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Kawanishi Yuko [2009] _Mental Health Challenges Facing Contemporary Japanese Society.

The Lonely People_ Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental, pp 61-97

The Japanese Family Today


!
The modern family lives in a greater state of tension precisely because it is the
great burden carrier of the social order. In a society of rapid social change, problems outnumber solutions, and the resulting uncertainties are absorbed by the
members of society, who are for the most part also members of families. Because
the family is the bottleneck through which all troubles pass, no other association
so reflects the strains and stresses of life . . . (p.178)
REUBEN HILL1

SKELETONS OUT IN THE OPEN?

In recent years, the intimate details of family relationships have become


the subject of widespread reporting and public discussion. For most of
our history, the home and the family were taken for granted; for most
people, they were not seen as worthy of serious, analytical investigation.
After all, most embraced the unquestioned assumption that the home
was ultimately a harmonious place and the family should be treated as
one unit. We all knew domestic conflicts existed, but these were basically
seen as problems to be resolved within the household. Furthermore,
private matters such as a husband-wife relationship were considered
irrelevant to public discussions or policymaking. These topics were too
personal, and should be confined to a counseling room or a closed circle
of private friends. But today, the home as a topic for discussion is unsurprising to most Japanese, a change that suggests the pretence of familial
peace may be finally beginning to dissolve. With this new liberalism,
the media and academics have coined phrases for phenomena such as
sekkusu-resu (sexless) marriage, kateinai (in-house) divorce, jukunen
(middle-age) divorce, and husband-presence stress syndrome, to name
but a few.
Divorce in Japan is increasing at an unprecedented rate, and has been
on the rise since the mid-1990s. In 1970, approximately 10 % of all
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marriages ended in divorce. In 2000, this had risen to one in three


marriages. The number of divorces in 2003 totalled 283,906 thats
one marriage ending every 1 minute 51 seconds. (In the same year, one
couple got married every 43 seconds.) Japans divorce rate today is
higher than that in France and Italy, and almost comparable to the level
of Germany, though it is still much lower than that of the United
States.2 It is not surprising to see that relatively young couples who have
been married for only a few years are more likely to divorce. Not only
are they less constrained by the traditional view of divorce as shame
and failure, but they have not, comparatively speaking, invested a lot
of time, resources, and energy in their marriages. But what is unusual
about Japan today is the emergence of another group of divorce
seekers those who have been married for more than twenty years
and have finished raising their children. These couples are approaching
or have reached retirement age and are supposed to be at the point in
their lives where they can start reaping the benefits of all their hard
work. Below is a typical situation, a composite scenario containing all
the essential elements of a so-called jukunen divorce.
A man who has been a loyal corporate soldier for decades has finally
retired from his job. He returns home on his last day, wondering how
he will spend his post-retirement years. He may dream of doing what he
always wanted to do but never had time to, such as pursuing his hobbies, or traveling abroad. He may even fancy going on a trip with his
wife, like a second honeymoon. But disaster lurks in the genkan. When
he arrives home, his wife of thirty years is waiting, not to greet him with
kind and affectionate words of appreciation for his years of hard work,
but with a grim look on her face and divorce papers in her hand. She
says that all these years, she led the life of a servant. He was always working and never at home, leaving everything, including raising and educating their children and even the care of his invalid mother, to her
alone. No matter how much she needed his help, or how much she tried
to communicate with her husband, he was never there for her. She has
long repressed her resentment to prevent the breakup of their home for
the sake of their children and his career, but she feels now that she and
her husband have nothing in common. That is why she wants a divorce,
before it is too late for her to build a new life. She demands half of his
handsome retirement settlement and the family assets, which she is entitled to. The husband is totally shocked and devastated. For all these
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years, he had not even the slightest idea about his wifes feelings. It had
never even occurred to him.
If the wife is not so determined or has no choice but to stick it out,
the stale marriage will damage her mental and physical health. She
develops stomach ulcers, polyps in her throat, and rashes around her
eyes. Her reaction is not uncommon. In 1991, Dr. Nobuo Kurokawa
gave it a name: retired husband syndrome (RHS). For many Japanese
wives of this generation, having the husband at home can be a serious
source of stress and a burden, as she has to take care of him all the time.
It is as if she has another child.3
But stress does not just affect older couples. Younger wives also
suffer from the same ailment due to simply being with their husbands.
A woman whose husbands presence at home makes her nervous and
tense begins drinking heavily and now worries if she is becoming an
alcoholic. A wife whose husband has started working from home
ends up developing heart disease.4, 5 Otto zaitaku shokogun, husband at
home syndrome, has been widely reported and drawn attention. A
number of sympathetic studies confirm it is a widespread problem that
creates varying degrees of discomfort.
Even more revealing are reports on sekkusu-resu (sexless) marriages
that began to appear in the late-1990s. Japanese people may be more
likely than the previous generation to talk openly about sex in general,
and therefore, it is always possible to attribute the apparent increase
of sexless couples to an increasing willingness or openness in intimate
matters. However, even when this reporting bias is discounted, there
seems to have been a substantial increase in sexless relationships among
married couples in recent years. Books and articles written about the
topic have included episodes and case studies of individuals, but most
were not with substantiated data indicating how widespread the phenomenon actually was. The medical definition presented by Dr. Teruo
Abe for the first time at the Japan Sexologist Conference in 1991 refers
to the condition as when a couple does not have any sexual contact,
including body touching, for more than one month and this state is
expected to continue longer.6 However, a survey of the issue conducted
by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, jointly with the Japan
Family Planning Association in 2005, which targeted 3,000 men and
women aged sixteen to forty-nine, finally confirmed that 32 % of couples are in sexless marriages, with a further nearly 20 % reporting they
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have had no sexual contact for one year. Of those describing themselves
as sexless, 44 % admitted they weary of getting involved with the opposite sex, while 31 % of non-sexless people gave the same reply.7 The
same survey two years later showed a 3% increase in sexless marriages,
as well as finding that 46% of married people over forty-five years old
defined themselves as in a sexless relationship.8 A much talked about
international survey in 2005 by condom manufacturer Durex, found
that of forty-one countries, Japan ranked bottom in terms of the frequency people on average had intercourse in a year (twenty-four) as well
as the level of interest in their own sex life. Respondents in Greece
showed the highest number of 138.9
The number of sexless cases dealt with by members of the Japan
Sexologist Association has also increased from 10 % in the late 1980s to
nearly 40 % in recent years. Many are men in their thirties to forties
who reportedly are unable to have sex with their wives, though they can
with other women, a situation that leaves many wives feeling miserable
and humiliated.10
For sure, this is all very sad for the individuals involved, but why
should Japan as a nation care? The reason why the most private and intimate affairs of an individuals life have become the target of government
surveys is their relevance to one of Japans most critical national-level
issues: the declining birthrate. Japans fertility rate has been on the
decline for thirty-five years. When the total fertility rate per woman (the
average number of children born to a woman aged between fifteen and
forty-nine) hit 1.5 in the early 1990s, it was considered to herald the
beginning of serious population decline. But at the time, who knew it
was just the beginning of a continuous and more drastic fall? While the
decline of the birthrate is a common phenomenon in many highlyindustrialized societies, Japans fertility rate has dropped since the early
1990s to the lowest level (along with South Korea) among developed
nations. What is more fundamental and profound, when it comes to the
future of a nation, than the size of its population?
The causes for Japans inability to produce enough children are multiple and complex. The most obvious reason is that people are marrying
later in life. Though Japan is still a country where most people will eventually marry by the age of forty, suggesting marriage and family as social
institutions have not lost their validity, why are people increasingly putting off tying the knot? Even when the marriage threshold has been
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crossed, there seem to be a number of material and mental obstacles that
prevent couples from having children. Previously, sexlessness was not
considered a major reason for a couple to have no children or fewer children, but it has begun to show up on the radar, a fact that led to the
health ministrys groundbreaking survey. Renewed attention to such
private matters in recent years may also imply society has started to take
the quality of individual life more seriously.
We want to believe that, regardless of cultural differences, there
are fundamental universals about life, and that we are all basically the
same. Family intimacy is one thing we want to believe is invariant
across borders and cultures. But not a few foreigners visiting Japan are
perplexed to witness Japanese husband-wife relationships and parentchild relationships. These people tend to hold a certain image of
Japanese families as sharing an Asian cultural background, which
emphasizes order and harmony and respect for parental authority and
the elderly. Often, this kind of nave view can be the source of disappointment and puzzlement. The reality of Japanese family life is, probably like that of any highly-industrialized society, a strange and curious
mixture of basic, universal human needs, its own pattern of modernization and social transformations, and something unique based on its
history and culture.
One avenue to understanding why it has turned out to be the way it
has would be to trace back to where the characteristics originated. Let
us look at the background to Japanese family development.
THE JAPANESE FAMILY AND ITS CULTURAL TRADITIONS

