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Meaning of marriage in Japan compared to Western cultures
Japanese-style wedding ( sep07_naoko - Fotolia.com)

One word, two concepts

Written by Maciamo on 15 August 2003 (last updated in October 2015)

A lot has been written on this subject. Here is a temptative summary of what I've learned from my social interactions in Japan. I've also talked with some Korean friends and it seems that Korean and Japanese ways of thinking are very similar regarding the following matter. It also appears that Westerners, whatever the country, from Europe to America or Australia have comparable opinions on these issues.

Needless to say that this is a personal (thus subjective) point of view, based on my experience and knowledge only, and concentrate on the most common attitude encountered in the people of each country, and exceptions are numerous.

Reason for marriage

In the West: Love => people promise to love each other for ever when they get married (even if it's often a dream). Modern laws make it the same to get children outside marriage, so that if people only want children, marriage is not even necessary. Marriage is usually a proof of love and commitment for life. If love disappears, people tend to divorce easily (except sometimes when there are small children, to avoid perturbing them psychologically). The romantic ideal of marriage is what motivated gay and lesbian people in Western countries to fight to their right to get married. Marriage in the West is first and foremost a way to formally recognize the loving bond between two people.

In Japan: Children => Marriage in Japan is only true legal way to found a family. It is extremely rare in Japan for parents to be unmarried, and this can cause considerable legal issues regarding the father's recognition and rights towards his children. On the other hand, Japanese people do not traditionally have a romantic image of marriage, and love is still not regarded as essential by many people (although mores are changing). Many Japanese take a pragmatic view of marriage, knowing fully well that love doesn't last forever and that this shouldn't be the only criterium for getting married. Lots of marriage are still arranged (through the tradition of o-miai) and some Japanese think that scuh mrriages are better than love marriages because arranged marriage rarely end up in divorce as their purpose is purely practical - namely to have and raise children. It can be seen as a business arrangement in which the woman typically quits her job and care of the household and raise the children. Japanese men are usually ready to ask their spouse to stay at home, paying for their expenses, even if their salary is tight. As the father of a child born outside marriage in Japan is not legally recognized, the marriage rate of parents is close to 100%.

Japanese family relationships

Even in love marriages, once a woman has a baby, her husband regards her as a mother, not a woman anymore, which means their sexual life typically comes to an end. The new mother is said to lose completely interest in her husband anyway (this may not be true for international couples, from what I have heard).

In most families, children sleep with both parents or just with the mother if the parents sleep separately. In the latter case, the father has his own room, a common arrangement so that he doesn't wake his wife and children up when he comes back late from work.

Children sleeping in between the parents is so common in Japan that the Japanese have a special term for it: kawa (川) - the word for river, but which looks like three people laying side by side. Children might sleep with their parents till the age of 3, 5, 8, 12 or even 16, depending on the family, number of children and space in the house.

Western reaction to children sleeping with parents

Westerners find for the least surprising that children sleep everyday with their parents, especially till age of 12 or later. They should not forget that on top of this it is normal in Japan for a father to have a bath with his children, even with his 18 year-old girl ! I guess that if the average Japanese man loses interest in his wife once she becomes a mother, there is no problem with children either.

The typical reaction of Westerners is that they would be afraid of crushing their new-born baby by sleeping in the same bed, but it apparently never happens in reality (of all mammals, only male sealions and pandas sometime crush their babies to death when sleeping with them, but never humans, it would seem). The good point of the mother sleeping with the baby is that the baby doesn't cry because it feels secure near its mother and has a unexhaustible warm-milk bottle at its disposal. It has been scientifically proven that it is better for babies to be breastfed than drink infant formula. That system definitely has its advantages.

Another concern is that the parents lose their privacy and cannot have sex anymore - unless doing it in front of the child, which is kind of taboo in the Judeo-Christian mindset. As Japanese parents stop having sex regularly after their children are born, that is rarely a problem. When they do want to have sex, they may find a baby sitter and go to a love hotel - a concept that arose in Japan due to the very nature of sleeping arrangements in Japanese families combined with the constraint space of modern housing in big cities.

