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.
65 Replies to “Cheating in Japan”
Thanks for another great article. Ok, I understood what you think Japanese people think, and why – but what do you think? Do you think the Japanese view is healthier than the typical Western view?
In a word, yes.
So it wouldn’t have bothered you if that girlfriend had got some on the side? I agree that it might be healthier to take this approach so people can address their desires but it cuts both ways. Maybe it’s western culture in general, but its obviously difficult on people to think their partner found someone better or just didn’t care enough to practice restraint. If you abandon that sense of jealousy, is it not also difficult to feel invested in that person and that relationship?
Jeez Ken, write more articles about wacky Japan. Oh look, vending machines with used panties inside! Woo!
I assume you mean, does it bother me whenever it happens? Sure, every time. That’s the animal brain that makes me want to kill all potential suitors and eat my own cubs. But a larger part is just social conditioning, where I was raised in a culture of white wedding dresses and Till death do us part.
But hey, we gotta live in the real world. Why would we even expect anybody to be ours entirely? I say “my” girlfriend, but that’s just a linguistic convention; she’s not really “mine.”
In spite of examples to the contrary, it seems most women aren’t simplistic. They’re checking out other men, other women, texting old lovers, watching porn, fantasizing while they’re in bed with us, whatever. “Restraint” is a good word. How far do we go with that? Sign legal contracts, put rings their fingers, or just lock ’em in the house? Nah, how ’bout we just guilt them into staying faithful? But seriously, how much mental time are we gonna devote to the whole pointless thing anyway? We gotta get our priorities straight. There are starving children in America.
It’s probably misguided to equate one’s level of investment (or love) with a level of jealousy. Although I admit to falling into that trap. Stupid animal brain.
I mean, people do manage to have exclusive relationships in the real world. Like, til they die. Granted, these people might be in the minority and its not either simple or all rosy or even desireable for many, but it’s possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating some caveman social system where women are possessions, I’m saying that if someone tells you you’re together, arguably that bond should go further than the next time they feel the need to fuck. Hey, everyone’s different but if you’re going to argue semantics on where you can say she’s “mine”, maybe the word “girlfriend” might not be apt either in the way many westerners understand it. I don’t think fidelity can be equated to ownership.
I feel what you’re saying about priorities – there are bigger societal issues at hand, but we all have to decide what we think constitutes a meaningful relationship. We all have to decide when the monkey brain knows something we don’t and when it needs to be suppressed. Maybe not starving kids important, but its going to come up in all our lifetimes.
I’ve been enjoying your articles for a long time now Ken, looking forward to the next one.
Thanks much, I appreciate that.
Just to be clear, I’m not so concerned with the action, as with the reaction.
Whether “cheating” is right, wrong, natural, unethical, or inconsequential is up to each person to decide. From what I can tell, people seem to find ways to justify it when they’re the ones doing it, but it’s shocking and immoral when someone else does it. But hey, again, that’s up to each person to decide for themselves.
On the other hand, what really does interest me is the reaction. It’s been very interesting, and instructive, to learn how Japanese folks deal with situations, not just in romance, but in all sorts of circumstances. In a nutshell, the default reaction in the U.S. was anger and outrage, in just about everything. How dare you put nuts on my salad! I could die! Nut murderer! In Japan, non-reaction is the norm. That’s amazing to me. Your entire village was washed away in a mudslide? Well, that sucks, have some green tea and a cookie.
So much of what we think are “normal reactions” are just learned behavior. Turns out we have more options than I knew.
Hi Ken, this comment of yours reminded me of a book: Second-Best Justice, The Virtues of Japanese Private Law. The gist is that the Japanese legal system aims to get things 95% right and bureaucratically delivers right on target, where the U.S. legal system aims for 100% and is seriously hit or miss as a result – every case needs the individualized scrutiny of a jury of unpredictable normal people educated up from total ignorance, and then hot-shot lawyers see a chance to swing for the fences and beat the odds, and small differences get escalated into culture wars… Lots of statistics and tables from lawsuits to back up what street-educated comparative culture professors already know. (It also pins down the question of why Japanese don’t sue each other the way U.S. persons do.)
Also, great post, as always.
