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Tsundere

According to Wikipedia, Tsundere is a Japanese term for a character development process that depicts a character with a personality who is initially polarized warm/soft, cold, temperamental, hotheaded (and sometimes even hostile) before gradually showing a warmer, friendlier side over time.

I didn't learn this term from Wikipedia. I learned it from some folks I know who are very into Japanese media, like anime, one of whom told me once "I have no idea why Wikipedia says that. That's not how it gets used."

Before I explain what I understand the term to mean, let's take a slight detour into the land of Columbo. The following scene is one that gets fully explained later in this episode but only partially explained in this clip.

Not only does the guy know she gets car sick, which is why she prefers the front seat, he switched the sugar bowl and the artificial sweetener bowl to put her preference closer to her. I saw absolutely no significance in that detail the first time I saw the episode, but it's a key detail tipping off Columbo that they are the murderers because they know each other well while pretending they are barely acquainted.

The two characters are having an illicit affair. They committed a murder and are trying to frame her husband. The following clips are not in order. The fact that the two characters know too much about each other is what tips off Columbo, but the guy moving the sugar bowl didn't make it obvious to me that they knew too much about each other. I didn't immediately see any significance in the actions of the man, actions which told Columbo "These two know each other. They know each other well."

Tsundere is a Japanese term, suggesting it is a character trope that grows out of Japanese culture, and it gets used apparently incorrectly by English-speaking people. I think most of the English-speaking world doesn't understand the term because they don't understand the culture and they miss what is really going on.

A tsundere is actually someone with a love interest and they pursue that interest by being openly fighty with the person in public spaces while simultaneously doing things that amount to sending a coded message that most folks won't pick up on. They do things like say "I happen to have this thing I don't want and you can have it." but the reality is that it's not something you can find casually and it's something their love interest very much needs or wants, like their favorite food that's not easy to find.

Japan is very densely populated. It's likely very hard to get any privacy there for doing things like asking for someone's phone number -- for trying to do those very early bonding things necessary to lay the ground work for the initial stages of a relationship. That fragile, pre-relationship stage is likely very challenging in such an environment.

The above Columbo clip helps me see that if you live in the proverbial fishbowl and you take a fancy to someone and want to protect your privacy and don't want a bunch of random assholes getting the memo that you are crushing on this person, the smart way to signal that is to be kind to them in ways that matter to them which they should be able to parse as "This person is paying very close attention to me and cares about me and is being good to me" but which most other people would not be likely to notice and do so while otherwise engaging in behavior that openly disavows your romantic interest so other folks don't butt into your relationship to this person.

The first time I saw it, I didn't get the significance at all of the guy in the above clip moving the sugar bowl or whatever and I pride myself on being fairly socially observant and insightful. So most likely most folks will be even more oblivious to such interactions and their significance than I am.

I think in the densely populated social climate typical of Japan, being openly fighty and surreptiously kind is a way to shield your privacy and give a new little seed of a relationship some hope of sprouting. Giving special and favorite food items to someone is something the object of your affection should realize you didn't just happen to casually have in your lunchbox and should signal to them that you know them well but casual onlookers most likely won't realize the significance.

It's sort of a coded message meant to say "I like you, care about you and want you" in a non-private setting while protecting your privacy from prying eyes and casual observers with whom you don't want to share those statements.

Casual onlookers probably don't know that's a favorite food of the object of affection. They probably don't know you can't just casually pick that up, that you have to pre-plan that and it takes substantial work and thought to arrange to have that on hand for that "casual" interaction in front of people. But your love interest should be able to infer it was staged.

Of course, it's not a guaranteed way to cover up your interest in each other but it limits who is likely to make the inference. Most likely, only people who know one or both of you well will figure it out.

Most people aren't detectives who have been hired to pay super close attention to the details and infer what is going on between the two of you, so sometimes you can get a lot of stuff past other people casually like that for a surprisingly long time. In a place like Japan, it may be the only hope you have of signaling your interest to your object of affection somewhat privately such that you have some hope of coming to an understanding leading to a relationship without the rest of the world butting into your personal feelings and your relationship at an early stage, a stage where the relationship is on very shakey ground and needs some privacy to have any hope of turning into something good and strong.

Non-Japanese people seem to mostly not get what is going on with such characters because they don't have such privacy concerns. They have no need to find a way to say something like "I really like you" or "I think I am falling for you" within earshot of a zillion people and have everyone else not hear that message.

So other cultures just see someone being fighty and what not and then somehow this eventually leads to romance. They fail to see that it's a multi-layered interaction and they fail to see that the object of affection likely appreciates that the tsundere is not gushing at them publicly in a way that would embarrass them and make the relationship a thing other people feel entitled to butt into.

Westerners see a neurotic character with baggage or something and somehow that leads to affection. Japanese people likely see a typical means for two people to try to connect while telling the rest of the world to butt out of their relationship.

From what I gather, other characters often actively collude in helping them connect while playing along with disavowing the whole thing. I've seen scenes where someone shows up with a tray with tea for two at someone's apartment and the roommate answers the door and is more or less like "Bitch, I can't be having tea with you two folks. I got places to be!" and LEAVES -- though they had no place to be and were very obviously making that up.

The tea was not intended for three people. There are only two cups. Anyone with eyes can see that.

So I am guessing that in Japan it's probably standard practice to pretend you don't see it even if you do. Because, hey, if you get a crush and want to pursue it, you don't want your asshole behavior coming back to bite you. You want folks around you to also look away and respect your privacy while you try to make this personal connection in a place where getting a moment alone with someone is challenging.

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