Letters from Japan: ‘Communication Issues’

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
September 23, 2022
Ask Hilary

Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Send it to askhilary@savvytokyo.com.

Hey Hilary,

I’m American and dating a Japanese guy—we both live and work in the same industry in Europe. We’ve been dating for three months and I think I’m the first non-Japanese person he’s ever dated. I’ve dated Asian American guys before without trouble, but I’m really having communication problems with him.

We met online and chatted fine, obviously started casually dating in person and things are going really well. He’s a total sweetheart when we’re out together, we have similar hobbies and interests, do activities together and we can talk for hours in person.

We had no problem talking on the app, although we only talked on it for three days before meeting up. Like I said we talk for hours in person but he’s horrible when it comes to texting. He leaves me on read constantly, forgets to reply and doesn’t check in on me like other guys I’ve dated. We both work stressful jobs and he apologizes when I ask why he didn’t text back but it’s kind of annoying.

How am I supposed to handle his texting problem? Is it just a Japanese thing? 

Text Checking

Dear Text Checking,

It sounds like you lead a pretty fascinating life, which is awesome!

It’s great that he apologizes for not texting you back but I can understand the frustration that can cause. This is a fairly new relationship, you and he are likely still figuring things out in terms of it being casual or serious, so there are bound to be some bumpy patches as you two get to know one another.

Communication issues are a common complaint from women when it comes to men overall, but the number of non-Japanese women who have this problem with their Japanese partners seems disproportionately high. Just doing a quick poll of acquaintances, I counted 20 couples that consider this an issue.

There are three typical reasons for this that have applied to numerous couples including the 20 mentioned above.

The first is simple: he really is that busy and struggles to text or use his phone when he’s not working. It happens. Perhaps you’ve been guilty of the same before. Some people consider their phone an extension of their work and avoid looking at it when they’re finally free for the night or weekend. Others might read a text, get distracted/busy and forget if they’ve replied or not. How long is the average time you have to wait for a reply from him?

Some people consider their phone an extension of their work and avoid looking at it when they’re finally free for the night or weekend.

You mention wanting him to check in on you—what does that mean exactly? Like a good night/morning text, or are you asking him to message constantly throughout the day? The first is feasible but understandably can be missed sometimes when working and so on. Requiring constant communication throughout the day, however, is less of a communication issue and likely more related to insecurity in the relationship itself. That being said, if he’s forgetting to reply for days on end, then it is an issue that needs addressing.

As you stated it’s “kind of annoying,” which I’m sure most people can agree with. Waiting to hear from someone and not getting a reply is frustrating. Do you consider texting consistently and checking in via texting an essential part of a relationship? Does a lack of texting mean you feel less inclined towards having a romantic relationship with that person? If so, express how important this is to you in that regard; he may not see it the same way and therefore realize how much it bothers you.

Another, relatively straightforward reason for his lack of texting could be that it’s just not his love language. He might consider texting to be less meaningful than his actions/behavior during dates. You, on the other hand, might rank texting/verbal communication higher and therefore his lack of texting feels like a lack of interest in you.

…it’s just not his love language. He might consider texting to be less meaningful than his actions/behavior during dates.

The third option is tangentially related to the second and may be an underlying aspect of the problem itself.

Since you’re American, he’s Japanese, and you’re both living/working in Europe, I assume you and he are very good at communicating in your careers, possibly in multiple languages. That being said, you both also come from two very different cultures in several senses of the word.

While a debated subject given the rise in globalization and internet culture, context in communication styles do have merit in interpersonal relationships. Essentially Japan is a high context society whereas the U.S. is a low context society.

What this basically means is that in Japan less direct verbal/nonverbal communication is more meaningful overall (“actions speak louder than words”) whereas in the U.S. direct and explicit communication is valued. You might want to do some reading on social contexts to have a better understanding of how this may impact you in regards to your relationship as well as how it could affect work as well.

Take, for example, one couple I know that struggled with similar communication issues. He (Japanese) would bring home drinks and small treats for her (American) but wouldn’t say “I love you” or anything flirtatious, especially not in front of anyone else. She meanwhile, does say more direct things whenever and wherever she felt like it. Eventually, he snapped and told her it was embarrassing to hear those things, especially in public and she clapped back that he never said it therefore he didn’t love her. It took some couples’ therapy, but they eventually came to understand one another (and are still together).

…in Japan less direct verbal/nonverbal communication is more meaningful overall (“actions speak louder than words”)…

You two have only been dating for three months so couples’ therapy might be a bit of a stretch, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to one another in person about this. In fact, depending on how important you feel texting is, this could be what makes or breaks your relationship.

As you stated, you believe you may be the first non-Japanese person he’s dated. He could be struggling with the cultural differences but feel unable to express what he’s feeling himself. He might find texting to be less important than the time you spend with one another and not understand why texting matters so much to you. So having a proper discussion where you both lay out how you feel about your needs in a relationship, such as texting frequency, could be in order.

Sitting down together and approaching the subject of how you communicate will likely help you both to understand one another. Without attacking one another, you could bring up the subject of the lack of texts in regard to love language. Such as “I appreciate getting texts from you, they make me happy” rather than “Why don’t you text me more, I need more from you.” In fact, you might both want to consider taking a love language quiz to help determine how you both stand in that regard as well.

Again, as this is still a new relationship, there are a number of things to discuss and work out together if you want it to continue or become something more serious. So long as you approach the issue from a place of calm, thoughtful conversation, you two should be able to work things out. Best of luck.

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