Despite the image of Japan as a male-dominated society, a look at early


Japanese society offers a pleasant surprise with the realization that men
and women originally had equal rights in every aspect of their relationship, such as marriage proposal, inheritance, management of assets,
parental rights, and divorce. Not only did women originally have all these
rights, which were eventually taken away during the social changes from
the middle- to pre-modern period, but early Japanese society clearly had
a matriarchal culture, where home emphasized the matrilineal link rather
than patriarchal heritage. Marriage usually meant a duolocal arrangement: a husband and a wife had a separate residence and that a husband
visited the wifes house when needed. A child born to the couple stayed
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and grew up at the wifes home, the child belonged to the wifes family,
and in the childs life, father was much less important than the mother.
This matriarchal family culture was gradually replaced by a more
patriarchal family structure as Japan moved from the early to the feudal
period, in which the military class gained virtual control of society and
therefore greatly influenced the mainstream cultural orientation of the
country. As this change occurred, Japanese womens human rights began
to diminish. Society increasingly reduced women to a subordinate role
at home and at large. For the ruling warrior class, securing a male heir
became the dominant issue, and, therefore, women became regarded as
a tool to produce that heir. During the middle ages to the Edo period,
when society grew more stable and hierarchically organized, marriage
ceased to be a matter of mutual attraction and compatibility, but
became a matter of family strategy to strengthen alliances among
powerful families and to continue patriarchal linkage, at least for the
warrior class. Ie (household) became crucially important in preserving
and continuing the line, no matter what, and without doubt at the cost
of individual happiness. In an era of absolute peace and isolation from
the rest of the world, there was no way for a samurai to live by the sword,
proving himself in the battlefield and expanding his territory. Instead,
the samurai became the bureaucrats of the Tokugawa regime. Deprived
of the possibility of dramatic upward mobility, it became critical for all
members of society to know their exact social positions, and to maintain them for the sake of the continuity of their ie. Neo-Confucianism
was the underlying ideology of all Edo society, but also it was very much
a family ideology. One way to continue ie without fail was that a
husband had a concubine or mistress, with whom he could increase the
possibility of producing an heir. Some women in the wealthy merchant
class were able to enjoy substantial freedoms, independence, and some
chances for self-actualization. But for women of the samurai class, it
became an extremely important quality to be able to control their jealousy if their husbands had a concubine. It was also up to parents to raise
daughters who would be women able to suppress their jealousy for the
sake of the security of the family into which they married. How they
should behave at home was laid down by the Confucian scholar, Kaibara
Ekken, in Onna Daigaku (A Greater Learning for Women).11
At the time of the Meiji Restoration, Japan once more became a tightly
united nation devoted to the goal of modernization and militarization.
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It was determined to accomplish these tasks quicker than any other
country. Modernization was synonymous with Westernization. To
achieve this, Japan shamelessly copied and imitated Western cultures and
technologies so she would not look like a backward nation in the eyes of
guests from these counties. However, in order to achieve these goals as
fast as possible, Japan needed to create a clever social structure through
which all citizens could be effectively monitored and controlled, and thus
would be united under the centralized government, and more importantly, under the absolute power of the Emperor. The government used
the ie system to do this, and it was so successful it lasted until the end of
World War II. Despite the efforts and enthusiasm of those who wanted
to transform Japan into a Western nation, at least on the surface, Japan,
at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, ended up creating a civil code
using a family-based system that almost retrogressed to the feudal era.
Gustave-Emile Boissanade, a French legal scholar invited to Japan by
the Meiji government together with many other Western consultants,
proposed a concept of family based on the nuclear model, with the husband-wife unit at the core. This was completely rejected by the new government as something that was entirely contrary to Japanese traditional
culture. Besides, it would not be in the governments best interest, if
under a Western-style family code, Japanese citizens began to develop
self-awareness as independent individuals. For tax and conscription systems to be thoroughly implemented, it was also more efficient to designate the basic unit of these responsibilities to be a household, not an
individual. Thus, a collective and patriarchal family system was created,
which defined the male head of the family as the source of absolute
authority within the household. The male head the husband or the
oldest son was the only heir to the family name and assets, and at the
same time given duties to supervise every other member of his household. Ideally, this role was to be handed down to his eldest son. If there
was no male heir, adopting the son-in-law or adopting from relatives or
even outside kin was not infrequent. In any case, men had all the rights,
and women had none. Legally, everyone was subordinate to the head of
the household. Marriage usually meant that a woman married into her
husbands family. She would not have any financial or parental rights, nor
inheritance rights from her parents or husband. Since all Japanese lived
under the framework of ie, all Japanese women lost their human rights
and in a greater way than at any other period in Japans history.12 The ie
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system not only defined the nature of marriage in Japan, but more
importantly, defined the smallest unit of society not as an individual, but
as a household. There was no room for Japanese people to develop a true
sense of individuality vis--vis society. It is ironic that ie ideology, which
was originally an ideology adopted by a ruling warrior elite, was now
codified and thoroughly spread and enforced in every sector of the
Japanese population.

0
THE CONTEMPORARY FAMILY: AN EFFICIENT ARRANGEMENT
FOR GREAT ECONOMIC GROWTH

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However, the end of World War II changed all that. The U.S. occupation brought drastic reforms to every corner of Japan. This time, in contrast to the national slogans of the Meiji period, democratization and
demilitarization were the new goals to be achieved. The new constitution was quickly written up, swiftly issued, and implemented, and then
came a new set of civil code and family laws. The undemocratic and
male-centered ie system was dismantled and replaced by a family structure based on a conjugal unit of a consenting man and woman with
equal legal rights. Rapid urbanization and economic growth led young
people to move from their birthplaces to cities, leaving the traditional
family lifestyle behind, and creating nuclear families away from hometowns. After a brief baby boom, family sizes started to shrink and many
children began growing up without living in an extended family that
included grandparents and a large number of siblings. People increasingly favored Western-style courtship and dating before marriage. Most
marriages now started out with the nuclear family as a model and stayed
this way for as long as possible. Today, more than fifty years after the
new family law was enacted, marriage-related norms appear no different
from those in any industrialized Western nation.
As Japans recovery and economic growth in the 1960s left the world
agape in admiration, a structural transformation was taking place in the
Japanese economy, as it changed from a mainly agricultural economy to
one based on manufacturing and service industries. At the same time, as
discussed in the previous chapter, a new pattern for family life had
started to emerge: a husband employed by a corporation and a wife
assigned to take full responsibility for all domestic matters, including
child-rearing and management of the daily family budget. It also
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resulted in a very clear separation of home and work. Some Japanese
husbands today who boast that they never bring work home and wives
who say they dont interfere with their husbands work have obviously
been inculcated with this idea. As the corporate-centered or workcentered principle penetrated peoples lives and became the dominant
ideology of the middle class, the husband/father was expected to dedicate himself to his company in exchange for job security or a financially
brighter future, a tradeoff that was the cornerstone of the post-war
kaisha (corporation) system.
This arrangement was further legitimized by public policy toward
families. Some scholars point out that despite democratization efforts
immediately after the war, Japans post-war family policy was subsumed
within a greater national goal: economic recovery and development,
which relied on a traditional view of gender roles. In 1961, for example,
a zero-tax system was established for a married individual who earned
less than 1.03 million yen a year. Later this system was expanded to
exempt spouses (in reality, wives) from paying basic national social security premiums, but still enabled them to receive future benefits. This
became a great deterrent to wives seeking to work longer and earn more.
The curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education for public junior and senior high schools reinforced gender separation: girls took
home economics and boys did crafts and industrial arts. A special category for tax deduction was also created in 1987 for workers whose
spouse earned less than 380,000 yen a year. A marriage in which the
husband was breadwinner and wife the housekeeper was not only a
socio-culturally encouraged combination, but also became a legally
institutionalized unit. The family was organized to support national
economic growth.
Thus, the percentage of married women who could be described as
wives of salaried workers a minority before the war greatly increased
from the mid-1950s to the 1980s, on a parallel with a decline in the
number of women working in primary industry and non-paid workers
in family-owned businesses. At the same time, the number of female
part-time employees drastically increased, eventually becoming practically synonymous with a married womens typical working situation.13
Working part-time, or paato, does not only mean earning less
because of fewer hours on the job. It also means a lower rate of pay and
unstable work with no fringe benefits or potential for promotion. As
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discussed in the previous chapter, employers saw womens part-time


