Making sushi shouldn’t be this hard — or if we’re being completely honest, awkward — but what’s a bit of cringe around the edges when it comes to matters of the heart?
It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, and a group of men — all Singaporean — and women — all Japanese — are crowded around an island counter at WeWork’s Beach Centre premises, doing their level best to roll makizushi with bamboo mats.
The kawaii factor of would-be couples fumbling with nori, rice, and avocado slices should theoretically be pretty high, though the guy we saw horrify his partner by licking his fingers before using them to spread rice on his seaweed sheet put that to the test.
The idea was two-person teams, one man with one woman, though a slight female deficit on this first effort by matchmaking agency Destini IS meant a couple of women ended up making sushi with two male partners.
The event was the first of what the new company promised will be numerous chances for members to make the acquaintance of Japanese women looking for Singaporean love — and vice versa — and given the degree of bashful blokes on hand, it’s a service that many might find attractive.
True love does not come cheap, of course, no matter what your mom tells you. Destini IS’s packages start at S$288 (as a special launch price), and that’s just the enrollment fee — not counting the continued monthly charges, and the “successful match-making fee,” which would require S$1,888 to be coughed up if you truly hit it off with someone.
And that’s the affordable package. A premium membership involves nearly S$3,000 just to enroll, but Destini IS assured us that it’s all worth it. Being a card-carrying member means invites to exclusive parties, events and seminars, self-improvement courses, and access to a database of about 60,000 registered members (both sexes). Full disclosure: The 60,000-membership base includes registrants from its Japanese partner IBJ, which has been around a whole lot longer.
Ever since Destini IS went public with its plans back in January (something covered widely by local media), the reception by Singaporean men have been huge, a public relations spokesman for the agency said.
Huge, of course, is relative. While declining to reveal how many people have actually signed up so far, he said the company had received more than 200 inquiries from interested local dudes, and that a better-than-decent percentage had made the leap.
“A lot of them actually signed up on the spot,” the spokesman said. “They know what they want and are ready to pay for it.”
The same applies to the odd 1,000 or so female Japanese members who’ve expressed their desire for a “cross-cultural relationship.”
Singapore being a favored destination for work and play among the Japanese, it was only natural for Destini to connect the dots, he explained.
“Through the years, Singapore has built up a very good reputation and image for itself, so much so that now, Japanese girls looking to get out of Japan would pick Singapore as a destination.”
Inside and out
Last month’s sushi-making session was just one part of a broader launch event, which saw about a dozen interested candidates, including a few Japanese women who flew in especially for the event, gather in a WeWork conference room for the pitch by the matchmaking agency’s creators Hitomi Endo and Hiromi Kiuchi.
After a brief PowerPoint presentation detailing membership perks, we jumped straight into the professional makeover portion of the day’s event, billed as one of the key perks of a Destini IS membership.
To showcase a success story, they trotted out a Singaporean dude who had already undergone a makeover by the agency a bit earlier, then been schlubbed back up a bit for effect. After being dressed drably enough to serve as our “before” example, he was shuffled out of the room, only to return 15 minutes later sans glasses, wearing different clothes, and sporting a bit of hair product.
It’s a case study of how Singaporean men can learn how to improve their fashion sense, organizers explained, complete with a color-matching diagnosis. But more importantly, they say, it’s the inside that counts, which is why Destini also provides lessons on simple self-care, making conversation confidently, workout routines, and even meal planning.
Being more than a little familiar with Singapore’s Japanophile legions (notice we’re not using the term “weeaboo” — we go to the Toy, Games & Comic Convention ourselves, y’know), I’d argue some of the above tips might prove welcome.
Rolling with it
The Singaporean men present for the centerpiece sushi-making session were fairly uniform — young Chinese men with the odd exception (one looked to be in his 40s; another was a Sikh who spoke impressively fluent Japanese).
Awkward moments were not in short supply. A somewhat gangly gentleman who appeared to be the oldest in the room struggled to make his sushi roll with his assigned Japanese partner, who looked as if she’d rather have been eating poorly cut blowfish than attempting to banter.
