Love Me, Love Me Not: Complexities of Marriage in Contemporary Japan

by Seika Kawamata

INTRODUCTION

As a Japanese American, I have grown up immersed in both Japanese and American culture. Due to my frequent visits to Japan and my experiences in Japan’s education system, I have firsthand experience of certain phenomena exclusive to Japanese culture. During my summer visits, I always noticed the clashes of culture between American and Japanese society; the most prominent collisions were the norms and values surrounding modern love. Though Japan is often stereotyped with hypersexualized school girls and anime porn, Japan remains conservative when it comes to love and relationships. A prominent memory from my childhood was hearing my aunt, who was unmarried with no children, being frequently chastised by older relatives for being a disgrace. To this day, Japan remains a fairly traditional country in which the citizens are educated to conform to social norms. Homogeneity is desired and uniqueness is despised. It is interesting to see that the institution of marriage, which has historically been a revered and crucial right of passage, is declining. This deviance from Japan’s traditional social norms stems from the disparity between the Japanese ideal of marriage and the lack of actual means for achieving those goals–such as the economy, employment, and education. However, the low marriage rate has been a driving force behind the adaptation and change of Japan’s strict gender roles, especially regarding women. In addition, the new influx of working singles has become a target consumer group for a new market in the sex industry catered to provide a replacement for the sexual and emotional intimacy offered in relationships. 

CAUSES OF THE LOW MARRIAGE RATE

Traditionally, marriage was an institution based solely on the socioeconomic status with practicality as its main goal (Coontz 19). The Japanese notions of marriage are historically prevalent around the world. However, as Western nations increasingly move away from these traditional beliefs, Japan seems to be unyielding to the changing times. 

Since the burst of the economic bubble in the 1990s, Japan has been suffering from an economic recession that has significantly affected the availability and stability of employment. In a 2015 survey, unmarried singles most often selected “money for marriage” as the main hurdle to getting married (Dept. of Population Dynamics Research 9). As job insecurity continues to rise, more so for women than men, it has become increasingly difficult for the Japanese to maintain their perfect “nuclear family,” in which the male acts as a breadwinner and the female serves as a full-time housewife (Roberts 3). Even today, both males and females tend to expect males to be the primary source of income (Roberts 4). Japan’s reluctance to diverge from their ideals is supported in another survey result where “return to work” was voted as the most ideal and intended life course for women by both women and men (Dept. of Population Dynamics Research 18). The “return to work” life path consists of leaving employment once a child is born and then returning to work after the child has grown up. Though this method appears to be a compromise–conforming to economic realities while maintaining traditional gender roles–female discrimination in the workplace and the inflexibility of Japan’s labor market make it almost impossible for women to re-enter a full-time job after taking time off (Roberts 4). This is especially true in male-dominated fields such as white-collar jobs and medicine. A recent controversy at Tokyo Medical University reflects the still skewed views on gender inequality; the school had altered entrance exam scores to limit female applicants. They attempted to justify their actions by claiming, “Female doctors are prone to leave the profession after marriage or childbirth” (Larmer). The expectations around marriage in Japan remain profoundly traditional, and with the uncompromising beliefs Japanese youths hold, comes the inability to close the disparity between their ideal and the economic reality of marriage. As a result, the Japanese are increasingly abstaining from or delaying marriage. Within a heavily ageist culture like Japan, delaying marriage–especially for women–is equivalent to no marriage at all.

THE EFFECTS ON GENDER ROLES

The traditional concept of marriage for practicality was originally sustained through gender roles which were historically divided to provide efficiency in the tasks necessary for survival. For example, “if a man went out on long hunting trips, which always ran the risk of his coming home empty-handed, it was good to have a woman gathering plants and nuts or tending crops” (Coontz 30). Through interpretation, the emphasis of the historical division of gender roles is less on the confinement of women to menial housework but more on the complementary relationship between spouses to ensure stability. However, it is clear that modern Japanese gender roles are not enforced for the sake of survival–they still seem to have a resistance towards both parents working to support the family–but simply for the sake of adhering to tradition. 

