Ultimate Guide to Dating in Japan
By The Japan Switch Team | November 3rd, 2023
Dating in Japan (or otherwise) makes up a major aspect of day-to-day life. If you’re planning on traveling in Japan or relocating there, it’s important to take a moment to understand how dating is perceived in Japanese culture. How are customs and values different from where you are, right now?
When traveling or moving to a foreign country, it’s common to make a list of tourist attractions, useful routes, and so on. But one aspect that receives little consideration, perhaps mistakenly, when traveling abroad, is the different social culture you’ll be immersing yourself into.
It’s perfectly possible, when experiencing a different culture, to also experience a different response to an action than what you’re used to. So in the interest of meeting new people, having a great time, and a fun dating experience, we recommend that you prep ahead.
Our guide below looks at all aspects of dating in Japan, both from a male and a female perspective, and aims to help you achieve long-term happiness in your travels.
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Dating in Japan: Customs
Dating in Japan can be considered quite conservative, particularly by Western standards. In some ways, dating represents more of a social contract in Japan than it does in the U.S.
It’s not uncommon (and actually quite expected) for a person to express their desire to date another quite clearly before the actual dating can begin. It is also important that the other person agrees to date the first.
Confessing your interest
Before the actual dating can begin, it’s paramount that there be a clear declaration of intent (and a clear acceptance from the other person!). Why? In the West, we’re accustomed to practicing a little guesswork. Decoding the subtle hints of another person’s accepting to go out for coffee with us.
In Japan, though, people will often go out to dinner, lunch, or coffee as just friends. Here, you may well go to dinner regularly as pals, yet without a declaration of intent or of romantic feelings, that might be all it is. Grabbing coffee together may look like a gesture of romantic potential to you, but to a Japanese person, it often won’t.
Bear that in mind, as to avoid unpleasant mix-ups.
The act of confession (kokuhaku, 告白) may strike foreigners as a little odd at first but is actually pretty expected in Japan. The dating norm here typically means that someone will come forward and “confess” their feelings to the other person. They may say I like you, or I am interested in you, and I would like to begin dating you.
Note that “begin”. In Japan, dating is often a less casual, more secure affair, in that once you start going on dates with someone, it’s considered a sort of unspoken social contract.
While you may be used, where you come from, to go on a date with somebody and not have it “be a big thing”, that’s not how it works in Japan. In a way, this can be refreshing, since it eliminates a lot of the murkiness and common gray areas of Western dating.
How many times have you wondered, a little miffed, if that great coffee date you had last week was actually a date? What if you’re just friends? What if the other person isn’t actually romantically interested in you? The list of questions can go on and on, often leading to “situationships” and casual dating.
Our friends over at BFF Tokyo interviewed three Japanese women about their experiences and beliefs when it comes to dating in Japan - read What You Should Know Before Dating a Japanese Girl.
Or if you're interested in the other side, check out the Ultimate Guide to Japanese Men!
Is casual dating in Japan a “thing?”
While the rise of Tinder, Bumble, and other dating apps has seen an immense surge in casual dating in the West, Japan retains some more traditional dating standards. Generally, casual dating is considered taboo by Japanese standards. When going out on a first date, it’s considered appropriate to hold hands, maybe. Jumping into bed with an unknown person, as you can imagine, is considered by some to be quite dirty and promiscuous, and thus discouraged.
Hook-up culture, while tolerated (and even celebrated) by some, is also looked down on by many in Japan. By the conservative Japanese dating standards, two people ought to be in an acknowledged, an official relationship before they can even kiss, let alone have sex.
This is actually really useful, especially if you’re coming from a place where casual dating is no big thing. While you may not consider it particularly forward in your culture, it’s likely that kissing, touching, or other similar behaviors may be considered presumptuous and inappropriate for a first date in Japan.
Keep in mind that dating in Japan is evolving in its own way much as it is and has in the West. Many people are very open to ‘something casual’ and hook-ups but there is a huge social pressure on people to ‘get married and settle down.’ As such, after a certain age, many do place a greater emphasis on ‘something serious’ instead of ‘something fun for Friday night.’
If apps are your go-to for dating in Japan, check out BFF Tokyo's Ultimate Guide to Japanese Dating Apps.
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So, what is acceptable/expected on a first date?
When venturing out on a first date with a Japanese person, you might be a little confused on how far to go (or not to go). As we’ve already mentioned Japanese dating can be quite conservative, in that sex is pretty much off-the-table on the first date, so don’t go in with such expectations, or you risk ruining your own chances.
What about kissing?
Well, to answer that, we need to first understand how Japanese people regard public displays of affection (PDAs). Since you’re on a first date, you might think it appropriate to kiss your date at the restaurant, or after walking her home / to her train station.
Don’t. Probably. Read the room first, you know?
While in the West, it’s not entirely uncommon to kiss on a first date, if it’s going well, Japanese culture is very delicate when it comes to PDAs. They are generally not well-received, so even if your date might like you, they will still be embarrassed/bothered by a kiss in a public place.
