Sumie Kawakami Interview
Kawakami extensively interviewed a wide range of “normal” Japanese women (and one not-so-normal Japanese male “sex volunteer”) and then transformed these conversations into engaging narratives. The portraits range from young bar-owner Chami — who endures chronic mutual cheating, an abortion, and the death of her biker boyfriend — to the 58-year old Mitsuko — a big fan of Korean male celebrities who only recently lost her virginity. Some of the protagonists’ marriages work out and some do not: Fumiko has an affair while contemplating a divorce from her workaholic husband, while Shoko manages to find happiness as the wife to a Shinto priest. Although not a specific theme, adultery ends up playing a large part in most of the stories. Both landowning princess Emi and housewife Misa are forced to personally confront their husbands’ mistress in order to restore the family unit.
Kawakami’s work attempts to more realistically portray the institutions of love and marriage in Japan through offering a worms-eye view of how actual women interact within their communities, families, and society at-large. In this interview, we discuss recent trends in Japanese socio-sexual life and the structural reasons for the specific cultural patterns in Japan.
No, no. Tell me why you think they are unhappy.
Maybe “unhappy” is too strong of a word. But the women are mostly divorced, or their marriages have failed, or they are estranged from their husbands within the marriage. The story about the Shinto priest’s wife is a bit happier, but for most of these women, the marriages or relationships did not work out or are not working out.
It was never my intention to show that Japanese women are unhappy. If you asked American women, how many of them would say they are really happy in a relationship? Less than half? Ask any woman. I don’t think it’s just Japan. I’ve never done any research but how many of them would say, “I’m really happy”?
But that may not have anything to do with them being a man or a woman. It’s just the nature of relationships. There may be lots of people who are happy when thinking about work or other personal relationships. But I think there are only a handful of people who would say they are super lovey-dovey in their relationships. I don’t think everyone’s happy, but I didn’t set out to capture everyone being unhappy.
Even if they are not “unhappy,” there was definitely a feeling of how the system of marriage in Japan may not be best serving Japanese women.
I lived in Canada and had lots of friends from lots of countries. I have watched lots of different couples over time. And if you just take the idea of the “marriage system” very broadly, the Japanese system is certainly not very open. Compared to the West, marriage has a very large impact on a woman’s lifestyle. Getting married creates extremely high expectations, and the marriage system ends up constricting Japanese women. However, this is not just true for women — I think men are also bound by the marriage system. In Japan, the couple is not bound just by love, but an economic bind between two families.
But compared to the past, I would guess that almost all Japanese men and women choose their marriage partners through love now — and not from the perspective of inter-family relations. And even if marriage is eventually reduced to economic ties or just acting out the roles of family, that’s not unique to Japan. So why is there more social pressure in Japan on those married than seen in other countries, even if the man and the woman are choosing partners through “love”?
The employment system in Japan is still very inconvenient for women. If you look at the shape of female employment — and this is not just Japan, but also Korea — the statistics show an M-shape. Around 18-22, they start working, and then at 35-39, employment drops off. Once women finish raising their children and are in their 40s, they come back to work. Basically, many women are dropped by the employment system when they raise their children.
It’s just too difficult for women to tend to their children while they work. A lot of companies say they want to create nurseries, but the reality is that women have to pursue their careers just like men, and on top of that, do housework. This would be hard even in America or Canada. Some women may try it, but there’s still a glass ceiling. There is still a wage gap. If you ask, who will bring home the bacon in the next ten years, the answer is men.
Compared to the United States, I think there are still lots of women in Japan who must rely on their husbands even if they continue to work after childbirth or become a full-time mother. So that’s one economic reason: there is a glass ceiling for women and the situation is not particularly friendly to women.
Are there not also political reasons behind these economic factors?
I started working in 1987. That was the first year they implemented the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (男女雇用機会均等法). I started working at a Japanese newspaper. It was the first time the newspaper had recruited over five females in one hundred years. But why did they pass that law at the time? It was because the Japanese economy has just entered into the Bubble and there was going to be a labor shortage unless companies started to employ women. So, it’s not like politicians just suddenly decided to start being friendly to women. There was a specific labor situation in Japan.
A lot of women, including me, were employed during this time, but those who had survived the “Lost Decade” from the early 1990s endured a lot of hardship. Even though companies at the time decided to employ women as much as possible, the government didn’t do anything for them once the economy got weakened. In the ‘90s, companies were forced to start laying-off men, so they didn’t understand why they had to support these new women employees. As hard as women worked during those years, they got little support from their companies nor the government. But thanks to those particular women who struggled at that time, working condition for women have improved a lot.
I think that women’s position will grow stronger from here on out, but there are still inconsistencies in the policy. In general, most would agree that women should be promoted, but is that message being consistently applied? When an actual economic downturn came, the first to be fired were women and older aged men.
There are fewer jobs these days that put employees on a clear path to the middle class. How does that impact how women choose their husbands?
