Probably most people who've spent a long time with Japan have some invisible checklist in their head, filled with all the things they'd like to do, eventually, at some point, when they get around to it. One thing I've always been curious about is going to a goukon, a group date. Until now, I'd only ever seen one in the drama Nodame Cantabile, which featured drinking, singing, and an aged German orchestral conductor, only one of which, I suspected, was common in actual goukon. I finally got to see for myself earlier this week when Shiga, in apology for having fucked up an English Club conference in Oosaka for me, invited me to one.
To be honest, I was a little conflicted at first. On the one hand, what if the girls were hot? On the other hand, would they be going to a goukon if they were hot? On the other hand, would they get invited to a goukon if they weren't hot? On the other hand, if they were hot, I was likely to get nervous and kill the mood for everybody, so hadn't I best bow out, for everyone's sake? On the other hand, what if they were hot?
I was definitely nervous, partly for the obvious reasons, and partly because I wasn't entirely clear what was expected of me. How much of the conversation would I be expected to carry? Would it be structured (perhaps with set questions, or maybe set up like a mini-speed dating session), or more just a party with a particular theme? What boundaries was I working with; for example, would the girls pretend that they totally had nooooo idea that it was supposed to be a goukon, thus making it passe to call it one in front of them? And if the girls did not find me sufficiently entertaining, would I be forever blacklisted from all goukon in the Kansai area, or perhaps summarily executed?
In the end, my curiosity, desire for blogging material, and love of women won out. As anybody in an international relationship will tell you, differences in dating culture are very real, with their own shortcuts and pitfalls to learn; like, I've dated a couple of Japanese girls, right, so I guess I've got some understanding, except that I've actually never dated a Canadian, so in fact I know nothing because I have no basis of comparison. Anyway this whole concept just seems so uniquely Japanese, or if it isn't, then in any case it's definitely not part of the English-speaking world. How do these even work? Obviously this isn't exactly a broad sample, but here's what happened.
In a somewhat strange twist, the event transpired to be held for Shiga's 20th. Which, I guess you can do whatever you want for your own birthday, although oddly enough he did all of the invitation, planned everything himself, and, when he called the restaurant, was awkwardly forced to admit that he was, in fact, making a reservation for his own birthday. To cap it off, Shiga has explained to me more than once that he specifically decided he wouldn't get a university girlfriend because he wants to focus on his studies...yet this is the second goukon he's singlehandedly organized in the last six months. Sometimes I just don't know about that kid.
What really surprised me was the size; in contrast to the raucous 30+ nomikai I had envisioned, it was to be a small gathering of only eight, that is, four on four. Shiga selected what I can only assume to be his three closest and least creepy friends for the task; Photography tragically came down with a bad cold just the day before and had to send a proxy, which was awfully good luck for that guy. In a sitcomesque twist, the guy he sent in his place was basically just Photography as played by a different actor. Shiga's final pick was a guy who already had a girlfriend, which seemed to me to completely defeat the purpose, but ok. For the girls, he grabbed a friend of his from high school and entrusted her with the rest. So the players were chosen: Shiga, myself, Photography's buddy, a guy with no solid reason for being there, and four girls from a university even more obscure and low-quality than our own.
To ease the process, Shiga opened up a LINE conversation and had everybody introduce themselves, which I expected, but this then spiraled into a round of small talk that I would have thought more appropriate for the evening itself. But then I thought, what if this is actually all part of the process. What if they're all feeling each other out right now, making judgments on who's a good conversationalist, who has the most interesting hobbies, who might be worth looking into further. And then I thought, shit, I'm kind of not saying anything at all, here. Excellent, we're fucking up already. I hastily tried to powerslide back into the fray, with no idea what kind of impression I was making.
Mercifully, this stage somehow only dragged on for a few days. In stark contrast to many things I've done in Japan, where the planning time for any given social occasion exceeds the length of an average parliamentary session, with just as many sub-committees and as much indecision, the day was upon us almost before I'd prepared for it. I did my normal date things, which is to say, I straightened my hair, tried not to dress like a homeless person, and so forth, and then we were there, suddenly a blob of eight young, vibrant people trying not to make eye contact or accidentally interact with each other. Shiga had reserved a private booth in a really, really upscale-looking cafe/bar type thing in Imagium, which favourably impressed the girls but made me worry for my pocketbook, even though I knew the price had already been set beforehand. The lighting was low, the décor mildly eclectic, the patrons mixed, and the staff unusually jokey and conversational.
As we sat down, broken up into teams of two, I realised that although I had gathered some basic impressions about the people I was about to spend the next couple of hours with (remember, I didn't know anybody there besides Shiga), I could not for the life of me tether the faces in front of me to their LINE personae. Fortunately neither could anybody else, prompting a recap of the small talk that had already ensued. The first ten minutes went roughly how you would expect a room full of 19-year-old Japanese kids to play out, which is to say that momentum was painfully slow to build.
It was at this point that I had a minor revelation: I can lead an English conversation to water and outright force it to goddamn drink, but I still have limitations in Japanese. In English, I can dominate a crowded room without ever raising my voice. I can end an argument with a few well-chosen words, or shut down a heckler with a surgical barb. I can cajole even the most listless and uninterested of interlocutors into choking out an opinion or a response. In Japanese, I'm still working on that. I manage much better when somebody else is doing the legwork, allowing me to focus on timing over volume. When I get that going, I can appear fluent, and witty, and “learned” with two syllables. If I'm with somebody shy, I struggle. The two girls sitting across from me and Not Photography were shy.
Luckily, as I have mentioned before and will do again, Shiga is savvy. I have solved many problems by throwing Shiga at them, or asking him for advice about them, or casually mentioning them in his presence. So when he saw that the conversation on our end of the table had somewhat bottomed out, whereas his was rockin', he called for a change of seating on the pretense of just mixing it up. Fortunately, the other pair had a lot more energy and sociability, and so thanks to this tactical move the tempo was able to start ramping up.
All four of the girls were in the physical sciences; specifically, they were being educated as sports trainers. All were passionate about sports and were even in the “sports rehabilitation club” at their school, whose athletes they actually treated for actual injuries. I could not care less about either sports or biology, but I feigned profound interest as I tried to at least figure out what exactly the fuck they studied, and how. Shiga's friend, though she didn't look it, was one-quarter French and one-quarter Italian, and was considering studying abroad to France. Somehow the fact that I am a foreigner didn't come up until almost the end of the night, making me wonder if they'd noticed. I may live for attention, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing.
For my part, I think I did all right. I certainly didn't dazzle my audience with a jaw-dropping display of courtship prowess, but at least I managed to avoid being blatantly offensive, or worse, boring. Being that it was a goukon, we had decided before that the guys would bear a little more of the cost, and then there was a great kerfuffle as everybody except for Shiga simultaneously tried to avoid letting Shiga pay for himself. I purposefully laid out a little extra just because I'm older.
Rude Boy: Thank you very much, seriously!! I had a great time! And your friend from high school is cute ^^ But I wonder if I took my non-joking joking flirtation too far? If I did, I'm sorry
Shiga: It's fine! She says so herself ^^
Rude Boy: What the hell? Did you show her the message?!
Shiga: I showed her! She was super happy
Rude Boy: ...lol, whatever
I do still have one question left unanswered: Exactly how many goukon result in a romantic relationship? I'm going to suggest “not very goddamn many,” but I could be wrong.