It’s an all-too-familiar story: On the romantic front, foreign ladies living in Japan have it bad while the guys do unbelievably well. For every woman who complains about Japanese men’s aloofness and lack of communication skills, there is a man who boasts about all the local chicks he’s had.
But is it really so? Apparently the foreign women’s situation is not all that bad — at least not according to Caroline Pover’s recently published “Love with a Western Woman: A Guide for Japanese Men,” in which she taps the knowledge of a bevy of foreign females who have found their almond-eyed Prince Charmings. But what about the other side of the story? Is Japan really the foreign guy’s paradise on Earth that some would have you believe?
According to the received wisdom, just being a foreigner — especially (but not only) a tall, white Caucasian — is a guarantee of success in itself. Never mind if the guy in question is a dork who has never scored on his home turf; once in Japan he is transformed into the proverbial Charisma Man, or so the story goes. So how come we so often hear of relationships gone sour, divorce and Japanese women “kidnapping” their children and fleeing those supposedly perfect marriages?
In the last few years the foreign man’s sexual and romantic (mis)adventures in Japan have been recorded and analyzed in a number of books. Among them, in 2007 Jamaican Stefhen F.D. Bryan self-published “Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: Of Exile and Excess in Japan,” an “erotic ethnographic memoir” in which he chronicles — sometimes in graphic detail — his encounters with about 30 Japanese women. A year later, American David J. Radtke put out an e-book titled “Understanding Japanese Women: Taking the Mystery Out of the Mysterious Women of Japan.” The two books couldn’t be more different, both in style and content, but taken together they arguably offer a compelling picture of the straight foreign male experience in Japan.
Bryan is an unabashed “rice king” — a guy with a thing for Japanese and other East Asian women. After dating a number of Asian American girls while living in the U.S., he came to Japan in 2001 hoping to satisfy his addiction. “Man, I love the thick, glossy, jet black, straight-as-an-arrow hair and smooth skin. Love those upturned cat eyes,” he says.
He ended up teaching at a school in the deep Japanese countryside where seeing a foreigner (let alone a black guy) was a big event. Over the next seven years he “overdosed” on local women — to the point that when he flew back to America, he felt he could declare himself cured of his addiction.
His fascinating romp has managed to offend some readers, who have cited his attitude, the language he sometimes uses — including calling Japanese women “yellow” (the same way he is black and Caucasians are white, he points out) — and the openly erotic nature of some of his stories. However, he insists that all this is part and parcel of the foreigner’s experience in Japan he was attempting to portray in the book, for better or worse.
His self-proclaimed success with Japanese women notwithstanding, Bryan believes that intimate unions between Westerners and Japanese can be very difficult. “I discovered soon after moving to Japan that collectively this is a low-emotional-quotient society,” he says. “I knew that if I were to marry a Japanese woman, I had to desocialize and resocialize her. I’ve watched so many Western men in Japan who were enamored with the kawaii factor in Japanese women marry them, completely ignoring, to their peril, that these women are children and have zero problem-solving, critical thinking and conflict-resolution skills.”
Bryan is convinced that this “low emotional quotient” is a major contributor to the discord between Westerners and Japanese in Japan. “Westerners stand a higher chance of having their relationships work with a Japanese partner if they leave the country,” he says. “The social pressure to conform is too great. So they should at least leave Japan temporarily and live in his home country for a while to give the Japanese partner some exposure to his culture. And that’s exactly what I did.
“In my case, I had my wife pursue a professional degree at a university in the U.S. And now she is taking the New York bar [exam] in July. So now she’s lived in the U.S. for seven years. Now when we return to Japan, my actions won’t be a mystery to her. And since I’ve lived in Japan for nearly a decade, I completely understand her.”
Radtke, a translator and international consultant, has lived in Japan since 1995. “As soon as I came here I tried to learn as much as I could about the language and the culture,” he explains.
One thing Radtke shares with Bryan is an interest in human psychology. “Ever since college I’ve been fascinated with the dynamics between people,” he says, “and even though I don’t hold any psychology degree, I’ve certainly read enough books on the subject to fill a psychologist’s office library.”
The idea for the book came from a blog he started. “The blog was just a simple way of sharing what I learned about Japanese culture with others,” he says. “I was surprised when many Western men emailed me with questions about their Japanese girlfriends or wives. ‘Why does she do this or say that?’ And the mails came from all around the world.”
At that time Radtke had been married to his Japanese wife for about nine years, so he was able to share what he had learned from personal experience. “Many said my advice saved their relationships or even their marriages,” he says.
To expand his knowledge on the subject, Radtke began to ask those questions from Western men to as many Japanese people as he could — both men and women, and across a wide age range. “Single, dating or married, it didn’t matter. I just asked and asked,” he says. “Those conversations often took tangents into even more interesting topics about the culture of Japanese romantic relationships and even friendships as well.”
Radtke is quick to point out that his book is not a field guide for foreign playboys in Japan. On the contrary, and similarly to Pover’s book, his is a step-by-step guide to building a long-lasting union, from dating and customs to marriage and beyond.
As if to acknowledge the minefield that such relationships represent, Radtke added a disclaimer to his book in which he warns that the author can’t be “held liable or responsible for any damages — mental, physical, or otherwise unstated — that occurred” through the use of such tips. But perhaps fragile readers needn’t worry, as Radtke’s book stresses the virtues of patience and observation in building solid, long-lasting relationships over hurtling headlong, eyes closed into potentially reckless romances.
Radtke agrees with Bryan that inter-cultural relationships often present more challenges than those involving couples that share the same background, and that having a clear understanding of each other’s culture is of the utmost importance. “These relationships require more give and take from both people and each needs to be committed to making adjustments,” he says. “The foreign man cannot be expected to make all the adjustments, and neither can the Japanese woman. That’s why conversation opens up and solutions can be found.
“From what I’ve seen and experienced, the main cause of breakups is when one or both people in a relationship stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the validity of the other’s culture.
Using mutual understanding, recognition and respect as the starting point, many couples can work through the differences.”
Radtke is currently working on a sequel to his book that he hopes will be finished by the end of the year. As for Bryan, two years ago he was contacted by Debra Erhardt, associated with Tom and Rita Hanks, who talked him into producing a solo play based on his book. The show will debut this month in Los Angeles and Bryan will be taking it worldwide, including to Japan.
Print and e-book giveaway: Send your thoughts on these issues to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to win one of 10 copies of “Black Passenger Yellow Cabs” (five in print, five e-books) or “Understanding Japanese Women” (e-book only). Winners may have their responses published. Please indicate which book you would prefer to receive and in which format. The deadline for submissions is Friday, July 19.