Every summer since I was a teenager, my mother has been working part-time as an English teacher in small classes of Japanese exchange students in America. One of the assignments she always gives them is to write a diary in English, giving them a different topic to write on every day — for example “What surprised you most about American life?” Invariably, one of the first things most of these students come up with is “I was surprised that my American parents seem so happy together.” “My host parents are so friendly with each other.” “My host parents are madly in love.”
As an assistant teacher I was sometimes given the assignment of checking these student diaries. It always made me laugh to read such notes. But it also made me wonder: why would the love or friendship of their host parents stand out so much to these Japanese students, enough to make them acknowledge it as one of the things that surprised them most about America? Does that mean their own parents’ relationships maybe aren’t so friendly or happy? Or is it just a matter of different cultural attitudes and goals with regard to relationships? Reflecting upon these questions, I made the decision to research and compare Japanese and American/Western courtship and marriage relationships. I have gathered and compiled various data and information from books, the Internet, and from first-hand sources such as interviews with friends and acquaintances or my own personal experiences.
It is a well-known characteristic of Japanese culture that people do not openly display their feelings or emotions toward others; the infamous tatemae that will make any Westerner who has experience with the Japanese culture cringe is proof enough of that. Tatemae, literally meaning “front”, is defined by Diana Rowland as a “protective front, a kind of public mask that fills social, corporate and political expectations”; honne is “the truth that you feel inside” (49). Japanese must constantly keep an eye on their behavior when in the presence of others, being careful not to let too much of their true feelings show except with those with whom they are truly comfortable.
Therefore, the tendency of most Japanese couples not to show affection toward one another openly in public or social situations should, of course, come as no real surprise to anyone familiar with Japanese society. It’s only the fault of the culturally imposed need to hide one’s feelings in public, and doesn’t necessarily indicate whether or not a couple is happy. What did surprise me, however, was that at home the situation isn’t much different.
I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to stay with several host families since I have been in Japan. In my experience living with these Japanese families, what struck me was that not only did the husband and wife refrain from hugging, kissing, or saying “I love you” as most American married couples wouldn’t think twice about doing, but often they even went so far as to sleep in separate rooms.
The first host family I stayed with when I first came to Japan last summer seemed happy enough. Every night I would have dinner at the dining room table with the mother, the father, and the daughter. The two parents always chatted and acted friendly with each other at times like this, yet they slept in separate bedrooms.
In another family that hosted me in Okayama, the husband and wife also slept in separate rooms—and worse yet, the walls of the husband’s room were decorated with giant posters of scantily clad women!
Another man I interviewed, the head of the Hong Kong branch of a Japanese company, has spent two years living apart from his family (still in Japan) because of his job. When I asked him if he was lonely living in a different country from his family, he said that on the contrary he was enjoying his single life. “I come home once every six months, eat dinner, have a drink, and say goodbye,” he said with a shrug.
Sadly, these couples are far from being the exception to the rule in Japan. USA Today tells the story of Junko Sakai, a 30-something year old woman whose boyfriend requested separate hotel rooms on their “romantic getaway” (Wiseman). A 31-year-old man who has not had sex with his wife in two years describes his relationship with his wife as “sort of room-mates rather than a married couple”; another woman has been married to her husband for 15 years and they are still childless because they have not had sex once (Guardian). In fact, in a survey among 28 countries, Japan ranked dead last in frequency of sex: the average Japanese has sex only 36 times a year, as opposed to Americans, ranking first at 124 times a year (Wiseman). This trend, if it continues, will be potentially harmful to Japanese society as fewer and fewer children are being born to perpetuate the population—as a result of both the declining marriage rate and the infrequency of sex, the average family in Japan has only 1.32 children, not even enough to compensate for deaths. This means that not enough working people will be around to support present generations when they are old and unable to work (Wiseman).
But why, an American like myself might wonder after hearing such surprising stories, do Japanese couples get married if they don’t seem to be happy together? And if they aren’t happy, what explains the comparably low divorce rate (only 30% of Japanese marriages end in divorce, as opposed to roughly 50% of American marriages, according to Associated Press)?
