TOKYO LOVE CLUBS
(from Tokyo Time Out)
by Blake More
Tokyo has almost everything for the 15 million plus who call her home. Disneyland, JR, the Golden Gai, three Kinokunyas, Juliannas, and just about anything else your heart may desire¾ unless, that is, you're looking for love. One glance at its pre-occupied populace, many of whom say no to church, ignore their neighbors, and somehow work more regularly than they sleep, and it's easy to see why Tokyo seems to consist of all the wrong places. How in the world can anybody meet and fall in love when most of their life consists of falling in and out of home, the train, and the office. Of course, there's always a Shimbashi, Nishi Azabu, or Shibuya disco on that rare free night, but even then, the thick crowds and deafening noise create an atmosphere as kind to love as funneling through Shinjuku station at rush hour.
Even so, one would think that with all the coffee shops, book stores, and vending machines that wrinkle the sidewalks, the odds should still favor of a chance kon'nichiwa passed from boy to girl. Then again, Tokyo only pretends to be America, and most here, Americans included, aren't really brave enough to chat up just anybody, let alone the nearest heart throb. So what then, do these poor singles do if they want to make couples in this pulsating, yet seemingly heartless city?
If they are like the tens of thousands of young Japanese today, they'll probably be merry making at one of the so-called "neruton parties" that have been taking place in and around Tokyo for the last 3 years. Now numbering over 100 parties per week, these trendy singles parties are redefining the race for eligible partners and adding yet another twist to the ancient Japanese dance toward marriage.
Neruton parties owe their genesis, as well as their name and income, to a popular FUJI television program that airs on Saturdays at 11pm called NERUTON. Hosted by Noritake Kinashi and Takaaki Ishibashi, the famous comedian team known widely in Japan as the Tunnels, this five year old program can adequately be described as Walt Disney presents The Dating Game, and it seems to be based on each boy's capacity for showing off and each girl's mastery of o-bento and willingness to act stupid. Every show has a different theme¾ say sports, cars, or fitness¾ and the relationship hopefuls, 15 girls between the ages of 18 to 25 and an equal number of boys from 20 to 28, play games, jump around, and giggle as they try to find the one. The show ends with the boys risking all in a final pledge of expression as they throw themselves before the girl of their dreams¾ or at least the one who remotely attracts them¾ and beg for her hand rather than her soft gomenasai.
Arranged by big travel agencies, marriage arrangement companies, and party planning companies, neruton parties have joined the ranks of TV, relatives, company superiors, and neighbors as contemporary nakodos, or marriage go-betweens¾ a role first popularized by samurai families wishing to further their social status over long distances. And thanks to the printing press and an efficient distribution system, this new breed of nakado no longer has to journey across feudal kingdoms to orchestrate their matches. "The TV program Neruton has also brought many people to our parties, because watching people say I love you or I want to be your lover on TV, gives them courage and makes them realize they can do it too," explains Hirotaka Yonemura of OMMG, a huge Japanese kekkonsodan-sho¾ marriage arrangement company¾ responsible for many Tokyo neruton parties as well as others throughout Japan.
Love Neruton Style
Before "neruton parties," marriages generally fell into two categories: arranged, called o-miai, and love matched, called ren'ai¾ the former being a aligned with the traditional Japanese family system, while the latter, literally meaning "love love," being a byproduct of modern influences. Without question, ren'ai matches are preferred today: like TV drama and pop songs, they represent the type of freedom that the younger generation longs for.
Neruton parties are ren'ai in the sense that most who attend want to fall in love, but they are also like group o-miai, because, one, they offer a chance to check out many marriageables simultaneously, and, two, often those attending will settle for whatever they deem their most viable shot at the alter. Adds Yuri Takeda, a 23-year-old freelance interpreter, "I think neruton parties are more like ren'ai than o-miai, except with a higher reward, because they give us an opportunity for fun. If there is no one interesting, I can go home alone and say I had a good time without having to feel pressured into making a marriage decision. With o-miai, the stakes are much more serious, so neruton style ren'ai matches are always better."
But, as is sometimes the case in Japanese society, just because something is the ideal, doesn't mean that it will institutionalize itself as common practice. Possibly, stoic resolve and the old Japanese proverb, "arranged marriages start out cold and get hot, but love matches start out hot and grow cold," are responsible for the persistence of o-miai. In the words of Miyuki Yoshima, "I'd like to meet my future husband without o-miai, but so far I haven't had any luck with neruton parties or anywhere else. I must try all possibilities."
The last stop before o-miai, neruton parties are the end of the line for those who have yet to fall into a successful love match. Hirotaka Yonemura of OMMG says that a majority of their open neruton parties attract the people who live in suburbia but work in Tokyo, especially OLs, engineers, and computer operators. These are "normal" people, who for one reason or another didn't hook into a relationship during their university days and are now unable to find a suitable mate at the office or through existing social networks.
