Like many members of the RocketNews24 team, I met the love of my life after arriving in Japan, and just to be clear, I’m talking about my wife, not a cold can of crisp, delicious Ebisu beer. There’s a lot to be said for an international marriage, whether it’s the chance to learn about another culture in the most in-depth way possible, or simply the opportunity to dazzle your spouse by cooking food from your home country, even at a quality that would have your friends and family back home hitting the speed dial button for the local pizza delivery.

Of course, Japan, like any society, has its own baseline attitudes about married life, some of which can be startling for foreigners with a Japanese spouse. Blogger Madame Riri has composed a list of marital quirks to be aware of and think through together with your Japanese sweetheart before the two of you say “chikaimasu” (“I do”).

For the past few decades, in many Western countries, it’s been considered a given that a woman will continue to work after marriage. This attitude is a more recent development in Japan, though, where Madame Riri believes it hasn’t completely taken root.

Although Japan enacted legislation for sexual equality in employment opportunities in 1986, the traditional roles of the husband holding a job and earning money while the wife takes on the task of caring for the home have yet to vanish completely from the Japanese mindset. Madame Riri cites anecdotal evidence that as the Japanese economy’s doldrums continue, the number of women who would rather be housewives than toil away at a dead-end job is edging higher once again.

▼ “Sorry Mariko, but I won’t be able to read this English note you left on my desk until the translator comes back from vacation. Anyway, are you still up for two hours of unpaid overtime, followed by pouring beers for the men at the company drinking party?”

This can come as a bit of a shock to members of Japan’s foreign community, many of whom hail from countries where acceptance of a woman’s right to be a full-fledged member of the workforce was a hard-fought yet proud victory.

“Choosing to be a housewife is strange,” said a Polish woman in her 20s, when asked for her take on the Japanese practice. “In Poland, no one would make that decision.”

“I feel sorry for them,” stated a less delicate Portuguese woman in her 50s.

Even foreign men are sometimes caught off guard by this phenomena, and not just because of the loss of overall income for the couple it represents. “That way of thinking seems a little behind the times,” commented an American male in his early 20s.

Tied into preexisting notions about employment are, naturally, assumptions about household finances. Somewhat counterintuitively, while Japanese men have traditionally been given the responsibility of providing for the family, control of budgeting and expenditures has generally been held by their wives.

If both partners are working, it’s not unreasonable that each spouse want to retain some autonomy over what to do with their respective earnings. Sure, they might set up a joint account that each pay into for shared expenses. As long as the bills are getting paid, though, if Mr. Jones wants to stop off for a few beers with his buddies after work, there’s no need to get the funds formally appropriated by Mrs. Jones ahead of time.

▼ “Hey, Jones, shouldn’t you have called your wife to say we were partying
before our sixth round?”
“My who?”

Mr. Tanaka might not enjoy the same leeway, however. In many Japanese households, the wife controls the purse strings. The husband deposits all of his paycheck into the family’s account, after which his wife determines a set allowance for him for the month.

In particular, Japanese society places numerous obligations on employees to socialize with their coworkers, and when we say numerous, we’re referring strictly to their frequency. In terms of variety, these social obligations are almost uniformly drinking parties. As Madame Riri sees it, an allowance system allows the wife to put some kind of brake on her husband’s alcoholic business investment expenses.

▼ “Hey, Tanaka, shouldn’t you have called your wife to say we were discussing
the Suzuki account before our sixth round?”
“My who?”

Nevertheless, for some foreigners this seems unnecessary, if not juvenile or outright insulting. “If my girlfriend decided she was going to be the one setting all of our entertainment budgeting, I don’t think we’d last,” speculated one expat living in Japan.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges in an international marriage is language. Even if both spouses are bilingual and can understand each other perfectly, certain linguistic conventions can still rub someone the wrong way.

Madame Riri offers one possible development to be braced for if you have a Japanese spouse. Once children come along, traditional values hold that they become the center of the family unit. A byproduct of this restructured hierarchy is that some spouses in Japan start to see each other less and less as a romantic partner, and more and more as simply the other half of the parenting team.

As corroborating evidence, the blogger points to the fact that unlike their counterparts in the West, Japanese married couples with children rarely, if ever, drop the kids off at a relative’s house so they can have a date night. The practice of hiring a babysitter to take care of the little ones while the two of you enjoy dinner at an upscale restaurant is similarly unheard of.

Eventually this slide away from old-fashioned romance can start to manifest itself in the couple’s speech patterns. After the first baby comes home from the hospital, many Japanese couples unconsciously stop calling each other by name and instead start referring to each other by okaa-san/Mom and otou-san/Dad, even when speaking directly to one another.

▼ Basically, these become their signatures

The loanwords Mama and Papa are also commonly used, but they can still seem like a lukewarm substitute for your given names. It’s not like the trend reverses itself after the kids grow up and leave the nest either, because once you have grandkids, you and your spouse switch over to using obaa-san/grandma and ojii-san/grandpa.

But by far the biggest thing to be prepared for, according to Madame Riri, is the huge difference in how often Western and Japanese couples say “I love you.”

The blogger states, and we won’t argue with her observation, that you can take a look at just about any Internet forum for foreigners about life in Japan, and you’ll come across at least one thread to the effect of “my Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife never says ‘I love you.’”

Western courtship, and by extension marriage, tends to value clear, direct expressions of feelings. Sure, it can be scary, but it’s considered to be the best way to avoid misunderstandings and let your partner know how you really feel.

▼ “Hey baby, check out this awesome little hermit crab I found!”

On the other hand, both Japanese society and language are comparatively comfortable with vagueness and indirectness. A plethora of information is carried by inflection, choice of pronoun, and even verb conjugation. With so little need to explicitly spell things out, some people become so unaccustomed to saying things directly that they find it unnatural to plainly express their love to their spouse, even if they feel it in their hearts.

In closing, keep in mind that there are over 120 million people in Japan. The points we’ve discussed here may represent the traditional mode of Japanese marital life, but they’re far from the whole picture. In any country, you’ll find people with attitudes different from the dead center of their nation’s bell curve, as illustrated by my wife’s frequent suggestions that we try out a new hamburger joint she heard about, and my just as frequent counterproposals that we get sushi for dinner instead. Remember that you’re marrying an individual, and as long as your two unique sets of values work well together, you’re off to a great start towards a happy marriage.

▼ Mental note: take wife out for a burger this weekend

Source: Madame Riri