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Love in the times of Covid at the Tokyo Games: dating apps flourish in lockdown Tokyo

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After a one-year delay, the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday.

Thousands of athletes, delegations and media crews from abroad can feel the excitement of the Games, not to mention Tokyo itself.

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

For the visitors, this not only means that they have to be quarantined and checked on arrival; their every movement to and from the Athletes Village or hotel and the venues is severely restricted.

And any hopes of meeting the locals, sampling Japanese food and drink, or just discovering Tokyo and Japan are greatly curtailed — if not completely thwarted.

But that doesn’t stop many of them from circumventing social distancing measures, even if only digitally.

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

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

She points to three foreign men in their 40s who recently popped up on her Bumble feed: two are reporters covering the Tokyo Games and the other is a sailing coach for a national team.

And she’s not alone. After all, it was her friend on Facebook who initially posted about the sudden increase on Bumble in Tokyo of foreign men in connection with the Tokyo Games.

When asked which dating apps are currently popular in the city, an expat female said on Facebook: “Bumble – many engineers looking for a “second life” until the end of September.

But it’s not just Bumble, which focuses mainly on women meeting men and each other, that is popular at the Tokyo Games.

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

One person on Facebook commented: “Tinder in Japan literally sucks. Idk but very weird profiles with cats/dogs/food pictures 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 popular in Japan, has also seen a slight increase in foreign users – a notable twist as the app is in Japanese, meaning users need more than a passing knowledge of the language.

Unlike most other dating apps, Pairs caters to those looking for long term relationships. While it is free to use for women, men must pay a monthly fee to join.

Foreign members of the LGBTQ+ community also connect digitally with locals and expats through traditional dating apps like Grindr.

A male expat also on Facebook, who also suggests not everyone follows social distancing rules, noting: “Grindr is insanely popular right now. They violate all kinds of quarantine rules there.”

Rules under the emergency declaration include social distancing, shorter hours for bars and restaurants, restrictions on the sale of alcohol and restrictions on non-essential gatherings after 8 p.m. In addition, there will be no crowds at Olympic venues and events.

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

“I think they have some sort of curfew, or something, until after the Games. So they asked me if we could meet after the Games,” says a female resident in Tokyo, recalling a conversation she had with a foreigner on Bumble.

Social media chatter raises the question of how strictly people adhere to the rules, especially those surrounding social distancing.

With the temperature in Tokyo on Wednesday 33 degrees and a humidity of 42 percent and soaring, it’s hardly surprising that some visitors and locals are getting itchy feet and connecting online and in person.

But for foreigners visiting Japan, the consequences for violating the quarantine rules, including at least 14 days of self-isolation upon entry, could be serious: deportation is a real outcome.

Tokyo Games-related visitors, meanwhile, follow slightly different rules: They must follow three days of self-isolation.

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

Reflecting on her use of dating apps in Japan, a Tokyo resident notes, “There used to be not many foreigners on Bumble, but within a month, bam. flooded! I think they should be quarantined and [are] stuck in a hotel [with] nothing to do”.

She recalls walking through the generally popular Shibuya neighborhood recently and saw a bus full of athletes being taken to the Olympic Stadium.

(Getty images)

“I saw the Olympians (probably), full of uniforms on a bus ([all foreigners]), looking outside the bus. Their facial expressions were like, “Awww, I want to be where the people are; I want to see what real ramen tastes like”.

If any of those athletes are on dating sites, she had a warning: Not everyone out there is just looking for a quick connection.

Depending on the platform, many people in Japan use language exchange dating apps — or a place to meet people who speak a language they want to study further.

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

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