What do you think of cheating as a subject in Japan? I recently watched this video and it says over 80% of women here cheat. How true is that?”
Okay, so several years ago I met a dude in Osaka, who’d just moved there for work. We were standing in an empty shell of a building, drinking shochu and eating dried daikon with bits of cream cheese. Who says Japanese bars aren’t the best?
Me? Oh, right. Well, anyway, he mentioned a wife and daughter back in Chiba, so I replied, “Must be hard being away.”
“Nah,” he answered, “my wife said I can have a girlfriend.”
And I was like, “Whaaa? She said whaaa?” Probably should work on sounding out my consonants a bit more.
Cheating in Japan
Then fast-forward a couple of years, when I told my girlfriend at the time I was moving out of Tokyo.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
“Yeah, okay,” she said. Really thought she’d take it a bit harder, to be honest.
“I don’t mind if you have another girlfriend,” she added.
“Will you have another boyfriend?” I asked.
“No guarantees,” she replied.
Cheating in the U.S.
Yeah okay, so I grew up in the land of hot dogs and eagles, where, if you cheat on your partner, expect it to end in tears, screams, flying glassware, and possibly someone going full O.J. on your ass. That’s what makes it the greatest country on earth. One night of indiscretion can dismantle years of a life built together. It’s a big deal.
But everything in the U.S. is a big deal. People argue about avocado toast. Someone cuts you off in traffic? You’re expected to swear, make flailing hand gestures, and reach for the Glock in your glove box. That’s how you react to someone you don’t know. Imagine how hard you go off on somebody you do.
Japanese people cut me off in traffic practically every day. Just sayin’. But here, nothing’s as big a deal, because it can’t be. As a Japanese kid, by the time you can walk, you’re jostled, pushed, and stepped on by thousands of people in train stations every day, on your way to a school where it’s bully or be bullied and on to an office elbow to elbow full of coworkers set on advancing by climbing over you. Back home in your tiny box, you hear it whenever one of your dozen neighbors throws out so much as a tuna can. You’ve gotta keep a lid on your emotions. You can’t afford to get riled every time someone does something small like have an affair.
Cheating in Japan: How Japanese People React
This isn’t to say that Japanese folks condone cheating. Nobody wants to think about their partner being boned by a lover who’s bigger, better, or prettier in whatever way they can imagine. And so the solution is . . . Voilà ! Just don’t think about it. Now, that’s the Japanese way.
In every country, actions and reactions are determined by societal norms. America’s the nation where you freak out about everything. Not particularly great for a place with so many guns. But if your boss treats you badly—Eff that! Take this job and shove it! In Japan, those emotions get buried. Take this job and Okay, well, I’ll go back to my desk now and work overtime.
The two great Japanese reactions are gaman and ganbatte—“put up with it” and “keep going.” Folks here have practiced them their whole lives, so when something goes south, those are the defaults. If your Japanese partner cheats on you, you’re more likely to find yourself somewhere between disappointment and not caring, whereas in the U.S. you’re torn between driving the minivan into a frozen lake or setting the house on fire. How very Robert Frost of you.
Cheating in Japan: How Japanese People Think
There’s also the issue of “What constitutes cheating?” Flirting with someone at a party? Getting a massage? Getting a sexy massage? Is porn cheating? What if it’s porn featuring one of your previous partners? Not okay? Fine, I’ll just picture them while I’m with you.
This goes hand in hand with “What constitutes a relationship?” Marriage in Japan is an institution built around shared duties and resources rather than sexual attraction. I’ll do the laundry if you do the dishes. I’ll work till midnight so you’ll vacuum the tatami. Sex isn’t necessarily a component, because like everything else in Japan, it just isn’t that big of a deal. Sexless relationships are entirely normal. Add to that the fact that it’s common for married couples to live in separate cities, or even different countries, and it’s clear that marriage isn’t always the ideal candlelit dinner of rice and raw fish and a futon full of roses.
So if you’re not having sex with your husband or wife, is having it with someone else still cheating? I’ve met plenty of Japanese folks who flatly don’t care if their partner chooses to eat out rather than dine at home. It’s only important that they do, in fact, come home. Those dishes ain’t going to wash themselves.
Why Japanese Cheat
Look, there are two things you must know in order to understand Japan. Okay, probably more, but hey, gotta start somewhere. The first is that Japanese people as a whole aren’t particularly promiscuous or even sexy. The second is they’re not cartoon cutouts politely serving tea and tiny mochi balls. Make no mistake, they’re experts at appearing attractive, acting nice, and seeming polite. But under the surface, and sheets, the reality is different.
So why do Japanese people cheat? Take my friend Aiko, please. She’s small, with a tight waist, short brown hair, stylish clothes, and long nails. No doubt her husband found her sexy when they got married, back when he was taking her to French restaurants and weekend drives in the country.
