The Charisma Man Myth
Not the butterflies that you've been looking for
Being a white guy in Tokyo means that even though I'm a total loser and failure with women "back home", I can fuck all the hottest women here because they think western English speaking men are the best thing ever.
Or something like that. It's a stereotype that gets thrown around, and I suppose the intention of it is to take someone like me and knock me down a peg or two. After all, insofar as there's any truth in it, then I'm apparently living in an inauthentic delusion based on how much value Japanese women put on me, blowing my ego up to unrealistic proportions. People like that, like me, with ego beyond their reality, need to be knocked down, don't they?
Except as a concept, it doesn't knock me down. I mean, if it were true that there were some place where beautiful women fell over themselves to be with me based merely on the colour of my skin and the language I speak, then I think a case could be made that I'd be an idiot to not go there. But that's neither the reality nor the point. It doesn't knock me down because really, although it's an unintended consequence, the concept actually knocks down Japanese women.
The meme of the loser white foreign guy who comes to Japan and reaps the benefits of undeserved attention from Japanese women is epitomized by a comic strip called Charisma Man . It's probably not known so well now, but for a while it was many foreigner's touchstone reference for describing the phenomenon of foreign men dating in Japan.
I'm actually friends with one of the later co-authors of the comic (Hi Neil!), so I can say with near certainty that the comic was made fully with the intention of poking fun at foreign guys, and there were no racist intentions toward Japanese women. But, I also know as a comedian that the intentions and consequences of jokes don't always neatly align, and results can often get away from you.
The central premise of the comic, its recurring gag , is that the hero of the comic appears as a model-like ideal of a foreign man in the eyes of Japanese women. When foreign women are on the scene, though, he is exposed as a scrawny and unappealing person.
The idea in general, not just of this particular comic, is that Japanese women are blinded to a foreign man's other qualities beyond his foreignness. Being attracted to foreignness on it's own isn't automatically a bad thing. Anyone and everyone is entitled to their fetishes, and if one person is more attracted to another person because of some particular fetish, like height, or success, or breast size, or wealth, or whatever, then sure, what the hell. My personal opinion is that it absolutely does not matter what makes two people initially attracted to each other, so long as everything is legal, both consent to it, and both treat each other with respect and care when they get together. If what your saying is that some Japanese women, when presented with two men who are close enough in all regards, except one is Japanese and one is white, and she chooses the white guy, then fine. That's just a choice.
But, let's go back to the comic. Japanese women are being portrayed as literally unable to visually process any reality beyond their fetish. The reader has Charisma Man shown to him as he appears through the eyes of a Japanese females who see him, and it is not what he actually looks like. Yes, I get that in a way we're also seeing how Charisma Man sees himself, but that self delusion exists only so long as it's supported by the response of the Japanese women around him. Those Japanese women are unable to see what foreign women see, which portrays Japanese women as less capable of making evaluations than their foreign counterparts. Why? Well, the only thing we know that differentiates these star struck women is that they're Japanese. So... racist. Unintentionally racist, but still.
Or, let's take a more current example, this "humour" piece that tries to riff on the "Charisma Man" premise in the form of a mock news article . As a comedian, I have a lot of issues with how this piece fails at comedy in general, a lame attempt to emulate The Onion 's style. But I'm going to set that aside. The relevant thing here is, what does it say about the concept that foreign guys have had it too easy in Japan? That is, after all, the intent of the joke, to make a target of the over-privileged, traditionally an acceptable target for biting satire.
It does try to give a nod to the idea that Japanese women are capable of self awareness and basic perceptions. For example, one fictional Japanese woman is quoted as saying that she only dated a foreigner, who was otherwise unappealing, to annoy her parents. A weird anachronistic take on familial relations, but okay. At least there's some acknowledgement that Japanese women have agency beyond stimulus response. Still, it's too little concession to make up for the collateral damage in the overly ham fisted attempt to exploit the premise. One example foreign man in the piece describes how he's actually a "hideously ugly loser with personal hygiene issues." See how undeservedly good foreign men have had it here? It's so extreme that you could be a complete fucking troll of a man and still do well in Japan. Hah! Get it? Foreign men are such losers, right? Except, if you follow the logic to it's inevitable conclusion, it means that this unhygienic guy was succeeding with Japanese women because they overlooked his disgusting nature in favour of his foreignness. No Japanese woman, no woman, no functioning human, discounts basic hygiene as a criteria in picking a lover. Not even to annoy a parent. In the attempt to push the envelope of humour, the result paints Japanese women as being so extreme in their pursuit of foreign men that they are portrayed as making choices that no thinking human would make.