Hey Ken, another fan, and happy to see you moving into different topics.
Ive always been a firm believer, that Japan is simply a different planet. Im from the Uk, but have been speaking, going to and enjoying Japan/Japanese for nearly 10 years. All from a distance. I go for holidays maybe 6 or 7 times a year, and its my fun place.
I feel living there, would change it for me, as no doubt you say yourself, there is an undercoat that you only really get from living there and being, one of them.
We all definitely grow up learning how to act, maybe less so from place, but certainly a mix of place and the people raising you, as well as the environment you choose to live in.
To me, a married man, I would hope, that im one of the lucky few sobs, or at least think i am, who has a partner and if we in the end do feel distant, and it cant be fixed, would go our separate ways. Being married and seeing other people? I dont quite get this, even though sex, as you said, doesnt play a major part in Japanese life. I know enough from Friends and how they live, to know enough about this.
But if its only about paying the bills, managing the chores, surely just stay single, and manage your finances to get a life that fits. Rather than find yourself stuck with someone.
Maybe that the point, it goes on long enough that everything is tied together, and rather than make it messy, they stay together, but open up their relationship to still be happy, even though money/property/family keeps them tied together.
Anyway, sorry its a long reply, but always happy to read, thanks for sharing.
“lucky sob” is a typo, clearly you meant “I am a luck sod”, although it is an English saying ir makes no sense out of England. Funny. And I absolutly agree with you that on visiting Japan It seems like another planet. I always referred to it as a parallel universe. One of the reasons for this is the interface with Japanese people, particulary in work situations, we expect people to react like we do in the west. Well in Japan they don’t and this is compounded by the fact that Japan generally looks like the west. You know you are not in a foreign country like Turkey or India, in these countries our mind makes an adjustment for the know different cultural environment. Japan tricks us.
Thanks again for another great write.
Love the way you write!
Your traffic bit reminded me of the time I was stationed in Okinawa and drinking with some buddies and someone cut off my cab driver. I shook my fist at the guy and said “omae o korosu” and the cab driver turned around and gave me a shocked pikachu face. Then he shook his fist and said it too!
I walked into a massage parlour the other day and came out with more than I bargained for. Am I so sexy I transcend ethnic boundaries, or did my faltering, N1.5 Japanese seal the deal?
You’re just that sexy.
Also, people who don’t fit the mold of “Japanese” are only barred from entering certain types of establishments, and generally massage isn’t one of them.
Great post, thank you! I think this is a more healthy and progressive way to look at it but questionable if the circumstances are super enviable. Do you think opinions towards cheating would change if the working culture became less strict?
I don’t really think so. I’ve known my fair share of Japanese men and women who worked casual jobs, freeters, etc., and they didn’t seem to view cheating any differently.
Overall, Japanese folks are just much more understated in both their actions and reactions than people in the West. Having sex isn’t that big of a deal. Neither is not having it, having it with someone outside your relationship, or your partner having it without you.
I compare it to the U.S. only because the contrast is so striking. America is a volume knob stuck on 10. People are loud, smell of cologne, wear outrageous clothes, drive fast, and lose their minds over anything to do with sex. In Japan, it’s more like a 1 or a 2.
On balance, people here are worried about other things. But of them, cheating’s not the biggest.
That’s very interesting. So they were in relationships motivated by something other than pragmatism and still had a more relaxed attitude towards cheating?
Do you think your personal opinion on the subject has changed since moving to Japan in the sense that it like depends on the environment one lives in?
Without a doubt. My attitude toward just about everything has changed. I mean, to really live as part of Japanese society, you’re going to have to adapt in lots of ways. That goes way beyond just taking off your shoes and showering before bed.
Abandoning all of your core beliefs would probably be a good start.
And just a small point, but I’m not sure I’d say use the word “relaxed” when it comes to how Japanese folks view cheating. It’s simply not always a deal-breaker.
Looking at Japan from the outside, I’m sure it’s hard to get this, but it’s a pretty tough country to live in. I don’t mean as a foreigner who just magically flies in and lands a job. I mean being born and raised here, going to school all day, then to after-school sports, then evening cram school, and finally heading home to fall asleep on top of your homework.
