I'm thinking of expanding my horizons by going to teach English in Japan. But first, I want to know if it's true. Can an average-looking American white guy clean up over there? With the Japanese ladies, I mean.
I'm glad I made up this question, because I've been wanting to talk about the demise of a cultural icon: the inexplicably popular white dude in Japan, a.k.a. the "Charisma Man."
Perhaps you've heard some version of his story: schlubby white guy-not always American, but almost always white in the retelling-goes to Japan, and poof. Women swoon. Bakersfield's Screech becomes Tokyo's Zach Morris.
The name "Charisma Man" comes from a late 1990s comic strip exploring this phenomenon. The comic follows the adventures of a (white) Canadian dork who becomes an Adonis in Tokyo. Charisma Man's mission is to bravely woo beautiful Japanese women while dodging the barbs of his arch-nemeses-busty western chicks who crack wise and call him a nerd on their Tumblrs.*
A new "Charisma Man" book came out last month, but instead of celebrating the CM's continuing conquests, everyone seemed to be asking whatever the hell happened to that guy? Recently, the Japan Times website invited readers to share their thoughts on Charisma Man. Some submissions were essentially self-eulogies. (One example: "I remember how the Western women would openly lament how dire the dating scene was in Japan and give us guys the evil eye whenever we were spotted with our Japanese 'fan club' out for drinks." )
The truth is, no one is so impressed with foreigners here anymore. And within this subgroup of would-be Charisma Men from the west, the popularity of Americans-beta male or otherwise-is pretty low. (The JET program-which for 23 years has subsidized a year-long sushi party for a hoard of young, mostly Americans-is on the chopping block.) The Japanese government's increasingly tenuous relationship with the U.S. is echoed in the skepticism of my Japanese girlfriends who, when I introduce them to a guy from the States, have been known to lean in and whisper, "Is he really cool? Or just cool here?"
To talk to veteran Charisma Men in Japan-and there are many, holed up in westerner bars, whereas 15 years ago they would have been peacocking around Roppongi Crossing-is to get a sense that you missed a critically important era. They will tell you about a time when otherness could still be leveraged into a few hours at the love hotel, and when the booming English conversation school business meant that almost any native speaker with the money for plane fare could become a sensei. With a fan club.
From a cynical perspective, this is the expat equivalent of Southern good ol' boys bullshitting about a time when being a white American male really meant something. More charitably, Charisma Men are just dreamers, pining for a beautiful bygone era when all the pretty girls plain loved America.
Retired Charisma Men always talk about moving somewhere else-maybe China, or Thailand, but rarely back home. There must be somewhere left in the world where even an asymmetrical dude from the states can be embraced without scorn or skepticism, right?
*"Charisma Man" touches on the idea that, while white men and women repress their mutual loathing in countries where they are the majority, in Japan the reality of their deep, long-standing hostility is on full display. White women think white men are losers capitalizing on their exotic status to get laid. White men think white women are fat, bitter, and abrasive. Both parties make excellent points.
Paige Ferrari lives in Tokyo.