Saturday, November 29, 2008

Japanese couples

A few westerners come to Japan with a mission: to liberate the poor suffering Japanese women from their macho society and their awkward men. They will teach them LOVE. This self assigned role is certainly gratifying, but one can be forgotten for failing to identify most expats in Japan as modern-day Casanovas. And actually most of my Japanese female colleague has many good things to say about the men of their country. While they acknowledged the relative lack of love declaration and roses, their boyfriends were usually kind, patient, and mindful of their desires. Far from the worn-out clichés, Japanese couples try to balance love, material life and social demands. The constraints are quite different from the west, but this does not mean the couples are less successfull.
The first love affair often happens while a teenager in the West. In Japan, high school is the toughest period of the educative system: most ambitious middle-class children aim at joining the best universities, which will give them an ideal career start, and work day and night to succeed. Teenage crisis and discovery of the other gender is often postponed to university, in the early twenties. Young couples are a very private affair. Japanese people seldom introduce their significant other to their parent before things get really serious, and more often than not, they will go alone to parties with friends. Japan is often described as a society where the group primes the individual, but it seems Japanese people defend even more their private life from outside intrusions. This goes a great length in explaining the success of “love hotels”, those flashy buildings where rooms are rent by the hour: couples can spend some time together without family or neighbors being aware of anything. Japan culture does not share Christian taboos, and while it is common to wait for a few weeks to ensure the relation is sincere before spending a night together, nobody seems to wait up to the wedding, a practice which is still common amongst religious people in the west.
After graduation and the integration in a Japanese company, people usually start considering marriage. A few people already met their partner at university, especially in student “circles”. Other may fall in love with a colleague. However, most “salarymen” (employees) have long work days, which do not leave much time to find a mate. Young people organize time-efficient go-kons (合コン), small parties with an equal number of men and women, typically 6 to 10 people, hoping that a few couples will be made. An efficient “Go-kon” organizer is a coveted friend. Although the tradition is almost lost now, there is also « omiai » (お見合い), the famous Japanese weddings arranged by the family. Resumes with a picture are circulating between the young people relative, and introduction meetings are organized between potential mates. I only heard about this practice from friends in the countryside, and it seems to be very marginal nowadays.
Romance usually last a few years, and include several “dates”. The inevitable ones include Christmas, where couples go out. All the trendy places are booked months in advance. On Valentine day, women offer chocolate to their men, and during the “White Day” one month later, the man has to offer a present double the value. Many couples only choose to settle together while married, and stay at their parent’s home or their single flat until that day.
Wedding (kekkon, 結婚) can be celebrated in a number of ways. The traditional Japanese way happens at a Shinto Shrine, but Christian ceremonies are very popular, as they remind of the Hollywood movies, up to the western priest. It is said that quite often, those priests also double up as English conversation teachers or bartenders during weekdays. A great Japanese wedding ceremony lasts for a whole afternoon and includes family, company colleagues and also the business relations of the parents. Some young couples prefer a more intimate setting by organizing a “restaurant wedding” with only friends and the close family. Wedding registration at the town hall is just paperwork, a form to fill at the counter without any ceremony of any sort.
It is very uncommon to have children while not married, even if children born out of wedlocks are since a few years ago equal in law with legitimate ones. Contraception is also less sophisticated than in the west, the “pill” is not so common and generally has a bad reputation. So there are many “dekichatta kekkon” weddings, organized because the bride is pregnant. The expression has a connotation of “wedding after a mistake”. Everything is organized in a hurry, sometimes without a ceremony: it seems the marketing efforts of the industry to promote all inclusive packages for "sazukarikon" (授かり婚), or ‘priceless wedding’ are not yet bearing their fruits. Everybody will do its best not to notice a child will be born 6 months after. This is anyways a quite common situation, some people say it represents close to half the weddings in the country. I sometimes wonder if some young Japanese people were choosing it consciously in order not to have to negotiate the wedding with their future spouse family. As young Japanese people do not usually introduce their significant other to their family before they decide to marry, some parents learn about the existence of the spouse, the child and the wedding at the same minute, which must be quite an emotion. Pregnancy is followed up more closely by doctors than in the west, and the woman usually spends the last weeks of pregnancy at her parent’s home. This can seem a shocking custom, but it is actually quite convenient in a country where most young men work very long hours.