labor as a convenient adjustable valve against recession, a way to reduce
the cost of their workforce in times of hardship.
Since the 1960s, Japanese womens labor participation has been
graphically rendered as an M-shaped curve, where the vertical axis is
labor participation ratio and the horizontal axis is age. The line goes up
to the mid-twenties, falls in the early to mid-thirties (typically childrearing years) and swings upward to the late-forties before dropping
sharply around the retirement age. In 2004, women constituted 41% of
the entire workforce, and of that, about 40% were in part-time work.14
The vast majority of working women in their forties and over are in
part-time employment, in general simply supplementing their household income (in fact, less than a quarter of the total family income). In
contrast, working women in Euro-American and other Asian societies
continue to participate in waged labor without interruption.15
This puts Japanese womens life choices into further perspective. The
national political, economic, and corporate agenda have successfully
defined home to be predominantly womens territory, and the workplace to be a mans world.
Consequently, husbands spend less and less time at home with their
wives and children. Their contribution to household chores is notoriously low. An international survey found that Japanese men spent, on
average, only four hours a week cooking, cleaning, and doing other
housework, significantly less than men in the U.S., Canada, Russia,
Finland, Hungary, and Sweden. Men in the U.S. were found to spend
sixteen hours a week on such tasks.16
Home became a place for many Japanese husbands, simply to rest
before going back to work again the next morning. However, before we
are critical of or feel sorry for them, it is important to remember it was
the best possible choice both men and women personally could make.
Many newly-married couples of this period were raised by parents who
worked in traditional industries such as agriculture, or ran their own businesses, and who had struggled to take care of their farm or business and
their children at the same time. For their daughters, being able to become
a full-time housewife was a luxury and as such was an improvement in
lifestyle. Their sons, too, saw it as a very desirable and comfortable
arrangement if their wives could take care of everything at home, including child-raising. This way, they were able to concentrate on work.17
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The continual absence of father or husband meant home naturally
became a place centered on the mother-and-child relationship, not the
husband-wife relationship, which is supposed to be the core of the modern Western household, at least conceptually. In the marital relationship, as time went by, functional and parental obligations came to take
precedence over emotional ties between husband and wife. Sociologist
Masahiro Yamada says a kind of for-the-childrens-sake ideology
emerged within the Japanese family after World War II, in part as a reaction to the pre-war and wartime ideology of for the sake of the country. This ideology even became the core of social consciousness in
post-war Japan, and familial love meant parental love rather than conjugal love . . . The objective of families at this time was to raise living
standards for their children and send them to the best schools. Yamada
continues, Thus parents were called upon to exert themselves to
the utmost for the sake of their children, even at the cost of sacrificing
their own quality of life and of abandoning their own leisure time and
parents answered the call willingly.18 However, the reality is that many
children who grew up in urban areas hardly ever saw their fathers and
came to regard them simply as breadwinners or someone who came
home to sleep.
This might not have been what the Japanese truly wanted. From the
standpoint of individual happiness, this arrangement forced substantial
personal sacrifices. But with a promising future at least materialistically speaking and in the midst of an ever-growing economy, the
Japanese obviously gave priority to gaining tangible rewards, or may
have been simply swamped in the storm of optimism and euphoria
of the time. This separation of work and family, combined with a
husbands loyalty to his employer over his private life, has created the
prototype for the modern Japanese family, which is often characterized
as mother-child centered, having an absent father/husband, and weak
emotional bonds and companionship between husband and wife. A
famous saying still cherished by many Japanese housewives goes, Teishu
genki de rusu ga yoi (A good husband is healthy and stays away from
home), and succinctly expresses their mentality; a husband is necessary
for financial stability, therefore he must be healthy. But home life goes
smoothly even without him (or even more smoothly) as far as his wife
is concerned. This saying not only points out the physical absence of the
husband from the Japanese home, but also points to a kind of emotional
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independence of wives from their husbands. Despite a wifes dependence on her husbands economic ability and social status, emotional
independence is also strong; a wife does not need her husbands presence
and affection to feel happiness or maintain high self-esteem. Instead,
the wives discover joy in their close emotional relationships with their
children or close friendships with other women in the same situation.
Since the first priority for families is the children, when a husband
and wife are together, their concern and common interest are focused
on their childrens affairs. For better or worse, Japanese parents willingness to do things for the sake of the children has changed the priority
and purpose of marriage itself. They work hard to provide for their
childrens education and often tolerate bad marriages. Making the child
the center of the family may keep parents and children closer together,
but it also forces children to play a bonding role. Rather than saying
Japanese families are mother-child relationship centered, it may be more
accurate to say they are simply child-centered.
Psychoanalyst Keigo Okonogi is a severe critic of contemporary
Japan, which he sees as a society where young people are pampered
and encouraged to remain in a moratorium stage forever, so they
become unwilling to commit to anything as mature, responsible adults.
Okonogi defines this moratorium stage as characterized by having no
occupational role, seeing all social involvement as temporary, feeling
free from any value or ideology and postponing major decision-making
in life. Though this moratorium stage is an important part of healthy
development, which should be eventually passed on the way to the next
stage, as theorized by Erik Erickson, Okonogi says that in todays Japan,
even grownups are stuck in the moratorium stage and have no idea
how to act as parents or teachers to the younger generation. Since these
moratorium people are too preoccupied with keeping up with the
progress and changes in society, they therefore are incapable of establishing a true, honest, and solid identity. When they have children, they
project their unfulfilled dreams and ambitions on them. In the name of
love for their children, they lack the awareness that it is in fact nothing but self-love. Naturally, children depend on parents, but parents
have also come to psychologically depend on and seek meaning for their
lives in their children.19 Though Okonogis rather harsh view on youth
disregards economic structural changes against them that Japan has
been experiencing in recent years, his view on parents attitudes toward
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their children suggests potential risks for highly dysfunctional family
patterns. That is why, in Japan, when a child leaves home, the family
often loses its validity. In fact, my personal feeling is that many Japanese
parents are subconsciously reluctant to see their children grow into fully
independent adults, for fear the husband and wife will have to face each
other and realize the emptiness of their relationship. Married couples are
not unaware of this, and often continue to have a mutually dependent
relationship with their own parents even after they marry and start their
own family.
Thus, although it appears to be quite Western on the surface, the
underlying structure of Japanese families is quite different from that of
Western societies. The significance of intergenerational relationships
over conjugal relationships cannot be overstated enough when understanding behavioral patterns in so many family circumstances. However,
interactions unique to contemporary Japanese reality are not simply
attributable to the rapid social changes since World War II.
UNTEACHING THE IE SYSTEM