Even so, neruton parties still contain the taint of desperation and not everybody is eager to embrace the concept of neruton love. Comments one young pragmatist, "I don't need neruton parties because, like Mitsubishi and other big Japanese companies, my company employs many beautiful women so we don't have to worry so much about dating." 30ish nurse Miki Sagimoto is more concerned. "I think neruton parties are like mixing garbage with treasure. I'd rather have an arranged marriage because at least the go-between has knowledge about both of us so we have some idea about each other before we meet. Just going to a party because you want to get married doesn't say anything about each person's true personality."
Others adopt a more neutral stance, preferring increase the probability for a successful link up by exploring both o-miai and neruton avenues. Masami Sato, the 31-year-old heir of a large Tokyo-based publishing company, says "I've had three o-miais, and I often attend neruton parties a few times a month, including the SUPER EXEC parties [for 10 million yen per year and up annual income earners] in Akasaka. For me, I must find a wife, because, generally speaking, in Japanese society, people don't trust a company president who isn't married." He says unlike his colleagues, he cannot date the women in his company because it wouldn't be right for the boss's son to mix business with pleasure. Even a liberated woman like Takeda admits that if she can't find somebody before she's 29 or 30 she'll consent to an o-miai arrangement. "I don't want to be so old that my only options for marriage will be with divorced men."
Thus, although a long way from the days where boys were sent to shrines and told to wait patiently for the hour when their wives-to-be would stroll past for a glimpse of the other's potential, marriage in Japan is still a far cry from the institution elsewhere in the civilized world, as even today, segments of the individual are still swept aside for the stake of marriage.
Not all, however, are willing to say I do just to sooth society, and many neruton regulars admit that even if they can't find their mate through neruton parties, they would rather face life as a singled outcast than opt for o-miai. Complains 23-year-old jewelry maker Michi Kobayashi, "right now, I feel pressured to get married. There are many girls my age who have already gotten married, either through o-miai or ren'ai, so my parents and other people their age are worried that I live alone and don't have a boyfriend. My father says I should go back home to Osaka so I can get married before its too late. I try to tell them that I want to be free until I meet my true love, but they don't understand."
Toyohisa Umemura, a 40 plus "bachelor" who has two divorces and zero neruton parties under his Gucci belt, believes that the real problem with finding love in Japan is that neither men nor women actually know what it means. "We are socialized to think only of building up a strong economy, to be good workers, and seek comfort and similarity, so many have no thoughts of truly falling in love. Men are economic animals seeking sex and power, while women are like dolls looking for someone to make them a good life. People aren't interested in character, unless character includes looks, money, or power. It is basically about living a comfortable life."
All of which brings to mind the concept of sanko, the three "highs" for an ideal mate¾ height, education, and salary¾ that seem to have a lot to do with female love in Japan. Sato's three o-miai didn't work out for the same reason that he collects few phone numbers as he works the neruton circuit. "One of my o-miais was really beautiful, but she, like many of the others I've met so far, are only interested in me because of my fathers company and my prestigious background. I guess I've been Americanized, because I want a woman who is independent and offers me more than what is traditionally expected." 27-year-old Yoshiki Yamamoto from Nezu feels the same way. "I rarely tell the women that I'm a doctor because I want a woman who doesn't care about my salary." Keiko Wakabashi, a happily wed ren'ai, told the story of a friend who had twenty o-miai before she found the man who satisfied her needs. "I remember asking her about his personality, but all she would tell me was how rich and famous his family was."
Other woman, however, cry foul at these generalizations. "I don't care about a man's job as much as I care about his heart." Another says, "I only worry about whether he is the oldest son or not, because since I am the oldest daughter and will take care of my parents in the future, I must marry someone who doesn't hold that responsibility." Some were quick to point out that men often have equally opportunistic motivations for marriage, claiming that there are those who are interested in gaining a live-in maidservant, nurse, sexual outlet and baby machine rather than a lifelong companion. "I had a guy who honestly said to me, 'If you can cook, then you are a very good girl," remembers Koyabashi with flash of anger. Teruaki Nishizawa, a 36-year-old self-proclaimed "survivor" of three o-miai and numerous neruton parties provides further proof of male superficiality by summing up his ideal mate as "a girl with a good heart, and a good outside her heart."
Thumbing through GYARAN, a popular bi-weekly travel magazine that serves as the neruton handbook, it becomes immediately obvious what Tokyo singles are looking for. Listed under names like THE IMPROVEMENT PARTY, WIN-WIN, HEART THROB, BIG MIX, AND SHINING X-MAS, upcoming party advertisements make up the last 20 pages of every issue:
20 Doctors seek 20 university girls for stimulating sights on a day trip to Kamakura. 40 Japanese ladies in their 20s seek foreign men for party and possible American citizenship in Roppongi. Middle aged business men seek darling daughters to carry clubs at a golf outing in Saitama. Hospital nurses seek men to care for at a football match in Shinjuku Koen. Soccer men looking for female amusement lovers at Tokyo Disneyland.
