It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged by British journalists in Japan that this is a wacky country, full of people behaving oddly. All you need to do to file a report is ask a few people their opinions, extrapolate some general truths from what they tell you, attach some stereotypical images or statements and voilà! You just reported from Japan.
Or did you?
Japan is a fascinating country, and is no more stereotypical than any other country. Of course you can portray Britain as a nation of cups of tea, football hooligans and Peter Rabbit. France has its snails, garlic and berets. Edified? Fascinated? Want to hear more? No, I didn’t think so. So why is there an appetite for these entertaining-but-shallow-to-the-point-of-saying-nothing-new-at-all articles about Japan?
In the UK I would imagine that Clive James has a lot to answer for. To general acclamation and amusement, he filled a lot of TV programmes in the eighties with footage from Japanese quiz shows and commercials. Takeshi’s Castle, a game show from the late eighties presided over by Takeshi Kitano was at least recently shown on British TV and assumed to be representative of Japanese TV today. These are the images burned into the British psyche, over-the-top TV programmes, Japanese people gone wild.
What is disappointing is this; when British journalists come to Japan they set about reinforcing these stereotypes, instead of exploring this great country and testing the clichés to see if they hold true. Yesterday evening on Facebook, two friends shared a link to a newspaper article , the latest in this proud tradition of recycling tired ideas and calling them your own. I found it exasperating for three reasons; it repeats clichés about Japan; it presents facts or ideas that have been around for a while and are nothing new and for good measure it throws in an extraordinarily offensive blanket statement about Japan. The article in question is titled, Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex? and was written by Abigail Haworth, who has also written for Marie Claire. The article would probably have fitted much better in a magazine, though I would still take issue with a lot of the content. (I have tried to add the link here but can’t seem to make it work, oops.)
The article leads off with promises of much titillation to come; not only has she managed to use the word ‘sex’ in the headline, but in the first paragraph we meet a woman who used to be a ‘professional dominatrix’. More random facts about her make up the majority of the first four paragraphs, with a small number of statistics about Japan’s falling birthrate mixed in. And so it goes on . . . and on . . . and on . . . seesawing between a strange mix of 6th-form level research about Japan’s population, and pronouncements from the ex ‘professional dominatrix’ about the state of intimate Japanese relations.
There is actually a large amount of data but it is dumped unceremoniously throughout the article, maybe to prevent it from being solely the thoughts of one Japanese woman with an unusual CV. There are glancing references to the 2011 tsunami and ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi, as well as mention of social phenomena, such as hikikomori (shut-ins), otaku (geeks or nerds) and the charmingly named ‘parasite singles’ (single adult children who continue to live with their parents). In fact, the article becomes a catalogue of social issues without managing to analyse even one of them in any depth. Because that would undermine the point of the article, which seem to be justifying interviewing a very dubious woman who has set herself up as an expert with no apparent training or qualifications.
In addition to her main interview subject and a relentless flood of statistics and reference to social issues, Ms. Haworth also interviews several twenty- and thirty-something Japanese people, who declare that relationships are ‘mendokusai’, or tiresome, troublesome. They’d rather do other things, like concentrate on their career (or play games on their smart phones). They view personal relationships, with the demands that would be made on their time and money, to be too much trouble. For the women, the choice presented is an either/or proposition. Do you want a career or a marriage and family? You can’t have both. Well, yes, you can. It’s not easy, but Japan needs more people in the workforce, and more woman are expecting to have a career. It’s hard to juggle everything, but isn’t it hard for women everywhere?
The number of social issues mentioned in passing is quite breath-taking: celibacy syndrome, hikikomori, otaku, parasite singles, oniyome (devil wives), soshoku danshi (grass-eating men), otomen (girly men) . . . each one would be an interesting subject for an article, but Ms. Haworth is eager to bring the article full circle and return to the dominatrix.
Anyone reading this article who knows Japan will recognise all the terms used, and will also understand that this preoccupation with the falling birthrate has been a concern since the ‘1.53 shock’ in 1990. The birthrate continued to fall until it reached its lowest in 2005, when the average number of children fell to 1.26. Since then it has increased slightly, but is still at a level to cause concern, particularly when the impact of the ageing society is also a factor. Japanese life expectancy is the highest in the world, and the costs that go along with that are huge. The country needs a workforce large enough to take care of the elderly. But this is not news, it’s been a concern for over two decades already.
More Japanese women are expecting to have a career, to have some financial independence. This is an appealing idea. They probably grew up during the Bubble years, when family life to them meant their mother working hard at home and taking care of the family, while their father was a kind of drone, working long hours, bringing home his pay, but not having much to do with the emotional life of his family. In the nineties I can remember some of my students telling me they didn’t see their fathers from one week to the next; he was gone before they got up in the morning, he came home after they went to their rooms at night, and on Sundays he went to play golf. They heard him coming and going but didn’t see him or interact with him at all. Japanese family life might seem to be under threat now, but the foundations started to crumble decades ago, in the post-war years, when everyone was working to rebuild the country. Everything else took a back seat.
I wonder about the impact of smaller families on the attitudes and social behaviour of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. With smaller families there are far more only children who have grown up not having to share, who are comfortable with their own company, with some kind of solitary life. They either live alone, or they live as a ‘parasite single’ with their parents, and have their needs taken care of. Why swap that for a different kind of arrangement that requires more work?
I also wonder about the impact of Western ideals, all the Disney princesses, the Hollywood movies, the expectation of a love story and happily ever after. Pre-war, most marriages were the result of the system known as omiai (お見合い), sometimes referred to as arranged marriages, but really arranged introductions to suitable partners. Post-war, the Western concept of courtship and marriage, commonly referred to as ren’ai kekkon (恋愛結婚) or love marriage has become prevalent, but even in 2013 over 6% of marriages are the result of omiai, and posters advertising agencies promising marriage within a year are a common sight on trains. It seems to me that a young Japanese woman, contemplating her parents’ marriage and the effort required to achieve happy ever after might be more inclined to think, no thank you, I’d rather put my energy into my career.
In the article there is quite a lot of attention paid to Japanese people’s reluctance to have physical contact, and again, this is an imposition of Western expectations. Japanese people are not a nation of touchy-feely people. They are not huggers, they are bowers. Japanese people are not given to displays of physical affection, with their significant other or their family, even their children. I have been told by many students that they know their mother loves them because of what she does for them, especially providing delicious food, not because of hugs and kisses.
Finally, I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I was frustrated by three aspects of this article; the lack of new information, the clichés and a blanket statement. Buried in the middle of the piece, Ms. Haworth refers to Japan as ‘a country mostly free of religious morals’. That any journalist would write such an extraordinarily sweeping and damning sentence about any country, I find quite breath-taking. That any editor would let it through also amazes me. There are no facts or statistics to back this up. The majority of Japanese people refer to Buddhism or Shinto for their religious beliefs and ceremonies. Unlike Christianity, neither Buddhism nor Shinto requires or expects weekly attendance, so it’s difficult to find any kind of study which measures religious morality. I couldn’t find one. Therefore, standing alone as a bald statement, Ms. Haworth’s claim that Japan is ‘mostly free of religious morals’ is unsubstantiated and offensive.
I was very disappointed to read Ms. Haworth’s article, and saddened to see on the newspaper’s website that it is being read by a lot of people. Japan is dealing with a lot of serious issues; tensions with its neighbours, the problems with Fukushima Daiichi, Mr. Abe’s government and its desire to change the constitution – there are plenty of things any journalist with a sincere desire to inform readers about this country could be writing about. A dominatrix setting up shop and holding forth about people’s sex lives? That’s very lazy journalism.