It is a common annoyance of anyone studying a foreign language when he or she comes across a word or phrase that simply does not translate directly into his or her own language. When translating from Japanese to English, the usual culprits are words like “懐かしい” and “切ない”. But there seems to be a cultural connection behind such words: most words and phrases in this category describe feelings, and the feelings felt by people of one culture may be different from those felt by people of another culture. One phrase I would like to point out for the sake of this paper is the Japanese phrase “しょうがない”, meaning something like “it can’t be helped”. To me, however, and to others who speak both English and Japanese, this English translation is insufficient to convey the full meaning of the Japanese phrase. In fact, it is not a phrase Americans would often have the need to say, and not one I often uttered myself before I learned to speak Japanese, though I say it rather frequently now as almost every Japanese I know does. Since I came to Japan last summer I cannot deny the natural fact that I have been influenced by Japanese culture and ways of thinking, and it became even more apparent when my mother, Japanese by blood but born and raised in Hawaii, came to visit me last month. Every time I said that something was “しょうがない”, she would chastise me, saying “Of course it can be helped! You’re just being lazy, saying that and not looking for a way to do something about it!”
As soon as I was old enough to show an interest in boys, my mother began to drill it into my mind that Japanese men were undesirable as husbands. “They are too self-centered, they all think they’re the emperor, and they won’t show you any respect—why do you think I married a haole (Hawaiian for Caucasian)?” she would say. I always took her warnings with a grain of salt; what did she know about all Japanese men? She had never even been to Japan, and I refused to generalize and make assumptions about a whole nation’s people (and besides, Japanese guys were cute). Unfortunately, when I came to Japan and met actual Japanese men, I was crushed to find that her accusations were right on the mark more often than not.
There are several possible reasons why Japanese men might not be seen as the ideal husband from an American perspective. First, they are often too obsessed with their jobs to have time or energy for a relationship with their wives. “The men love their companies; they live for work,” observes Kim Myong-gan, the owner of the legalized male prostitution clinic in Tokyo (Guardian). Diana Rowland comments on Japanese businessmen’s social obligation to spend lots of time drinking and partying together after work, asserting that a Japanese company “seems like a social club as well as a business enterprise” (159). Considering this, as well as the fact that many of these “business outings” involve nightclubs where underdressed hostesses are paid to serve drinks to the men and flirt with them, it is easy to understand that Japanese businessmen might not have much time or even desire left for relationships with their wives or girlfriends.
Secondly, from the day they are born Japanese boys are so doted on by their mothers that when they grow into Japanese men, the need for this motherly affection and constant attention doesn’t change. Consequently, when they get married and move out, they begin to see their wives as their “new mothers,” and therefore do not think so much in terms of sexual attraction. In fact, a line used by some Japanese men when proposing marriage is “I want you to cook miso soup for me for the rest of my life” (Wiseman). Not exactly romantic to the American ear. 63-year-old housewife Yasuko Seino complains that “When my husband was late for work, I even had to put his socks on for him” (Sakurai). Explaining the need for his male prostitution clinic’s services, Kim Myong-gan puts it bluntly: “Men tend to see their wives as substitute mothers, not as women with emotional and sexual needs” (Guardian).
But is it really only the men’s fault? Women also play a part by being submissive and letting them get away with it. When I went with the wife of the family in Okayama into the husband’s room to watch TV, I noticed that she paid absolutely no attention to the Playboy posters gawking at us from the walls. Did she know he kept these? Didn’t they bother her? I asked. Yes, they did, she admitted, but there was nothing she could do about it. Just a しょうがない situation, and she was satisfied to leave it at that.
The low divorce rate in Japan (though on the rise in recent years as Japanese society is becoming increasingly more Westernized) may be explained in part by the fact that this ability (or should I say preference?) to “cope” or put up with unpleasant situations or personal hardships is traditionally viewed as an admirable quality not only by Japanese society but by many other Asian societies as well. Associated Press acknowledges 我慢—“gritting it out”—as one of Japan’s most cherished values and a probable reason why many women, even when dissatisfied with their marriage, hesitate to get a divorce.