Locations and prices vary from party to party, and, contrary to standard night club practices, organizers don't necessarily tack on a premium charge for men while allowing the ladies to sashay in on a smile. At neruton parties, the emphasis is on eligibility¾ the higher the desirability factor, the lower the fee. So, when a party calls for stewardesses, models, or actresses, the men must pay 15,000 to 20,000 yen¾ regardless of their own marketability¾ to the women's 3,000 to 5,000 yen for the mere chance to slip meshi into such prestigious fingertips. Whereas, when the men are university grads, high income earners, doctors, lawyers, etc, it's the women who pay the price. It's only the generic lonely, say teachers, OLs, salarimen, the over 40s crowd, etc, that are given a fairer shake at the door.
So what exactly happens at these parties anyway? At precisely 5pm one Wednesday night in a tacky rental space in Roppongi, I set out to find out for myself. A neruton party called "DREAM" was just getting under way and with the help of a Japanese friend¾ who as a journalist herself understood the nature of my curiosity¾ I managed to sneak in as an interested single. 60 people, exactly 30 women and 30 men, with either pink or blue numbers pinned to their breasts, stood dolefully at attention as two party emcees, obviously Tunnels wantabes, began to fill the room with the muddled hiss of a cheap sound system. 28-year-old Miyeko Ari an English school secretary from Saitama, looked over at her friend and whispered, "I'm so nervous." DREAM was to be her "first."
After about 20 minutes on the merits of free talking and the benefits of love, the pep squad/lounge lizard team finally put down their microphones. The moment of reckoning had arrived. Get ready, get set, mingle...
Bachelorette #21, easily among the group's most marketable, navigated her Issey Macky suit and four inch heals to up bachelor #48 and handed him a card marked "THE KEY OF HAPPY FREE TIME!!" while skillfully tugging the one he had from his folded grip. Filling in name, number (ID not telephone), profession (but not income), hobby, favorite food, and time elapsed since last significant other, they made faltering jabs at conversation. Once establishing her as a music teacher who'd studied "in New York!" and him as an interior decorator, they moved on to home town. It wasn't long before they'd both moved on to other corners of the unflatteringly lit room.
Bachelor #23, a Ministry of Finance bureaucrat, joined numbers 32, 16, and 51 in the growing circle which lingered like dense musk around bachelorette #54, a life-sized kokeshi doll with perfectly pink lips. "She's really popular tonight," noted 23, with a faraway looked that revealed confidence despite his mounting odds. "Usually, I don't ask for phone numbers any more because by the time I get around to calling them, they've forgotten who I am. But this time, I'll ask, although most girls like that are very cautious."
But, when the party is one like DREAM, where a man must possess at least ni-ko¾ education and income¾ before being allowed through the door, most of the girls can't afford to play picky, especially when they pay a hearty 9,000 yen for a shot at the big boys. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, company presidents, restaurant owners, and editors were just some of the professionals these girls were hungry to get rings from. Bachelor #49 had figured it all out and was willing to share his insight with those he trusted, "the women here tonight are willing to pay a lot because to them the cost is nothing compared to what they get if they catch one of us."
Not surprisingly, a pecking order had definitely surfaced: female moxie verses male money. During a later conversation activity, #11 rushed over and thrust her card between 23 and another woman. He looked up with a bored "oh you" look in his eyes and dutifully checked his card for a match in their vital statistics (initials, blood type, birth sign, prefecture, number of siblings). Nothing. Without speaking, he handed back her card and resumed his previous conversation. A few minutes later, on the other side of the room, next to a platter of mayonnaise consistency and a stack of orange meatballs, two OLs were giggling and fanning themselves over #37, a lawyer they had decided looked like one of the original tunnels. One could only wonder if it was real.
After spending about 90 minutes alternating between bad conversation and worse emceeing, the party was finally winding down. Index cards---again pink for girls, blue for boys¾ were passed around, and each participant was asked to list his or her favorite from the evening's "free time" conversations. The cards were then taken into the back room to see who'd actually gotten their money's worth, leaving the crowd alone, mostly silent under the throes of Japanese pop. A few people snuck out early¾ although their silent faces refused to intimate whether their premature exits were a form of protection or a protest of ambivalence.
When the faux-tunnels came back and launched into their final spiel, the room showed more life than it had all night¾ that is until they announced that a scant three couples had materialized. Six out of sixty. The crowd was despondent.
Bachelor #10 and bachelorette #38 stepped onto the platform and credited their mutual "love for skiing" as their spark for romance. Bachelorette #46 and bachelor #7 mostly giggled and looked down, in respective order, leaving nothing tangible for the still-single audience to learn from. But it was the last match, good old bachelor #23, quite possibly the party's most eligible male, and bachelorette #19, a petite OL that looked like a cut out copy of his earlier choice, that captured the gist of the evening while summing up the chronic state of romance in modern day Tokyo. Just as everyone was getting tingly over his "I liked her because she was easy to talk to and had a sweet, gentle personality" and was ready to put down their cynicism and believe again, she cooed into the microphone, "I like him because of his job with the government."
Yes, there are worse fates than being single in this city.
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