For the generation before the people now, the father would work all the time and protect his family. It was a generation of work, work, work. But now they wonder, can my husband really attain that suburban dream of the husband going to work, buying a house in the suburbs, having two kids and two dogs? Since the economic circumstances aren’t the same as before, the husband is no longer able to support the family in the same way. As much as the husband wants to support his family, there is going to be an expectation gap now.
Japanese men’s expectations about marriage do not seem to have changed in 100 years. They are the breadwinners, so they don’t need to help out with the housework or child-rearing. But don’t women now want their husbands to help out more? Since they are marrying for love, they have much higher expectations than before. They see the ideals of the West and notice that nothing has changed in Japan in this regard. Is there not a real expectations problem at the heart of Japanese marriages?
If you look at young men these days, I think they’ve become better about helping around the house. However, I think men are also in a pitiful situation. For example, they can’t go home at 5 p.m. like in the West. As hard as they work, they have to go out after work with their bosses. If everyone is working until 10, they can’t just go home at 5 because they have a wife. Work hours are long. However much men want to commit to helping out at home, they just can’t do it. Awareness may not have changed, but in order for men to actually be able to help at home, broader social support is necessary.
There is still not enough awareness about these issues, and the system has not changed enough. So it’s not just women who are caught between a rock and a hard place.
A couple will tend to see themselves as equals before getting married. But suddenly, when the wife is left to carry around the child, she notices the inequality. Men of course also know things were more equal, so they want to do something to help, but their jobs don’t let them. So you can’t say that men alone are the reason.
Do women who work at home want to have jobs?
From what I have heard, women wish to come into their own and contribute to society as well. But they have stability with their husbands. They want to do a fun and meaningful job, even if it doesn’t earn much money. But the real world is not so easy. I talk to women who don’t work, and they say they want to work. But, there is a big gap. These are not people who have worked hard to break through, so they are jealous of those who have worked outside the home. It looks to them like freedom. But that’s only because they have little experience in the workforce. There is a price to be paid for freedom, but they don’t see that. They have no idea what it is really like to work. This may sound rude, but there are lots of people who say things like, “Wow. It must be so freeing to work like that.” On the opposite, the single women in their 40s who have worked all this time all say, “I want to get married, I want to have my husband support me.”
But they have no experience of knowing whether they can put up with being in the home, taking care of children, caring for the sick and old, and putting up with in-laws who may not be very nice. Being in the home is also really hard. They don’t see that and just think it will be fine if they get married. So it’s a very hard thing to balance.
However, I have seen women in their 30s, who worked hard through the Lost Decade, and are getting better in balancing the two. But I think there is a big gap between individual experiences.
In the book, adultery plays a very big part in almost everyone’s life. Obviously, adultery is universal, but it’s often said that Japan lacks a strict sexual morality that would create simple guidance for this issue. But even if we ignore morals or ethics, adultery does have a big influence on Japanese marriages in a structural way. It obviously causes emotional pain to the women, for starts. In the book, this is often a cause for the marriage to fall apart. Decades ago, Japanese men had more freedom to have quiet affairs, and this principle still seems to remain.
There is a double standard. There’s a term 「浮気は男の甲斐性」 — like, cheating is a symbol of a man’s wealth. So adultery on the part of men is not a good thing, but there’s nothing you can do about it. What Japanese women say a lot, is something like, “It’s probably okay as long as it’s a professional woman. If it’s a prostitute it’s okay — as long as I don’t know about it. But if it’s somebody else and he actually falls in love, then that’s a problem.” The physical is different from emotional attachment, so if it’s just physical, it’s fine. There are many people who told me this.
But it’s not like these rules about “men can cheat but women can’t” or “I guess I have to put up with it” were decided democratically by women. They were just told to put up with it.
Yes, that’s probably true. Until 1947, it was technically illegal for women to cheat on their husbands but it was not illegal for married men to cheat on their wives. Both the women — and the men who were having affairs with these women — were held legally responsible. This is because the woman belonged to the husband — as property — so adultery with a married women was considered as if this property was violated. So I think this idea has a legacy: even if you are cheated on, you have to put up with it.
Is there not an unavoidable psychological issue that most Japanese men cease to see their wives as women after they give birth to children?
Many Japanese men say that if their wives have children they are no longer lovers: they are mothers. In Japan, there are only mothers or lovers. Nothing in-between. In a way, wives with children become special because they are given a special status beyond lovers. But the physical relationship often gets neglected.
If you go back to the employment issues we were talking about, after a family has children, the father may work around two hours away from home and he may not come back home until midnight. So he has a life outside of their house, but the wives also have their own lives. The woman’s life has a total radius of 3km with the kids’ school in the middle. Her life is established there, right? And she won’t probably go beyond that 3km unless she really needs to.
After many years of this lifestyle, the married couple have nothing in common. She is focused on daily activities — PTA, neighbors, school — while he is totally committed to his work. Even if they both think family is very important, they forget how to do things together. Maybe on the weekends they will go out together as family but that’s about it. It gets very difficult for them to actually talk together and understand each other.