As for why couples choose to get married in the first place, in many cases it is due to the traditional roles of men and women in Japanese society. It seems a woman needs a man to provide for her so that she doesn’t have to go to work, and a man needs a woman to look after him when his mother is too old to do so. This may also explain the comparatively low divorce rate in Japan; if a housewife is unhappy in her marriage, she may be reluctant to seek divorce because her husband, though perhaps inattentive, does serve as her only source of financial stability; whereas in America if a woman isn’t happy with her situation, she has her own skills, her own job, and the freedom to get out without being rendered helpless. Unfortunately, a single mother in Japan has fewer career choices than she would in America, and even working more than one job earns only 2.12 million yen per year—a mere 36% of what the average Japanese family makes (Wiseman).
But is the lack of outward affection and sexuality so prevalent in Japanese marriages really an indication of an overall unhealthy relationship? Is the presence or absence of romance and sexuality the only marker of whether or not a relationship can be considered “happy”, or are such things simply characteristics of the ideal marriage as defined by a Western mind? Ruth Benedict suggests that unlike in America, in Japan the relationship between a husband and wife is separate from erotic pleasure because the first is a public social obligation and the second is merely one’s private business. Likewise, while “being in love” is the usual reason for an American man and woman to get married, the Japanese do not tend to picture love and marriage as one and the same (184). Kim Myong-gan insists that his customers “love their husbands and aren’t looking for a divorce”; it is just that they come to his clinic looking to fulfill the needs that their husbands cannot and that they (the women) do not expect them to (Guardian).
When asked what the happiest part of marriage is for them, most people I interviewed responded things like “being able to say whatever we want to say to each other,” “being part of a family,” and “being able to live a normal life.” One woman felt that the best part about being married is how well a husband and wife understand one another, sometimes without even having to speak. Especially after a couple has been together for many years, the husband may say simply “あれ取って” (get me that!) and the wife, without even having to inquire as to what “that” is, will automatically understand what he is talking about and get it for him. It might be hard for most Westerners to believe such a thing as evidence of a happy relationship, but I could understand after considering it a bit. From her explanation, it seems that the happiest part of a marital relationship from the Japanese point of view is the husband and wife’s ability and willingness to take care of each other; the husband by providing for his wife financially and the wife by attending to him when he is tired and allowing him to feel as relaxed and at ease as possible after a long, hard day at work.
My boyfriend of eight months is Japanese with, for the most part, the mind of an American. He speaks perfect English and prefers it to speaking Japanese, he’s individualistic and ambitious to the point that his Japanese coworkers resent him, and he’s certainly not afraid to tell me “I love you”, hold hands or kiss me in public. But when he wakes up in the morning, he suddenly reverts back to his Japanese side: the first thing he says is “Get me my socks!” And even if it’s before seven in the morning, and even though he could get them just fine by himself, I always get up and get them for him. And it’s not that I would ever want to give up the romantic aspects of our relationship, but I must admit that it also makes me happy to be able to take care of the one I love, and it makes me feel closer to him to do so. My American friends would laugh if I told them that, but maybe it’s just the Japanese in me.
Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946.
“Japan’s virgin wives turn to sex volunteers.” Guardian Unlimited: Special Reports, 4 Apr 2005. Accessed 6 July 2005. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/japan/story/0,7369,1451704,00.html>
“The Modest but Proud Japanese.” Accessed 23 Jan 2003. <http://www.eigotown.com/culture/story/kodansha/nihon-jin2.shtml>
Sakurai, Joji. “Divorce Rate for Japan’s Elderly Couples is Growing.” Associated Press, 19 March 2000. Accessed 31 July 2005. <http://www.divorcereform.org/mel/rolderjapan.html>
Rowland, Diana. Japanese Business Etiquette. New York: Warner Books, 1993.
“Wedding Customs.” UptownCity. Accessed 7 July 2005. <http://www.uptowncity.com/love/WedCus/JapanC.htm>