Love in a Time of Covid at the Tokyo Games: Dating apps flourish in lockdown Tokyo

Love in a Time of Covid at the Tokyo Games: Dating apps flourish in lockdown Tokyo
‘Before, there were not many foreigners on Bumble, but within a month, bam!Flooded!’

After a year-long delay, the Tokyo Olympics begin in earnest on Friday.

For thousands of athletes, delegations, and media crews from abroad, the excitement of the Games, not to mention Tokyo itself, pis palpable.

And yet the government declared a state of emergency in the host city and surrounding areas, the fourth such declaration amid rising coronavirus infection numbers, between July 12 and August 22.

For the visitors, this not only means they have to be quarantined upon arrival and be monitored; their every move to and from the Athletes Village or hotel and the venues is heavily restricted.

And any hopes of meeting locals, sampling Japanese food and drink, or merely discovering Tokyo and Japan are massively curtailed — if not totally dashed.

But that’s not stopping many of them from skirting social distancing measures, if only digitally.

Social media platforms in Japan, in particular dating apps, are experiencing an uptick of foreign users, most of them officially here for the Games.

One Tokyoite, a Japanese woman in her thirties, noticed “so many media people from the States and the UK are on there”, referring to a noticeable increase of foreign profiles on dating app, Bumble.

She points out three foreign men in their forties who recently surfaced on her Bumble feed: two are reporters covering the Tokyo Games while the other is a sailing coach on a national team.

And she’s not alone. After all, it was her friend on Facebook who initially made a post about the sudden increase on Bumble in Tokyo of foreign males associated with the Tokyo Games.

Asked what dating apps are trending in the city currently, a female expat on Facebook said: “Bumble—lots of engineers looking for a “second life” until the end of September”.

But it’s not just Bumble, which caters mostly to women meeting men and each other, that’s trending in the Tokyo Games.

Apps popular with heterosexual couples, such as Tinder and Ok-Cupid, are also trending, if with mixed results.

One person on Facebook noted: “Tinder in Japan literally sucks. Idk but very weird profiles with cats/dogs/food pics and god knows what else. Ok-Cupid and bumble seems better. FYI there is no such thing as Olympic lockdown in Japan… haha”.

Pairs, a domestic dating app that is popular in Japan, has also seen a slight increase in foreign users — a remarkable turn of events because the app is in Japanese, meaning users need more than a passing knowledge of the language.

Unlike most other dating apps, Pairs caters to people looking for longterm relationships. While it’s free to use for women, men have to pay a monthly fee to join.

Foreign members of the LGBTQ+ community are also connecting digitally with locals and expats via traditional dating apps like Grindr.

A male expat also on Facebook, also suggesting not everyone is adhering to social distancing rules, noting: “Grindr is crazy popular right now. They are breaking all sorts of quarantine rules there.”

Rules under the emergency declaration include social distancing, curtailed hours for bars and restaurants, restrictions over the sale of alcohol, and restrictions over non-essential gatherings after 8PM. What’s more, there will be no crowds at Olympic venues and events.

For international athletes, delegates and international media visiting Tokyo, these restrictions pose a real challenge: how can they enjoy their visit and respect the rules?

“I think they have a kind of curfew, or something, until after the Games are over. So they were asking me if we can meet after the Games”, a female resident in Tokyo says, remembering a conversation she had with one foreigner on Bumble.

Social media chatter brings into question exactly how strictly people are adhering to the rules —especially those around social distancing.

With the temperature in Tokyo on Wednesday at 33 degrees and humidity at 42 percent and rising, it’s not too surprising that some visitors and locals are getting itchy feet, and connecting online and in person.

But for foreigners visiting Japan, the repercussions for breaking quarantine rules, for example, which include at least 14 days of self-isolation upon entry, can be severe: deportation is a real outcome.

Tokyo Games-related visitors, meanwhile, follow slightly different rules—they have to follow three days of self-isolation.

For such visitors, a violation of the rules results in a report by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to the Tokyo Organising Committee.

Reflecting on her use of dating apps in Japan, one Tokyo resident notes, “Before, there were not many foreigners on Bumble, but within a month, bam. Flooded! I guess they have to quarantine and [are] stuck at a hotel [with] nothing to do”.

She remembers walking through the usually popular Shibuya district recently, and noticing a bus full of athletes being shuttled to the Olympic Stadium.

“I saw the Olympians (prob), packed with uniforms in a bus ([all foreigners]),  looking outside the bus. Their facial expressions were like, “Awww, I wanna be where the ppl are; I wanna see what real ramen tastes like”.

If any of those athletes are on dating sites, she had a word of caution: not everyone on there is merely looking for a quick hook-up.

Depending on the platform, a lot of people in Japan use dating apps for language exchange—or a place to meet people who speak a language that they wish to study further.

“Tinder is a hook-up app; Bumble is more to meet friends; and Pairs is for real serious people [who want a meaningful relationship]. It really depends on what your intentions are”.