They had been lovers, so they had totally understood each other at one point, but by the time the child is ten, they feel a ten-year gap between them. The wife and husband have spent ten years in different worlds, and to be as passionate and loving as before is very difficult. If the woman works, it’s even more difficult. The wife becomes even more uptight. She has to work so many hours at her job and also do all these things at home. So neither parent has any time, and they just barely pass each other everyday.
Employment is just taking too much time. I think there is no longer any room for the family to develop their life as a family.
Most of Japan’s social problems seem to be byproducts of the overly long labor hours.
For example, if you come home at 8, you eat with your child, put them in the bath, and by the time they go to bed, it’s 10. So the couple has two hours to talk — between 10 and 12. However, if the husband comes home at 12, it’s impossible, right? And if this continues for a long time, the married couple just becomes more and more separated.
Today kids are very busy too. They go to juku (Japanese cram schools with classes held after school or at night) and then swimming lessons or whatever. Kids’ sleeping time is also decreasing. Families are being constrained time-wise and cannot function as a family.
I think the communication problem for families is born from this time problem. But if you just took at the communication problem alone, even if there is time, families have become really bad at communicating.
Japanese men often talk about how they may not express their feelings through words, but they use a kind of tacit communication. What exactly are they doing if they are not specifically speaking their feelings to their wives and families with verbal means?
I think they have a different communication style. Their wives are theirs, so to a certain degree, they recognize that it’s natural that their wives already understand. In Japan, there’s an expression 「男は背中でものを言う」— “Men speak with their backs.” They can’t say anything with their mouths. It is a Japanese aesthetic thing to show your attitude with action. Just acting with your mouth is not masculine. So, even if you don’t say it, the other person should understand. But actually, if they don’t say it verbally, no one understands.
They come home, don’t say anything, so the wife and the husband have no idea what the other is thinking. While I was interviewing women for this book, I often heard them complain about their husbands. When I ask, “Why don’t you say that to your husband?” they would simply answer, “Oh, it’s nothing I would need to actually say” or “It’s not their fault either.” The assumption is that even they don’t say it, the partner will still understand, but that is a flawed assumption.
Even if Japanese divorce rates are rising, they are relatively low compared to other countries. Is this proof that Japanese marriages actually work better?
Aren’t Japanese people just better at putting up with it? Not just women, but men. There is a word「仮面夫婦」 (literally, “masked marriage,” meaning a couple who only go through the motions of being husband and wife.)
People often say in Japanese, “Well, it’s because we have a ’masked marriage.’” Then, others may reply by saying, “Oh, we are too.” People are okay with the fact that they only have relations as these masks. They are not particularly embarrassed by it
I found it odd in the book that there are multiple stories of Japanese women easily calling up the women who are having an affair with their husbands and talking to them directly.
These days, wives will sue the other woman. If your husband cheats on you, you then sue the woman on the grounds of compensation for psychological damage. Even though it’s a problem between the husband and the wife, the other woman will have to pay.
Why does the other woman — and not the husband — have to take all legal responsibility for the cheating?
The wife can put up with the fact that she has been cheated on, because she believes, or tries to believe, that it’s just men’s nature. So the wife will tell the husband, “I will negotiate this for you.” It becomes a discussion of woman-to-woman. Instead of trying to improve the marital relationship, the idea is to pull the family together.
If the relationship is the problem, you just talk to the husband, right? But the woman’s aims do not include the relationship, but are to maintain the marriage, and thus, the family. So the wife needs to get rid of what’s getting in the way of things. If the other woman goes away, problem solved. Certainly the wife also tells the husband he’s been bad, and he may apologize. “Sorry, I was bad. Forgive me.” And he will say to the woman, “Since he has apologized, you also should do us a favor and go away. Your relation with my husband was just physical.” This is how the wife can cut out the other woman and let her know that the problem does not involve her. If you cast her away like that, of course she’ll be hurt. Telling her that her relationship with the husband was only physical is poking her where it most hurts. Obviously, the other woman doesn’t want to realize that.
Does the idea of a physical relationship with another woman not hurt the wife’s feelings?
She tries to make it so it doesn’t hurt her.
So she has to put up with it?
One other important thing is that sex is not seen as a very “pretty” thing in Japan. Your heart is purer than the physical relationship. As a married couple, your hearts are bound together, but your physical relationship is on a lower plane.
Physical relations are not a symbol of a deeper relationship?
Well, if you think about what I said just now, that idea is really just an excuse for men. But since the husband and wife are still “family,” this is the natural response, no? “Because we are family, we love each other and that’s not open for argument.” This kind of familial love is not open for argument. The Japanese concept of love is not the same as the word “love” in English. It’s the bond of family.
But it’s not like the idea of Western romantic love hasn’t also gotten mixed in there.
Yes, so Japanese women now also cheat on their partners. And there are women who follow Johnny’s Jimusho talent or Yon-sama as a way to satisfy themselves with a kind of ersatz love. There are women who fall in love and then cheat on their loves, and there are people who delude themselves with fake love. They are all lonely in their hearts. In their heads, they know they have the bonds of family and have lots of pride. But they don’t have anything in reality.
