A pain in the ring finger

I know it is difficult to not judge the Japanese by my Western standards; it’s unfair and pretty useless to do so. Nevertheless I can’t help but look with bemusement at their ideas regarding marriage. On paper the institution is pretty ridiculous to start with but supposedly the one thing that makes it worthwhile, that “L” word the ladies demand to hear on occasion, seems to be the one thing the Japanese have worked out of the equation.

Apparently finding suitable partners is a real issue for most Japanese. What with spending the largest part of your life at work I am not surprised and office romances are more often than not what lead to actual marriage. I have worked with quite a few people who ended up marrying a colleague. Otherwise there are the “gokon” parties, or “wedding parties” where someone tries to get a load of single men and single women together for a night out and hopes a few of them click. Usually it ends up being two acquaintances who work at separate companies inviting a load of colleagues over each, but if your social skills are lacking that much you can always sign up for the on-line gokon services. For an exorbitant fee you can attend the parties they organize; a kind of DIY dating service, as it were; we’ll provide the bodies but you’ll have to do the matching up. Of course not all Japanese rely on these parties, but they are fairly popular, which says something.

But what makes a suitable partner? Our silly western standard of “finding someone you love and/or get along with really well” just doesn’t seem to cut it here. From what I gather the men are particularly on the look-out for a surrogate mother; someone to do the cooking and cleaning and raise the kids, someone to lay out their clothes in the morning, tell them what to eat and when and how to do their hair. They will hand their entire pay cheque over to her every month and expect these kinds of things to just get sorted out somehow.And, as long as they’re expected to procreate, someone who looks “cute” or “hot” wouldn’t go amiss, if at all possible. Someone who will turn a blind eye to his inevitable extra-martial philandering is also welcome. A wife is for the housework and raising the kids, a mistress or prostitute is for the sex.

Women, in their turn, want to be financially secure, preferably with a husband who works long hours and isn’t home much to cause a nuisance. A walking sperm-filled wallet would be the ideal candidate. Because why, after all, do women want to get married? Well, I did ask some female acquaintances on several occasions and the answers were, well, predictable. To the question “why are you so desperate for your boyfriend to propose?” the answer was “because I’m tried of working”. Or when asking some friends what kind of boyfriend they were looking for the answers were uniformly one dimensional; “foreign”, “tall” or “rich”, but never a combination of those, always just the one. “Don’t you want them to be kind, funny, interesting, handsome?” “No, foreign will do.”

There was a poll quite a while back in which Japanese housewives tried to convince the rest of the world they spent about 8 hours a day doing housework. That kind of raises questions as to why I see so many of them in town, shopping, chatting with their girlfriends, wasting afternoons away in coffee shops. One funny result of this whole marriage attitude is that recently OAP divorces boomed. After the kids were finally out of the house and the guy retired, spending all his day at home, a lot of women suddenly realized they couldn ’t stand the sight of their husbands and promptly filed for divorce. This caused a sudden rise in old geezer cooking schools, as these guys had never even boiled an egg, let alone done the dishes or turned on a washing machine. The women, on the other hand, could happily live their lives without their husbands present and did so wih gusto.

For the young, meanwhile, the race to get married is sill on. Girls nearing the age of 30 get extremely distressed and manically try to find themselves a husband before they become “unmarryable”. Working conditions and the overall economy continue to deteriorate making coupling and creating offspring more and more difficult, causing a massive drop in Japan’s birthrate, to such an extent that the pension time-bomb is more of an issue here than probably anywhere else in the world, especially with the longevity of the average Japanese. Soon there will be a 100 million centenarians with only a few dozen youngsters to support them. They’ll be too busy working and paying taxes to find marriage partners by then. Oh dear.

