A few days back, a video set the internet ablaze and sparked a massive debate among netizens, leaving countless people scratching their heads. Others playfully declared that Japan might be their dream destination for finding a partner. Curious to know what got everyone buzzing? Well, it’s a clip of a guy roaming the bustling streets of Japan, asking young women questions such as: ‘What’s your take on cheating, specifically when it involves encounters with sex workers?’
The responses were nothing short of surprising, especially for those of us accustomed to Western norms around intimacy. All the women featured in the video shared a common sentiment: if their husband or partner were to engage in a transactional encounter with a prostitute, they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Why? Because in their view, there’s no emotional connection involved, so it doesn’t count as cheating.
The women who were interviewed went on to explain how they’d prefer this scenario over their significant other developing a more organic emotional bond with someone else. One of the women even noted: “If you’re paying… well, then, it’s fine by me,” while sharing a good laugh with her friend, who seemed to be on the same page.
It caused a real Carrie Bradshaw moment for me, where I couldn’t help but wonder if those of us who are living in the West are too quick to label any form of infidelity as a relationship apocalypse. Could there be a ‘healthy’ way of looking at infidelity that we’ve been missing out on? To find out if this was a legit phenomenon or just a cleverly staged video, I dove headfirst into some research, and here’s what I uncovered.
To comprehend the stark differences in attitudes towards infidelity between Japan and the West, it’s crucial to examine the changing dynamics of contemporary Japanese marriages. Unlike the West, where relationships are often steeped in Catholic or Christian values that impose moral judgments on sexual conduct, Japan has a unique perspective on morality within marriages.
A poll from 2020 indicates that approximately 20 per cent of the Japanese population has admitted to infidelity in their marriages. This willingness to admit to such behaviour is influenced by a distinct cultural understanding. In the country, the expectation that one’s spouse should fulfil all emotional and sexual needs is considered unrealistic.
A survey by infidelity dating app Ashley Madison revealed that a whopping 84 per cent of women and 61 per cent of men in Japan view their extramarital affairs as beneficial to their marriage. Yes, you read correctly, beneficial. Mariko, a business and life coach in Tokyo, explained to Metropolis that it all boils down to the kind of agreement a marriage represents. For some Japanese couples, it’s not so much about whether you do it, but how you do it. The key is to handle it in a way that doesn’t inflict emotional harm on your partner.
Ethical non-monogamy or polyamory—concepts that are gaining traction in the West—have been part of Japan’s relational landscape for a while. The focus here is on the agreement and what boundaries are being crossed. For certain couples, infidelity might not be the ultimate betrayal, rather, it’s the lack of discretion that’s frowned upon.
Dr Barbara Holtus, a sociologist at the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo, shed some light on the country’s pragmatic approach to marriage when responding to the 2020 poll. In Japanese society, marriage is often seen as a functional institution tied to childbearing and child-rearing. Once couples no longer desire children, asexuality often becomes a natural progression in their relationship. This perspective helps explain why many Japanese couples coexist platonically within the bounds of marriage.
Interestingly, infidelity among women in Japan has been steadily rising since the 1980s. This shift is seen as a positive sign, indicating that women are feeling more empowered to assert their independence within society. However, divorce remains a risky financial decision for many Japanese women, contributing to a high rate of single mothers living in poverty.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of infidelity in Japan for Western observers is its social acceptance, both within marriages and society at large. Many couples adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach, silently acknowledging extramarital affairs. Truth, it seems, is a slippery concept here, and in some marriages, open discussions about such matters are not off-limits.
While the acceptance of infidelity may seem unconventional to outsiders, could it also be a reflection of a different kind of reality we’ve been living alongside this whole time?