In your experience, have you talked to people who patronize host clubs? What kind of people go?
Rich, I guess. Normal women can’t go since they can’t pay for it.
Lately, the host has been somewhat legitimized in mainstream society. Is there an active effort to make hosts more acceptable?
Those kinds of bars are respected to a certain degree. Not just hosts — being the “mama” of a bar is a respected profession. It’s not about sex, per se: these bar workers help smooth out social relations. So they are seen as important. I don’t think it’s just “fuuzoku = sexual entertainment.” Instead of going to therapists, the Japanese go have the bar mama listen to their stories. Or uranai fortune-tellers. They are what people use instead of professional therapists.
I think that the men who go drink at those bars want to be comforted. The bar mama may not be young, but she’s really good at listening to people’s stories. There are lots of gay bars, but it’s not like you have to be gay to go there. They go there to get their stories heard. So I don’t think it’s just sex behind this.
Isn’t Dr. Kim’s sex clinic mentioned in the book a kind of prostitution tailored towards women’s needs?
I think Dr. Kim’s service is very unique. I have never heard of anything else like it in Japan. But how is it really? I didn’t follow up and talk to people after they used it. Of the women I met, they would request men for a short amount of time, but they said they stopped using it after a while. You can’t know the real effects unless you did follow up research.
But these men have a sort of “volunteer” spirit — opposed to being gigolos.
But if they didn’t want to do it, they couldn’t. They don’t know these women. And they have to satisfy them everyday. That must be really hard work…
You have a story in the book about a woman who’s into the hanryu Korean boom. Do you think there is a deeper meaning in the current popularity of this culture with older Japanese women?
I don’t know but it’s just something for them to do. They are cute boys, and everyone is having fun screaming at them.
But they are different from Johnny’s Jimusho idols?
I think they are similar. But Koreans seem like the Japanese of old. They are strong and a bit macho. Johnny’s idols lately are a bit neutered. More than “men,” they are “cute” and “pretty.” There are no men in Japan like those in the past. But in Korea, they still have a bit of that old strength. I don’t mean to say that Korea is like an old version of Japan, but they have something that modern Japanese men have lost.
Do you think young Japanese women have been inspired by the previous generations of path-breakers?
I just don’t think there are any good role models for young women. Women who work hard are often viewed as “not so cool” (kakko yoku nai). I mean, there are women in Japan who work hard — like politicians. But people say they don’t look particularly stylish. Others may say “They may be great, but I don’t want to be like them.” Japan just needs to have more “cool women.” For example, Matsuda Seiko continued to be a singer even after getting married and changing men. Things may change more quickly if there were more people like that. But they’re a minority right now. On the other hand, there are quite a few women, especially in the entertainment industry, who go right back to work after having children, so I don’t know.
Right now, it seems like “dekichatta kekkon” (shotgun weddings) are a very visible part of the reason Japanese young people get married. Isn’t that also a sign of passivity towards commitment?
There are a lot of annoying things about getting married, so there are very few people who actively try to get married as fast as possible. Like, “We want to get married at some point, but not now.” Statistically, people are getting married later and that’s why there are less children. But that’s not all women’s fault: it may be because men have stopped wanting to get married. They don’t want to take on the responsibility. They don’t have the confidence.
Why did you choose “Goodbye Madame Butterfly” for the title?
I would have liked a more modern title, rather than a traditional Japanese one. But when you think about what people overseas know about Japanese women, they are not interested unless it’s the traditional Japanese image. Most Westerners — who have never been to Japan — if they are going to ask about Japanese women, they’ll just think, “Isn’t that a country where geishas are?” People with interest in Japan are obviously different, but for those who have never seen real Japanese people, Japan is still the land of geisha and samurai. They won’t read the book if you don’t bring them something traditional to a certain degree. And I mostly wanted that group to read this book.
Even if you think the “traditional Japanese” image is anachronistic, it seems like the Japanese system of marriage today is just the old system intact — but the women’s expectations have changed.
That’s a good point. Japanese systems are really resilient. They seem like they change, but they actually don’t. As much as Japan modernizes, that doesn’t mean that the basic policies completely change.
Was there anything that surprised you when writing this book?
When I set out to write this book, I wanted very “normal” stories. I wanted to write stories just like I would hear when I would have long discussions with my friends. Because that’s the reality I live in. So I didn’t want to focus on very alien things to me, like the sex therapist. To a certain degree, I did put stories like that in the book, but I wanted something really ordinary. When I asked them for their stories, most people said, “I’m really ordinary. Is that interesting?” For me, the stories were very obvious and natural. Any Japanese person who reads the book should feel the same. But there is a lot of drama in the ordinary.
I don’t know if people who live overseas will find these stories normal, but I came to the conclusion after reading this book that Japanese women are very strong. They are not powerful like, “This is me, and I do it this way.” They tend to work their way out of a situation. They persevere. They just want a comfortable life, and they will do anything to keep it. In a way I felt, oh my gosh, these women are really powerful and strong.