Even with the many shifts in the economy and employment, traditional gender roles have only shifted slightly. In an interview-based study on male undergraduate students who expressed a future interest in getting married, 60% expressed willingness to split the housework with their wife. The results seem to show a slow adaptation to the economic necessity for both partners to work in order to maintain a better quality of life (Inoue-Smith). However, reality differs quite greatly from the seemingly progressive interview results. The “willingness” that is often verbally expressed by males often does not get applied to actual housework. The majority of married women still carry the burden of full-time housewives regardless of their status as an employee. In comparison to 20 years ago, the amount of housework a male does has doubled and yet, males only do 46 minutes of housework (“Working Japanese Women Still Handle Most of the Housework”). Females, on the other hand, do close to five hours of housework every day in addition to working outside the home (see Table 1). 

The lack of contribution in the household by men in spite of an “expressed willingness” can be attributed to one main factor: the societal pressure associated with being a “salaryman,” a white-collar worker whose sole purpose is to earn a stable living to support his family. The stereotype of a salaryman is one who constantly works early mornings, late nights, and refuses to take vacation days off. Moreover, “by the time the salaryman retired, the couple may be emotionally alienated and the breadwinner may barely know his children, but he had a house, his wife was deeply entrenched in her neighborhood networks, and the children had been educated, employed and perhaps married off” (Roberts 3). This role is not only an expectation held by both males and females, but it is also perpetrated by employers. By reinforcing this traditionally held belief, employers are able to have control over a dedicated workforce who will refuse to use their vacation days. The lack of time in which men are physically at their home may explain their lack of housework. The reluctance to diverge from traditional gender roles and “the Japanese men’s unchanging desire for women who are docile and domestic may reflect the influence of the Japanese employment structure, which requires men’s exclusive devotion to work” (Roberts 22). 

Table 1

STIGMATIZATION OF SINGLES AND NOTIONS OF SUCCESS

Though the overall stigmatization of unmarried individuals seems to have dissolved slightly, gender is a critical component in the way society’s view of single people has changed. There remains a rising percentage of people who are unmarried at the age of 50, demonstrating that it is now more socially acceptable to be single compared to the past (Roberts 6). However, when looking at the breakdown of this data by gender, the exponential growth of single men is significantly higher than that of females (see table 2). In the case of women, the importance of marriage has not dissolved, but having one’s own career has simply been added as a new notion of success. Women are still expected to validate themselves, but what has emerged as a result of the low marriage rate is a new female gender role: the career-oriented woman. Traditionally, the only notion of success for women was through their status as a married woman, but now it is socially acceptable for women to remain single if they have a successful career. Referring back to my aunt, she is now a professor at a prestigious Japanese university with a PhD in English. Since she has received her title, comments regarding her marital status have diminished almost completely. 

The reality of the social circumstances in Japan seems to have incited some social change, but both males and females continue to maintain high intentions of someday getting married: males at 85.7% and females at 89.3% (Dept. of Population Dynamics Research 4). Also, when asked the merits of marriage, “meeting the expectations of one’s parents and society” was listed as one of the top reasons for getting married (Dept. of Population Dynamics Research 7). Though the stigmatization of singles has decreased, the notion of success through marriage remains prevalent in that many young Japanese hope to marry to satisfy societal expectations. 

Table 2

SEX AND LOVE INDUSTRIES

Modern industries have responded to the changing roles and are targeting this new group of working consumers in need of companionship. Though sexual services and “kyabakura”–or hostess bars where female staff drink and engage in conversation with customers–have long existed for males, Japan has recently seen a new rise in more intimate and emotional services for women. Women are now employees who are fully committed to their work with a stable salary but have little time for an actual relationship. So, Japan has created a market for selling companionship. The sex industry in Japan now functions to fulfill a “yearning for intimacy and romance” (“Japan’s sex industry is becoming less sexual”). A video by Vice focuses entirely on host clubs where females can essentially rent an attractive young man for the purpose of drinking and talking with them. One host describes their job as a “servant and boyfriend” (Roberts 00:04:51-00:04:55). At around $450 per champagne bottle, these host clubs are not cheap, yet lonely women are willing to spend their money on a quick and easy form of interaction. The hosts are also discouraged from asking their customers about work, possibly because the discussion of reality will ruin the suspension of belief. Though the setting and situation are fanciful, the reversal of gender roles in which a woman is paying for a male’s drink and essentially objectifying men similar to how females have been traditionally objectified is interesting to observe. The ability of females to buy the company of men demonstrates a form of empowerment for working women. 

