The Tender Heart and Tinder in Japan
A week ago, I downloaded Tinder. A week later, I'm ready to delete it.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, the last time I was single, Tinder didn’t exist yet. When I first broke up with my partner of five years, I was so concerned with getting my own life on track that dating took a backseat to everything else.
I downloaded Tinder for about a week back home, too, but even then I knew it was too soon for me to look for something new, when that half-decade-deep wound was still fresh. I deleted it pretty much immediately. Then, as I prepared to leave Texas and eventually arrived in Japan, it took everything I had just to keep myself afloat. Between keeping myself out of trouble with the police, to just getting my students to talk to me, I wasn’t ready to open myself up like that.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I like about dating. I like leaning my head against someone’s shoulder, and feeling someone lean their head against mine. I like holding hands, an arm around my shoulder, kissing… I’m sure you can guess the rest.
Old wounds healed, with an open mind and open heart, I thought I’d look to the place all single millennials go when they’re ready to date - Tinder.
What a mistake I've made.
Two things immediately stood out to me when I compared Tinder in Japan to Tinder in America.
First, I want to talk about profile pictures.
Waist-down photos of men, either shirtless and showing off their six-packs or in neck-to-toe couture, make up a lot of Tinder’s eligible bachelors. They’re good for a laugh, but not nearly as funny as the men who use strangely-cropped photos of body parts as their profile pictures — my favorite was the man using a close-up photo of his neck as his profile picture. I’ve also seen a lot of partially-obscured purikura booth photos, which aren’t just warped and edited beyond recognition, but also have emojis slapped over all identifying features.
Second, let’s talk about the pseudonyms and age trickery.
I’ve seen more than one person using only a single letter or a simple hiragana character written as their name on their profile, but that isn’t as egregious as the age trickery. For example, one man listed his age as 31, but when I checked his profile for more information, his personal description read “I’m actually 37 - I hope to be 31.” He’d purposely listed his age wrong to show up in searches made by people looking for men younger than him. It felt scummy and deceitful and I was disgusted by it… but he wasn’t the only man doing it.
Why are the men of Japanese Tinder hiding so much? My friend David is great at giving simple, profound answers to any question, and his answer when I asked him about the men on this godforsaken app was no less profound:
“There’s an element of shame. They don’t want anyone to know they have to go to Tinder to meet someone.”
It makes perfect sense. Japan is a culture heavily relying on outward presentation, cultivating yourself to an unrealistic degree to meet society’s high standards. Looking for dates on a dating app must feel like a failure, shamefully accepting that they need technology to connect to find love when it should be so easy. And yet here us foreigners are, listing our real ages and our real jobs and posting our real faces with our real names, shamelessly and eagerly hoping to meet other shameless, eager people.
How silly we must look in our sincerity.
I know how a date would play out at home. A movie at Alamo Drafthouse, a few lazy hours of drinks and board games at Emerald Tavern, maybe a trip to Kerby Lane Cafe for a stack of late-night pancakes and some conversations in-between so we can get to know each other. It could be casual, it could be fun, it could lead to another date, and another, and another. But I’m not at home, I’m in rural Japan. I and everyone else here has one foot out the door.
Obviously, I don’t approach every Tinder match as a future husband. But a natural byproduct of the temporary nature of being an ALT makes everything feel temporary, including our love lives. I gave the no-strings-attached lifestyle a try but it felt so clinical, so much like a business transaction. As it turns out, I’m not a “casual” kind of person. I’m not the “friends with benefits” or “one-night stand” type. Absolutely no shame or judgement on my end if you are — live your truth! — but it’s not something I can ease into.
I thought I’d take a dip in the dating pool, but the current is too strong here. I’m glad I figured that out, before I let it swallow me whole.
Any time I’ve met someone and thought hey, this person is cute, I get along with them pretty well, sure would be nice to get to know them a little better, it’s replaced by a sad, sinking thought that creeps in and crushes those butterflies in my stomach before they can flourish:
But what's the point?
It’s part of being an ALT. Everything we do is so fleeting. I’ve made friends here who I’m so incredibly close to, to whom I’ve bared my soul and know me as well as I know them, but when I leave I may never see most of them again. It doesn’t de-legitimize the bonds I’ve made, but it puts my days here into some perspective.
So much of my time in Japan has felt like it’s all I can do to survive day to day. Like I’m on a ride and everyone else is having fun but I’m just waiting for it to stop. And when I get back to Texas, back to my mom and my dog and my truck and my oak trees and my deer, this will all feel like one long, weird, vivid dream.
I tried to think of an uplifting ending to this blog, but I’m drawing a blank. I’m trying not to be a bitter old spinster, but the falling sakura petals can only distract me for so long from this loneliness throbbing in my skull like a dull migraine. I’ve decided not to run from the feeling, but also not to internalize it. Accepting that I don’t have what I want is the first step in understanding what it is that I want.
This is just how it is for now. But I know it won’t always be. I guess that’s the takeaway.