While Japan has an enormous sex-related industry, married couples don’t seem to do it that often (we’re not sure whether to believe mere stats: According to a Durex survey, Japan ranks last internationally in terms of sexual activity.) And this would be the case in many modern societies as well… So for the last two years, author Sumie Kawakami gathered interviews of various Japanese women to depict this one aspect of society: Her latest book, Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by the superb Chin Music Press portrays eleven sex lives in painstaking detail. Today PingMag talks to Sumie about the heart of relationships.
Written by Maya Gartner
Instead of showing you anonymous Japanese women, we decided to rather introduce you to a great part of Japanese tradition: ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, celebrating Japanese ladies by Eihou. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Another traditional fair female on a kuchi-e (frontispiece) by Eihou. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Your stories are intensely personal. How did you get all the women to open up to you?
The ones in the book are just a fraction of what I’ve collected: One woman, after reading my manuscript, said “I can’t accept this” and kept denying what I had written; some kept asking for revisions over and over; others, hearing that the book will be published in English, ran their Japanese stories through translation software to read it in English. Getting your own story published is a big deal even if it’s under a fake name. I feel that negotiating little details in the story with the women took much longer than the interview itself. The book also includes stories that barely passed the women’s approval and some stories have been dramatically edited due to technical constraints. In that respect, what ended up in the book is the pure essence.
I believe that at the heart of human existence is the desire to be heard and to be understood. And if the story is as intensely personal as one’s sex life or love life, the desire to share one’s story may be even stronger.
Let’s get to the point: Why do you think Japanese married couples aren’t having much sex?
I’d like to refer you to statistics: Pharmaceutical company Bayer AG conducted an online survey in 2006, which found that 38,8 percent of couples questioned didn’t have sex in the past year. Sexlessness had little to do with age – 47 percent of those in their 30s, 46 percent of those in their 40s and 50 percent of those in their 50s said they were sexless.
Women breast-feeding: From the “Pearl Divers” series by Utamaro. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Also from “Pearl Divers.” Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
In my interviews of women, I’ve talked to many who said that sex with their husbands was too much work. For one thing, their husbands came home very late from work but had to get up early the next morning, so sex was the last thing on their minds. I didn’t mention this in the book, but in the process of reporting for this book, I’ve also talked to men who claimed they were sexless: One guy was in his early 20s. He told me that he often comes home from work early in the morning and by the time he gets ready to go to bed, his wife wakes up to go to work. Sex is out of the question here. They’re not having affairs either. He said, “I could go home earlier if I wanted to, but going out for drinks after work is part of my job. I feel bad for my wife, but for now, work is my priority – not being at home.” Weekends are so busy with shopping and other events that sex never enters the picture. Making time just for sex in a very busy schedule feels awkward. It’s not that he lacks drive – it’s just easier taking care of business on his own when his wife’s not around.
Utamaro’s lady has a “Whistle Made Of Glass” and quite an elaborated pattern on her dress. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
While that example is an extreme case, this couple has been married for only a few years. If the relationship continues in that way, what awaits them in ten or twenty years? Long working hours and the fact that men are tied to evening social obligations long after they’ve left the company are impediments to a healthy sex life. They’re all tired, men included. These days, women continue to work after they’ve had babies. On weekdays, sex is the furthest thing from their minds as they focus on work and raising their children. I think these are common issues for most families.
So, an obstacle seems to be a busy work life?
Also, lack of communication between the spouses is part of the problem. The main focal point in the lives of men becomes the workplace and work itself, while for women, it’s the home and children. They end up sharing so little. In North America, for instance, men are active in the children’s schools or within the local community. That experience likely leads to stronger ties within the family and between the spouses. In Japan, however, many fathers can barely attend the child’s sports day event once a year. The husband works downtown and his center of activity is rooted in that area. The wife’s radius of activity is confined to a small area, perhaps a few kilometers, around the school. No wonder husbands and wives begin to drift apart.
Meaning couples become estranged. What changes within their relationships?
“When we got married, we were no longer lovers. We became family and that removed my desire for sex.” – This is a comment I’ve heard many times. A Japanese husband calls his wife, “Mama” and the wife calls her husband, “Papa.” Their identities as parents supersede their identities as a couple. Society demands that of them. It is often said that in Japan, there is only woman or mother: The moment a woman gives birth, she becomes a mother. This deifies the woman’s existence and places her on a pedestal on the one hand, but denies her sexuality on the other.
Strolling lady, frontispiece by artist Gotou. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Elegant woman on another kuchi-e. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
I guess, this can be the case in any other society too… Is there something else?
In Japan, the custom still remains where the parents sleep with their child in the middle. Such an environment is not conducive to sexual activities between the spouses. Having said that, there are couples who have sex regularly while their child sleeps next to them. There are individual differences.
Female on ukiyo-e by Eizan. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Also by artist Eizan. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
For sure. Now, all the talk about the falling birthrate really comes down to couples not having enough sex?