Even though I refer to my wife as “my first wife”, just to keep her on her toes, see, I have only ever been and continue to be married once, so I have no idea how much the process differs from that in the west. First I needed a certificate to prove I am legally allowed to marry. This required a visit to the British embassy where I had to swear, either on the bible or, in my case as an atheist, a signed affidavit, that “honest, guv, I’m not already married!” A notice then went up on a board somewhere in the embassy declaring my intentions to wed, so any previous wives I had forgotten to divorce or spiteful girlfriends could lodge complaints, if they so wished. Two weeks later and without any objections lodged, I got a piece of paper to show the Japanese government that I am above board. The wife, on her part, needed a completed form, signed (stamped) by witnesses in her family approving and suchlike of the union. We took these to the local ward office, which was an experience in itself.

As we had some other business to attend to at the ward office we were shuffled from desk to desk until, at one point, we were handed a form of sorts. “What’s this?” I asked the clerk. “It’s a certificate saying you’re married.” “We’re married?” “Yes, please move along. It’s very busy. NEXT!” And that was that. Of course we had our ceremonies later, but it all felt a little too bureaucratic.

Luckily I was spared the trials of tradition Japanese process, which includes the two families meeting up, asking for permission to take the daughter away from her family and offering a lot of gifts. A Shinto wedding, which we also avoided, requires many costume changes, all of them restrictive and uncomfortable for the female, even though on the outside it looks fantastic. Then there are the wedding parties where invited guests have to pay substantial amounts of money to attend and give gifts thataren’t easily divided by two, as that is unlucky.

Marriage in Japan is, on the surface, the same as in the west, but behind it lies a whole different culture of thought. That is not to say you can’t find someone here who just likes you for who you are, or a wife who really wants to have a career rather than become a home-maker. Those people obviously exist, but to be honest it’s much more fun focusing on those mismatched couples that get married because it’s the “done thing” and end up in the type of typical relationship you often see on the television. And now divorce is slowly, ever so slowly, losing its social stigma I wonder what the future holds for Japan's young couples.

11 comments:

  1. Hehe, yeah, that seems to sum it up :)

    On a similiar note it's also funny to think of all the thousands of gaijins who come here for the girls, thinking it will be so easy to "have your way", erhm, when in fact there are thousands of japanese women who want nothing but to catch any one of these gaijins (as they are so easy), get pregnant (which also means married) and thus secure your future. So who really hunts who? :)

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  2. Everybody wins, Rusmas! The gaijin can net themselves a lady that would be considered "out of their league" back home, and the women net themselves a gaijin handbag. And if they're both happy with that, who are we to point and laugh and write blog posts about it? :)

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  3. ROFL - excuse my straightforwardness, how then can you be sure your wife isn't one of the gaijin baby hungry man killers? :)

    And to all of those guys who keep thinking how awesome it would be to go to Japan to get women... look at what rusmas said and take heed!

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  4. "excuse my straightforwardness, how then can you be sure your wife isn't one of the gaijin baby hungry man killers?"

    Because she is very much embarassed by me and avoids being seen in public together. RESULT!

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  5. Has anyone seen this?!

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/
    this_world/6143010.stm


    Pretty cool! :)

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  6. dont you think there is an obvious selection bias in your observations? i mean you are a foreigner, so no wonder women you know and want to speak to you are attracted in some way (or at least not appalled) to foreigners. And thats just one example.

    From my experience foreigners, especially in countries that have a quite different culture get really long to get an objective image of the place...

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  7. "dont you think there is an obvious selection bias in your observations?"

    To an extent, yes. But after 6 years I have observed a wide variety of Japanese quirks and customs so if I'm not exacly unbiased I am, I daresay, beyond the initial "oooh, aren't the Japanese odd" stage; apart from light, self-aware ribaldry for blog enjoyment purposes.

    But as a foreigner I am also the prime person to be asked by Japanese women if I can introduce them to foreigners ("What kind of guy are you looking for?" "American!"), and this happens more often than you'd think.

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  8. Thankfully my fiancée is very interested in us getting along very well, and we do. Actually her worst case scenario is that I would die young and leave her to feel lonely until she'd die. And that is why she wants kids.

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  9. I concorde with your article.

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