The Economics Of Dating In Japan: Who Pays the Bill?

It's a controversial subject no matter where you're from

The setting: a mid-price range, family-friendly restaurant just before Christmas. A young Japanese couple, early university age, sit together at a table. They nervously hand one another cutely wrapped gifts, fussing over the wrapping paper before opening them.

The guy goes first. He gets a nice Moleskine notebook and a fancy ballpoint pen. He thanks her. The girl goes next. She opens a small box to find a Swarovski earring and necklace set. She thanks him. They finish lunch, they get the bill at the table, and… he only has ¥2,000 in his wallet. The girl opens her wallet and pulls out ¥10,000 which more than covers the bill, and they leave together, both smiling and holding hands. The end.

This actual date happened right next to me when I was writing another article. I made a note of what happened for two reasons: one, they were both being very vocal about their gifts and their discussion of the bill, and two, because it got me thinking about the economics of dating in Japan.

The lingering debate

Traditionally speaking, “men are supposed to pay for everything” on a date, but in my opinion that’s so far out of touch, it doesn’t even bear thinking about. Things are a lot more expensive nowadays (thanks to the ever-increasing consumption tax!), women can work and earn their own living, and frankly speaking, putting the full financial burden of a relationship only on one partner is just plain wrong.

And it’s not just me who thinks that way. According to a 2015 survey conducted in the US and cited in a Sage Journal research paper on “Who Pays for Dates?”, 64% of men believed that women should contribute to dating expenses, while 40% of women felt annoyed if men refused to accept their contribution to the bill.

In Japan, however, there are still some remnants of this old-fashioned train of thought.

For example, a Japanese male friend of mine, while being a very forward thinker and feminist, thinks it’s inappropriate to ask his dates to pay even part of the costs for a stop at a love hotel. Another friend only asks his girlfriend for ¥2,000 towards any dinner bills – even when they cost closer to ¥20,000. And yet another thinks nothing of splurging on the weekends with his lady but subsists on conbini fare the rest of the week.

[…] a Japanese male friend of mine, while being a very forward thinker and feminist, thinks it’s inappropriate to ask his dates to pay even part of the costs for a stop at a love hotel.

I’ve asked all of them why they do it, and they all say it’s “because I’m a man.” Male pride and wanting to look like a good provider means that they’re willing to put themselves through more financial hardship in a relationship, even if they don’t intend on marrying their partner.

That said, there are also plenty of Japanese women who are more than willing to spend or even splurge on their companions. I know a lady who pays for her boyfriend’s gas (for his motorcycle) every month. Another who takes her man on weekend trips to Korea and Hong Kong because she doesn’t want to go alone. And another who treats her boyfriend to trips to whiskey bars and other establishments two or three times a month.

I’ve asked all of these ladies why they do it, and they all say it’s “because I can.” They feel like they are equal partners in the relationship, especially when it comes to finances, and don’t want to bankrupt their partner for the sake of appearances.

So what does this mean for women dating in Japan?

It’s a relatively new concept, Japanese women being able to splash out the cash on their men, but one that financially stable women seem very comfortable with.

As with women around the world in the pre and post-WW2 period, Japanese women were expected to become stay-at-home mothers upon marriage, and, except in special circumstances, any money the wife spent was generally her husband’s.

Nowadays, the number of female workers in Japan is steadily climbing, albeit slowly, with roughly 44.5% of employees of all industries being female as of 2017 according to data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Shinzo Abe’s much-ballyhooed “Womenomics” policy has been attempting to increase the number of women in management positions for about seven years now — with some signs of success (though, yeah, not that many).

Basically speaking, with jobs, financial security, and the status of women in Japan in flux, figuring out who pays what and when while dating is a lot less intuitive and more a point of discussion in a relationship. There isn’t a single right answer that everyone can agree on. It can also become a make or break point for a potential relationship too, if you don’t like what the other partner is offering.

[…] figuring out who pays what and when while dating is a lot less intuitive and more a point of discussion in a relationship.

What about international couples?

For international couples, the differences in culture and economic status might be a little trickier to navigate. Generally speaking, eikaiwa school teachers and ALTs do not make as much money as someone working a steady 9-5 office job in Tokyo. The average salary for an ALT typically hovers around ¥250,000 per month, while a kaishain (office worker) working in IT, for example, will make around ¥350,000 or more according to data from Japanese jobs site That’s not to mention the gender pay gap which, well, we won’t get into right now.

So there’s already a disparity that naturally puts many foreign working women in Japan at a disadvantage. Even with scrimping and saving, it’d be difficult to afford weekend getaways for two alongside any other expenses that you might incur each month.

Some women I know from cultures where men are still traditionally considered the breadwinners have had bad luck dating in Japan. Generally speaking, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and women from particularly conservative Christian religions reported financial issues with dating. Mainly their bad luck stems from having high financial expectations of their dates. This doesn’t just apply to coffee or dinner dates, either. One international lady actually complained to me about her boyfriend not paying for her travel and trip to Tokyo Disney Sea for her. Yikes!

Conversely, an American friend of mine finds it very annoying when men try to pay for the whole date: “It’s like me paying my share or even for the whole thing is somehow an insult. It’s just money – it doesn’t mean anything deeper than I can pay too, you know.”

A success story

Successful mixed couples in long-term relationships seem to all share a common thread – every single one of them sat down together and talked about money and finances early in their relationship. Some even on the first date, apparently.

A Japanese husband and American wife who have been married for 10 years wanted to share their experience:

“When we first met, I was an English teacher at a small school and I barely made two grand a month before all my bills. I couldn’t afford to go on dates every weekend, and I told him as much on our first date. He said he understood, but wanted to see me, so we settled on having cheap dates most of the time, like picnics, things like that. Neither of us had to spend more than ¥1,500 yen to see each other. We saved up for special occasions, and, when I got a better paying job, we celebrated with a nice dinner” (Sarah, 36).

“What was important to me was being with her, so I was willing to pay for our dates, but she told me it made her uncomfortable. Like she owed me something in return. I didn’t want her to feel obligated to be with me. That’s not how I wanted her to see me. So we had high school-style student type dates. It was harder to do than I thought because it meant having to be more creative, but it also made our time together feel more special. I think that’s why we have been so successful together – we had to talk more and work through our ideas more than if I had just paid for everything” (Masa, 37).

How do you make it work for you?

This open communication about money, something that so many consider a taboo topic in conversation, is becoming more and more important. It’s not healthy or wise to hide your finances or any debts you might have from someone you are considering a serious relationship with. That sort of problem goes from being yours to theirs in extreme cases, and financial difficulties are one of the leading causes of divorce around the world.

When you’re just starting out, you don’t have to show your potential beau your bank statement, but you should make sure that you both have realistic expectations when it comes to who pays. That is one of the keys to having a successful relationship in Japan.

If you can communicate honestly about money with one another, and come to a mutually agreeable consensus, then there are very few other topics that you shouldn’t be able to discuss together! This is the cornerstone of a healthy, stable relationship in general — something money can’t buy.

What do you think about paying for the bill on dates? Have you had any awkward, or positive, experiences? 

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