Getting into a good kindergarten is a big deal. Getting into a good middle school, high school, and college too. Then landing a job, and keeping the damn thing, is a big deal. Getting married is a big deal. Having kids, yeah that too. Beyond that, everything else is small potatoes.
“showering before bed”
NEVER! If you do this then you are a traitor to your family and to your very ancestors! (Seriously, I only do this when I am VERY sweaty in the evening. Just doesn’t feel right.)
“Getting into a good kindergarten is a big deal. Getting into a good middle school, high school, and college too.”
Life is easier if you don’t fret over these status related things IMO. Also, I have now seen enough to understand how much of it is really just about money.
Example: We now live in a German town of about 600 k people and our son will soon start going to elementary school. Now, there are a few “good” elementary schools here. Places at these schools are allocated by where you live. We live in the city center (very posh area), so our child will automatically go to one of the “good” schools. If we were to move to a cheaper area, then our school would change. Social stratification in the real world ….
(Happily, I think “good” and “bad” schools don’t make nearly as much of a difference in Germany as in Japan or the US.)
My entire life I was always a shower in the morning guy…after Japan, not sure it even feels right to get into bed not having showered at night now (at the least my wife wouldn’t let me get into bed “dirty”).
So yeah, this is actually all a big part of why I did decide to move back to the US. I’d often go help out buddies and coworkers with filling out their goukon contingents as, I thought, a harmless, married wingman. I would try to divert attention away from myself, but a couple of times, well the conversation and whatnot would click and I’d “hit it off” with someone. The girl would ask for my number and say we should have dinner or something…after I spent a few hours talking about my wife and kid. I’d point this out and the response was usually “So…” as in 「それで。。。」.
Personally, I’m not cool with that, but also realized that I’m a young dude with limited willpower…so I packed my bags and moved back to God’s country, or something, heh ;p I thought I was crazy, or maybe I was the only one who noticed this about the view on infidelity, but guess I’m not.
Like you said, we have our own views on these topics…but it’s good to be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on…and making that change if need be.
Ken you are absolutely brilliant and your understanding of life in Japan is brilliant. You come up with the flippant comment “I mean, to really live as part of Japanese society, you’re going to have to adapt in lots of ways. ” The more you can adapt the happier you will be in Japan surely? Also the comment “Abandoning all of your core beliefs would probably be a good start.” Although probably flippant is the most profound way to adapt to a new life in Japan. As they say, “When in Rome….”
I think the problem is the word “cheating”. It has such negative connotations and introduces ethics and morality. So if we in the west were able to use a neutral word to describe the situation it would immediately change the dynamics of the subject matter.
Agreed. Much of how we perceive things is heavily dependent upon the terms we use. Which is why “sashimi” sounds a lot better than “raw fish,” and “hamburger” better than “ground-up cow parts.”
Of course, who wants morality or negative connotations in their lives, disrupting their endless stream of pleasure-seeking? Why have problematic concepts such as “marriage” when you can have the all-the-more-gratifying “ownership over this woman”? Why have such negative connotations surrounding the term “murder” when it comes with such cultural baggage? Just call it “nah man dunno what happened” and leave it at that. Problem solved! Morality- and negative connotations-free! YAHOO!
I love a gross generalisation. The bigger and more inaccurate the better. This is an excellent example, can I use it in my next soapbox session at Hyde Park Corner? Cheers.
“if there’s one thing Japanese people value more than morality, it’s them dolla dolla bills”
When my boys took me to a strip club for my b day, my wife could of cared less that I was ogling naked girls, groping or being groped.
Only when she found out that dolla bills were being stuffed into panties or various other areas did she get angry.
Strippers, naked girls? No problem. But spending your own paycheck? Whoa man, slow your roll. Clearly, that’s over the line.
I offered to make up for it and do the same for her (even throw in a few big bills.)
Can’t believe she declined, probably bad timing.
I should also add that the article was a really good take on a society unencumbered by religious sexual mores. And their, more or less, practical views on “cheating.”
On the flip side, you don’t run the risk of being caught in a sting and losing your job or future career prospects.
If you’re referring to the U.S., then yeah, that country has lost its collective mind.