For international couples who do continue to have an active sexual life, I was told little babies can sleep very well even with the parents doing whatever they please right beside them. But they should have their own room from the age of 3 or 4 then.

Finally, lots of Westerners think it might cause psychological problems to the children to sleep with their parents. But this is actually the default situation in most non-Western cultures, and most of the world population seems to be alright with it. The only drawback I can think of is the independence factor. All cultures that practise communal sleeping between parents and children are collectivist cultures. In contrast, Western countries, and particularly those with roots in ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures, tend to be individualistic. Without starting a debate on the merits on individualistic vs collectvistic cultures, one obvious negative aspect of collectvism is that it discourages to think critically by themselves - a serious issue for Japanese educators.

Why do Japanese women stop working when they get married or pregnant?

  1. It's in the culture like that. They usually want to. Most Westerners think they are forced to quit, but they often quit from their own will (or from what society has inculcated them). Japanese men also prefer that their wife stay at home once married. Women almost always want to spend as much time as they can with their babies (remember Japanese girls/women like what is "kawaii". The connection is evident).

  2. Nursery schools are few and very expensive in Japan (in the order of ¥100,000 to ¥200,000 per month in Tokyo). It make more sense for the mother to stay at home than work and give almost all her salary to the day-care center. In most Western countries, nurseries are cheap and kindergartens are often free, which allows lots of mothers to work.

  3. Paternity leaves don't exist in Japan, and (paid) maternity leave are not encouraged.

Japanese relation to sex

There is a kind a tacit understanding between spouse that after 10 years of marriage (loveless anyway) and a few children, the man is free to satisfy his libido somewhere else. That is why the sex industry is so prosperous in Japan.

Male literature in combini (convenience stores) is 90% porn and everyone reads it openly (and shamelessly) anywhere. Even serious newspapers have their "pink pages". This is just beyond belief for Westerners first visiting Japan.

Japanese men who miss talking to young and cute girls (or not so young and not so cute, depending on the price and place) go to hostess clubs or so-called "snack bars" after work. Nothing much happens there except dirty talk. Those who want to go more carnal have the soaplands and massage parlours, but Asian men's testosterone level is reputedly lower than Caucasian or African men, so they are often satisfied with just talking, watching - and groping...

There is also the infamous "enjo kosai" or teenage prostitution. I'd like to say that for lots of Japanese (or East Asian) women, this isn't even considered as prostitution. Many find it normal to have sex with a man that pays them whatever they want. Remember that marriage is not much more than a man giving almost all his salary to a woman to make children and take care of them. It surely sounds utterly shocking to lots of you, but after talking to (female) Japanese and other Asian friends I know quite well, they don't even see it as abnormal. It's in the mores, that's all. That does not mean Japanese women cheat more, but lots of them certainly consider money as more important than love or sex (which I find very saddening).

Behind this, I have realised that cuteness (the kawaii factor) is very powerful in Japanese women's mentality. They like babies, cute anime characters and cute clothes more than anything else, it seems. Men have an obsessive care about their job and status. My impression is that this stereotype works as well for Korea and China, if not also South-East Asia.

Divorce and charge of the children

The divorce rate is relatively low in Japan, especially compared to English-speaking countries. In 95% of cases of divorce in Japan the woman gets the exclusive charge of the children. It only seems natural as the father typically spends so much time at work that he often ends up not really knowing his own children, and rarely take part in their education. After a divorce, it's not normal for the father to just forget about his offsprings. He doesn't care very much. That's the mother's role to care for them.

That might sound crude again to some Westerners, as in the West parents sometimes fight bitterly over the charge of their children, and in peaceful cases, it's usual to go for a shared custody, such as children staying one week with the mother, then the next with the father, or weekdays at the mother's and weekends at the father's. Anyway, lots of fathers would feel terrible not to see their children regularly (see the thread about children abduction in this regard).

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