience with online dating, getting together with a girl who he’d met on a gaming site. He was shy. She, it turned out, was not. “She actually messaged me first,” says the software engineer, who’s now 23 and working at a web startup in Tokyo [names of daters in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy]. “We met at a coffee shop, and right away she started talking about sex. But I wasn’t really attracted to her in person, so I said no.”
Onuki is a rarity in Japan: Somebody who will openly discuss meeting romantic partners online. On a recent trip there, I often asked people if they or their friends were involved with web dating, and time and again they shook their heads. Widening their eyes, they blushed, as if I’d said something dirty and controversial. It’s a bit of a mystery: Japanese dating sites–known as deaikei–are numerous and thriving, with apps like Pairs, MatchAlarm, NikuKai, and Yahoo Omiai attracting growing numbers of fans. But when you ask around, no one cops to having used them.
The stigma around online dating is a bit surprising, since Japan needs help in that particular area. The country is in the middle of something of a sex crisis. Its birthrate is among the lowest on earth, and the number of marriages is in decline. “Why have Japanese young people stopped having sex?” asked a headline in The Guardian last October. In New York City, where I live, meeting potential partners digitally is normal: one in five American relationships today begin online, as Fast Company contributor Dan Slater reports in his book Love in the Time of Algorithms. Few uncoupled twentysomethings in New York haven’t at least tried a dating site, whether they’re searching for serious relationships or quick hookups.
So why is the subject so touchy in Japan, a technologically hip country (their ketai cellphones surfed the Web long before our smart phones) that otherwise seems comfortable discussing sex? Given Japan’s dating and demographic crisis, why the squeamishness about meeting in cyberspace?
To understand Japanese dating sites, the first thing you need to realize is that many don’t seem like dating sites at all. Some of the biggest ones appeal to mainstream users by positioning themselves as more social than romantic. Nikukai, meaning “Meat Meeting,” is more innocent than the translation makes it sound: It’s an app designed to get groups of men and women together for Korean barbecue, which is popular in Japan. Founded by Haruka Ito, a 28-year-old Keio University graduate, blogger, and author, the site is inspired by gokon, the Japanese tradition of group blind dates, where men and women who don’t know each other meet to socialize in hopes of eventually pairing off. Another app, Furendo Tossu (or “Friend Toss,” from the word Japanese people use for a volleyball pass), is a site for meeting new people with common interests, ostensibly as friends. It shows you your friends’ Facebook friends, and if there are any who you think you’d get along with, the three of you arrange an activity together–lunch or a drink, usually. “I think the experience [of online dating] is almost too confrontational for the Japanese,” says Roland Kelts, a Japanese-American journalist, University of Tokyo professor, and author of Japanamerica. “It’s a culture that still prizes indirectness and a greater level of subtlety.”
But I’m more interested in sites designed explicitly to match couples. So I decide to try out Pairs, a dating application linked to Facebook that, along with MatchAlarm, NikuKai, and Yahoo Omiai, is one of the country’s most popular. As with most Japanese dating apps, women can sign up for free, while men pay ¥2,380 (roughly $24) per month. That fee includes 12 “likes”: If you like someone’s profile and they like you back, you can send a message and go from there.
Pairs presents itself modestly; its website is covered with Western-style wedding dresses and veils. Yet the messages the app sends your inbox don’t sound as wholesome. “What kind of woman are you looking for? Models, nursery school teachers, nurses, nutritionists, college students, office ladies [receptionists]–we’ve got them all!” says the welcome email I get when I sign up. It quickly reassures me that “You won’t see your Facebook friends in Pairs” and “Facebook won’t show your history of searches in Pairs.” It may as well have said, “We know you’re ashamed of using our business, but don’t worry, your secret is safe with us.”
“Our design is more for women,” says Takeru Kawashita, marketing chief of Pairs. “Previous deiaikei sites were made with a male mindset.” What he means is that their site is made for husband hunting. Hence the bridal marketing and fems-use-for-free policy. Pairs does not consider itself deiaikei for this reason, he explains. “To us, female insight and comfort is really important.” In Japan, it is customary for men to pay for their dates, as Pairs’ male users do.
The company’s bridal marketing sends another message, less progressive and increasingly less American: dating means man plus woman. Pairs has no gay option. “We have had a few users ask us if they could have that kind of feature,” Kawashita says when I mention the exclusion might be controversial in the U.S. “It’s not that we don’t want to, just that it’s still very few, so we haven’t focused on that yet.”