Great post! Didn’t know this about Japan. If marriage is perceived to be a contract that isn’t binding coupled with the “Oh well” attitude then it’s no surprise that a lot of men and women do cheat on their partners. It would be interesting to know how the children are affected.
Thanks much. So, a couple of thoughts about what you mentioned.
The whole thing’s a bit of a chicken and egg. Does a less-binding contract lead to cheating, or does cheating lead you to create a less-binding contract? Some people are going to cheat; that’s guaranteed. So how do you deal with it? In the case of Japan, resignation is a default attitude, so that’s an easy fit.
As for how it affects children, I’ve always noted that children pick up cues from the culture surrounding them. Whatever the situation, if everyone says it’s a big problem, children will internalize that. But if there’s no crying and gnashing of teeth, then it has a lot less impact.
Amen on children’s cues from the culture surrounding them. I just read a thing from a woman who grew up in a polyamorous household and recounted asking when she was a pre-teen: “Mom, did you know that some people stop dating when they get married?!”
…and with that, I broke up with my Japanese girlfriend, moved back to Ireland, converted to Islam, and swiftly mail-ordered a Russian bride (Winter wife) and a Filipino bride (Summer wife). God bless the internet.
I hate modernity and myself.
I had to laugh at the line; “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.”
I do suspect people in japan are quick to get jaded in a relationship, and given that most are unexpressive, abhor intimacy and are generally unremarkable (ie much like the next person), boredom seems understandable. Ofr course the commoditization of sex in japan that adds to that…
I think Ken should have added a variation of the following sentences somewhere in the text:
“For Japanese marriage isn’t really connected to sex other than creating offspring. Once the offspring is there, the married parties become “mom” and “dad” and are not seen as sexual beings anymore.”
God, that’s such a good point. I completely left out the impact of children (probably because I don’t have them).
I’ve known more than a few guys who were shocked to find that once their wives got pregnant, they moved back to their parents’ home for several months. Then after the birth of Baby, that was the end of the fun times.
Well … I could write a book or at least a chapter of said book about this topic. Oh, the stories I could tell … (I like lewd conversations a lot and sometimes even I am surprised what people may tell you even if they don’t know you that well.)
Anyway, wifey and me are together for 13 years now. I am pretty much allowed to do whatever the …. I want to do. Porn is not even a topic (and shouldn’t be IMO), prostitution and even small affairs are OK if I keep things under control (no affairs that may “get serious” is the only real rule, so good friends are a no-go). This is reciprocal of course.
And yes, we have a great sex life too.
Also, you wrote:
“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).”
I think there are huge differences in the western world too. US sexual morals often sound very strict and antiquated to most Germans I think. Sex “only after marriage” isn’t even a thing, but for a very small very catholic percentage of people.
And even in the US, I think atheistic 20 somethings in New York will think a lot different compared to lets say a bunch of old Mormons in Utah.
“there are huge differences in the western world too. ”
Ah, you know, another good point. I really struggle with this. Because to say anything involves making generalizations, while constantly noting exceptions quickly devolves into saying nothing.
I was also trying to avoid just a straight Japan-U.S. comparison. My thinking is that the influence of Judeo-Christian values on “the West” has generally taken sex from being something natural that all animals, including humans, do to something governed by rules made by man. Or rather, God. But probably not woman.
And because Japan doesn’t have the overwatching eye of God upon everything, “sins” don’t carry the same weight. Which isn’t to say that everything’s cool. Japanese folks are plenty uptight. It just means that rule-breaking is dealt with by humans rather than invoking the guy in the sky.
All that being said, your point is right. There’s a lot of variability within the West, within the U.S., and within Japan. Remind me to add some graphs with overlapping bell curves.
I have always felt that the so called “Judeo-Christian values on sex in the West” has really fu**ed us up (excuse the pun) the west. So a country like Japan which has a history completly devoid of the influence obviously views cheating (and any other guilt trips about sex) completely different. I went to Bhutan which is enormously influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, so their view on sex was completely different. I remember a guided house tour by a lovely young beautiful Bhutan lady, and of course outside the front door was a huge phallus hanging in a prominent position for good luck. As this lady explained the phallus from the Bhutanese viewpoint the western men were guffawing behind their hands like mindless schoolboys.