But it’s a strength with kind of depressing undertones.
I have been well-educated, have lived overseas, and have been married to a non-Japanese, so I personally believe that women can grasp their own happiness themselves. I don’t think work and happiness are things given to you by your husband.
But the women of the book show a strength that does not fit this form. They have a lot of strength to preserve the most important things. These women never give up — no matter what happens. They will always persevere. “That is my happiness. I will not solve the problems with my husband: I just want to persevere this situation.” In a way, I admire them.
『Goodbye Madame Butterfly』は、日本人女性10人（そして、「セックスボランティア」の日本人男性一人）の話を収めた作品である。その中には、繰り返される浮気、中絶、そして亡きバイカーの恋人への思いに悩む若いバーの店主「チャミ」や、５０代前半で処女を失い、現在は韓流スターのファンである５８歳の「ミツコ」などの話がある。彼女達の結婚は時に成功し、またある時は破局する。「フミコ」は仕事中毒の夫との離婚に踏み切れないまま新しい恋人を見つけ、「ショウコ」は神官の妻としての幸せをつかむ。
“Goodbye Madame Butterfly”というタイトルはどうやって決めたのですか？
November 26, 2007 at 3:29 pm
A few things to throw into the mix. First, a TIME magazine article from 1969:
She is quoted saying “Girls nowadays would simply walk out on him”
Also here’s a review of a book which proposes that Japan did not always have a low divorce rate:
Lastly, Japanese law does have provisions to make a cheating husband legally responsible. A wife with proof of her husband’s infidelity can apply to attach a portion of his income to be paid directly to her rather than to him. This amounts to a kind of alimony without the divorce. The amount is determined by a set formula based on the number of girlfriends and the number of times the husband has cheated. I believe it only applies to income and not assets.
The theory, presumably, is to give financial priority to the wife and her children over the girlfriend and any children who might result from that relationship. Some lawyers believe that it also covers common law wives. It’s not necessary for the wife to already have children to win an attachment. I’ve no data on how often such cases are brought and how many are won.
November 26, 2007 at 4:13 pm
I am not convinced that current Japanese marriage “culture” is based purely on the inheritance of a traditional format. I have not read much about marriage pre-War, but I don’t get the sense that fathers were chronically absent. (Unless, of course, dead thanks to imperial ambition.)
Marriage and family were completely reimagined in the post-war to allow men to give their entire body and soul to the industrial complex. Okay, pesky New Deal Americans came in and gave women rights or whatever, but women had to basically take over a bigger role in the management of family to let men go off to their the non-militant army jobs from 7 am to 11 pm every night.
I have not read that book, but I think I remember him saying that the idea of “stable marriages” was also a post-war invention. Makes sense that the state would want to stabilize home life, make women put up with not particularly fun circumstance through the social pressure of making divorce an “unprecedented” act. Trouble at home may lead to unproductive workers and by all means, we can’t have that!
November 26, 2007 at 6:00 pm
“Marriage and family were completely reimagined in the post-war to allow men to give their entire body and soul to the industrial complex. Okay, pesky New Deal Americans came in and gave women rights or whatever, but women had to basically take over a bigger role in the management of family to let men go off to their the non-militant army jobs from 7 am to 11 pm every night.”
Actually I think that’s correct even from a Japanese male point of view. My grandfather and grandmother has always complained about my uncle who worked late over hours for a large company saying that it was unthinkable in pre-war times.
According to them, in the pre-war times, it was pretty normal that a normal male would come home and have dinner with his family. My grandfather also said that in pre-war times, male had a stronger voice but also showed more concern about family issues, in contrary to my uncle who was too tired to show any interest about family issues back when he was home.
Also if you read novels from the pre-war or memoirs of certain person’s during the pre-war times, you will find out that many males changed their jobs (and company) far more easily than today.
Ethics like “Once you work for our company, you will work there until you’re retirement”, didn’t exist in pre-war times.
Actually an Economist (Noguchi Yukio) propagated that “shushin koyo” was invented during war times, to mobilize the artisan (syokunin) as skilled factory workers, and that the guarantee of lifetime employment was promised in exchange of their loyalty.
He called it “the year 1940 system”（１９４０年体制）.
Family life and relationship between the husband and wife would be quite different before and after that.
November 26, 2007 at 6:28 pm
(1) Political directives change (or condone a change of) mainstream employment style in order to bolster economy.
(2) Since the health of the state is more important than health of individuals, workers in government and organized industry are pushed to work as hard as possible. (This kind of exploitation seems to resembles Marx’s own idea of capitalist’s maximalist exploitation of the proletariat – giving the longest hours and lowest wages that do not cut into bottom-line productivity.)
(3) Any damage to family life and pressure for women to take more extreme gender roles is “collateral damage.” Men suffering is macho/spartan/bushido-esque, therefore, chic.
(4) System becomes so uncompromising that ambitious women choose to play by the men’s rules, thus rejecting or delaying marriage and motherhood to the point of a declining population.
