Dating A Foreigner (From a Japanese Perspective) Cultural Barriers Can't Stop Love! (Hopefully)

    There are a lot of Japanese people interested in what it's like to date a non-Japanese person. This is illustrated by how much of a best seller "My Darling is a Foreigner," a manga comic turned TV drama by Saori Ogura featuring her husband Tony Laszlo, has become. At one time I wondered what it would be like as well, though I'm not so curious anymore since I recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, married a Canadian (eh). So you could say that I have my very own darling that is a foreigner.

    my darling is a foreigner manga

    My husband and I met in Kyoto, Japan, where we were both working. The first culture shock I experience was when he showed up to one of our early dates in roller blades. You may wonder what the problem with that is, but I felt so embarrassed by it. It's something that would never happen if you were dating a Japanese guy, as roller skates or roller blades really leave a corny impression on us because of an old fashion male idol group called Hikaru GENJI. They were popular from the end of 80's to the beginning of 90's. NOT modern times.

    Is this a cultural difference?

    woman eating rice with chopsticks and a fork
    Source: Floriane Legendre

    It's sometimes called "a love beyond borders", but there are obviously many cultural differences experienced while dating a non-Japanese person. In my case, of course the roller blade story was not the only one. Long before meeting him I had learned from movies and television that Western people aren't shy about kissing in public, but I didn't know that they also wouldn't mind farting in public. I don't know. It may only be my husband. Yeah, it probably is.

    However, my point is that many things that we may think to be a cultural difference may just be some personal attribute. So, I'd like to point out that the following list I'm going to utilize to explain what it's like to date a non-Japanese person are simply examples of what some people in relationships with someone outside their own nationality have noticed and there it is likely that many people won't fit or agree with these examples. Please don't be upset if they seem not to fit your perceptions. At this point in our lives we must all be aware of how opinions can vary.

    Preliminary Information

    As I just mentioned above, we gain some sort of preliminary information from movies, TV series and other such productions. As in the movies, my husband has the "ladies first" spirit and he felt weird when he realized that a man is actually the first person to be served in a Japanese restaurant or such. He also does refer to me with various kinds of affectionate names, such as 'Honey', 'Babe', 'Sweetheart', 'Dear', and 'Cutie'. If I was called such things by a Japanese guy, goosebumps would likely appear on my arms because I would find it too cheesy. However, when my Canadian husband calls me those things, it's fine because I was already aware that this was a common thing.

    anthropomorphized cucumber with shades
    Cute as a cucumber

    Now, because Canadians often pronounce 't' as a soft 'd', it made the name 'Cutie' sound like the Japanese word 'Kyuuri', which means cucumber. My mother was a quite surprised to learn that my husband was calling me 'cucumber', as well as a little upset to learn that he named me after a well known pig from the Australian movie 'Babe'.

    However, some background knowledge can be very misleading. We watch people say "I love you" in movies all the time. I was even taught in school that you only use 'like' to describe things but never 'people' and if you were to say 'I like you' to a person, that would be rude, especially if they were saying "I love you" first. Darn Japanese English classes!

    I still remember when he first asked me what I thought about him shortly after we started seeing each other and I answered 'I love you'. His face turned red and his expressions contorted the meaning of, 'really? love? what?', although he should have considered the possibility that I hadn't had enough experience with English to know that that phrase was a VERY big phrase. Anyway, I felt embarrassed. At the time I didn't know that a more appropriate starter would have been 'I like you' and once you actually feel 'love' for the person is when you change the word.

    little blonde girl funny face
    Source: Sarah Horrigan

    After saying "I love you", I quickly realized from his reaction that it was the wrong answer and stopped saying it until I actually felt so, but my English was so bad at the time that I couldn't even explain why I said that. A couple years later, I arbitrarily opened his email inbox and found an email that he had written around that same day that I first said it. I forget to whom it was written to, but he wrote "Mami said 'I love you' lol". I was kind of shocked to see it and felt embarrassed again. Well, of course we had a little fight afterward and he changed his password, too. Good thinking.

    Misleading English-Japanese Background Knowledge

    Speaking of misleading English that I had learned in school, 'should' and 'maybe' might be two of the most commonly misunderstood words. As for the former, I was taught that it's translated into 'verb+bekida べきだ', which is used in Japanese to strongly advise something. So, whenever he suggested something for me to do, I sometimes thought he was playing the role of the "commander" until I learned it's actually just used in a suggestive way.