“Yes!” to every single statement above.
Also, I want those bell curves. Maybe two of them very slightly overlapping with soft and round curves and maybe a small cherry on both tops? 🙂
Where I live, religion guides only about 1/4 of the people in terms of morality and ethics.
Going by those statistics, you could probably make a case for 40% or more. But 25 percent’s high enough.
“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.”
Conflict addiction is a thing. I found Americans in Japan gravitated towards other Americas and eventually started squabbling with one another. Not everybody has the self-awareness you have, Ken. I knew a European guy who was always going on about passion. “Where’s the passion with the Japanese people?” He was a hardcore middle-aged backpacker who has been to 40 countries over the course of 20 years and did it all in a super tight budget. All he knew was a level of chaos and conflict from travelling prominently in the developing world and found himself in Japan of all places. Possibly the most peaceful country I’ve been to. He eventually had two kids he couldn’t afford with a Latin wife of course and he lived part time – in Japan!! It’s like he needed the struggle of raising his kids in Japan. Sadly with no success. I know some people thrive in such conditions. Some don’t. Maybe there’s a level of narcissism in conflict addiction? Me, meee. My opinions, look at me! Who really knows whats going on in a persons head?
Good piece. Japan’s attitude on cheating is similar to that if the French, imo. I find it interesting that when a person goes to France and learns of the French way, it becomes. “The French really understand what it is to live life. A certain je ne sais quoi.” The Japanese have the same attitude and it’s treated like it’s weird and someone makes a video about it.
Heh, yeah, the definition of a tourist is someone who takes pictures everything locals take for granted.
Conflict addiction!! What a great concept. And it explains so much bad behaviour, just like adrenaline junkies in war zones, We actually like to get revved up to feel alive, and then being in that state feels normal. so then we are always looking for the next “hit”.
Hi Ken, I’ve been following you for a couple of years now. Your writing is great!
In this post, you mentioned mid-summer gifting. I hope you might write about Japanese gifting occasions and etiquette sometime. If you’ve already written about it, sorry — I must have missed that one somehow!
That’s a pretty excellent suggestion; let me see if I can work that in to the next couple of articles. And thanks for reading all my crazy stuff over the years. I really appreciate it.
This is a bit of a tangential comment on this subject.
I live in New York, executive-type, who took a lot of after-hours classes in Japanese at my job.
There was this one time where I was on time, and the whole class was going to be late by 30 minutes so it’s me and Mrs. Sensei-san. That’s a lot of pressure on one person who has to carry on a full conversation in Japanese.
There was only one thing to do – go to your strengths. Talk about films specifically Japanese films. I could do that even in my limited Japanese. Actors, actresses, what I love about them, etc. (I’m gay so a love of art is not a huge surprise.)
So we’re rolling along and I’m thinking – not bad, not bad – I’m actually going to nail this.
Until the inevitable curve ball.
Sensei-san: That studio you were talking about, in the 70’s, they started to make porn.
Then Mrs. Sensei-san proceeds to tell me how much she likes porn, and what she watches and now that she and her ex-husband are divorced but still live in the same house, how much she enjoys it.
Quite a few gory details later …
She asks, “Am I embarassing you?”
She was a 65-year old grandmother-type and I’m a fairly young guy. Not a prude either. Homo too.
They just think about sex differently. All I recall thinking is that, “At least, I could follow the conversation in Japanese.”
“They just think about sex differently.”
Hmm, yeah. I just wonder who “they” is. Because assuming your sensei lived in the States for a while, you gotta wonder exactly how “Japanese” she really was. You see this a lot, where Japanese folks go overseas and adopt foreign customs and values to the point where they cease being “Japanese” in much more than appearance.
I’m not trying to throw cold water on a your story. It’s a great anecdote. It’s just when I hear it, I don’t hear a tale about sex, but rather one about a well-recognized phenomenon in Japan—that of foreign nationals living overseas and becoming “foreign.” We even have a term for people who return from living abroad: 帰国子女, kikokushijyo. Such people often have great difficulty reintegrating into Japan, to the extent that many abandon the country and just live abroad. I know more than a few formerly-Japanese people for whom living abroad became their only option.
