In a 2018 Japanese survey, 51.6 % of women and 40.8% of men said that they had some level of interest in an international marriage. Among Japanese men, the most desirable nationalities for a prospective international partner were Thailand, China, and Taiwan. Among women, they were the United States and South Korea. And more than 70% of Japanese people who studied or lived abroad had experience dating a foreigner at some point in their lives.
The “gaijin hunter” in Japan has become a general mythology—albeit one based on truth. The word gaijin means ‘outsider’ or ‘alien’ and is a crude way of referring to a non-Japanese person. Stereotypical gaijin hunters specifically seek out foreigners in their romantic life, sometimes just for a casual fling, other times in pursuit of marriage.
But just how real is the gaijin hunter in 2023?
[Editor’s note: This article largely focuses on heterosexual relationships and does not examine the complexities of dating for LGBTQ people in Japan. If you have experience with dating as an LGBTQ person in Japan and are interested in sharing your experiences, please reach out to us.]
The evidence for the “gaijin hunter”
While it’s difficult to find any convincing academic research describing gaijin hunters, a substantial body of research observes a fetish for whiteness in Japanese society.
A coloristic preference for pale skin has roots in traditional Japanese beauty ideals. But a paternalistic relationship with the U.S. following World War II and a century of media portrayal combined to put European whiteness on a pedestal. Scholars argue that the power dynamics of whiteness from the U.S. are replicated in Japan, with whiteness on the top. (Although, at the same time, Japanese nationality/culture is seen as superior.)
Surveys and interviews unveil some of the common reasons Japanese people say they’re interested in foreigners: Blonde hair, blue eyes. How cute half-Japanese babies are. The potential of a marriage visa to leave the country. Ideals of the western gentleman, as opposed to a more controlling Japanese husband.
How much does this fetish actually affect dating lives on the ground?
Beyond anecdotes, it’s hard to see the gaijin hunter phenomenon in data. Among Japanese-international marriages, partnerships with Chinese, Taiwanese, South Koreans, and Filipinos are all more common than with Americans or Europeans. Research also shows that even self-described gaijin hunters ultimately choose to settle down and marry fellow Japanese.
As a part of a series of articles in the Japan Times, I interviewed a dozen people in Japan about the contemporary dating culture. Although most foreigners reported some sort of experience with gaijin hunters, the reality of these interactions is more complicated than it seems.
*I’ve assigned all interviewees pseudonyms for anonymity.
Japanese women pursuing foreign men
Interviewees all agreed on one thing: that there were many more foreign guy-Japanese girl relationships than vice versa in their circles.
Part of this has to do with foreign men’s interest in Japanese women. (Research also describes a western fetish for Asian women.) “At my school, so many guys instantly got into relationships with Japanese girls. But I don’t know a single one of my female friends who did with a Japanese guy,” says Lily Kane, a 25-year-old student a language school in western Japan. “A lot of the guys in my class admitted that they like Asian women, so they’re actively looking for it.”
However, several of the daters qualified that this two-way interest doesn’t make dating Japanese women necessarily easy for most men.
“No Japanese women show interest in me in person,” says Joe Lewis, a 34-year-old event organizer. “But I have had girls [from dating apps] that say ‘It’s great that you’re a foreigner,’ which is a huge turnoff. I’m skeptical about the type of girl that likes foreigners but doesn’t have any experience abroad.”
“A lot of women [like that] completely rely on the guy to keep the conversation going, plan all the dates,” Lewis says. “I want her to invite me out, be interesting, say what’s on her mind.”
Foreign men noticed that this interest almost exclusively applies to white people. “I think South Asian are generally looked at unfavorably,” says Bitan Islam, a 27-year-old British-Bangladeshi engineer. “South Asian kind of stands at the bottom of the tiers of foreigners, and the other South Asian friends I’ve spoken to agree. And it’s not just for guys, but girls as well.”
Gaijin hunter interactions: more uncomfortable than romantic
The white men interviewed for this article agreed they experienced attention. But usually the described attention either felt like a turnoff or simply didn’t lead to any actual romantic involvement.
John Roland, a 25-year-old resident of Tokyo, says he experiences comments like silly comparisons to movie stars or hypothetical expressions of interest (i.e. ‘how cool it would be to date a foreigner.’)
“It’s almost a celebrity crush kind of phenom,” Roland says. “Kind of similar to when girls will say something about liking a TV star. They tell their actual partner to not worry, it’s just a fantasy.”
“I don’t think it’s truly easier to date in Japan [even as a white guy]. It’s easier to date in the U.S. as Japanese people are pretty reticent to start relationships. I see more situations where Japanese girls will express themselves in a [flirtatious] way that they wouldn’t to a Japanese guy.”
Men can be gaijin hunters too
While people see the gaijin hunter trend more strongly in the Japanese women-foreign man pairing, the reverse is far from unusual. Kane says that she feels like most of the Japanese men she has gone on dates with were gaijin hunters.
“They always tell me it’s so cool that they’re with a foreigner or that I speak English,” Kane says. “A lot of times you meet people and they say let’s go to a hotel, let’s go have fun. They say western women have a reputation of being easy.”
“I always have to wonder, do people want to meet with me because they’re interested me in a person, or do they just want to be seen with a foreigner who can speak English?”
The existing fetish for whiteness extends to foreign women, per interviewees. “White girls get a better rep than Southeast Asian, Indonesian, Filipina, and Black girls,” says Anna Tanaka, a 24-year-old with an American father and Japanese mother. “I’ve had people say they want to [have sex with] a hafu, and people seem to think I’m easier because I’m half-white.”
Caroline Jones, 40, has also experienced men hoping for sex because she was a foreigner. “I’ve often been sent dick pics, which is incredibly upsetting.” Other interviewees, including Chinese and other non-white women, cited similar experiences.
Rachel Williams, a Black American resident of Tokyo, says on the rare attempts she made at a romantic connection, she encountered countless stereotypes. “Other times, I was sexually harassed or my appearance was mocked, or I was ignored in favor of white women at a nightclub,” she said.
The tricky reality of dating in Japan
Exoticism, fetishization, racism, and more come in to play when dating in a foreign country. All interviewees expressed a range of complaints about the difficulties of dating life in Japan. Most also said that they found dating easier in their home countries.
Fetishes and racial preferences are far from the only factors affecting the gaijin hunter phenomenon. A gap in gender roles and expectations between cultures also matters. Foreign women interviewees said that Japanese men were surprised and even frustrated if they expressed assertiveness. Other times, men showed strict preferences around makeup and dress.
On the flip side, foreign men interviewees expressed relief at not being expected to live up to western ideals of hyper-masculinity. “In the U.S., there is an image of hyper-masculinity that men are expected to live up to that Japanese women aren’t looking for, and there’s more of an ideal of seiketsukan, or cleanliness,” says Roland.
“[Likewise,] I think a lot of heavier Japanese girls will have more success dating non-Japanese guys because expected figures are so thin in Japan. It is natural for people to lean into dating markets where they feel like they’re perceived to be more attractive.”
The contemporary gaijin hunter is real and poses more problems than opportunities for most daters. But overcoming the language barrier, possessing an awareness of Japanese dating culture and stereotypes, and searching for open-minded people offer a chance at real romantic success.
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