(5) If even we don’t have any expectations about raising quality of life for population or creating positive externalities for society, this system is clearly parasitic on society. Unfortunately, it’s been hitched to the national identity to a point where asking for lower work hours is tantamount to treason.
A big flaw in my reasoning above: Western Europe has extremely relaxed working hours and yet still suffers a population problem.
The Japanese government would have to actually want to make the lives of its citizens objectively better in order to make moves to reduce work hours. Rationally-speaking, it could partially help with replenishing the population, but maybe would not be 100%. But when getting up to 2% growth a year is the paramount concern, no one can go home early.
November 26, 2007 at 9:51 pm
[…] Marx from Neojapanisme posts an interview with Sumie Kawakami, author of Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman. Share […]
November 27, 2007 at 10:01 am
I was reading some Herbert Marcuse last night, and came across this line about communist bloc economies:
“[T]echnical progress would make for continued increase in the standard of living and for continued liberalization of controls. The nationalized economy could exploit the productivity of labor and capital without structural resistance while considerably reducing working hours and augmenting the comforts of life. ”
I think it’s fair to say that most socialist utopian ideologies and microeconomic theories agree that workers want lower work hours and more leisure. The Japanese example is pretty much dystopian by any standard.
The original idea was: we must work hard to rebuild the economy and bring up Japan to the global level with the presupposition that working hours could be eventually REDUCED. Instead, long working hours became part of the dominant ideology and a symbol of status – bolstered by a false historical narrative. (With captured labor, a collusive system, and long-hours=hard-work in the minds of managers raised in the system, workers have no choice but to comply.) Now with fewer kids, working hours (plus productivity) will have to FURTHER INCREASE in order to preserve the scale of the economy.
Working hours have also increased in the US, so perhaps no capitalist system – whether organized by the state or not – can ever tell its workers to go home.
The point again, is that love, family, and marriage don’t work so well when crunched between human limits and national economic goals.
November 27, 2007 at 1:24 pm
Agree with some of your idea’s and have different opinion’s about other.
I want say a lot about that, but little bit to busy (damn “Kaisha”). Will try tonight maybe.
November 27, 2007 at 9:41 pm
Working hours might be a part of the story but you have to square the fact that the same husband who works so long that he doesn’t have time for his family can nevertheless find the time to have a mistress. Senior managers have more control over their schedules than their subordinates but they rarely take the opportunity to knock off to see the wife and kids which is one of the reasons their staff ends up staying in the office too.
It’s only a guess but there’s a fair chance that average commuting times for Tokyo workers have come down since the bubble. This would be partly down to additional transport infrastructure, faster trains and less crowded roads but also to cheaper real estate prices which allowed families to move closer to the centre.
Although companies have begun to step up corporate entertainment again, for a number of years, the budget wasn’t available and perks like taxi tickets all but disappeared. The question is what workers chose to do with the free time this created if they weren’t spending it with their families.
Given some of the points that come up in the interview, you might be interested in this Yomiuri article:
November 28, 2007 at 10:39 am
despite the note about the priest’s wife, this all sounds so salaryman-specific. what of the truck drivers, security guards, teachers, and yakuza?? (that covers everyone, doesn’t it?)
November 29, 2007 at 10:42 am
You forgot Otaku, Nate.
November 29, 2007 at 10:54 pm
I think its deeper than that. there’s more to working late than just having to. Young salaryman get paid shit. (think 20 man a month tops, supplemented by bonus twice a year) You work overtime cause you need the money.
you wear suits everyday, this means a good portion of your income gets put to maintaining your business wardrobe at the expense of your personal wardrobe. you live in chiba in a company dorm. You have nothing to go home to at night. You could go out and drink, but you’d be in your suit (goodbye reggae club) and you cant really afford it, plus you have to make last train back to chiba. when you do go drink during the work week its becaue your boss is taking you and subsidizing the expense.
I think part of the time guys get mistresses is because it takes until you are in your late 30″s to be able to afford a life, and well you might as well enjoy it. Plus you live closer to downtown now, can afford taxis, dont have to make last train. You can afford to go to the bar on your own.
I love me some herbert marcuse. an essay on liberation is one of the most beautifully written pieces of commentary ever but i get the feeling that marxy is one of those few americans whose parents are still married and this shades his opinion that functional marriages and non-adulterous long-term relationships are somehow the norm.
November 29, 2007 at 11:25 pm
Good interview! Well done. Congratulations.
November 30, 2007 at 10:03 am
marxy is one of those few americans whose parents are still married and this shades his opinion that functional marriages and non-adulterous long-term relationships are somehow the norm.
Few? The divorce rate is still under 50% in most countries (including the U.S. and Japan), so working marriages are not some insane statistical outlier. Whether or not working marriages are the “norm” in the sense of “normal,” they are the “norm” in terms of what society normatively expects from people who enter into the legal bind of marriage. Ignoring all the moral and ethic concerns, there are legal and social expectations when entering into the marriage contract. These are voluntary since no one HAS to ever get married. Like a driver’s license, society has created — for better or worse — guidelines to this social contract.