    If he said "We should go see a movie this weekend", I considered that to be a plan that he has made. However, when the weekend comes and I ask "What movie are we seeing today?", he'll have no clue what I'm talking about or even how I came to think we were going to see a movie. I would tell him that he told me that's what we were going to do, but he'll say "I said no such thing". It got a little confusing at times.

    melon maybe means yes
    Source: Melonparty

    As for the latter (maybe), I was taught that it's translated into tabun たぶん or 'verb+kamoshirenai かもしれない', which can mean 'maybe' but sometimes it also means "probably". Either way, my point is that when my husband uses "maybe", I know now that it is much less likely to happen than I expected it would be. For example, let's look at the conversation below.

    Mami: "So, my birthday party is on April 9. Can you come?" Friend: "Maybe/Tabun I will."

    If the friend is a Japanese, she/he will most likely show up, or at least call or text you to let you know if they can't show up. However, if it's he/she is a Westerner, things are quite different. So let's say my party finishes and they wind up not coming and they never notified me of it, it's needless to say that I'd be pretty disappointed. However, if at this point I asked them why they never showed up, apparently an acceptable answer is "I said that maybe I would come."

    Although none of the occasions on which this happened were actually my birthday, my husband and I have had conversations similar to these many times. I finally learned that the answer 'maybe' doesn't always mean that the person is actually considering the suggestion unless someone brings up the idea again later on. Most of the time, however, what it actually indicates is that the thing is not likely to happen because it's an answer that shows minimal interest.


    punctuality time estimate cartoon
    Source: Hiragana Times

    Another difference that you may want to be mindful of if you are dating a Japanese person is punctuality. Many Japanese people are very punctual, except for people from Okinawa. Again, it may not be everyone from Okinawa, but people there tend not to be too bothered with time. We call it Okinawa Time.

    When I was working in Kyoto I had a colleague from Okinawa. He told me a story that illustrates the concept of Okinawa Time. One day, he was supposed to meet his classmate at 6pm. On his way there he received a message from his friend and he was shocked because it said "Sorry, I'm going to be 5 minutes late." In the end, my Okinawan friend arrived after his "5 minutes late" friend. To him, 5 minutes is nothing because he was on Okinawan time. I think Okinawa Time and many foreigners' time is very similar.

    Now, I wouldn't say that foreigners aren't punctual, but I feel that many of those that I've met so far also think that '5 minutes' isn't a big deal. My husband wouldn't consider that as being late and he definitely wouldn't feel the need to text me about it. I'm not a strict person either so I'm not bothered by 5 minutes, but I may send a text to my friends because some Japanese people place a considerable amount of importance on punctuality. They think it's rude to be late without any notification, even if it's only 5 minutes. Whether it's for social events, business meetings, or getting onto a train, punctuality is so important in Japanese society, so make sure you pay attention to the time!

    The Evil Bathroom Door

    western and eastern toilets
    Source: Conor

    After I came to Canada from Japan, the first cultural difference I faced that I needed to get used to involved the bathroom door. Here in Canada, people leave the door open if nobody is in there. It also shows that it's not occupied. However, in Japan, it's not good manners to leave the door open. It took me a while to get used to leaving the door open, but also, and most importantly, not to open the door if it's closed. I finally learned this when I made my brother-in-law rather upset by interrupting him when he was enjoying a long sit-down and reading Harry Potter. We now call this 'Harry Potter time'.

    Love Conquers All Evil Misunderstandings (Hopefully)

    young boy looking at butterflies
    Source: Philippe Put

    All in all, you and your partner will get accustomed to many differences and soon come to not be bothered by such things anymore, so long as you love the person. It's also kind of fun to learn of those differences, isn't it? There is also always some communication barrier and no matter how much improvement you make, there will always be another conversation that you completely misunderstood. At times, you may struggle to explain what you are thinking or how you are feeling in that moment, so it's important to be patient and listen to what is being said until you understand each other.

    It's clear that with a topic such as this, one could go on and on about all the funny, frustrating, silly and dramatic things that can arise in a relationship simply as a result of the partners being from different countries. It's a great experience, but one you may just have to try to experience on your own. Do any of you have experiences like these that you'd like to share with us? Do you have any questions for me about this topic? Did you enjoy this entry? I love hearing from you, so please leave your thoughts in the comment section below. Arigatou!