To the degree that you claim Japanese women are oblivious to problems that would repel foreign women, you're buying into an idea that Japanese women are more indiscriminate than other women. Ultimately, the meme that attempts to put down foreign men ultimately only puts down Japanese women. Do Japanese women deserve that kind of judgement?
Don't stereotypes come from somewhere? Is there at least a grain of truth to the idea that foreign men do better than wherever it is they come from?
Sort of, kind of, sure. Is it bad? Is it racist to fetishize someone because of their ethnicity, or does it just fall into a preference, like for height or eye colour or whatever? I don't think there's a blanket answer to that, because it matters why. I think if a phenotype comes with assumptions, then that can be problematic.
According to some pick up artists , this is an acceptable way to hit on Japanese women, because white men can get away with anything .
I cringe when I hear some other guys, "white" or "black" (in quotes because race is an artificial construct, but holy fuck, let's not go too far down the rabbit hole) or whatever, talking about how Asian women are "submissive" or "know how to take care of a man" or other weird stereotypes that they will tell me in confidence because they assume a comradery with me on the issue. A comradery I don't share, because I don't see so much otherness in Asian-ness. Where I grew up in Vancouver, my school was as much Asian as any other ethnicity, mostly people of Chinese heritage. Those Asian people grew up from birth in Canada as I did, and so culturally they were as Canadian as me. I never perceived Asian-ness as being anything more than one of a few options for appearance, it never said anything to me about the person inside. Still, whatever it is about the visual phenotype, I gravitated toward it, judge me if you will.
There's a certain irony then, in having moved to, and lived half my life in, a country that does have a distinctly different culture that is overwhelmingly connected to a phenotype. Within that environment, I have traded on my foreignness as a look, and my English speakingness as a trait, as components of my overall offer to the women around me. I have had a few relationships, mainly around when I first arrived, where some of the fuel that kept us going was her gaining an inroad to an English speaking world, and me trading that for sex. The novelty of that wears off real quick, though, and those relationships are minor casual fun, and it should be noted that they only happened with a subset of Japanese women at a certain time of their lives, and it was no less fleeting for them as it was for me. Why shouldn't a woman find casual fun in hanging out with a guy in another language, just for kicks, just for a time?
Still, even though now I wouldn't really be satisfied with that kind of superficiality, it's not as if my eyes stopped being green or my origins as an English speaker have gone away. So, if a Japanese woman is considering me for a date, those must factor in.
Which is true for everything else about me. All the qualities that are good or bad depending on who's evaluating them. There are Japanese women who wouldn't date me for all sorts of reasons. Maybe because of my lack of hair, or maybe my income level is too low, or my interests aren't hers, or whatever. There are Japanese women who wouldn't go out with any foreigner because she might think it's kind of a hassle. I have been in social situations where a Japanese guy out-charmed a woman I was interested in because my non-native Japanese, while it might have a certain stumbling charm, lacks the immediate connectivity of a native speaker if he offers an authentic compatibility.
In short, being foreign comes with all sorts of implications, part of an overall matrix. I think for the most part, insofar as one's ethnicity offers exoticness, then it makes a positive contribution. Anything that has a quality of rarity is usually appealing to some degree. But, that positive effect is pretty easily overwhelmed by other considerations. In my experience, being successful in some way, whether it's financial success or artistic achievement or physique or whatever it is that matters to a particular woman, has far more weight than foreignness. Which is probably true in every society. On the inverse, if you have some singularly unappealing trait, for example being unhygienic, foreignness will not save you at all .
I'd love to live in the reality that some people assume, that Japanese women find my gaijin-ness so attractive it gives me a near unbeatable edge. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. My personal experience is that foreignness is exoticness, and it adds a little something, but nowhere near enough to explain the driving force behind the meme that says I'm doing far better than I deserve.
Ethnicity and romance can be a big hot button issue for some people, with a lot of intense feelings, so I feel compelled to make clear that I'm only talking about Japan, and maybe even specifically Tokyo. I was in the Philippines a while back, and a big topic of discussion is older white men and younger Filipino women, where the issue converges with problems of class, wealth, power, poverty, and other stuff. I also know that in North America, there's history of Orientalism and otherness that, among a miasma of other social issues, supports a whole category of porn. But I'm not trying to be be global, I'm just talking about the deal where I am.