If you’re looking at dating in Japan, this is worth keeping in mind. While some people may look askance at public displays of affection in the US or UK, it is generally well-tolerated by society. In Japan, however, it is considered taboo, not just for first dates, but also for people in a relationship, as they are expected to reserve their physical affection for more private settings.
Holding hands is A-okay.
It is actually expected, if the first date is going well, to hold hands with your romantic interest. This will not be considered an inappropriate PDA, nor does it risk upsetting your date.
In-Person vs Online Dating in Japan
Since we mentioned dating apps a little earlier, it’s worth touching on that. Are dating apps or online dating sites a big business in Japan? While we can’t give you the numbers for these apps/websites, we can safely say most Japanese people will prefer in-person dates over online dating.
While you may meet someone online or through an app, and that’s alright, you will be expected to move on from the online world and into real life (rather than just keep texting forever).
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Dating in Japan: Where to Meet People
Matchmaking events are an option
It’s quite common in Japan for singles with romantic intentions to gather at konkatsu parties (婚活パーティー), also known as matchmaking parties. These are typically organized by official matchmaking agencies and firms, which often adds a layer of trust and security to the whole event.
The organizers are in charge not only of putting the event itself together, but also of advertising for it, and vetting applicants. Because of that, you’re looking at a higher likelihood of meeting someone safe, and with serious intentions. Many of these organizers also take note of the participants’ age, financial background, and occupation, which increases your chances of meeting someone you connect with.
While many of these events will allow you to mingle freely with the other participants, others may follow a more rigorous structure (similar to speed-dating) and assign a limited time to talk to each person.
Unofficial group dates may help
While konkatsu parties are a great, official way to meet a potential love interest, they are not your only option. In Japanese culture, group dates - goukon (合コン) - are also quite common. It may sound strange to a foreigner, but Japanese groups of friends will frequently organize these group dates.
Only single people will go on these dates, and like with the matchmaking events, they will be expected to have serious intentions. While it’s typical for friends to come along, unknown people (colleagues, acquaintances, etc.) may also be invited, to broaden the group’s chance of success.
Generally, the people organizing these group dates will try to keep things balanced, inviting the same number of participants of either sex (so as not to exclude anyone).
You could go on a marriage interview
It may sound a little presumptuous, particularly if you’re coming from a casual dating background, but then again, remember dating is more serious in Japan. Typically, you enter a relationship with an eye toward marriage, not just fun.
This is perhaps why marriage interviews, the age-old tradition of omiai (お見合い), are still observed in Japan to this day. In the past, as the name suggests, these used to carry a lot more weight, in the sense that they actually moved on to marriage. In the past, omiai was also typically arranged by the families, with a view to the profession, wealth, and all the other “advantages” of an arranged marriage.
Nowadays, an omiai is simply an arranged meeting between a man and a woman, often organized by matchmaking agencies, to help them get to know one another. If the marriage interview goes well, the two parties are then encouraged to spend more time together, begin a relationship, and yes, eventually marry.
Okay, so now that presumably you’ve met someone and have started dating them… what do you need to know?
11 Surprising Facts about Dating in Japan!
1. You may not hear from your partner for days.
The truth is, we’ve developed an almost addictive form of partner communication in the West. It’s not uncommon for Western couples to be texting or calling each other constantly throughout the day. Particularly when the relationship is just starting, we tend to take it as something wrong if the other person doesn’t reply for hours. We immediately think they don’t like us, may be ghosting us, or cheating.
Things work a little differently in Japan. You may have heard that Japanese people are very work-oriented, and tend to take their careers quite seriously. That was not an exaggeration.
Japanese people will seldom reply instantly to a text, or return a call. During work hours, particularly, it’s quite uncommon for a Japanese person to text back or engage in back-and-forth chit-chat with their significant other. This is not considered a mark of disrespect, nor should it be interpreted as the waning of interest. Rather, it’s the social custom for one to focus on their work, and reserve dating and relationship activities for their spare time.
The same may also apply during social gatherings, as it’s considered rude for a person to be always on their phone (something we in the West could certainly do with!).
2. You may be expected to schedule your dates.
This is something that can be quite shocking for foreigners when they first start dating a Japanese person but know it’s not uncommon (or in poor taste) to schedule dates weeks ahead.
This, again, ties back to the importance of work in Japanese culture. People will prioritize their work, and schedule their dates around their work schedule, which brings us to an even more interesting “oddity” in the realm of dating in Japan.
3. Dating is considered more superficial here.
While you may place crucial value on dating, you need to understand that the whole concept of dating is still somewhat foreign to Japan. Much of what we perceive as Japanese culture nowadays is actually a mash-up of the East and West. Following their defeat in World War Two, Japan underwent several years of American occupation, during which time things changed drastically in the country.
Even before WWII, adopting Western customs and norms was important to Japan, it became a non-negotiable during the US occupation in the late 1940s. As such, dating is an imported concept in Japan. It’s considered cute, and even pleasurable, but overall, a pretty superficial endeavor.
For Japanese people, dating is more of a “vanity thing”, one with a focus on securing marriage.
4. In-between dates, you are still a couple.
Seeing your partner isn’t responding, or seems distant, you may be tempted to pack up and move on (e.g. start dating new people). If you went on one date and it went well, but the next date is in another three weeks, you may be wondering what kind of loyalty you owe this person.