One of the major factors in contemporary family patterns in Japan


seems to come from the persistent influence of the ie system, even sixty
years after its abolition a fact that makes one realize the Meiji government did an extremely thorough job in spreading this ideology. Though
post-war efforts democratized the Japanese household, it has been
difficult to sweep away the indelible stamp of the ie system on family
culture.
Yes, the ie system is gone, but its ghost is felt in many aspects of family life, haunting the Japanese when it comes to decisions regarding intimate relationships. The Japanese still have a tendency to see marriage as
a contract between two families, rather than a matter strictly between
two individuals. Marriage, for many women, still implies marrying into
the husbands family and becoming a yome, or bride of his family. The
eldest or only son is under great pressure to care for his aging parents and
to carry on the family business or name, although all the privileges that
used to be his alone under the ie system have disappeared, and now
inheritance is divided equally among children. No wonder that eldest
sons are unpopular choices for marriage among young women today.
Young Japanese women know very well what they are getting into if they
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marry an eldest son: various incidental burdens as a bride to the family,


and above all, a meddlesome mother-in-law who is controlling and yet
psychologically dependent on her first son. The new wife will also have
to care for her parents-in-law, rather than this responsibility falling to her
husband or his siblings.
And if there is no son, other concerns are raised. Who will succeed to
the name and take care of the family tomb? This may not be an issue in
highly urbanized areas, but is a pressing worry in the regions. A daughter who is also the only child often grows up feeling multiple burdens,
subconsciously or consciously, no matter how freely she has been raised.
Eventually, she may be pressured to consider that rather than marrying
out like most young woman, she needs to find a husband who will agree
to become an adopted son-in-law and take her name. For this reason, an
eldest son will be the last on her list of potential husbands. She will also
have to think about her parents future and even their present, as she
knows their happiness depends on her living nearby. The same is true
for a son who is the only child. He is pressured to find a wife who is willing to live with his elderly parents, or at least one of them, if the other
has died. Thus, parent-child interdependence is a critical element in
forming Japanese family life, and when it comes to making major life
decisions. It has a greater influence than the husband-wife relationship
on the overall well-being of the family.
In an age of free love and unchaperoned dating, we like to think we
can marry anyone we choose. In reality, we bind ourselves by many
social factors such as class and educational background. Unsurprisingly,
Japanese mate selection is constrained by these social factors.
Additionally, residuals from ie ideology still sneak into young peoples
consciousness and affect their ideas about the future; they are not
entirely free to choose their own lives.
These features of the contemporary Japanese family can be further
examined within a broader cultural context: the thousands of years of
Confucian heritage common to many East Asian countries. From the
Confucian perspective, the family unit was more important than any individual member and was defined more in terms of obligations, especially
toward the senior generation, rather than conjugal affection. This meant
the individual sacrificed emotions for the family, and formality, order,
and stability were emphasized. Although this pattern varied from family
to family, generally the focus was not on the relationship between the
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The Japanese Family Today


spouses but on the parentchild relationship.20 That is why, for many
Japanese, being inherently Confucian in their social relationships, marriages that start in an apparently Western style can easily slip back into the
traditional pattern. After all, it is quite hard to overcome thousands of
years of psycho-cultural tradition. Of course, the absence of fathers due to
work is not a phenomenon limited to Japan, but rather is a universal and
inevitable result of industrialization that took place in Western societies
throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the deeper
level orientation originating from the fundamental psycho-cultural background has made the Japanese more likely to follow the pattern as
described.
THE MATRIARCHAL TRADITION

The counterargument to the influence of the patriarchal Confucian tradition has been elucidated, as mentioned above, by Hayao Kawai, the
renowned Jungian psychologist mentioned in Chapter 1. Kawai says
that the most fundamental of all Japanese familial relationships is based
not on the patriarchal Confucian tradition, but a matriarchal tradition
that is more deeply rooted in Japanese culture. As noted in Chapter 1,
Kawai has defined the two most basic approaches to a relationship with
another human as the maternal principle and the paternal principle.
The maternal principle is not judgemental, but forges tolerant, unconditional acceptance of others. The paternal principle is based on rules
and discipline, maintaining the possibility of punishment or ending the
relationship. Both principles are necessary and complementary in any
culture, but each society imposes different degrees of emphasis. Kawai
sees that Christian-based Western cultures emphasize the paternal principle more. But in Japanese human relationships, Kawai says, the sense
of oneness between the mother and the child can be preserved and cherished through lifetime and is considered to be the ideal to follow in any
kind of relationship.21 The analysis reminds us of Takeo Dois famous
thesis on amae. Amae, too, is rooted in the deep desire to merge with
another person. Kawai developed his theories on the psychology of
Japanese interpersonal relationships from the viewpoint of the confrontation between two opposing principles.
In a culture dominated by the maternal principle, not only is a
mothers benevolence a form of absolute power, but individuals tend
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to value and appreciate fatalistic and inseparable approaches to issues,


seeing them as beyond human control, rather than adopting an approach
based on rational and contractually-based decisions. Therefore, a conjugal relationship, based on choice and a legal contract, is considered less
strong and less important than a parent-child relationship, which is
bound by blood/biological ties. Unlike the Western principle of human
relationships, which is based on the understanding of ties through a relatively clear boundary between individuals, Japanese relationships
instinctively and intuitively follow the maternal principle of unconditionally encompassing one anothers existence. Ultimately, what is
important for the Japanese is to share as close as possible a feeling of borderless identification with another person, an arrangement that allows
them to feel bound by a vague sense of fate or karma. It is not a sense of
individuality that sets the limit of acceptance of anothers existence. This
shows, Kawai says, that no matter how strong Confucian tradition
appears to be in Japan, the culture is ultimately based on the motherchild ideal. Since Japan Westernized herself earlier than other Asian
countries, she may be perceived by other countries to favor Westernized
or paternal principle-based human relationships. But the reality is far different. In a society that has always had the potential to be easily swayed
by the maternal principle, Kawai says the patriarchal ie system played an
important role in deliberately limiting the influence of the maternal principle by force of law, and ironically brought about a balance. The fathers
position was legally protected as one that could exercise authority and
power, and this had the effect of offsetting otherwise over-powerful
maternal cultural orientation. However, as post-war reforms invalidated
the legal power of the ie system, nothing has stood in the way of the
maternal principle taking control of society.22
It will come as no shock to realize that the overwhelming importance
of maternal principle-based relationships affect the nature of spousal
relationships as well. The ideal model of Japanese husbandwife relationship resembles that of a mother and child. The wife is expected to
take a motherly role, care for her husband and bring him up to be a successful man. She is expected to be patient and accepting of whatever he
does. She is expected to have a big heart, and as the expression Teishu
o te no hira de korogasu (literally rolling the husband in her palm)
shows, should be big-hearted and mature enough to control and manipulate the little creature her husband is.
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The Japanese Family Today


And he, like a little boy, is supposed to be psychologically dependent
on her, because she is supposed to be infinitely generous and forgiving.
She is not dependent on the husband emotionally, as her emotional
needs are more readily satisfied in her relationship with her children.
Therefore, in a typical Japanese home, there is no tradition of seeing
each member ultimately as an independent person. Parent and child see
each other as innately sharing identity and fate. The same is more or less
true in a spousal relationship. Marriage is best seen not as a union of two
individuals with different wishes and wants, but something taken completely for granted, like a quasi-mother-child relationship. An implicit
but strong assumption exists in the Japanese home that family relationships require no scrutiny nor special maintenance, because they should,
after all, be based on something like the primary feelings that exist
between a mother and her child.
Thus, the psychological tendencies of the Japanese family have been
shaped not only by post-war social changes, but are rooted in centuries
of historical and cultural tradition. The system worked fine for a long
time. At least, its health did not become a serious public issue. But now,
for the first time, the Japanese are looking at the home as the potential
source of many problems facing society. After believing for many
decades that family unity and peace were the basis for Japanese economic prosperity, the Japanese are looking with new eyes on the home
and its rules.
COSTS AND CONSEQUENCES: TOO MUCH LOVE
CAN KILL YOU