Japanese Sex After Marriage
But then three years on, Aiko’s still sexy to look at, only not in action, and he never was, so they have sex about twice a year. Nor do they spend much time together, as he’s taken to working late and occasionally on weekends. Eventually, she found someone else to pay her attention, and he did the same. But it didn’t impact their marriage much, if at all.
This is sadly typical, and a touch ironic. Maybe Japanese people cheat not because they’re so sexy they can’t control themselves, but rather because they’re so boringly unsexy that eventually the relationship just fizzles and they end up trying something different.
This isn’t to say that Japanese folks are worse than anybody else. But there’s a definite sense of score-keeping that goes on within the society. If you’ve ever seen a group of Japanese women finish a meal then literally whip a calculator out of a purse to split the bill, that’s not just because they like math. Sometimes the sense of fairness seems positive, like the way you give someone a mid-summer gift and they have to give you one in return. But other times, it’s a kind of resentful payback—If you don’t treat me right, I’ll find someone who will.
What’s Cheating in Japan, Really?
It’s probably worth noting that the English word “cheating” is a loaded term. Cheating at poker will get you shot; cheating on your taxes can land you in jail. But depending upon which Japanese term you use—uwaki or furin—the connotation is different. furin, more commonly used for married partners, means “immoral” or “unethical,” which is closer to the English.
Uwaki, on the other hand, translates literally to “floating spirit”—closer to the English phrase “fooling around.” The action’s the same, but the words used color the interpretation. Hey, I wasn’t cheating; I was just floating around.
Reactions to Cheating in Japan
Western countries tend to deal with cheating through suppression, shame, and blame. God forbid you act upon your natural impulses. Literally. There’s a When and How to acceptable sex (after marriage, and even then nothing too weird), and with Whom (ideally, someone who looks just like you but has different parts). Then come the penalties. If you have sex with the wrong person, at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, expect to be locked up, castrated (Alan Turing, 1952), publicly shamed, or murdered. And if somehow you manage to escape those atrocities, God’ll put you in Hell for all eternity. Hey, at least you’ll be in good company.
Japan’s a little different.
It’s pretty good at suppression, but varies greatly in the shame and blame department. Like everything in this country, you’re expected to deal with your desires according to proper procedures. People who don’t, well, that’s where you get the train gropers and dudes riding escalators with mirrors on their shoes. Against that backdrop, having sex outside of a relationship is viewed rather lightly. I’ve heard more than a few folks joke about cheating within earshot of their partners. There’s no shame, as long as you do it the right way. Which brings us to the inevitable . . .
Prostitution in Japan
If Japan ever decides to drop “Land of the Rising Sun,” then “Land of a Million Whorehouses” would make an appropriate replacement moniker. Because sexual services are literally everywhere—ringed around train stations, next to parks, across from kindergartens, not to mention the ever-popular delivery options. But unlike in some countries, prostitution isn’t viewed as particularly immoral or salacious. No one’s fretting over the ethics of the situation, because if there’s one thing Japanese people value more than morality, it’s them dolla dolla bills, y’all. Why “yen yen bills” doesn’t sound right, I’ve no idea.
Whatever, make it rain. Folks want to have sex and we’re happy to profit, so long as you look acceptably “Japanese.” Nobody wants Joe Hairy Foreigner getting with their sister. Plus you smell funny. Everybody knows Japanese people smell the right way, like soy sauce, while white people smell like butter, Koreans like kimchee, and Indians like curry. Those are simply facts.
How Many Japanese Cheat?
So what percentage of Japanese people cheat? Interestingly, paying for sex isn’t even considered cheating. It’s in another category, the way you might have a regular mechanic service your car but still get the oil changed elsewhere. Given the sheer number of businesses in operation, it’s clear that lots of men and women are participating in that economy.
But 80% of women? Now, I don’t know a lot about statistics, but estimates indicate that 99% of everybody sucks at calculating them. Still, if you believe this survey, then up to 40% of married Japanese men and 21% of married Japanese women cheat on their partners. I’m assuming those aren’t pay-for-sex numbers either (although arguably you always pay for it, one way or another). Yet to me, those rates seem to reflect more time, place, and opportunity than most Japanese folks have. Not to mention drive.
But okay, let’s assume they’re in the right ballpark. So what? The real question is, “Is my significant other going to cheat on me?” And the real answer is, Uhh yeah, maybe. You can be the ultimate lover, give your partner everything they desire, and sometimes it just won’t make a difference. Okay, so then what do you do with that? The nation of Japan stares at its feet and answers with a collective shrug. Eh, whatever, move on. We’ve got earthquakes, tsunamis, jumping in front of trains, overcrowded old-age homes, cities overrun with tourists, and a countryside full of abandoned houses. Cheating? Please. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. Literally, have you seen the size of our fish? They’re really big.