Nanpa *is girl-hunting, the Japanese art of the pick-up. When you see a guy standing on a street corner cat-calling, or getting charmingly loquacious with a J-girl at a club, he’s doing *nanpa. I’ve never had much of an interest in or knack for it…at least with girls. Somehow, though, I’m an absolute master at turning a Japanese guy I’ve never met before into my best friend, in the space of a few minutes. Last semester, I’d have nights where I’d go out to a club, completely fail at interaction with the females, but end up making friends with a couple of the DJ’s, the bartender, and some random dudes that would come out with me to Saizeria (a Japanese Denny’s) when the club closed at 5am. My friends have dubbed it otoko (man) nanpa, the art of the Man Pick-Up. I think a large percentage of this is just being an outgoing American (I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ stories), but I keep surprising myself with how unintentionally good I am at it.

Case in point: last night. P1070736I’m traveling in Osaka with my dad, and after dinner, I left him at the hotel to find something fun to do. It didn’t take long. I saw a guy holding flowers, asked him what the flowers were for, and when he told me, congratulated him on finishing his first year of college.  P1070739Suddenly I’m surrounded by eight guys, and they’re telling me where to go in Osaka, trying out their (often vulgar) English and smiling really widely when I get what they’re saying, offering me sacrificial virgins (or at least cute female friends) to flirt with, and generally turning our little space in an Osaka alleyway into party central. We went and grabbed some beers (they wouldn’t let me pay), and spent an hour-ish at a karaoke place down the street. I headed home with five new keitai mail addresses in my phone, and five invitations to party if I ever make it back to Osaka.


I’d like to say that my odd success with guys here is due entirely to my stunning good looks, perfect Japanese, and winning personality, but that’s not entirely accurate. The first few times I ended a night with new friends, it was entirely unconscious, but before long, I started to get a sense of what J-guys respond to, how to open up a group of them, how to fulfill their image of what a cool foreigner should be. Japanese people want to hear English, and practice it on you. They want to hear about your experiences in Japan, but they want to hear about life in the States more. They want you to teach them slang. They want you to affirm them, to give a mark of authenticity and approval to the American clothes they wear, or artists they like. They want a story to tell their friends, and it’s so easy to create that story for them. A few “Yes We Can!”s, a few compliments on their clothes/hair, a few “I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, too!” and a “come party in San Francisco anytime,” and I’m in. I feel a little guilty for reinforcing stereotypes, but it’s not like I need to lie: the game is selective enthusiasm. A society who has learned about the West from music and television expects more excitement, more slang, more* Americanness* than exists most places, especially in California and the Pacific Northwest. In Japan, the cheesier the better, because the more “American” they can identify something as, the cooler it gets. 

The complete lack of a Japanese sarcasm detector helps the pick-up. Westerners have a nose for mockery. If I was to go up to a group of guys wearing basketball jerseys and Fubu jeans in San Francisco and tell them their clothes were “really cool,” at the best, I’d get a cold, confused scare, and at the worst, I’d get my ass kicked. Likewise for calling a punk rocker’s tattoos or piercings “interesting.” It’s not that we hate compliments here, it’s that when we receive an unsolicited one, we make a snap judgement about the intentions of the person giving it. We decide whether they’re the sort of person that understands our culture well enough to compliment us, whether they’re trying to get something out of us, or whether they’re simply expressing amusement at some amusing facet of our person. Western wit is heavy on the dry humor and sarcasm, so you’re socially crippled without this sense. In any given situation, you need to know whether to thank someone, laugh, or defend your honor against a verbal assault. I’m sure a group of my peers would open up and hang out with a nifty person we randomly meet, but we’re also quick to turn on our hipster judgementalism on anyone that seems less than genuine.

With the Japanese, though, the cheesier the better- I’ve found greeting a group with “Yes We Can!” and a big smile rarely fails to get a good response. I find Japanese humor pretty straightforward, delivered through slapstick, funny imagery, or big shifts in tone of voice. They tend to take statements at face value, which sometimes gets me into trouble. The same dry jab that might get me a smile from an American usually confuses Japanese people until I explain that I’m joking (and even then, they often just nod and pretend to get it).

I think the way we deal with humor may be a reflection of the focus on individuality versus group-ism we find in each culture. Western humor, at least the intelligent sort, is about being the guy who ‘gets’ it. It’s about being subversive and flipping the world inside out. It’s about articulating the hilarious incongruity in actions public figures take with utter solemnity, the flat punchline that brews in the audience for five seconds before they laugh, the ability to capture a personality or situation in a facial expression or accent. Maybe I just haven’t found the right Japanese comedians, but Japanese humor seems to be all about laughing as a group. The jokes are one part slapstick (“You hit him!”), one part banal departures from normality (“You’re wearing women’s clothing!”), part kind of banal questions asked in escalating accents (“Your girlfriend always wants to cook for you, but sucks at it?“). The points in the show or performance to laugh are obvious even to someone with limited language ability, and we all laugh together. That’s not to say it’s not funny- the humor here has grown on me quite a bit- but I find really intelligent humor lacking here. If anyone’s found some, by all means, let me know in the comments.

Partying with random people I meet is no substitute for good times with friends, but when you’re waiting for a train, traveling with your dad, or just randomly end up somewhere with time to kill, it’s a great pastime. Part of this may have been due to being underage drinking-wise, but until now, if I was traveling alone or with non-partying people in a city I didn’t know, the extent of my exploration would be a morning jog. In Japan, I can walk into the middle of town, looking for a good time, and God delivers. It’s another of those weird, wonderful things that makes this country so darned addictive.