So I don’t know, was your teacher actually a representative “Japanese”? I kind of don’t think so. I mean, I wish she was, that’s for sure. I see this as more of a cautionary tale for folks who meet “Japanese” people abroad and think Oh, that’s what they’re really like. It takes a lot of years of living in Japan, and meeting a great number of Japanese people throughout the country, to begin to form an impression of the range of values and behaviors that could be considered Japanese.
You are absolutely correct and you have nailed it.
“They” are not very Japanese exactly in the same way that the routine people I see on the subway speaking Japanese are not either. They ran away from their own culture because they clearly never fitted in.
Welcome to New York.
Mrs. Sensei-san and her ex-husband (also Mr. Sensei-san) ran away from Japan in the late 70’s. Arguably for the reasons you espouse.
I will go one further on your own reasoning.
I’m a good employer. Reason-based, math-oriented. I hold myself to same unyielding standards that my Japanese employees (or any employees.) Let’s call it the best of the American culture of trust.
When my Japanese employee moved back to Japan, well, we both got kinda drunk, and then he told me, “You know what your problem is? You’ve spoiled me. I can no longer live in Japan.”
There’s real sadness in that statement. Japan’s orderly, fairly clean, and you’re generally safe from physical violence, but it can be a terribly hard place to work and live. Being “foreign” here insulates a person from a lot of that. But if you’re perceived as being “Japanese,” life can be much, much tougher.
Your teacher’s been in the U.S. for 40 years or more? You’re learning Japanese from the 70’s! Like Gillian’s Island and Leave it to Beaver Japanese. Groovy, man.
Not strictly true.
We had a Ms. Sensei-san briefly – for your benefit, let’s call her Ms. Hottie-san. Except she was a brainiac too.
So every week she would shake it up – the assignment, you pervert – not her shakers and makers. (I’m gay but not that gay that I don’t notice these things.)
“Give a presentation about selling lipstick.”
“Explain what the stock market did yesterday.”
I really miss her. She really was the bomb (in so many different ways.)
Anyway, Ms. Hottie-san (a.k.a. Ms. Brainiac-san) got a job at UPenn and that was that.
Wow, those are hard questions! If you can address those in Japanese, I’d say you’re doing pretty damn well.
The problem for me is that it’s a throughly transactional culture.
That same former employee dropped me instantaneously on LinkedIn and email once it was obvious that I could do nothing for him.
Damn, that’s cold, bro!
But isn’t that what you explain on your blog?
Yeah, that’s it. Sigh. Japan’s a great place for vending machines and conveyor-belt sushi. For jovial, friendly people, eh, not so much.
What I find disastrous is that he was a terrific employee – and that we made a great team!
You know – the ideal senpai-kohai (先輩/後輩) thing.
Which bothers me even more because it speaks to deeper values. It’s eight years ago and I’m sooooooo not over it.
My former immediate boss stopped sending me nengajo a few years back. We still work in the same building, just not in the same department.
In my new department there is nothing I can do to help him, so I’m not worth a nengajo.
I half want to laugh about it, and half I am not over it.
FWIW, this was kind of expected**. I wasn’t the first person in the institution who worked for him to have this happen, and he still sends them to people in his dept. To me, it’s cold but also dumb.
**naively, I thought that it wouldn’t happen to me as we were close and made an excellent team.
Yep, with every interaction, I keep hoping things in Japan’ll turn out differently this time. And I keep being disappointed when they don’t. Damn this futile optimism.
Another informative post Ken. Good work.
It seems I won’t be touching Japanese women even with a 10ft pole with that childish mindset they have. Although I wouldn’t make a big fuss out of it, if I found my other was cheating I would end relationship right there. After all if I still loved her I would be showing affection and intimacy. But if they view sex with such a childish attitude “it doesn’t matter” I wouldn’t want one of them.
I think this post might be my #2 my #1 would have been the Tohoku Earthquake.
I am shocked as I was reading this. I was shocked learning how your girlfriend then answered.
I am shocked in every bits of it. Culture shock. Though I feel oddly okay and not okay with it.
Now I am confused.
Number two is pretty high—silver medal, thanks!
Yeah, I guess it could be a wee bit surprising, seeing Japan from the outside. Just seems like everyday to me (since it is, in fact, every day). But I suppose I’ve gotten used to it.
