Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Izu Life: Attending a Goukon in Japan

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Friday night found me standing outside a train station waiting for my ever-late friend and host of that evening's "goukon." A goukon is a kind of mass date that is popular in Japan where a group of (mostly) strangers meet up for some beer and laughs and then afterwards the couples that clicked call each other for follow-up dates. Such practices are becoming increasingly common and important in a country with a declining birth rate and where working individuals are finding less time to build meaningful relationships. Goukons provide a relaxed atmosphere to essentially date several people all in one evening. I myself had been asked to join this goukon after a couple of the host's friends pulled out. I shifted nervously, hoping my outfit was appropriate; heels, cigarette pants, and a boyfriend blazer. A group of boys standing nearby were jostling each other and giggling; obviously at the start of a big night out themselves and less nervous about it than me. 

"How late is she now?" my friend I had roped into doing this with me asked.

"8 minutes."

But just then we spotted her brilliantly bright pink coat weaving through the crowds of dull salary-men suits towards us. Surrendering her ticket at the gate, she jogged over to us, all apologies for being late. Another couple of women who had been standing nearby shuffled over and introduced themselves. To my embarrassment, we had been standing next to some fellow attendees for the same goukon for the past 10 minutes without realizing it. Only our host knew all of the guests. She introduced us all then quickly bobbed away to hug one of the boys who had been jostling with his friends earlier. Oh, God. They were the guys we were here to meet? It was going to be a long night...

Immediately, our host introduced us to the 5 young men who suddenly adopted mature poses. Politely, each greeted us and introduced themselves formally. Now that I looked closer, the "boys" appeared to be in their mid-20s, like us. Each worked for the same engineering company and had lived for several years in Canada, making their English skills surprisingly exceptional. 

With little time to spare, we hiked off to make our reservation in time at an izakaya near the station. Slow in my heels, I brought up the rear. One of the boys dropped back to walk with me and I spent the remainder of our walk trying to teach him to pronounce my name, ("Seh-rah." "Sa-ra?" "Close enough.")

Arriving at the izakaya we managed pack all 10 of us into a single booth and the beer flowed. Small courses of meats, various fried vegetables, and mini-salads kept coming. Still the guys' appetites could not be stemmed so four of us ordered a "Russian Roulette" Takoyaki Plate. It comes with four takoyaki (octopus balls) but two of them were laced with a dangerous about of chili powder. While the other two partakers of the aforementioned dish ran to the bathroom to rinse out their mouths, me and my new friend--having freshly bonded over non-spicy takoyaki--struck up a conversation about Australian drop bears

Much of the evening consisted of the guys pointing at each-other and accusing one another of being lecherous. It was as if they were trying to point out which was the least sketchy, and therefore, the best catch. 

"What kind of guy do you like?" they kept asking. 

"I don't know!" I replied, a bit tiddly by this point. "I like guys who don't answer back!"  I said because I couldn't think of anything to say and a terrifying image of a Japanese housewife kept flashing in my mind. Is that what they were looking for? Someone to stay home all day, make them sandwiches and raise their children? Because that is all that Japanese culture had lead me to believe about marriage in Japan. 

"What do you mean?" they asked. 

"I mean, I want to be in charge!" Did I sound assertive, or just drunk and rude? "I'm not going to be a stay-at-home-mum!"

The guys looked around in confusion. Perhaps I had cocked this up badly. Had I crossed some invisible line of appropriateness? On the other hand, it seemed to me that living in Canada had taught them nothing about women's suffrage and equal rights. And since when was I looking for a boyfriend anyway? I've been happily single for two years now... Was this goukon awakening something in me? Or perhaps it was just too much beer combined with some invasive questions? My nerves, at some point, had developed into indecision about my complicit participation in this group date. 

It was also surprising to find myself sitting at a table with a group of young men, screening a group of women who were essentially strangers for 'wife material.' Had the delicate art of finding a mate been reduced by the industriously efficient Japanese mindset to a screening process in the form of a mass date? Why date one woman at a time when you can save time by inviting five different women on a single date? 

It was probably the first time I had been scrutinized like that by a Japanese man for my girlfriend/wife potential. Generally speaking, when a Japanese man looks at a non-Japanese woman, he sees an overly-large, sometimes awkward (that comes with the territory of living abroad), and--when compared with the frilly fashion choices of Japanese women--less girly than their counterparts. But these men where being polite, conversational and seemingly interested. Had living in Canada enlightened these men to the possibility of foreign women after all? The intensity of their gaze and their questions almost convinced me. 

At the end of the night, after many beers and fun memories, I left the izakaya with a sense of accomplishment and happiness. I had been nervous at the start of the evening, but I felt much more relaxed at the end. Maybe it was the alcohol, but I definitely felt a sense of confidence. I didn't resemble a 1950's housewife and that's okay. Because I'm happy with who I am and conforming to anybody else's idea of how a woman should behave means you're life is probably going to turn out pretty miserable. Maybe I hadn't made a great impression at the goukon, but the good news was it didn't matter. 

That sense of confidence seemed to have had an effect. The next day I received a call from one of the guys asking for a follow-up date. 


  1. A very interesting experience.
    Of course I know about those group dates, but in my 6 years in Japan I haven't been to one.

    I also haven't dated a Japanese guy or any guy since moving to Japan. I find it quite difficult for a foreign woman in Japan to be honest. I suppose it's even more difficult if you live in the boonies like I do.

    I'm glad that you had fun and who knows, maybe you and that guy will become a couple! ;)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I've attended two of these goukon thingies since I arrived in Japan two years ago. They sure are interesting and a lot of fun but boy do the guys mean business! Their questions can get pretty intense!

    2. I doubt I'll get to attend one. I'm over 30 and you know what they say about women here who are still single in their 30s, right? ^___^;

      I guess most Japanese men my age are already married and for the ones that aren't there might be a reason why they're not. *g*

      It would be interesting to attend one, though.

    3. Why not host one? They are a lot of fun and you get to make a lot of new friends in one evening.

      I know what you mean about the bizarre Japanese mindset when it comes to women and dating. Its honestly outdated. What a strange thing to think that there is a "window of opportunity" for someone to find their life partner and that window closes at 30+.

    4. Haha, not so easy. You should invite friends your age, right? But they all live far away.
      I just moved last year. And all my co-workers are in their 50s and married! ^^; ...

      THIS!! Totally agree.

    5. You must really be deep in the "boonies!" I live in a rural area too. Maybe you could attend a goukon-style party in a larger city? Surely a weekend trip to a city for the purpose of a friendly get-together isn't out of the question? :)

    6. Another problem is my working schedule. I have to work Saturdays and I work until 10pm. It's not so easy! ^^;
      I do enjoy living in the boonies, though. That's what I want! :)
      I guess you can't have it all.

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