There also has been a shift in the views of sex in the younger generations who are beginning to enter the workforce. As mentioned previously, the notion of the salaryman and the societal assumption for males to be the main source of income is one that is very difficult to satisfy in today’s existing economy. Especially for young men, the failure or expected failure to satisfy this role leads to a decrease in their confidence level. The advancements of technology that allow one to access porn or sexual content instantly have also given rise to the belief that sex takes too much effort. As a result, masturbation and “quasi-sex” services–such as video booths where men can watch adult videos–have recently gained popularity as men are able to satisfy themselves while not having to worry about others (“Japan’s sex industry is becoming less sexual”). The low confidence level of men combined with the stagnating economy may also contribute to the fall of services geared towards carnal pleasure and the rise of more alternative services like maid cafes that are not inherently sexual. The rising popularity of maid cafes may also be linked to the increase in independent women and the male desire to reclaim their former patriarchal superiority in the home (“Japan’s sex industry is becoming less sexual”). As the maids kneel and spoon-feed the male customers, it mirrors the traditionally idealized home of the female as the homemaker and the male as the superior breadwinner. The modern love and sex industry cater its services to allow their customers to escape from the hardships of reality and experience a temporary pseudo-relationship. 

CONCLUSION

Japan is becoming an increasingly technologically advanced country but also remains conservative and traditional in terms of gender roles and marriage. The low marriage rate is a complicated and interconnected problem mainly caused by a large gap between the deeply rooted notion of traditional marriage and the reality of a stagnating economy. Though the economic recession instigated and was a consistent backdrop for the fall of the marriage rate, other factors such as unstable employment, deeply rooted traditional gender roles, and the sex industry played a part as well. The idea of the career oriented woman was established as a result of economic necessity and circumstance, but after it was deemed socially acceptable, it worked to further perpetuate the low marriage rate by extinguishing the pressure for women to choose marriage over a career. Similarly, the sex industry adapted their services to suit their new consumers’ interests and as a result, created a socially acceptable and fairly successful replacement for sexual and emotional intimacy, further suppressing the need for people to get married. As marriage is an institution entrenched in the traditions and history of Japan, the only true solution would be for social reform to establish more equality between genders and to dissolve the prevailing gender roles. 

Works Cited

Baseel, Casey. “Fewer Japanese people got married last year than any time since the end of World War II.” SoraNews24, 6 Jan. 2018, https://soranews24.com/2018/01/06/fewer-japanese-people-got-married-in-2017-than-any-year-since-the-end-of-world-war-ii/.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York, Penguin Group, 2005. 

“I don’t.” The Economist, 1 Sept. 2016, https://www.economist.com/asia/2016/09/01/i-dont. Accessed 30 Nov. 2018

Inoue-Smith, Yukiko. “Gender differences in aspirations for career and marriage among Japanese young adults: evidence from a large National University in Japan.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, p. 112+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A413709427/AONE?u=mlin_m_bostcoll&sid=AONE&xid=51495169. Accessed 19 Oct. 2018.

Japan. Dept. of Population Dynamics Research. National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Marriage Process and Fertility of Married Couples: Attitude towards Marriage and Family Among Singles. 2015, http://www.ipss.go.jp/ps-doukou/e/doukou15/Nfs15R_summary_eng.pdf. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Larmer, Brook. “Why Does Japan Make It So Hard for Working Women to Succeed?” The New York Times Magazine, 17 Oct. 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bbfwli4_XNRGml4VgLMbhqTbv6TP7-I7DLY_WLJkYuY/edit. 

“More smutty than slutty: Japan’s sex industry is becoming less sexual.” The Economist, 5 Apr. 2018, https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/04/05/japans-sex-industry-is-becoming-less-sexual. Accessed 3 Nov. 2018. 

Roberts, Glenda. Japan’s Evolving Family: Voices from Young Urban Adults Navigating Change. Honolulu, East-West Center, 2016. 

Roberts, Katy. “Boyfriends for Hire in Japan.” Youtube, directed by Johann Rashid and hosted by Joel Cornell, Vice, 16 Sept. 2013, https://youtu.be/iPhr6N-c8as. 

Larmer, Brook. “Why Does Japan Make It So Hard for Working Women to Succeed?” The New York Times Magazine, 17 Oct. 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bbfwli4_XNRGml4VgLMbhqTbv6TP7-I7DLY_WLJkYuY/edit. 

“Working Japanese Women Still Handle Most of the Housework.” nippon.com, 27 April. 2018, https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00184/.