This is different in Japan than in the West. Since you agreed to start dating them, you will be expected to stay loyal. You are considered part of a couple, or at least a dating arrangement, and dating outside of that is not typically encouraged. That’s because, while couples in the West work up a gradual definition of a “relationship” over several dates, this is kind of self-understood when you start dating someone in Japan.
5. People in a relationship shouldn’t hang out with the opposite gender.
No one’s saying you need to cross to the other side of the street if you see an acquaintance of the opposite gender. You can still hang out with your friends, regardless of sex, but you will be expected to do so in group/public settings if you are in a relationship.
6. There is a focus on “me time”.
Many couples in the US struggle with finding an appropriate balance between time spend with their significant other, and personal time. In Japan, however, it’s understood that you will retain some time for personal activities, even in a relationship. Here, you don’t need to “negotiate” your spare time, nor do you need to worry your partner will think you’re choosing whatever personal activity over them.
That, however, is a double-edged sword. Because dating is awarded less importance here, it may take couples a lot longer to reach a level of deep intimacy. Speaking of…
7. Being invited back home almost always means sex.
Almost. Almost. ALMOST.
We cannot understate this. We're not responsible if your date genuinely wants to see your vintage Reservoir Dogs poster because they're also a Tarantino fan. But if they agreed to come over, they probably do want to see more than Mr. Pink and Mr. Black. Anyway...
Being invited home like anything, again, represents a minefield for foreigners. Maybe in your country of origin, it’s customary for people to spend time together in one’s home without getting intimate. Whether you’re chilling together at home, or you’re letting them crash at your place, this may seem like no big deal. However, in Japan, being invited to a romantic interest’s home is often code for getting intimate.
Site note: It also means that you may have to get the ball rolling once your date is in the door - respectfully.
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8. Foreign men are expected to be more romantic.
This may well be a misconception based on a lot of Western rom-coms, but it’s quite a popular belief in Japan that foreign men will be, on average, more romantic than Japanese boys.
In some ways, foreign men may be expected to be less interested in sex, or face higher expectations when it comes to organizing dates.
9. Dates are typically organized by the guy.
Because of the way that Japanese culture has assimilated dating, it’s often regarded as something superficial “for the girls”. In that sense, Japanese men aren’t going in expecting to have a good time. Rather, they’re expected to provide the lady with an experience, choosing a place, buying flowers, taking her for a show. Generally, taking initiative, which is typically the “man’s thing” in Japanese dating culture.
10. You may or may not go Dutch.
This is actually a little confusing. Whereas going Dutch (e.g. splitting the bill evenly for a date) is considered a sign of gender equality in the West, it’s a less clear symbolism in Japan. While some people may think it’s fine, and even expect to pay for half of the date, other people (particularly men) may feel quite insulted if the girl tries to pay. Similarly, some Japanese women may feel it’s in poor taste to be asked to split the bill, so when you go on a date, make sure you read the room.
11. Tone down the sarcasm.
Sarcasm can be a fun way of connecting with your date if both of you are sarcastic by nature. Bear in mind, however, that sarcasm is much less well-received in Japan than it is in the West. It’s common for sarcasm to be interpreted as rudeness, and cost you points in the eyes of your date.
How Do You Display Affection
When Dating in Japan?
Finally, you want to keep in mind that Japanese people don’t always share Western views of affection.
I love you, I love you… not?
For one thing, saying “I love you” – aishiteru (愛してる) or – is very rare. Preferring to show, rather than say it, Japanese people will often express their gratitude and appreciation of the other person by helping them, giving them a gift, and so on.
It’s rare to say “I love you” and because of that, it’s not such a big deal as it may seem in the West. Your partner may not say it, but mean it through their behavior, so if you don’t hear those three magic words, do not despair.
Chocolate is a big thing.
For Valentine’s Day and other couple celebrations, it’s customary for women to gift the people in their lives chocolate. But beware that the Japanese draw a much clearer line between their chocolates than you may do in the West.
To show affection to your significant other, you’ll do so by gifting them Honmei Choco (本命チョコ). There are other types of chocolate reserved for family members, work colleagues, children, and so on, so keep that in mind!
A month later, on White Day (March 14th), it’s the men’s turn to show their emotions. They can either do this by reciprocating the gift of chocolate, or by another romantic gesture.
Naming as an act of love.
One of the most intimate displays of a relationship in Japan is calling someone by their first name. Until an intimate bond has formed, you will call your date by their last name (as will they).
Pro Tip: Don’t use your date’s first name on the very first date, lest you offend them. Let time pass, and wait for your bond to deepen.
Final Thoughts: Every Date is Different
There we have it - a moderate overview of dating in Japan. While all of the points above are good general rules, nothing is set in stone, and each date is different, based on the people involved. Don’t take any dating advice as the “law”, rather read the room, observe your partner and what works/doesn’t work for them.
After all, there will be nothing more off-putting for your partner than if it looks like you’re dating a handbook. Enjoy yourself on your date, and be genuine. As you would anywhere else.
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