All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Dating During The Pandemic, a Tokyo series

A portrait of the current dating ebbs and flows in Tokyo and how the pandemic has impacted how we navigate romance.

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What does love look like when we’re not supposed to touch?

Well, I asked around. Several scenes in Tokyo unfolded before my eyes at once: Two people meet in Final Fantasy. After six months of polite conversations they finally agree to share a virtual onsen together while their guild members aren’t looking. A young university student meets someone on a language app. On their second date, they sneak into the playground on her campus which is locked down due to Covid-19. The guard comes by, shining his flashlight onto them as they quickly hide beneath a bench, holding hands. 

Contrary to popular belief, love is not dead in 2020. Or maybe it is, but we just don’t know it yet and keep falling for people anyway. Just over a month ago I was walking home from the nearest conbini when I saw an elderly couple holding hands while waiting to cross the street. They were formally dressed. Perhaps they had just come from someone’s socially distanced wedding at the ward office. Or maybe they had just shared a romantic anniversary dinner (in September, restaurants and bars were allowed to stay open past ten), the two of them separated from everyone else. Protected. Surrounded by roses. Special clientele, I daydreamed. 

An elderly couple hold hands somewhere in Yoyogi. Sept, 2020

With the pandemic raging on and cities like London and Paris reissuing lockdowns, it’s hard to grasp what exactly people are thinking in Tokyo, the city that seems to be carrying on with less restrictions in place than other cities of such magnitude. The garden variety of residents that make up Tokyo are still washing their hands, wearing masks, and socializing safely (for the most part?).

To further understand the depths of Tokyo and its lovelife amidst the threat of a dangerous virus, I downloaded two dating apps: Bumble and Her. Thus began my gathering of anecdotal evidence as to how people were coping, loving, or otherwise abstaining from the two. 

All dressed up and nowhere to go. End of May 2020. Photo from Vol.6 of “Tokyo Quarantine” a socially distanced art project. (Displayed on dating profile).

I’m spending more time in nature these days. Not meeting anyone. Says Sebastian, 31. 

I just moved to Japan, and I prefer not to date anyone during the pandemic. Andy, 27. 

My last date just got married. Said A., 28. 

Corona wakare.” (We broke up during/because of corona). Yu, 24. 

As much as I’d been deprived of socializing when I began investigating in August, I soon remembered my other passion: not socializing. That’s when Eva, 24, sent me a long block of yellow text, the details of her closed-campus-chase spilling out into our small chat box. 

That’s when I realized I was into him

Her story begins, “We met on a language exchange app, and had a great chat. He is learning Italian, and I am studying Spanish.” She continues. “We introduced ourselves in those respective languages even though I’m Chinese and he’s Japanese.” She includes an ‘x’ here which I interpret as a cute giggle kiss.

She describes how they sneak onto her closed university in summer. In-person classes a thing of the past in her case. Once inside the gate, the two students sit together in a playground they weren’t supposed to enter, eat ice cream, and “look at the stars.” When they visit the playground a second time, they encounter a campus guard. The two scramble to hide underneath their bench, bellies on the ground. The guard’s flashlight lands on their bags which are in clear view. “I could hear my heart beating, x.,” says Eva. A few moments later, her date grabs her hand and whispers, “Run, run!” They hastily crawl out from underneath the bench, grab their bags and beer cans, running as fast as they can away from the man in uniform who chases them for three minutes. 

“We make sure we are safe, and then look into [each other’s] eyes. [We try] to catch our breath, but we’re laughing so hard.” Writes Eva. “I think that’s the time I [realized] I [was] into him.”

Onsen Fantasy

Another story comes by way of a friend of a friend. I reach out to get the full telling. Cassie relates her budding romance in Final Fantasy, which has taken her completely by surprise. Having just moved to Tokyo last year, the 31-year-old was eager to make new friends, but then Covid-19 happened. “Final Fantasy has always been a big part of my life since I was a kid,” she says, “So it was very comforting to go back to that world, especially this year.” 

Upon finding a bilingual group in the game, Cassie was introduced to Sekiro. His specialties include but are not limited to giving archaic Japanese lessons in the guild, and being especially kind to Cassie, the newcomer. “I had some anxiety about going through the game’s story… He kept offering to come with me.” What began as common courtesy evolved into regular late night voice conversations. “Oh, this is a real person.” Cassie realized, not just an animated avatar on a screen. “He almost went through the whole story with me.” 

Other people in the guild began to take notice of the coupled non couple, some encouraging them to get married (in the game, of course). “I asked him to make me takoyaki once, and since then he keeps giving it to me.” Cassie laughs. “He says he can’t cook in real life, but he runs an Izakaya in the game.” Unlike her usual approach to gaming in single player mode, Cassie felt drawn to this haven of community amidst the isolating pandemic. “I was seriously considering going home, I was very lonely. I didn’t have a foundation or anywhere to turn.” She relates. “This was safe.” 

Sekiro and Cassie sharing a socially distanced onsen in Final Fantasy. Oct, 2020.

Having recently been coaxed by a friend in the guild to move to Sekiro’s village, Cassie took the plunge and set up roots in his neighborhood. “I have no idea what he looks like, and he has no idea what I look like.” And yet the two undoubtedly share a connection after six months of getting to know one another in a safe, alternate reality to the one that crumbled around us outside.

“We had an onsen date in bathing suits.” She says laughing. Then shows me the picture of their avatars that she has saved on her phone. “It was surprisingly intimate,” she says. Although, even within the game, they were sitting apart, socially distanced. How of the times. When it’s just the two of them together, Cassie confesses she blows kisses to him, one of the few ways to emote as an avatar. “He pats me.” These endearments, even within the game, are kept secret. “It’s just when it’s me and him.” 

Counting on the possibility

Neither Cassie, Eva, or any of the other people I have spoken with about dating during the pandemic had any concrete idea of what will happen next. One young man related a bizarre story in which he showed up to what he believed would be a one-on-one date, only to arrive at a dinner party with a group of other guys who looked strikingly similar to him. According to him, they had all been lured there under the same pretense, and were all surprised to find their lookalikes at a dinner party. Uncertainty bearing herself as our true partner these days. 

It’s with curious caution that I redirect my attention back to the concept of dating, weary of doppelganger dinner parties, contagious viruses, and the rest of the complexities that make up the idea of one plus another equal-ing enough. So here we are in a time when we’re learning to be alone, resilient, and in many cases trying to get by. And yet, despite the barriers, it seems we’re still clawing at the thing the world dangles in front of us just out of reach, love.

Or rather, the possibility of having it. 

A friendly reminder to be as safe as you can be while dating or socializing. See Covid-19 in Japan for regular updates and a dose of caution. 

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