Adultery is a personal choice (with consequences), but I was more trying to get atadultery as a systematic phenomena in Japan and whether it is not based on patriarchal ideas that men are allowed to freely cause emotional damage to their partners. There is an uneven contract if adultery for men is a “nuisance” to be endured by women where the opposite is a contract breaker.
November 30, 2007 at 10:23 am
November 30, 2007 at 5:05 pm
You wrote: “There is an uneven contract if adultery for men is a ‘nuisance’ to be endured by women where the opposite is a contract breaker.”
Your description of this imbalance could equally apply to other countries where adultery is not only apparently common but also seen as characteristic of the nation. British commentators like to quote French actor Pierre Arditi who, when asked if he was faithful to his wife, replied “Often”.
November 30, 2007 at 7:43 pm
this is my point. you spin this whole story about how japanese women are unhappy in their marriages and that its because they are being cheated on… ie.
Even if they are not “unhappy,” there was definitely a feeling of how the system of marriage in Japan may not be best serving Japanese women
look, while divorce maybe less than 50% (and most stats put the american rate at 40-50% for first marriages, and may be declining but marriage itself has declined far more rapidly than divorce has in the U.S.) you have this fantasy that people in marriage are you know, happy and not cheating on each other. while thats a percentage of marriages i garauntee you that cross section of still married and not adulterated is small cross section. We may get married for love (but of course our partners are always carefully screened by class, geography etc) but love/fidelity is only one of the reasons to stay together in any country.
but lets get to the point. if we were to say that marriage is optional, as you suggest, than women who get married in japan, choose to get married knowing that adultery is systematic. Yes there are rules against it, but there are unwritten rules that say its okay. You’re idea that adultery isnt common or is even an acceptable reason for divorce etc is an america norm (and a relatively recent one- see the 1950’s), not a universal one. Yes, this is unfair to women, but thats why i think you’re wrong about marriage.
Marriage in japan is not really optional. There are no economic incentives to not getting married here, especially for women. and equally almost none for getting divorced (until you can get that nenkin). In fact there are plenty of benefits (better housing, better lifestyle, the chance to rear children, and the biggest one – meeting social expectations.) and there are extreme social pressure to get married (before you hit christmas cake age too). On the mens side there all sorts of economic advantages to getting married (higher wages, better housing), look at your bosses at work, i garauntee almost all of them are married (it says responsibility!) and in many ways marriage (but not fidelity) is a prerequisite for advacncement in certain japanese companies.
November 30, 2007 at 11:41 pm
Hi. I liked how well the author responded to the further questions, which one could analyze as a discurs. If you would compare these phrases to the interviews about women in Japanese society in the 60s or 80s you would be surprised how much Japan changed.
I would refrain comparing societies or ethnological groups.
I don’t care about decadence in Paris neither in Tokyo or New York. Just look at the evolutionary process how Japanese men and women changed in their own country during the last 50 years. Amazing.
By the way, the interview didn’t mention the complex lifestyle in countryside of Japan. But that’s another topic which nobody cares, right?
December 1, 2007 at 10:44 am
Marriage in japan is not really optional.
I think we may be disagreeing on how cynical to look at marriages, but we fundamentally seem to agree on the fact the economic and social system in Japan works against women’s interests. You pretty much spelled it out. Marriage is a contract, but parties go in with different levels of bargaining power (based on economic and social standing) and clearly women come out the losers.
there are extreme social pressure to get married (before you hit christmas cake age too).
Christmas Cake strikes me as an incredibly outdated concept – at least in Tokyo. If you get married at 25 now, that’s on the early side.
December 1, 2007 at 1:53 pm
[…] by journalist Sumie Kawakami (translated by Yuko Enomoto) for the Asian Review of Books, and David Marx interviews the author for Neojapanism. Finally, Jiro Yamaguchi finds interesting points of comparison between […]
December 1, 2007 at 1:57 pm
> and clearly women come out the losers.
we’re in the old problem territory on neomarxisme here as someone already hinted: there’s far too much projection here of commentators own cultural backgrounds and ideas of marriage (with marxy at the top) and it’s basically that that ends up being discussed. the fact that the japanese idea of marriage itself from meiji on has, formally and superficially speaking, a lot to do with rigid, dated western concepts only makes things more messy – particularly if they end up seen as ‘confucian’ or whatever.
the author does a good job in trying to keep a healthier view in the interview, but then by targeting such a book to anglo pseudo-japanologists she evidently took the responsability and risk of misunderstanding in the first place.
December 1, 2007 at 6:06 pm
What’s good about an interview is that even if the questions are biased, the interviewee can answer for his/herself. I am not going to apologize for my own political sympathies or worldview coming out in my questions, especially since the answers are what are on parade here.
December 2, 2007 at 4:16 am
The interview was interesting but I agree with others, though, that the conclusions you are seeking to draw from her answers don’t necessarily follow. You want to explain a situation which is not unique to Japan by pointing to factors which are. It might be more interesting to consider some of the differences. It takes two to tango so rather than just look at incentives for women to get married, it might also be interesting to look at what incentives there are for a woman to become a mistress or girlfriend of a married man.