In some sense, sheer numbers should account for why you see foreign men in Japan with Japanese women. This is one of the world's most homogeneous societies, where 98% of the population is native Japanese. Not only that, but of the remaining 2%, the vast majority of those are Chinese, Koreans, and Brazilians who are often of Japanese descent, such that English speaking foreigners like me border on statistically non-existent. I live in an area of central Tokyo where it's common to walk down the street and see just enough foreigners to think that that the numbers must be higher, but that's just a function of me living within the gaijin bubble world, and thus going places where people like me go. On a culture wide level, For the average Japanese person, I'm a unicorn.
If you were to look at a thousand foreign guys, if everything fell into convenient demographic distribution, nine hundred and ninety nine of those guys would have a Japanese girlfriend. That's just math, and from that perspective, that foreign men are often seen with Japanese women in Japan seems to be kind of a non-issue.
My personal experience, however, hasn't followed evenly distributed demographics. On a podcast , I was cited as having had been with sixty women over a period of time in Japan. A number I didn't realize was going to get quoted out of casual conversation, and it's super awkward and weird to talk about numbers... but let's just go with it just to have a base to start with. Just off hand, I can think of at least six non-Japanese girlfriends I've been with, and another five who were half Japanese, half something else, and entirely third culture. And I'm almost certainly forgetting some women because I'm kind of subconsciously resisting trying to be too precise. I'm also discounting some women with complicated backgrounds that would be too difficult to account for. In any case, that's roughly 20% of my girlfriends who have been non-Japanese. Way, way over and above the demographic expectation. It makes sense, though, since I live and operate within the gaijin world where I interact with foreigners at a rate way higher than any Japanese person. Unicorns tend to find each other. And, I mean, while I may have a slight preference for the Asian phenotype, I'm not about to turn down a beautiful white chick. Or black. Or whoever else... I mean... look, I like women. For me, ultimately, prettiness trumps ethnicity.
Anyway, I'm not sure what those numbers reveal, if anything, about foreign guys and Japanese girls in general, I guess I'm just kind of venting my perspectives. But, I do know that when I've been with a foreign girlfriend, I have often experienced a particular reaction from other foreign women. I distinctly remember one foreign women I met in Tokyo, just a random person I had a casual conversation with. When I mentioned that my girlfriend at the time was from Minnesota, she said, "Oh, good", in a tone of relief, similar to how I think she'd react if I had told her I beat alcoholism.
There is an inverse stereotype, that can be uncomfortable to acknowledge depending on who you talk to, that pairings of Japanese men and foreign women is much more rare. The vast majority of foreign women you'll talk to... well, the vast majority I've talked to... have a familiar pattern to their descriptions of why they don't date more in Japan. Japanese men are too shy, Japanese men are unappealing anyway, and all the foreign guys are busy being with all the Japanese women, so what's a foreign woman to do?
That said, you'll talk to... I've talked to... a small minority of some foreign women who complain about the opposite. Not too long ago, after one of my comedy shows, I was talking to a tall blond German woman who was leaving Japan soon because she was tired of being treated like a quasi celebrity for her looks. She looked like a statuesque Valkyrian archetype of what Japanese people have in mind when they think of a pretty white woman. People in the streets would want to take pictures of her, and Japanese and foreign men hit on her a lot. I hit on her.
How can both these experiences be right? Sure, one is simply more attractive, but what is it about being in Japan that shapes the discussion beyond that slightly harsh reality?
The metrics of attractiveness and their implications is a big topic, and I'm going completely off into my own unsubstantiated hypothesis here, but whatever, here I go. I think for both women, for all foreign women in Japan, being foreign is actually a plus, just as it is for foreign men. Note I'm using "foreign" as a shorthand for non-Asian foreigners, similar to what Japanese generally mean by gaijin . Anyway, just like for foreign men, foreignness is a very minor plus that has limited utility. While foreigners in Japan are so used to having their foreignness made into an issue over even the tiniest things, it's easy to think that foreignness must be a huge deciding factor in every realm of one's life. But, a throw away comment about one's use of chopsticks is easy to offer. Deciding whether to fuck or fall in love with someone is a more multifaceted and weighty decision. In the realm of romantic interactions, foreignness is one small dial on a huge control panel of options. And it's influence will be felt differently by different people.
One of the most beautiful women, in my opinion, that I met in Tokyo, told me she got hit on about five times a week on average. There's all sorts of reasons to not take that number at face value, but lets not bog down in details. She said about five times a week on average, it's a believable number even if it can't be verified definitively, and it's a number we can work with. On the other end of the scale, I know women who say it has never happened, at all, ever. They just don't get attention from men, foreign or Japanese, in Japan. One friend of mine said it happens so infrequently that it's not something she even thinks about. Nonetheless, I witnessed her getting hit on at least one time in about the five years I've known her, so I know it does happen, but I'll believe her that it's rare. Let's say it happens to her once a year, just to pick a number that is conceivably true.