There is basically nothing wrong with a close mother-child relationship,


especially when the child is small. A close bond with its primary caretaker gives the child a sense of security and protection, a crucial element
in the early development of a human being. However, the mother-child
bond can develop into a double-edged sword. If the relationship is too
tight and exclusive, in the worst cases it can psychologically torment the
child into adulthood. With the husband often a weak and peripheral
figure, the risk of a mother-child bond becoming too close is rather
high. If the mother is also a full-time housewife, a social category that
includes many middle-aged women in Japan, the possibility for this
grows even greater.
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Even though Japanese women have accepted a family structure based


on division of labor and lifestyle on gender lines, it does not mean they
have been completely happy with it. The saying, Teishu genki de rusu ga
ii may be a fair comment on Japanese family culture, but this attitude
is possible only when the wife has significant relationships in her immediate surroundings that support her in the absence of her husband,
such as extended family, friends, and the neighborhood community. As
urbanization has rapidly progressed, the support network for married
women has substantially diminished, leaving housewives alone at home
and responsible for everything themselves. Naturally, they get distressed
at times and seek emotional solace in their children. If they have a
healthy awareness of their position as a parent and a clear sense of
boundaries, they will understand the child is incapable of handling
grownup issues. But a wife who feels quite isolated and lonely may turn
her child into her best friend, confidant and ally, complaining about her
husband and talking about how unhappy she is. Discontent and anger
that should be communicated directly to her husband is displaced onto
her child. Then a strange thing can happen to their relationship. Called
incongruent hierarchy, this occurs when the child starts to emotionally care for the parent rather than vice versa.23 Under this circumstance,
the child grows up with an enormous psychological burden, and is
extremely sensitive to his or her mothers mood. It is difficult to develop
as a healthy person independent from the mother.
Dr. Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist and family therapist, calls this relationship the motherchild capsule and says it is one of the biggest factors in the psychopathology of Japanese children. He observes that
because many mothers are lonely and dependent on their offspring,
their children grow up to be particularly sensitive to their mothers feelings. They want to please their mothers when they are unhappy and do
their best to please them, until this enormous burden begins to suffocate them.24 This capsule relationship can also result in a mothers overidentification with her childs life, especially if the woman has a high
level of education. Because women still do not have equal career opportunities to men, and because of the persistence of the For the childs
sake ideology, once a child arrives, many Japanese women give up their
careers to be full-time mothers, at least until the child finishes basic
schooling. This is clearly reflected in their M-shaped labor market participation pattern. As they follow the wishes of society, so they start to
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The Japanese Family Today


see child-raising as a way for their own self-actualization, and over identify with their childrens achievements. This mentality was aggravated by
the education ideology that was a product of post-war affluence, which
replaced the undemocratic idea of class with a kind of blind faith in
meritocracy. This was embodied in the rapid spread of mass education
and heated competition to get into the best schools and universities.
The generation born after the war grew up without any traces of the
wars devastation, and by the 1970s, more than 90 % of teenagers graduated from senior high school, even though it was not compulsory,
while university entrance rates rose as well. This meant that going to
senior high school became the norm, regardless of a childs aptitude for
further academic education.
Those now in their thirties were educated in a period when new
criteria, called hensachi, became the absolute standard for evaluating
academic performance and the prerequisite for success in entering university. Hensachi means deviation value, and is a quantifying method
that determines ones relative rank, not actual ability. Hensachi status,
however, painfully suggests to many students that they are inferior to
others. Its impact on them and on their attitude to life is so strong that
it often lingers throughout their lifetime. Because their self-esteem is
firmly based on comparisons with others, they can never accept themselves as they are or develop self-confidence, which eventually affects
their relationships with others. Many of the first hensachi generation
grew up with this inferiority complex and, without resolving it, married
and became parents.25 Therefore, todays mothers, who are from the
hensachi generation, are very conscious of the ranking system and want
to do everything in their power to ensure their children succeed as if
they are running a three-legged race with their children. And for them,
success has to be evaluated in a measurable way, that is, by academic performance. Anything that does not contribute to high grades is considered unnecessary. In the mother-child centered family, many mothers
find their greatest joy in educating their children. But they interfere in
their childrens lives and often deprive them of the chance to be on
their own. Deep down, it becomes a frightening idea that their children
grow up to be independent, because it means their raison dtre will be
taken away.
These factors combined with an absent and unavailable husband or
father may make sensitive and vulnerable Japanese children end up
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developing deviant and abnormal characteristics. Of course, a clear


causal relationship between family interaction and pathological behavior
can never be proved for sure. After all, a lot is based on speculations or
observed in clinical settings. Nevertheless, we cannot help but seek clues
in the family domain, because we all know how our relationship with our
parents in our childhood makes a lasting impression on our lives.
Kimiko Tanaka is a harsh critic of Japanese mothers and their
attitude toward child-raising. She says these are the source of many
problems seen in children and young people today. Tanaka, a writer, a
publisher, and a civil activist, runs the New Mothering System (NMS)
group, which provides consultation and guidance for many distressed
mothers. She deplores the fact that in the richest era of its history, the
quality of child-raising in Japan has deteriorated. At no time in Japanese
history have mothers had more time to immerse themselves in raising
their children. The Japanese historically knew how to raise children in
poverty, and then, mothers were too busy to be with them. But, Tanaka
says, in a time of affluence, and when mothers have all the time and
resources they need, the Japanese have no idea about how to bring up
their offspring. Compared with mothers in other countries, Japanese
mothers spend enormous amounts of time looking after their babies.
From lulling them to sleep, lying down next to their baby, or taking
care of their every need whenever called on, mothers have been led to
believe that such skinship, or physical contact and maternal presence
is crucial to the infants healthy development.26 Interestingly, a study
exploring the lives of farmers wives in 1950 showed that many of the
household tasks, such as managing the family budget, cooking, cleaning, and childrearing, that are considered to be the wifes role today,
were not then seen as distinctively her responsibility. Her most important role was to be engaged in agricultural labor. It was the motherin-law who was in charge of these household-related duties.27
The mothers increasing involvement in child-raising is, of course,
partly a result of the post-war transformation of the Japanese family
structure, but at the same time, it further weakens existing conjugal ties.
A kind of vicious cycle has become a fixed pattern at home, pushing the
husband and wife further and further apart. Many of these mothers,
filled with a strong cultural illusion of noble and supreme maternal love,
can be extremely selfish, because ultimately, they are only concerned
with the welfare and interest of their own children. Furthermore,
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The Japanese Family Today


because of her extreme identification with children, the mother begins
to see the child as her possession and to feel, at least subconsciously, that
she does not want the child to leave the nest. In fact, Tanaka feels that
many Japanese mothers prefer to keep their children under their protection and control, preventing him or her from becoming an independent adult who does not need the mother any more.
MYSTERY DADS: STRANGERS AT HOME

Tanaka also says Japanese fathers are not only worn out from work and
have little time for their families, but also have no idea as to what kind of
father they should be. Many Japanese husbands/fathers find there is no
place for them in a home that is controlled by their wives. Furthermore,
as the image of the father as the strong head of the household disappeared with the abolition of the ie system, they have trouble assuming a
new role as a father to their children. Since they lost a model to follow,
the type they follow is that of a father-like figure who is at best a gentle
and understanding friend. The problem is that this type of parent is not
so different from the role many mothers are expected to play in childrens lives. Thus many Japanese children are brought up by two protective and gentle parents, without someone who brings a strong
disciplinary approach. Tanaka indicates these gentle fathers are not necessarily concerned with their wives. Many of them are disinterested in
their wives lives, and as long as they keep their families financially comfortable, they seem to believe that they are doing a good job. The truth
of the matter is that many of these fathers have no energy left, and do
not understand that being a good father is only possible if one is also
a good husband, Tanaka says.28 Not only is their presence at home
weak, but Japanese fathers are often the object of contempt to their children and wife. For a while now, it has been a popular truism that husbands who stay at home longer than they are wanted are considered
good for nothings or bulky trash (sodai gomi). Many daughters think
their fathers are dirty and smelly, while many children of white-collar
families see them as Mr. Paycheck and someone who occasionally gives
them pocket money. It is uncommon for children to go to their fathers
for life advice.
Particularly in this age of economic uncertainty, the status of the father
has become progressively shakier. Yoshihiko Morotomi, a therapist and a
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scholar, says that todays middle-aged Japanese men are terribly lonely and
feel lost as professionals, husbands, and fathers. He describes the reaction
of a typical Japanese middle-aged man to his life. I can stand being
scolded by my younger boss and having my pride shattered, the man
says. But whats unbearable is my family. Going home exhausted, I cant
find a place for me. Not being a father-like figure is blamed for my sons
refusal to go to school. I cant feel relaxed at work or home.29 The other
side of these mens apparent gentleness is often simply disinterest or a
desire to avoid facing another person, namely their spouses and children.
Why does this happen? Probably they do not want to stir up what lies
beneath the surface by creating a confrontation. Confrontation inevitably
makes one look straight at and deeper into an issue. It may force
unwanted change to a situation one is used to, even if one is unhappy at
present circumstances. At the least, it is not a comfortable situation to be
in. Being confronted by a strong figure who does not necessarily agree
with you and eventually trying to resolve the situation is an important step
in achieving maturity. But a combination of a protective and sneakinglycontrolling mother and an absent but understanding father creates a
family environment in which the silent rule for the child is to play the role
given and avoid looking deeper than the orderly surface.
Avoidance exists not only in parent-child relationships. The epitome
of how husbands and wives are avoiding interaction is the sexless state
of many marriages, a situation that has only recently drawn much attention in Japan.
WHAT DO SEXLESS MARRIAGES TELL US ABOUT MEN AND
WOMEN IN JAPAN?