The situation of women in the workforce has been evolving a lot. The tradition used to be that women quit their job when they marry, but this is very marginal now. However, if both the groom and the bride work in the same company, the woman usually quits her job. Limiting the amount of gossip is certainly a significant motivation for the move. It does not prevent the bride from finding a job in another company though. Almost all Japanese women continue working until they bear their first child. With the decline of the birth rate, companies anyways have to hire women employees. However, most women have “second rate” careers as a result of child bearing, which means some ambitious women may differ wedding until quite late to ensure they stay on the “fast track”. Hospitals and many public services offer nursery to their employees, but many women in the private sector also continue to work while having young children by leaving them in the public nurseries (takujisho, 託児所). There are of course waiting lists in major cities. In addition to emancipation, there are also economic reasons for female work: incomes got lower during the decade of economic crisis, and life employment is less and less common: a second income allows the household to limit risks. The extended family, especially the grandparents, takes a significant part in the children education, and the father is also doing more and more. There is at least a good thing in Japan for working mothers compared to Europe: it is easy to buy already prepared good food at a price very close to the one of the raw ingredients, which may help a busy woman with the preparation of family meals.
Japan does not have enough children, and it is thought, probably naively, this is because the couples do not spend enough time ‘very close to each other’. But asking Japanese couples why they do not have bigger families, the answers always boil down to the cost of child bearing: lodging is expensive, and so is food, even bought in bulk. Not all medical costs are covered by the social security security system. And education is an expensive affair: private schools and universities are very expensive. The tax system is also less favorable to families with children than in most Western countries with a decent birth rate. One additional child may be the difference between a comfortable middle-class life and a precarious existence with no money left on the 20th of each month. “Career women” will also often postpone their wedding until their late thirties, which does not help the birth rate.
Tradition is that the wife gets the husband salary and manages the household finance, and leaves to the husband some limited pocket money (okozukai, お小遣い). It seems this is still common, and it certainly gives women the last word in the household matters. Most advertisers aim their commercials to women. As school curriculum is quite strict in Japan, it is not easy for a family to move to another town while children are at school: the children would lose the advantages of being enrolled in a good school. So there is a common situation of “remote couples” (tanshinfunin, 単身赴任), where the wife stays in town with the children, and the husband goes working at the other end of Japan for a few years, only coming back every week at best, or more realistically every month. This is usually well accepted. Japanese people usually keep more personal freedom after wedding. It is quite common to go out without ones spouse for a party with colleagues and friends. Japanese companies are famous for organizing parties to strengthen the cohesion between coworkers, which does not help employees to have a family life. Those parties are however less and less common, as they cannot be passed as company expenses anymore. I heard mostly of weekly and more commonly monthly parties, whereas daily drinking seemed to be the norm during the eighties.
Divorce (rikon, 離婚) is more and more common in Japan, even if it is less prevalent than in the West: some couples seem to defer the break-up until the children education is over, which may explain the recent trend of “aged people divorce”. But not all couples are drifting. Most of the middle-aged people I met in Japan seemed to love their spouse, or at least they had respect for each other and found a way of life that was suitable for both. Most of the young couples I talked to were very similar to the ones in the west: a Japanese friend of mine even adapted his career to allow his wife to accept an out-of-town promotion, and young fathers seem to help educating their children as much as they can despite their very busy working lives.
You may want to continue your reading with this story about international couples with a japanese partner.

1 comment:

Adrian D. Havill said...

This has to be one of the best essays on Japanese romance, from high school to marriage to children, that I've ever read.

Thank you for summarizing in a few paragraphs what has taken me years to teach others outside of Japan.

There are too many stereotypes about Japanese men, love and marriage. This misinformation is outdated (based on 30 to 40 year old knowledge) factoids, and too often distributed by hack "international" journalists on temporary assignment whom only have a superficial understanding of the country they're covering.