I have never in my life been so glad I had a boyfriend as I was during my three week visit to Japan. Not because of the specific boyfriend– it didn’t matter who he was, nor did it matter that ours was a relationship forged upon mutual convenience and desperation, your average highschool romance. In fact, I broke up with him a few weeks after I returned to the United States. He had served his purpose, which was allowing me to answer in the affirmative the first question on the lips of every Japanese girl my age I was introduced to: “Do you have…boyfriend?” It was clearly important to have boyfriend.
I was the only one in our exchange student group who DID have a boyfriend at the time, and since I had no particular fondness for any of the five other girls I was traveling with, that was fine by me. Actually, it was great by me, especially when I got to hear the others have to awkwardly explain, in as clear and concise English as their interrogators could understand, why they didn’t in fact have boyfriends. Since we went to a girls’ school back home, no one expected us to ever have boyfriends, and thus it was not a question we were prepared to handle. Questions like, “Do you have…grasp of Heathcliff’s motivations in Wuthering Heights?” or “Do you have…inordinate crush on your gay science teacher because he’s the only attractive male you see on a regular basis?”; now those we could have gladly expounded upon.
I would have needed far more than three weeks in Japan to even begin to understand the relationships between the teenage girls and boys there. Certainly there was a lot going on below the surface that I missed, and above it, which I also missed. What I did pick up on fairly quickly was the predator-prey dynamic.
“They like blonde boys here,” Karen, a British foreign exchange student told me. “The whole light-haired, blue-eyed, All-American thing. It’s really big with the girls.” She had been living in Japan for over six months, attending the same highschool that I accompanied my host student to. Karen was tall and pretty, with a strong jaw and a blonde pixie cut. “I get mistaken for a boy all the time, because of my short hair,” she said. “Japanese girls come right up to me and ask me out all the time– they’re very aggressive about it.” It would have been difficult to believe her, had I not had a chance to study this phenomenon up close.
After only a few days spent following my host student around her highschool, I came to the following conclusion: all preferences for foreign blondes aside, it appeared Japanese boys had to do very little when it came to the dating game. In fact, the only game it remotely resembled was Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Perhaps I should give credit where it is due, however. I suppose in their own way, these boys did work tirelessly and with an admirable determination– their unifying goal being the pursuit of awesome hair. In Japan teenage boys tended to carry hand-mirrors in their pockets, whipping them out automatically and without a trace of self-consciousness at every stop on the train to make sure nothing was out of place. At school their jeans were ironed into deadly sharp creases, their jackets worn with devastatingly cool casualness. They stood waiting for the bus, posed against brick buildings like they were shooting an album cover. They were clearly meant to be appraised, admired, and cunningly pursued within an inch of their hip lives. And against their steely-eyed, knee-socked female pursuers, they didn’t stand a chance. They were like delicate fawns with stylish glasses, tripping shyly through the forests of highschool in really cool sneakers.
That girls were the aggressors most of the time was as strange to me as it was compelling. The myth of the quiet, submissive Japanese schoolgirl was put to rest for good the day my host-student Mariko and I stalked a group of boys from Wisconsin for an entire afternoon at Tokyo Disneyland. “There they are!” we’d say in excited whispers, clutching each other, then strolling past them for the tenth time, whistling casually. There were half a dozen of them, all blonde and wholesome and clearly unnerved enough already. It’s no small feat to enjoy yourself at Disneyland in your native country; let alone in Tokyo where a giant costumed Mickey Mouse can come up behind you at any time and yell at you in Japanese. We didn’t leave those poor doomed boys alone until that evening, when we finally got up the courage to approach them and ask innocently if they would to pose for a picture with us. It was too dark for the picture to come out very well, but the glint of triumph in Mariko’s eyes was unmistakable. I was mostly amused by the whole thing. Amused, and slightly terrified. Don’t think I am ungrateful; I certainly enjoyed my time in Japan and still value the lessons I learned from the (female) friends I made there, but it was nice to return home to dynamics between the sexes that I more or less understood, and to boys who didn’t scatter like quail at the slam of a locker door.