Before we got married two years ago, we used to have sex at least four
times a month. But we dont anymore. Soon after we began to live
together, we became sexless, a twenty-nine-year old woman with a husband in his thirties confesses. She tried to have intimate physical contact with her husband by kissing and hugging and made efforts to make
him interested, but in vain. She even cried and exploded in front of him,
only to hear him say a humiliating word, You are a nymphomaniac.
You can do it with other men. However, she feels, except for the sex life,
she and her husband get along with each other just fine. Her relationship with his mother-in-law is good, too. She is tired of trying anymore,
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The Japanese Family Today


and instead is trying to change her way of thinking. Now I try to tell
myself that we are a family, so we dont have to have sex, she says.30 This
is a typical situation so-called sexless couples face today.
Couples in sexless relationships exist in many countries and cultures.
But when the government takes it seriously enough to investigate and
even conducts a survey on the problem, the issue is elevated to a new
level of social concern. Although its ultimate concern is the declining
birthrate, the Ministry of Heath, Labor, and Welfares first survey on the
most private aspect of peoples lives revealed that 32 % of married couples could be defined as not having any sexual contact. Furthermore,
nearly 20 % did not have intercourse for a year.31 Confirming this phenomenon are reports from Okamoto, Japans largest condom manufacturer, which says shipments of condoms have declined by 20 % in the
last five years. Condoms remain the most popular method of family
planning in Japan, despite the belated general introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1998. The decline in sex has forced Okamoto to work
on developing products other than condoms to ensure its survival.32
The decline of a persons libido can be caused by various physical as
well as psychological factors. Of psychological factors, some originate
from stress and accumulated negative affects such as anxiety and anger.
Others come from deeper, subconscious reasons derived from socialization, such as the fear of intimacy.33 As mentioned earlier, a medical definition given by Dr. Teruo Abe in 1991 states that sexlessness is when,
without special circumstantial reasons, a couple has no sexual contact,
including intimate body contact such as touching, for more than one
month, and this situation is expected to last longer. So-called sexless
couples are divided into two groups: those who are incapable of performing sexual intercourse despite the desire, and those who do not
want to have anything to do with sex. (p.33)
Dr. Abe says that the causes for sexlessness vary from case to case, but
he points out that its increase among the relatively young is a phenomenon unique to Japan. An increase in the number of young men or those
in the prime of their lives who show strong abhorrence toward sexual
intercourse itself is unheard of in Western countries. Although erectile
dysfunction (ED) in middle-aged or older men has drawn public attention because of the introduction of Viagra, a doctor who treats ED
patients in Tokyo says the biggest demographic group suffering from
sexual dysfunction due to psychological factors is men in their twenties
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and thirties. In fact, of an estimated 1 million psychologically triggered


ED patients in Japan, most of them are in their twenties.34 Abhorrence
of sex is not the same as loss of libido. Until the mid-1990s, Abe
believed it to be a problem almost unique to women. Between 1984 and
1996, only two men came to his office for this problem, in contrast to
thirty-eight women. But today, an increasing number of Japanese men
are rejecting sexual contact, or even the thought of sexual contact, with
their partners. With some fluctuations, the number of men suffering
from sex abhorrence visiting Abe increased from eighteen in 1999 to
thirty-four in 2004, compared to twenty-three female patients in 2004.
Sex is undoubtedly a private act that reduces the distance from
another human being to a minimum. Although the causes for sexlessness in Japanese couples are not yet fully known, as Dr. Abe suggests, a
profound transformation may be taking place in something very basic
to human relationships in Japan. He asks what kind of cultural and
social elements are creating contemporary Japanese men with these
problems.35
Interestingly, few of Dr. Abes male patients have problems with
experiencing sexual arousal itself. They simply have difficulty when it
comes to sexual intercourse with their wives or partners (in general,
women are more likely to develop the problem of asexuality, or the lack
of sexual interest itself ). Therefore the sexual problem facing these men
is considered mainly situational. Furthermore, another interesting point
is that many of these men do not necessarily think they have a bad relationship with their partners. According to Dr. Abe, various situations
can trigger a decline in a mans sexual interest in his partner. Some do
not have regular sex because they anticipate that being married means it
is easy to have sex anytime they want. But once the appropriate timing
becomes scarce, it gradually becomes awkward to mention sex as a topic
of conversation.
Others feel under too much pressure to satisfy their wives. Some
cannot overcome embarrassing experiences in which they were unable
to sexually perform. Others have married women who resemble their
mothers since, for these men, no women are better than their mothers
and thus soon develop sexual disinterest in their wives. Often, the wives
of these men are also willing to play the motherly role in the marriage,
but their husbands begin to develop an incestuous image of intercourse
and are inevitably turned off. Instead of seeing their partners as an
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The Japanese Family Today


object of sexual desire, they end up seeing them as a mother, sister, close
friend, or cute pet. And of course, there are some who cannot have sex
because they have lost affection for their partners.
Another type of sexual abhorrence expressed by Dr. Abes male
patients is found in those who wish to have sexual contact with the partners, but cannot because of low self-esteem, timidity, intense fear of
rejection or criticism, and embarrassment. They are unable to take
action unless they are absolutely sure of being accepted by their potential partners. Some of these mens characters, he says, show signs of
avoidant personality disorder, a psychiatric condition.
Furthermore, Dr. Abe has found that these men share a certain sociocultural background. They are likely to be an only child, or they may
have a sister who is much older. When they were children, they were
brought up with a rigid schedule of artificial nutrients that strictly followed instructions from a child-care manual. They have also grown up
in an emotionally aloof home environment. Their mothers tended to be
controlling of, and over-interfering in, their lives, telling them how to
study, which friends to choose, and which university to go to. These
men are also likely to become highly-educated professionals, and many
have found wives through an arranged marriage, instead of finding a
partner themselves. (p.65)
Dr. Abe says that the association between an interfering mother and
her sons sexual dysfunction is well established and a term to describe it,
mother fixation, was coined by Dr. Yasushi Narabayashi, a pioneer in
marriage and sex counselling in Japan. Many of these men have been
brought up by mothers who are frustrated with their absent husbands,
and so focus their entire energy on their children and make it difficult
for them to overcome the Oedipus complex. Thus, the children end up
becoming adults who are unable to develop the necessary skills to relate
intimately with others. (p.67) Many young people who have fallen into
the sexless state also reportedly are hypersensitive to failed attempts
in the past at initiating sexual contact and have developed such anxiety
that they cannot try again.36 Morotomi says the problem facing
Japanese men is not just their inability to have sexual relationships, but
any relationship with a woman. Men are creatures of pride. That is the
essence of a man, he states. As their societal role as breadwinner diminishes in value, their sense of self has become increasingly vulnerable and
sensitive to how their wives and/or children treat them. When faced
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with anxiety and the fear of criticism, these mens already shaky sense of
self can collapse. To make it worse, Japanese mens communication skills
are hopelessly poor, Morotomi says. He supports this contention with
statistics from a survey on the communication style of married couples
in urban areas that found that silence was the most common form of
communication at 36.4 %, followed by only the wife talks (32.4 %),
and dialogue (22.7 %). In 8.5 % of couples, only the husband did the
talking. As he admits, this exception to the rule is almost bizarre and
spooky when one imagines the typical scene where a Japanese husband
and wife are together.
Morotomi says poor communicator husbands are divided into two
types: one is cold and unemotional, the other childish, dependent, and
seeking a motherly figure in his wife. The first type of husband only
wants to see his wife as a domestic caretaker. He tends to be authoritative and lacks sympathy for his family. The second type of husband is
like a little boy needing to be taken care of, and becomes a burden to his
wife as he does not do anything to help her with daily chores. Morotomi
also indicates that this dependent type of husband sometimes wears
the disguise of understanding husband to hide his fear of an honest
confrontation with his wife.37 For some men, the only way they know
how to relate to their children is to play the role of a gentle and understanding father. In the same way, these husbands just do not know how
to relate to their wives, except to be dependent on or be pampered by
them. They cannot even imagine coming face to face with their wives as
an equal and individual partner. In fact, that is what they fear more than
anything else a sexual relationship is, after all, like any intimate relationship a matter of communication. In essence, it is the act of exchanging and sharing emotions, feelings, different egos and physicality.
Of course, it is not just men who are responsible for sexless marriages.
It takes two to tango, or not tango. Although, on one hand, more
Japanese women are sexually open today than several decades ago, a type
of individual who rejects and abhors any sexual behavior is becoming
more common, according to Dr. Abe. But when studying women, it is
more difficult to generalize on patterns of sex abhorrence. These women
start avoiding sexual contact because they have lost affection for their
partners or have been traumatized by their partners for some reason.38
It is also reported that more young women are finding intercourse
painful. According to a Tokyo gynecologist, many of these women diet
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The Japanese Family Today