The fact that more and more women either can’t or won’t get married comes before sexless couples. In fact, this falling birthrate is not just a Japanese problem. It’s one next door in South Korea, or in Italy, as well. The birthrate dropped but then rebounded in European countries such as Sweden, France and Denmark because they created an environment where women could advance in society and raise children. Japan needs to make an effort on the policy front!
An often-heard explanation for the falling birthrate is that “women give priority to their work and their hobbies and don’t want to have children.” Politicians have stopped their incessant trumpeting of this ridiculous line recently, but when you consider pay and promotion disparities between men and women, the awful labor conditions for women raising children, the isolated role in society played by full-time housewives and various other problems, one can only conclude that this is the basic message.
So, how do Japanese women think of marrying and getting kids?
First, if you look at the statistics, most Japanese women are not against having children, and they’re not thinking about how fun it will be to not get married and enjoy their lives by themselves. Life is not all roses nor is it short enough for women to simply believe that marriage is too much of a hassle or that it would be better to just enjoy life on their own. Maybe there are women in their 20s who think this way, but as they hit their 30s and 40s, it is not hard to imagine more women deciding to settle down and have a family. Women who aggressively resist marriage and children make up a small minority.
Lady by Utamaro. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Breast-feeding woman, by artist Kunisada, 19th century. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Indeed, from a certain point, women sometimes seem to be a lot about marrying…
Look at the figures and you’ll see that the urge to get married and have children is deeply rooted in Japanese women, whether they are married or single. Leaving the issues of marriage and sexual relations aside for a moment, let’s look at the children: A survey of attitudes toward the falling birthrate released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in March 2004 revealed that as many as 54,7 percent of single women ages 20 to 32 and 49,3 percent of single women from 33 to 49 said they would like to have two children. More than 30 percent of each age group said they’d like to have three children. On the other hand, those who said they didn’t want children at all numbered just 5,3 percent in the younger age group and 9,3 percent in the older one.
It’s clear that there are a lot of women who want to give birth, yet why do so many end up giving up on that dream? While each person has her own special circumstances, the statistics show that many women are missing their chance to have children due to the growing trend to marry late or not marry at all and to economic uncertainties, inability to have children or lack of sexual relations with their partners…
… factors you find in other societies as well. However, what do you think about Japanese men? There seem to be a lot of mama’s boys in these stories…
The men portrayed in this book are male images based on the women’s point of view and are not based on direct interviews. So, it’s a bit misleading to conclude that they are mama’s boys. Whether they are Japanese or not, men are supposed to be manly, and I think those who do not meet requirements of being manly are likely to be labeled as mama’s boys in any culture.
Woman (possibly courtesan?) serving sake: ukiyo-e by artist Utamaro, 18th century. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Also by Utamaro. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
…that depends on the acceptance of shifting gender roles in a society.
Combing beauty by Goyou, 1920. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Well, in my opinion, all men – not just Japanese – are more or less potential mama’s boys. From a woman’s perspective, most of them are. Of course, that includes judgments clouded by the jealousy a wife may feel toward her mother-in-law. The Confucian tradition may dictate that a Japanese man, if faced with the ultimate choice of his mother or his wife, choose his mother. In the West, choosing the wife may be considered the gentlemanly act – but in Japan, respect for one’s parents overrides that. For instance, when the wife and mother-in-law get into an argument, the husband may admonish his wife. Not because he doesn’t love his wife – he is, in effect, saying: “You have agreed to become my wife, so please allow matters in my household to take precedence.” It is a form of dependence on the wife. Whether or not this behavior reflects a maternal complex on the part of the husband, the woman still enters into a marriage with some understanding that she is marrying into her husband’s family. Lately, some husbands are moving into their wives’ homes so that sort of thinking no longer predominates.
So there is a slow change…
But also, many Japanese men are terrible communicators and that may contribute to a lot of misunderstanding from women. Especially the silent but macho types have trouble communicating their feelings toward their wives. From her viewpoint, he only appears to take sides with his mother. I didn’t do much reporting from the man’s perspective for this book, but it would be interesting to hear what they have to say.
Ladies by ukiyo-e artist Utamaro. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
And one by Kunisada, 19th century. Courtesy of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Oh, yes! Something else: Fortune-telling comes up a lot in your stories, and you liken it to psychotherapy in the West. But does a reliance on fortune telling breed a kind of fatalism, as if you have no control over your destiny?
Fortune-telling is a pretty personal thing. In the end, each person can choose whether to believe it or not.
However, Japan has a long culture of nature worship. The idea that the movement of the stars, the changing of the seasons or the ebb and flow of the tides have a large effect on people is much more accepted than in the West. Also, the importance of a person’s energy levels and the idea that the spirit and body are one have been interwoven into our everyday life since long ago. The kanji kiryoku, which combines the characters for spirit and strength and means energy, spirit or vigor, points to this. I believe that things like natural phenomena, spirits and ancestral souls should be seen as part of our lives, not as something to abhor or to write off as nonscientific. And I’d argue that fortune telling is just an extension of this.
Interesting! Thank you, Sumie, for bringing us women in Japanese society a bit closer. Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman is available at Chin Music Press and also over at Amazon.