There was a tall, attractive, annoyingly self-confident dude — one who obviously didn’t need the help of a dating agency — charming his way through the assembly of Japanese women, making it extra hard for the beta males who we couldn’t help but root for a bit.
As if to prove our point, several of the blokes appeared overly timid in their interactions with the women, who were thankfully friendly enough to pick up the slack necessary to get everyone through the mingling/sushi-making session in one piece.
The abundance of Asahi probably didn’t hurt things either.
One of the prospective members we spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, wasn’t shy about expressing his feelings when it comes to the differences between Singaporean and Japanese ladies.
“I have good impressions of Japanese women — their manners, the way they present themselves. It’s very different from Singaporean girls,” he said. So far so good.
“In Singapore, we have a lot of strong women. Not that I’m against it, but I would love my future girlfriend or wife to be… less aggressive. It’s fine if they’re strong women who believe in their own rights — I just prefer if they could tone it down a little bit.”
He’s entitled to his own opinion, but yikes.
Those preconceived notions about Japanese women, we quickly discovered, were more or less the polar opposite of what we heard from the event’s female attendees, most of whom were considerably more mature and self-assured than their male counterparts.
All the single ladies
As we spoke to the women, it quickly became apparent these were strong, career-minded individuals. In other words, the kind of “assertive” women that would have quickly disabused our unnamed Singaporean of some of his more retrograde fantasies.
Of course, many of them had their own mental pictures of Singaporean men that don’t necessarily jibe with reality.
Yuka from Kanagawa believes that Singaporean males are tender, kind, and have “soft atmospheres.” I asked if she has met a lot of Singaporean men. She had not.
Aya, 37, from Fukuoka, however, had considerably more experience with local guys given that she has been working in Singapore for six years. In fact, she left her previous job in the hopes of staying here for good. And she’s currently looking for love.
“There are so many Japanese men in Singapore, but they’re very Japanese. I feel Singaporeans are more open-minded, and gentler to ladies when compared to Japanese guys,” she said.
Further probing revealed that Aya’s compatriots weren’t feeling particularly fulfilled in Japanese society, and consider Singapore a superior place to live. According to them, more and more Japanese women are seeking to emigrate to escape the trappings of what they see as a deeply male-centered society.
“Nowadays, Japanese woman want to pursue higher education and better careers, but Japanese men would still prefer us to stay at home,” offered Yuka.
That’s not simply an opinion. For decades, Japan has lagged behind the rest of the developed world in terms of women in the workforce, enough so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement of a push to change that reality seemed like a breakthrough to many.
“In Japanese culture, the male is superior,” Aya said bluntly.
“I was surprised when I came to Singapore to find that men here treat women more equally. I really don’t mind living here all my life,” she added, pointing out that the huge presence of Japanese stores, brands, and restaurants here mean it’s not that drastic a change anyway.
Ai, a 27-year-old from Osaka, is even more familiar with the local culture — she went to primary school here before moving back home — which explained her fluent Singlish. She said if her VISA status doesn’t work out here, she hopes to da bao (pack for takeaway) a Singaporean man for Japan.
When asked why she prefers Singaporeans, Ai remarked that blokes here tend to feel more comfortable expressing their love more than their Japanese counterparts. Like her fellow countrywomen, she used the word “gentle” to describe her Singaporean ex-boyfriend, and agreed that Japanese society is holding its women back.
“Men still think they’re better than women,” Ai sighed, adding that there hasn’t been much improvement in terms of gender equality back home.
“In Singapore, it’s easier to express our opinions. We wouldn’t have to be like robots and just do what we’re told,” she said, before flirtatiously asking if I was looking for anyone to go out with that day.
In a parallel universe where I wasn’t the happily married man that I am, I could definitely see giving a little cross-cultural dating a shot. Either way, it was flattering.
Then again, I’m all about the kawaii atmosphere.