excessively or have stressful lives that can disturb their hormonal balance. The 2001 survey conducted by condom manufacturer Okamoto
revealed that about 70 % of women in their twenties and thirties had
reported experiencing pain during intercourse. An increasing number of
women worry that they have an unpleasant odour, and have become
afraid of engaging in any sexual act. Others are over-conscious of their
appearances and feel inferior or unattractive, which also makes them
reluctant to have sex. There are still others who cannot overcome the
notion that sex is disgusting, while others have developed depression out
of various stresses in life and have lost their libido.39
What is most bizarre about sexless couples is that many say they do
not mind this situation, as otherwise they get along with their spouses
perfectly. They say that although they can no longer see each other as sexual partners, they deeply trust each other as family members and therefore the absence of sex does not disturb or jeopardize their marriage. One
wife says she thinks her husband is having an affair, and she has also
started to have an affair, but wants to remain married since she and her
husband are very close, except for not having sex.40 A detailed survey on
the motives and circumstances of sexless couples in their twenties to
forties reports that more than 22.5 % of husbands and 50 % of wives
believe they were responsible for initially refusing to have sex, while
about 35 % are unsure exactly who initiated the abstinence. Nearly 90 %
of husbands do not see being in a sexless marriage as a special problem,
and almost 70 % of men who have avoided sex with their wives (rather
than the wives avoided sex with them) do not particularly want to do
anything about it. In fact, the majority feel that their love for and communication with their wives have not changed since they stopped having
sex. More than 80 % of women who stopped having sexual relationships
with their husbands also say they do not want to do anything special to
improve the situation.41, 42 In other words, a majority of couples in this
state do not think the absence of sex is a serious threat to their marriage.
However, this apparently blas attitude about the lack of sexual contact in their married life may only hide a fundamental inability to face
the problem, because it would touch profound and yet unsettled issues
in their relationship. One Japanese therapist says that sexless husbands
and wives who say they get along with each other just fine are basically
not communicating well, and sexlessness can be an expression of resentment that they are not even fully aware of. It can be a subtle form of
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aggression and hostility toward the other person. They pretend to be


loving toward their spouses, but at the same time are afraid of being hurt
by the other. One sure way to escape from any possibility of getting hurt
is to remain psychologically uninvolved in the relationship. When they
feel resentment toward the spouse, they try to ignore their own feelings
and force themselves to believe they are not upset. They even tell themselves that sexlessness is not so bad, or it is just one way of living. This
way, they will not hurt each others feelings since they leave deeper issues
untouched and buried.43
WHY NOT DIVORCE?

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As mentioned earlier, when a wifes anger and dissatisfaction toward


her husband is repressed over decades, some begin to suffer from retired
husband syndrome (RHS), or husband presence stress syndrome. The
husbands presence at home changes and disturbs the order and routine
the wife has established. Both RHS and husband presence stress syndrome manifest themselves psychosomatically. It is expected that an
increasing number of courageous wives, or ones with resources, will turn
to the ultimate last resort divorce. However, many women are suspected of being stuck in marriages they want to end, but cannot. These
feelings could become endemic from 2007 to 2009, when a record
number of men of the so-called baby-boom generation born after World
War II are scheduled to retire. Wives who are fed up and disgusted with
being a mother and a maid to their husbands, rather than an equal partner, are horrified by the prospect of sharing life with these men for
another thirty years, not an unreasonable estimate of life expectancy in
the longest-living nation in the world. A survey by advertising agency
Hakuhodo showed that while 85 % of husbands were looking forward
to retirement, 40 % of their wives are depressed just thinking about
it.44 But to be fair, it is not only women who are distressed by the presence of their spouse. According to Morotomi, an increasing number of
men are also afraid of returning home because they feel they will not be
accepted by their wives and children and have developed something he
calls kitaku kyohi shokogun, refuse to go home syndrome.45 Of course,
these not-so-uplifting aspects of relationships between Japanese couples
did not just appear yesterday. They are the result of years or even decades
of serious failure to communicate. The reader may wonder, however,
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The Japanese Family Today


why these couples did not do anything about their marriage before it
reached this dreadfully stale or even painful stage. Sometimes, simple
inertia is to blame. But was the reason there were other things they
thought far more important than psychological satisfaction?
As noted in Chapter 2, sociologist Masahiro Yamada believes Japan
is now in the process of breaking into two demographic groups, one
which can afford to be hopeful for the future and still believes in upward
mobility, and another that cannot and instead can only try to maintain
its current standard of life, at best, if not attempt to prevent a decline.
Especially for the latter group, the future is filled with unknown risks.
The widening gap in society lies not in material possessions, but rather
in outlook regarding the future, an outlook that is conditioned by education, income, and parents socioeconomic status. Life in Japan used to
be fairly predictable. Salarymen could expect their wages to steadily rise,
an expectation that brought a strong sense of security to many households. As the economy grew, most young people were able to safely
expect to marry and have families before reaching a certain age. After
getting married, it was easy to ignore psychological dissatisfaction
between husbands and wives as it was a minor problem when compared
with the prospect of a solid financial future together. Consequently,
families were also prevented from drastic breakdown.46 Japans low
divorce rate after World War II did not necessarily mean, as discussed
above, that its marriages produced happier husbands and wives than in
other countries. It is just that the social expectations of marriage, especially once a child arrived, were different from those in cultures where
family life centered on the conjugal relationship. It also implies that
alternative life choices for women, and sometimes men, after divorce
were so limited that many unhappily married women felt they had no
choice but to stay. The importance of the perception of alternative life
situations cannot be overstated enough. What we think is out there if
we leave the status quo is what determines our decision to change things.
Assessing the potential cost or benefit of making a change ultimately
determines our decision to stay or go.
Divorce in Japan can be easily achieved by both parties. So-called
conciliatory divorces make up the majority of cases filed, although if
one party refuses to divorce, the process can be quite complicated, time
consuming, and painful. Despite the absence of religious restrictions,
such as sin or guilt, in breaking up holy matrimony and the legal
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simplicity of the Japanese system, divorce remains an uncommon


