Group dating, “compa” or “gokon”, is an interesting solution to the difficulty many Japanese people have in finding a partner. Group dating isn’t uncommon in other countries, but compa is unique for being so ritualised. Generally, a single guy and girl who know each other organise the compa in advance, each agreeing to bring 3 or 4 eligible friends. The venue is usually a restaurant, izakaya, or anywhere people can eat, drink and make a bit of noise.
The expression “compa” comes from the English “companions”, and “gokon” is simply a combination of “goudo” (“group”) with compa. Both terms are commonly used and their meaning is basically the same.
Generally speaking, compa isn’t for finding one night stands (at least not openly – that’s more associated with nampa), but for making friends and possibly forming long-term relationships. However, there is still a stigma attached to attending a “dating party”, and someone going to a compa might tell coworkers or other friends they are going to a regular drinking party.
Rules, rules, rules
Considering it’s supposed to be an enjoyable social activity, the rules of the compa are strict. The guys are expected to turn up early, while the girls try to arrive late. Seating is organised boy-girl-boy-girl to ensure noone is sitting next to or directly opposite their friends. Once a toast has been made (“Kanpai!”), and people have started eating and drinking, everyone gives a brief self-introduction (“jiko shoukai”), talking about their job, hobbies, and anything else of vague social interest. This might seem a bit forced and formal to a Westerner, but the Japanese are used to doing it, and it makes getting to know each other a little easier. Once the formalities are completed, everyone can relax, chat, joke, swing from the lampshade, or whatever.
As with so many social situations in Japan, large quantities of alcohol play an important role. Once everyone’s had a few drinks, shyness goes out of the window and the flirting begins. People might even pretend to be drunker than they are to get away with it – there’s not much you can do in Japan that can’t be excused if you were drunk at the time. Occasional group trips to the lavatory are taken, during which friends discuss who they’re attracted to and whether to rearrange the seating (“sekigae”). Another gokon ritual is the “osama game”. Someone is given the title “osama” (king) title, after which they are able to order the others to do whatever they like. More often than not, this consists of embarrassing dares: from kissing to stripping. This seems to be a great way of relaxing everyone and upping the romantic chemistry.
When everyone’s finished eating and drinking, the ichijikai (first party) has finished. Once the bill has been paid – with the girls usually paying less and the guys splitting the rest – the whole group might move onto the nijikai (second party) at a bar or karaoke joint. When the compa is over, often when the last train is looming, arrangements are usually made to organise another meeting, although the sincerity of this might vary. Of course, if anyone’s been getting on really well, a guy might be able to persuade a girl to split off from the group and accompany him somewhere more private – a love hotel if he’s lucky.
What’s the appeal
As already stressed, compa parties run on rules and convention. It might be unfair to say that the Japanese love rules, but Japanese etiquette is littered with conventions that protect people from social awkwardness. The structure of the compa suits a nation whose people are traditionally reserved and socially nervous.
The nature of Japanese culture and lifestyle also offers rarer opportunities to meet new people, speak to strangers or chat people up. For many young Japanese people, especially women in their mid-to-late 20s, meeting someone a compa party might seem like the main alternative to omiai-kekkon (arranged marriage), when their parents will inevitably try to set them up with the steadiest (i.e. richest) and most mature (i.e. most boring) partner they can find.
Discussions of compa also inevitably refer to Japan’s group mentality. The presence of their friends almost certainly relaxes young Japanese people, increasing their confidence and, possibly, their chances of hooking up. Dating in a group is also much safer than meeting a stranger on your own. None of the people at a compa are really strangers, because they’re all linked through the guy and girl who already knew each other.
Sometimes, compa parties are arranged by agencies. For a fee, a group of guys can spend an evening with a nubile group of nurses or air stewardesses (stewardess or “succhi” compa is as glamorous as it gets for a lot of Japanese guys). Equally, a group of single girls, especially those whose parents have low patience and high standards, might pay to be introduced to a group of well-paid doctors or company executives.
The Japanese government even sees compa as a possible solution to Japan’s shrinking population, and state sponsored compa parties take place every weekend all over the country.
- ‘Japanese coupling’ (Salon)
“At an Osaka nightclub, the evening starts with a little piece of string. Where it leads is anybody’s guess.”
Foreigner’s account of gokon in Gifu prefecture
- ‘Middle-aged gals hooked on swinging matchmaking parties’ (MDN WaiWai)
- ‘Gokon’ (‘Nuff Said)
Foreigner’s account of compa
- ‘Local governments play Cupid’ (Crisscross News Japan)