Cultural differences are the reason many Western dating sites have failed in Japan and in Asia, Kawashita says. Japanese users are turned off by the breezy, casual tone of sites like OKCupid, Tinder, and Match.com. Such sites aren’t good at marketing to Asian users. “If you look at services made in the U.S,” he says, “all they do is localize languages, but obviously [Japanese] culture is different.”
Minutes after registering, I get my first “like,” from a 26-year-old Kyoto woman named Megumi-san who says she’s using Pairs to find friends. I decide to be up front with her about my intentions (journalistic, not romantic) and send a note explaining that I’m a writer from New York who’s interested in talking to her about her experiences. Soon my inbox bleeps with a message–not from her, but from the site, whose strict rules I have unwittingly violated. “Please do not include or ask for any personal identifying information in your first message,” it reads, explaining that it is against policy for users to expose anything real about themselves right off the bat.
The company’s paranoia isn’t misguided. Online dating in Japan has a shady history, which is part of the reason people are less comfortable with it than they are in the U.S. Japanese web users have traditionally preferred anonymity online, opting for pseudonyms or social gaming handles instead of real names, cartoon avatars instead of photographs. Early on in the Japanese online dating scene you could never be confident the person you met on a dating site was real. In the late ’90s, Catfish-style frauds metastasized at a corporate scale: whole “online dating” offices were set up, staffed by employees of both genders (known as sakura, or cherry blossoms) who played the part of fake women. Sakura kept multiple cell phones and email accounts. Since male customers on the early dating services had to pay per message–along with fees for a date’s email address or phone number–they could be strung along with successive signals of interest: “Oh, honey, it’s so nice to hear your voice, but I’m busy. Can you call back tomorrow?” Finally, the man would call his sakura girlfriend and she’d tell him, in a tearful whisper, “My husband found out about us! I’m sorry, we can’t do this any more.”
Once the story broke that many online dating sites were scams, people were understandably wary. Many sites shut down, and in the minds of many, a sketchy vibe persists. “Even if a couple met online and are getting married, they may not talk openly about how they met,” says Japanese journalist Yukari Mitsuhashi, who has covered online dating for the blog The Bridge.
Another reason online dating has a seedy rep is baishun, meaning “to sell spring,” with “spring” referring to youth or virginity. Baishun is the practice of Japanese teenage girls, usually high schoolers, selling sex to older men online. Such “sugar daddy” sites exist in the U.S., too, but in Japan the practice became so rampant and well-publicized that it overshadowed the image of online matchmaking for years. This still happens. During my trip I visit a rural rice-farming village where I taught English six years ago. The latest gossip there was about a twentysomething man who had been arrested and accused of sleeping with a high school student. The alleged arrangement had been worked out online, police say.
But while stigma severely dampened online dating for a while, something surprising happened that changed the scene. The March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused devastation, and made everyone from emergency personnel to victims’ families want to be connected, says Japanese tech journalist Tomoyuki Miyazaki. Many in Japan realized then the advantages of an open Internet: you can find a person swiftly when you need to. Suddenly, online anonymity didn’t seem as appealing; American-style transparency, which had before seemed risky, now offered a measure of security in chaotic times. People started moving away from anonymous Japanese social-media mainstay Mixi and toward Facebook, which requires the use of real names.
Japanese dating apps started requiring logins through Facebook, providing users with a certain degree of confidence. That, along with internal safeguards like the mutual “like” system, have gone a long way toward reducing the scammers and sex-trolls who ruined Japanese online dating the first time around. “By getting rid of the anonymous culture,” says Mitsuhashi, “online dating has potential to become a healthy way of meeting someone new.”
Pairs’ Kawashita, who has himself used the service, explains that Japanese digital dating moves more gradually than in America. “Online dating in the U.S. is like real-time chat,” he says. “But in Japan it’s more like letters: I would reply once, she would reply the day after. We take time.” Before meeting a woman in person, he has typically chatted with her for three weeks to a month, building trust, he says.
Jun Nishikawa, chief operating officer of Eureka, the dating services company that operates Pairs, has a theory about why that is. “Female users want to get married,” she says. “So they don’t want to waste their time to meet so many men. When they see guys, they have to judge if it’s worth spending time. We are busy, working. If women are independent, we don’t have to have a boyfriend to pay for dinner, because we have money. [Working women] want to get married, but they can’t find the ideal boyfriend. Their standards are high.”