Interesting blog. I recall interactions with a Japanese Girlfriend I met when I was 20 in NZ.
Lets call her Yuko Tanaka, as that was her name.
We met when I was still pursuing further education. She was there on a working holiday visa and looking back now at 47 I can see a lot more about her now that I could as a naive youngster. She was 28 and she had previously had a French boyfriend that she went to Australia with on a working holiday visa. Her visa was due to expire and I was able to transfer to a Uni in Osaka for a 6 month period.
Towards the end of that time I can remember that she brought a magazine that had a feature about international marriages, she introduced me to some friends that said that they could get me jobs, she took me home to meet the parents, but in a very subtle way she was basically saying she wanted to get married.
I didn’t realize it at the time and she ended up getting married via an arranged marriage to another fellow that was older, financially more attractive etc, but I talked to her a number of times before I went back to NZ. I wanted her to come back with me but she kept saying she loved me but life couldn’t all be about love. In Japan you had to do things you don’t to do in order to meet societies expectations. She needed to get married before she was 30 and I was not the answer. Yes, she loved me but she had to get married so paraphrasing it now, if I was not the answer to that then she had to find an answer in a very transactional way.
Did she then ever find love outside of that marriage?
Another ex Japanese girlfriend that kept in touch with me spent 2 years in a relationship with a married guy and was totally devastated when he broke it off from her. I couldn’t understand why she was with a married guy who had kids if her goal, as she stated, was to get married and have kids, but then again I wasn’t the one talking to him so who knows what he said to her.
My brother in law separated from his wife, then came to Australia a holiday with a new (was she new?) girlfriend, then found out that his wife was pregnant with a child (his) and ended up getting back with her. My wife was like, if you don’t like her just don’t go back with her and stay with your girlfriend but he works for a large insurance company so didn’t want the hassle of getting divorced to jeopardise his career. Mind you he still “works to midnight and has to stay at capsule hotels several nights a week” so he is still playing outside the boundaries.
All real life examples. But then, perhaps Japanese are just more open about the transactional nature of a relationship. If it suits someone to be in a relationship for whatever reason, then if we look at western society you can see that children out of wedlock was frowned upon until perhaps the late 60s or even early 70s. Divorce rates have started to increase since then etc. So the “freedom” of relationships has lead to a breakdown of that solid family and extended family structure. Is that a positive thing?
I think we all look at life through our own distorted prisms of cultural distortion. Why is it that we always think that the social and cultural background that we come from is the one that is correct?
Good observations, although I’d amend this one slightly: “In Japan you had to do things you don’t [want] to do in order to meet societies expectations.”
There’s some of that, of course, the same as anywhere. But moreover, here you have to do a variety of things just to survive. On one income, you’ve a very thin safety net, particularly if you’re a woman. And the situation quickly worsens with age. Japan’s a relatively poor country, with a lot of single people struggling to stay afloat (even before the pandemic). Thus people are willing to settle for all kinds of less-than-ideal situations. You gotta find shelter wherever you can.
Interesting comment Ken.
I know several ladies in Japan and a most of them are single, live in Tokyo or Osaka in small apartments, struggle to make ends meet and work ridiculous hours just to do that. One of them even started to get a bald patch due to stress.
Then again, we all are factors of our own upbringing and societies. Japan has a society that doesn’t seem to accept females as anything more than nice adornments that they can change from time to time in the office, rather than as an individual human being that can contribute to the business in a myriad of ways.
I have a sister in law that is in her 50’s, works for a major company, earns more than her brother, earns more than her husband, especially this year as he runs a high end restaurant in Ginza that has hardly been trading, and is really successful in her career.
She has, over several bottles of wine, talked to me about the resentment she has from other males in the office at the success she has had simply as she is better at her job than them.
I guess that Japan is a complicated by a myriad of issues but the lack of empowerment of females and acceptance in the workplace is something that hinders it.
However, do males want that? You go to a society of both couples working and it does put you on an endless cycle of stress to keep up.
So yeah, I can certainly see why people make the choices that they do. I’d rather be with someone than by myself and even if that relationship is less than ideal I can see why someone would stay in it.