December 2, 2007 at 10:33 am
I don’t think my conclusions follow exclusively from the information in her answers. One of the most important “facts” for Japanese difference in these areas (which Kawakami starts her book with) is that Japan has the lowest frequency of intra-couple sex and yet the largest infrastructure for sex-related business services. The mizu shobai/pink salon/showtime kyabakura/soapland/no-pants shabu shabu world in Japan is massive and overground. Men do not just go their for personal pleasure; it has been integrated into the business and political culture.
Ironically, employment equality threatens that culture. More female managers means less blatant conducting of business in these quarters, which speaks to the idea that this system could only be created because of the overwhelming balance of economic and social power men maintain. British and French men can have affairs, but is there a multi-billion dollar industry based around the idea of women as rentable sexual property? Sure, Christian morality may get in the way, but when you systematically force women out of the possibilities of equal career opportunity, you can easily put them to work in your preferred nightlife style.
Same with mistresses, if marriage is required because of economic pressures, those whose choices are limited to low-earners or otherwise less desirable candidates, it may best to hitch to a successful man.
There is plenty of evidence that the culture of sex in Japan depends upon political and economic opportunity for women. We don’t just need this interview to come to those conclusions.
December 2, 2007 at 5:19 pm
That seems to be the main point. Looking around at other countries, on the “demand” side of the equation – men having sex outside marriage – Japan doesn’t appear to be an outlier compared with other countries in the world. The “supply” side is different to western nations but you can find similar institutions in Asian countries such as Korea and China. You highlight the fact that this infrastructure is “overground”: I wonder whether you think that makes it more reprehensible than if it was underground.
A woman in Britain who starts a relationship with a married man may well hope that the man will divorce his wife and then marry her. That doesn’t seem to be the general expectation of a Japanese woman whether she works in mizu shobai or not. The two adulterous lovers in the wildly popular “Shitsurakuen” didn’t see divorce and remarriage as a solution to their situation.
A divorced man in Japan often loses contact with children from his marriage. Partly this may be because there are no real laws to enforce visitation. It might be that a Japanese father doesn’t much want to maintain contact but I’ve also heard from Western friends who have remarried with a Japanese girl that their new wife often seems bemused that they would want to maintain a relationship with the children from a first marriage and sometimes actively resents it.
There’s a high risk of drawing false sweeping conclusions from such a small body of anecdotal evidence but I wonder whether a Japanese marriage places less emphasis on sex being exclusive and more on the family being exclusive compared with a western marriage.
December 2, 2007 at 11:15 pm
“A woman in Britain who starts a relationship with a married man may well hope that the man will divorce his wife and then marry her. That doesn’t seem to be the general expectation of a Japanese woman whether she works in mizu shobai or not. The two adulterous lovers in the wildly popular “Shitsurakuen” didn’t see divorce and remarriage as a solution to their situation.”
Now I see problem here,Mulboyne.
Remember “Shitsurakuen” was written by the guru of 50 something salarymen in grey suits,Watanabe Jyunichi,who managed the entire novel written dominantly from male perspective. If only you are more keen viewer of 2o’clock soap operas you would find plenty of dramas of female narratives that give you some different ideas.
December 3, 2007 at 4:03 am
Societies change, people’s values change.
Let’s take the year 2000: In the case of a country like Germany the term “patchwork family” is already a common status quo which can’t be understood by even young urban, so called, progressive Tokyoties. What comes in 2020?
Indeed, as David pointed out, and I would agree, the “mizu-shobai” is too much integrated in the daily life of Japanese urban couples/families. I would call it a structural problem which can’t be erased as Japan has a long history of entertainment, high and low. The culture, on which Japan is proud of and officially “exports”, is based on this “entertainment” which is full of decadence (like sex between samurai and boy, “mizu-age” with 10 years old girls) and pseudo romantic love.
December 3, 2007 at 12:14 pm
”The culture, on which Japan is proud of and officially “exports”, is based on this “entertainment” which is full of decadence (like sex between samurai and boy, “mizu-age” with 10 years old girls) and pseudo romantic love.”
Now waait a minuite.There are some exaggeration here.I see some influence of “SHOGUN”and”Memoire of a Geisha”all over in this post.
I don’t see any indication between NINTENDO and sex between Samurai and boy,or is it just me.
December 3, 2007 at 12:47 pm
And I too have a “patchwork family”even though I now reside in Saitama,Mario.
Infact both of my parents families were”patchwork” families. Ofcourse those were not the prodcut of liberal family values but the outcome of losing the war. There were lots of widows and widowers back in the 40’s.
March 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm
wow i should have found her book when i was writing mine, BLACK PASSENGER, YELLOW CABS, an erotic ethnographic memoir based on my experiences and observations, living here in japan for the last seven years. but she has validated all my observations and conclusions about this country . BLACK PASSENGER should be published in about 3 months and my first interview can be read at the site below.