In the end, Japanese web dating doesn’t work for me, but not for lack of trying. Twenty-five women from Kyoto and Okayama message me in the weeks that I am registered on Pairs. Their ages range from 20 to 44, with most in their mid to late 20s. In general, they are friendly and eager to chat about common interests in books, movies, languages, or travel. But all are reluctant to Skype or meet in person.
“Shy, obedient, docile, prone to loneliness.” Those are the words Yuki-san, a 24-year-old who responds to one of my messages, uses to describe herself on her page. She tells me she hopes to get to know people gradually, starting as friends. For “housework,” Yuki-san says she “expects to work her hardest,” as opposed to “split the housework with my partner” or even “do most of the work, with some help.” Her photo shows the torso of a slim woman in a black dress, white cardigan, and pearl necklace, with a phone obscuring her features. If you’re accustomed to OKCupid, where photos are required to show a person’s face, this self portrait comes off as chilly. On Pairs, though, such secrecy isn’t rare: photos regularly crop out distinguishing features, or instead show a favorite pet, stuffed animal, room, or an original drawing, expressing the user’s taste and lifestyle.
Fumi-san, an outdoorsy 20-year-old college student in Kyoto, is warmer. We chat about her interest in foreign languages and cultures–she studies English, and once spent a week traveling alone in Taiwan. On her profile, she describes herself as “curious, optimistic, shy and mai pe-su,”–a Japanglish expression for “my pace,” meaning she’s an independent thinker. Fumi’s photos show a girl in a purple kimono with white flowers in her hair, and one of herself, younger looking, wearing a purple backpack and yellow t-shirt, eyes closed, in a bamboo forest. “I myself didn’t have a good impression of online dating before,” Fumi writes to me in Japanese. “But after my friends strongly recommended it, and I started using the service, I came to realize that regular people and normal students are casually dating online. I think the number of users will continue to grow, and using the web as a tool for men and women to meet is good.”
My first night in Kyoto, I get a message back from Coco-san, a 30-year-old photographer I’ve been messaging with since I first signed up on the site, saying that she would be glad to Skype about her experiences dating online. This seems like an opening. Maybe I will finally be able to move to the next stage: meeting somebody in person. So I respond–typing on the tatami mat bedroom floor of my ryokan, or Japanese inn–suggesting we get together to talk, since I am in her city. No luck: She doesn’t respond for two weeks, by which time I am back in New York.
Internet dating in America is faster. In the three years I’ve dated online, meeting after a couple messages has been the norm. Online relationships, like “real life” ones, last as briefly as a few dinners, or as long as months, and have grown variously into girlfriends, friends, or work contacts as they bridge social networks. This fluidity between friendship, dating, and work is how online dating is treated here: you meet new people with a mind open to learn something new, to make a friend, explore the city together, or find a partner. The same open spirit animates Airbnb relationships, like the casual friendship a young New Yorker might strike up with a Parisian clown teacher by borrowing a room in her flat when he swings through town. But just as Airbnb has had a trickier time catching on in Japan, so Japanese young people seem far more wary of online “meeting and mating” than the average New York twentysomething.
Given the history of scams and sex crime, it’s easy to see why Japan’s online dating scene has a negative reputation. But the frustration many young Japanese express with dating culture suggests a need for dating-world innovation. Working women won’t stop wanting a more fluid culture for dating, marriage, and childrearing: a work and family culture accommodating time for moms to work and salarymen to take on fathering duties which has never before existed in Japan, but is coming. If the trends in the U.S. are any indication, the Internet is likely to play a role.
Is Japan ready for the sort of web-relationship disruption that Harvard math whizzes have created from New York to San Francisco? Maybe so. Dating platforms are tools shaped by how they are used–by users, not makers. To the extent that any dating company, Western or Asian, makes assumptions about its users’ wants, it freezes itself in the clumsy mindset of the ethnic essentialist: a species destined not to evolve. But to the extent the tools stay open, offering an ever widening variety of experiences to a broader range of users’ needs, the online dating scene is, as Kawashita puts it, wide open: “a blue ocean.”
Translation help and research contributed by Yoko Inagi, librarian and professor, City College of New York