What Is the Typical Relationship Between a Japanese Married Couple?

A couple walks on Nov. 22, 2014, in Kyoto, Japan.

Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

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Answer by Steve Wright, coordinator of international events at Bibai City Hall in Hokkaido, Japan:

This is a very interesting question, and I’m glad to have a chance to offer my ideas. It’s been my good fortune to live in northern Japan since 1989, and I still feel as if every day is a learning experience. My bride of the last 24 years and her parents are my main models for understanding married couples here, but I have a few other close (married) friends, so I’d like to talk a little about some main issues.

For starters, the husband-wife relationship in one country is often a very concentrated example of more general relations in that country. What’s generally true in social relations becomes extremely true in a marriage.

As with marriages in other countries, the acceptable types of communication between husband and wife have unique patterns in Japan. (These styles of communication have things in common with everywhere else, too, of course.) Japanese are taught to accommodate rather than confront from an early age, and the most successful marriages I’ve seen here are the ones where the husband and wife have settled in on a daily pattern where neither one ever gets in the other’s face. Ever. 

You might think this fits with the stereotype of the docile, subservient Japanese wife or even the disinterested, passive, working Japanese husband, but you’d be wrong. Even when the public image is of the soft-spoken, generously giving wife, at home in private Japanese wives are hardly docile. And working fathers who come home after midnight and leave before 7 the next morning may be too tired to develop any deep conversations with their families, but that’s not to say that they share a mailing address and nothing else with their families. Many Japanese spouses are wonderfully generous, completely disinterested, nurturing, or workaholics; others aren’t. But show me a Japanese couple where either spouse can lightly toss off lines like, “You’re wrong,” or “Why do you make such a mistake?” and I’ll show you a Japanese couple with not much of a future.

When I was teaching conversation classes all day (or all evening), one of my favorite homework assignments to give out was the question, “Would you rather hear your spouse say, ‘I love you’ or ‘I respect you’?” My students would chew on this idea for a week and come back with some amazing responses. But the one answer that came back over and over was that they felt they could never love their spouse if they didn’t first respect them. I suppose there’s a bit of that in American marriages, too, but it’s been my experience that all people (Japanese and non-Japanese alike) go through better and worse times in their lives, and it’s much easier to respect them when they’re doing well than when things aren’t going so well.

So sometimes I felt bold enough to follow up on this question. Among my students, not all respected their spouses, and counterintuitively, among those who didn’t respect their spouses, more than a few reported that they loved their spouses anyway. Hmmm …

This kind of conversation class was psychotherapy for more than a few. You’ll almost never hear a Japanese person tell his or her spouse, “I love you.” For that matter, you’ll almost never hear a Japanese parent tell his or her child, “I love you” either. But you’d be sadly mistaken if you took this to mean that Japanese don’t deeply, strongly, sometimes desperately, love their families. So the chance to admit in front of others that they honestly did love their spouses was self-revelation (and often liberation) for many of my students.

Expressing something obliquely, obscurely, even as a tangential aside is usually the preferred style among Japanese. This goes back to their aversion to confront others, of course. But there is also a greater punch in compliments (and in insults) from forcing the recipients to think things through by themselves. “What did he mean when he talked about my shoes?” “Why in the world would she mention this necktie in that context?” These are the sorts of things many of my Japanese friends stew about long after friends have gone their separate ways for the evening. If you think you might like to use this technique yourself among Japanese, fair warning: You’re playing with dynamite. Get the slightest nuance wrong in a roundabout compliment and you can make an enemy. I turned this on myself once in my family when I once won an important distinction on the job. “You see what a wonderful father you have?” I asked my daughter. She and my wife are still laughing at me for saying that, eight years after the fact.

So if strong reluctance to confront, to say something pleasant or unpleasant directly to a spouse is evidence of a successful marriage in Japan, what positive actions do you look for? What is it that Japanese are doing instead of refusing to do that signals a healthy marital relationship? Here, I think the universals apply more than the particulars; what’s true in other cultures is probably even more significant here. A successful marriage in Japan has two partners who are attentive to their significant others. Most Japanese would much rather that you showed them how you felt than told them. Holding the door, handing an umbrella, offering your seat on a train or bus, reaching for a packet of tissues when someone else sneezes—these little signs of attention you pay to someone else carry much more weight than anything you could ever say in Japan. It’s deeply profound that Japanese will ask you to “treat our relationship well” rather than say  that it’s “nice to meet you” when you first meet. If a Japanese person asks you to treat your relationship well, he really means it!

This is why some actions most Americans take for granted strike Japanese as incredibly gallant or (mistakenly) as amorous. As a single person, hold a door once for a single Japanese of the gender you find more attractive, and you may cause him or her to blush. Hold a door twice and you might start rumors.

So when I make new friends with married Japanese, I pay very close attention to how much attention they pay each other. Does either one of them take the other’s arm when they step off the curb or up onto a train or bus? If one of them drops something, does the other quickly reach down to pick it up? Rather than simply hand a coat over to another person, does one Japanese help the other put that coat on? These are all signs of successful marriages in Japan, and they’re reason for jealousy if one spouse does it in front of the other spouse for someone else. (And I speak with the authority of personal experience here.) Even my mother-in-law was embarrassed beyond words when I let her know that I’d paid some serious attention to several of her calligraphy scrolls. My relationship with my father-in-law has never quite recovered from a couple of (what I considered) innocent, standard compliments I paid her. Details are important, and paying attention to details is crucial in starting and keeping a strong personal relationship with Japanese.

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