Only In Japan

Friday, June 15, 2007

When work is over...Wa, part 2

While the Japanese spend most of their time in public groups (at work, school etc), it only makes them cherish their private time more. But the way they behave in private groups - with friends, family and partner-, and what they mean by "good relationships in the group" are quite specifically Japanese: much more than Westerners, the Japanese tend to structure group relationships and determine everyone's role in the group very precisely. Their weak point is that they are not very good at managing group relationships that don't have such a structure...

But first, something about friendships in Japan: the Japanese are generally very organised, and believe in the importance of networks and maintaining good relationships with everyone, so they tend to keep friend networks forever. For example, a Japanese in his/her fifties will have accumulated many friend groups over the years: from all the schools they went to (from primary school to University), from the hobby or learning groups they belonged to (English conversation, flower arrangement, tennis...), from each job or part-time job they did... And of course, one of the results of this abundance of friend networks is that a sociable Japanese has to spend a lot of time every year meeting their group friends, keeping up to date on what happened to everyone, and keeping in touch.

But the funny thing is that when those friend groups convene, they will generally fall back on the group conventions that were established ages earlier: for example, High School tennis club members meeting twenty years after graduation will still see the "senior" members lead the conversation, the "shy" characters listen and giggle quietly, the "skirt-chasers" or "men magnets" talk expertly about the opposite gender... Eventhough their present situations might have changed completely. Maybe the shy girl is the new men magnet, the skirt-chaser got married early and hasn't played around in 15 years, whereas the one or two years the "senior" members had on the "junior" members don't mean much anymore... But everyone will pretend nothing has changed.

It feels that unlike in the West where friends meet in groups to see how everyone changed, in Japan they meet for the pleasure of sliding back into comfortable old relationships. Of course, little by little everyone will try to modify their status in the group to something closer to their present reality, but that is quite a minor theme. Actually, change goes against the basic reason for such meetings: basking in the warmth of an accepting group is what everyone is really after. Wa with almost no pressure... No wonder the Japanese work so hard to maintain lifelong group relationships!

Family and couple relationships show a much less rosy picture: that of Wa gone missing. Traditionally (until the 60's at least), males have always been the axis of such relationships; the father being the undisputed leader of the family, and the male the senior member in a couple. It might sound barbarian to us nowadays, but it provided structure to those complex relationships; now that Japan is a much more equalitarian society, things are fairer, but the lack of a guideline is felt quite harshly in couples and families.

A few figures illustrate this situation very explicitly:
-1/3 of all Japanese women over 30 are unmarried (one in two in Tokyo);
-There is one divorce every 2 minutes in Japan;
-The birth rate, somewhere between 1,2 and 1,3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in the world;
-While in the world people have sex on average 103 times a year, the Japanese only do so around 45 times a year (according to the Durex Sex Survey). It is by far the lowest average recorded.

What these bleak figures mean is simple: the Japanese don't know how to build and maintain a couple anymore, or how to create a succesful family.
In fact, they give the impression they are stuck in an uncomfortable place between the traditional Japanese couple and the equalitarian couple: men still seem to hope that devoting their lives to their jobs to bring home a good salary will be enough to earn them respect and gratitude from their wife and children; but said wife and children want their husbands / fathers to be a cheerful and caring presence at home as well. Most men also certainly hope they can be that warm presence for their family; but consider that most Japanese live in conurbations, and start their families at the peak of their professional lives (between 30 and 40): the result is that they are bound to have to spend every day commuting for hours, working late, and will very regularly have to go for drinks with their colleagues and customers. Even with the best of intentions, it is hard to be a good husband and father in those conditions... But when wife and children realise their husband / father will rarely have time to even talk to them, they generally lose interest and respect quickly, and often come to see them just as occasional nuisances that disrupt the regular (though unhappy) family order.

So men see their wives and children as selfish bloodsuckers just interested in draining them off of their salaries, and are seen by their wives and children as selfish boors, not taking part in family life but still expecting everything to revolve around them when they come back home, late and half-drunk, from work. Of course, that situation is a vicious circle: both sides feel increasingly justified in not making any more efforts... It is relatively easy for men to find respect and affection away from home, and also very easy for women to get trapped in frustration over their lives and their husbands; so it should come as no surprise that most divorces are initiated by women... But as everyone else, it is the children who pay the highest emotional toll.

The problem is that equalitarianism has destroyed the old order of rights and duties, but nothing has replaced it. Hoping that "mutual respect springing out from equality" would naturally replace paternalism is, in my opinion, as gross a delusion as thinking that toppling Saddam Hussein would be enough to turn Iraq into a democracy. Unfortunately, just as I have no idea of what will bring harmony to Iraq, I can't see what will (re)create mutual respect in Japanese couples. Shorter working hours and commute (by developping more housing in the cities and less in the suburbs for example) would be a step in the right direction, but I very much doubt it would be enough.

I think the Japanese are still going to have to find most of their happiness in friendship for a long time...

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