So both women are in Japan, and let's say I'm right that being foreign is always bonus. It ups their attraction by, I don't know, let's go crazy and say it makes them twenty percent more attractive. That's way more influence than I think foreignness has, but inflating the numbers will make things more clear. For the super attractive woman, that's something like getting hit on six times a week instead of five. Possibly enough for her to notice some kind of increase, and she may like it, or not, or whatever. For the less attractive woman, she now gets hit on six times in five years. Way too low to register as any significant change. It's not like she keeps a spreadsheet of when she's hit on. Like most people, she's only viscerally aware of whatever the most immediate and current condition is. Meaning that the 364 days a year she is not being hit on weighs more heavily in her mind.
If I'm right, and I'm probably not, but if I am, then it's entirely possible for two women to come to Japan and reap the exact same benefit of being foreign that men do, and have completely opposite perceptions of it. But there's a huge dividing line between the genders because of the cultural expectation that the women's role in the dating game is one of passive reception to men's advances. A guy who proactively decides to hit on ten women a day can make more of a twenty percent increase than a woman who feels she needs to wait for opportunity to emerge naturally out of circumstance.
And that's all assuming that we get neatly partitioned numbers over consistent amounts of time, which, of course, is not how life is like at all. There's no guarantee the less attractive woman is going to get hit on one extra time in five years. It's all just probabilities, and possibilities, all spread out over random circumstance over an unevenly distributed population... in other words, with all the noise of life and circumstance and devils running around in the details, the attention increase may not ever actually become manifest in any way that's discernible. Same for the more attractive woman, where an increase in attention could easily be buried in amongst regular attention. And that's at twenty percent, but my feeling is that being foreign doesn't add anywhere near that level of increase.
My take on the German woman who was complaining is that she probably gets hit on about the same amount anywhere in the world she goes, but the added attention of Japanese girls who think she's kawaii and stop her for a group selfie on the street contribute to an overall perception of unwanted attention that spills into her perception of the dating scene. But who knows, man. All I'm certain about is there's a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing when it comes to people's perceptions of how the dating world works.
In any case, a woman's dating experience may or may not be satisfying while in Japan. Whichever way it goes, though, the thing that differentiates dating in Japan from dating anywhere else are convenient stereotypes to explain away uncomfortable frustrations. "Japanese men find me intimidating", "foreign guys are so deluded by the attention they get from Japanese women they've lost perspective"... Dating is hard for most people in most places, but not everywhere hands you a an easily accessible framework to explain frustrations away in terms of issues outside of yourself.
So the whole "Charisma Man" problem is perpetuated by unsatisfied foreign women? Nope. I mean, some of them, sure. But it's not just foreign women who have some internal problem who are the driving engine behind the meme. It's also some Japanese men. And some Japanese women. And some foreign men. Basically, everyone. I just focused on the foreign women because of the obvious symmetry of comparison.
There is a meme that bops around among some Japanese men that only the ugly Japanese women go for foreign men. If the Japanese women that I see with foreign men fall into Japanese men's concept of "ugly", then I will gladly take the Japanese men's cast offs. But, obviously, it's just a thinly veiled racist propaganda piece to discredit Japanese women who date out of their kind. Those same Japanese men will gladly also denounce foreign men as being overly and undeservedly indulged by the women they see as traitors to their people. There are also Japanese women who will cast aspersions about delusional foreign men, even the Japanese women who have dated, or might consider dating a foreigner. I mean, how better to explain away if you've been hurt or rejected? If a foreign man's delusional ego can be made into the source of the problem, then that precludes a lot of potentially disturbing introspection, which no human is keen to do. And yeah, even some foreign men are motivated to work out their internal demons by perpetuating the concept. How better to define yourself as one of the good guys than by separating yourself from the men trading in superficialities?
I'm sure there can be as many reasons for latching onto an easy stereotype as there are people perpetuating it, and they come from every category of person there is. There is one overarching commonality to all of it, which is that it's all about trying to find consolation for one's own dissatisfactions by decrying other people's lives. Which is true a lot of the time someone is dumping on someone else, isn't it?
There is another category of people who buy into the myth that foreignness can trump other qualities when approaching Japanese women. The men who want to, or need to, believe it. It's a whole other kind of sad.
Gordon at the Conbini
One of the comics that I did about life in Japan, this time in Japanese, because there was a time I actually wanted to do things in Japanese.
Gordon at the Conbini
One of the comics that I did about life in Japan, this time in Japanese, because there was a time I actually wanted to do things in Japanese.