method of resolving marital problems, and is often seen as causing more
harm than good. It is also true that society does not provide spouses
with images of better alternatives to staying married.
That is why most couples in general do not or cannot afford to
choose such an overt way of coping with marital unhappiness. It is
extremely difficult for the wives over forty who have not actively developed a career up to that point to find a full-time job to support their
post-divorce life. When thinking about the economic instability and
lowering of living standards they will be forced to experience, the
rational choice for those women is to stay married, at least legally. Not
surprisingly, some may develop the husband-related stress syndromes
mentioned earlier. Even in these cases, many couples still choose katei
nai rikon or domestic divorce, a marital condition that has been frequently mentioned in the last ten years, whereby a couple lives separate
lives yet inhabit the same house for the sake of appearances.47 Separating
affection and the social obligations of marriage is common throughout
Japanese history. Or rather, the idea that marriage and true affection lie
in separate spheres of life is not uncommon. This double standard in
marriage, based less on affection than formality, was exemplified in a
1997 survey by Asahi Shimbun in conjunction with Louis Harris &
Associates in which only 48 % of Japanese people polled said they
would not condone extramarital sexual relations under any circumstances, compared to 76 % of Americans who expressed the same view.
Husbands extramarital affairs, in particular, are tolerated in Japan as
long as they do not destroy family life.48 Many young people distinguish
between the formal and emotional aspects of marriage. When I once
asked my Japanese students whether love is absolutely the most important element of their future marriage, most especially women
believed not. Other things, they say, such as economic potential and
family support, are more important. When I ask American students,
almost all firmly agree that love is the most important element. They
believe, as the clich goes, that love can overcome all obstacles.
On the other hand, certain traditional images and characteristics of
Japanese family we take for granted today, such as intact family life, low
divorce rate and clear gender-based division of labor, are obviously
products of Japans post-war social arrangements, devised for the purpose of securing economic growth. For example, in pre-war Japan, not
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The Japanese Family Today


everyone could afford to marry, and even after marriage, family life
was not necessarily stable. The divorce rate and premature death rate
were also high, thus creating many widows and widowers, as well as
orphans.49 But ironically, these post-war characteristics are nostalgically
associated with the idea of traditional family life. The idea of women
quitting the labor market to become full-time homemakers is not at all
traditional. Throughout history, women have continued to work for
most of their lives, in farms or family businesses. Even the practice of
automatically adopting the husbands surname after marriage is only
150 years old, part of the ie system enforced by the Meiji government.
It is sobering to realize how deeply we are made to believe and accept
these creations of society, as if they were something innate and natural
to Japan. Furthermore, lifestyles filled with uncertainty and risk inside
and outside the home are not especially new to many highly-industrialized Western societies. In many post-industrial nations, in exchange for
diversity of choices and lifestyles, uncertainty in life has also increased,
a fact that has forced individuals to be aware and better prepared for the
unpredictability of life.
Having admitted these facts, it is also true for most Japanese men and
women living today, that the changes occurring right now are posing
challenges they have never experienced before. It no longer appears that
life is as certain as they were allowed to believe it was for many decades.
As in pre-war Japan, from now on, not all young adults will be able to
expect to marry and have families. On the contrary, as social expectations
on marriage change, emphasizing hard-to-define concepts such as personality compatibility and personal happiness rather than the social obligation to procreate, it will become far more difficult to find the right
person. There is even the possibility they will never find Mr. or Miss.
Right. And even if they do, they may not be able to afford to get married.
But if they can find the right person, and they can afford it, after they
marry, Japanese society holds many risks and dangers for their conjugal
happiness, such as financial instability and the new availability of alternative lifestyles other than traditional family life. Therefore, the concept of the family, which was supposed to protect people from risks
caused by economic and social uncertainty, is now becoming a source of
risk itself, Yamada says. Salarymens wives will no longer be able to count
on their husband as sole provider for the family. Once a man loses his
job and financial base, he may also lose his entire family.50
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IS JAPANESE MARRIAGE AT A CROSSROADS?

With mounting stress at home too hard to ignore, the Japanese are
facing a critical question as to how they and their families can cope with
this social change and remain a happy and healthy unit. When there
seems to be no way to improve home life, and when they believe that they
may be able to do better by not staying married, more husbands and wives
are getting out. Their children are choosing not to have a family at all.
Either way, Japanese society is experiencing a fundamental structural
transformation.
It is undeniable today that divorce in Japan is part of this new phase.
Divorce is radically on the rise. It surpasses the level of some European
nations, such as France and Italy, and looks like catching up with the
rates of Germany, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, countries that
have high but stable divorce rates.51 The number of divorces in Japan in
2004 was 270,000, the highest ever but following a steady rising trend
that started in the early 1990s. Women under thirty are particularly
likely to get divorced, and it is estimated that one out of two women
who marry in their early twenties will eventually divorce. But as noted
above, what is most unusual is the rapid increase in divorce by those
married for more than twenty years. The number of jukunen rikon
(mature-age divorces) quadrupled from 1980 to 2000.
Another point of great interest is the parallel fluctuation of divorce
and unemployment rates, which suggests the primary importance of
economic factors in Japanese marriages. A law promulgated in 2007 has
started to enable wives to receive up to half of the husbands pension
accumulated during his working life. This legal reform is expected to
eventually produce a huge surge in the number of older women seeking
divorce. Those women who had given up on the idea of divorce because
of future financial difficulties may finally start to take more radical
action to change their lives. Depending on the economic conditions in
Japan at the time, as many as 400,000 couples were estimated to be
potential divorcees, which would give Japan the highest divorce rate
after the United States.52 However, many married women who had
planned to divorce as soon as the law came into effect are beginning to
realize that even with a bigger slice of the pension, it will be extremely
difficult to have a comfortable post-divorce life. From this viewpoint,
the status quo looks less unattractive.
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The Japanese Family Today


Although we do not yet know if this outbreak of divorce will happen
in reality, and how it will change the idea of marriage in Japan, it is clear
that more and more people are starting to feel that divorce is a legitimate
choice for dealing with an unhappy marriage. However, it also seems
that many families in Japan avoid doing anything to change the situation, even if the stress felt in the home has risen to a pathological level.
They may continue to maintain the status quo, at least on the surface.
But how long can they stay in denial of reality at the cost of their
psychological and physical well being?
One major source of problems in family relations stems from the
growing gap between reality and the persistent ie ideology, which still
haunts many Japanese peoples consciousness. Despite enormous social
changes in the past decades, the Japanese still somewhere in their heart
cherish the traditional view of family, in which each member is united
around the idea of ie, the family name and its continuity are more important than individual happiness, and marriage is a matter of intergenerational negotiation. Although it is rapidly becoming a myth, people like
myths because they are reassuring. Keeping up social appearances and
order, for the sake of maintaining the image of being a decent family,
often take precedence over meeting the personal satisfaction of each
member. Most Japanese today cling to the idea that family structure
should not be disturbed on the surface, regardless of what goes on in
the home. Mother-child centered, or intergenerational, bonds continue
to be more important than conjugal ties. Marital frustrations are less
likely to be solved within the marriage, but instead are displaced onto
other relationships, such as that between the parent and child, or some
other intimate relationship outside the home. Obsession with the superficiality and order of the traditional family structure stands in the way of
dealing with problems with courage and honesty.
Therefore, many of the problems Japanese families face today come
from a strange mixture of warped post-war political and economic
development, the haunting influence of Confucian-based ie ideology on
the surface, and a deeper cultural, psychological orientation.
Hayao Kawai alludes to the intrinsic vulnerability of Japanese families in distress. The dominance of the matriarchal principle in Japanese
family culture may make it difficult for the Japanese to relate to others
in highly-intimate relationships as equals and independent individuals.
He points out that a Christian view of human relationships is based on
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the view that anyone who believes in the same God is a brother, sister,
or parent. This denial of biological links under the same faith or contract, or the denial of an overwhelming matriarchal existence, is very
important in Western culture and what makes human beings independent entities with clear boundaries that separate them from others. Kawai
says this clear delineation is quite difficult for the Japanese to imagine.53
Kawai also argues that the strictly patriarchal ie ideology once helped to
balance the Japanese familys predominantly matriarchal culture. When
post-war reforms eliminated legal support for the ie system, the authoritarian, paternal figure was removed with the hope that the new
Japanese family would be centered on a husband-and-wife unit with
equal human rights. But what grew out of the post-war environment
was not an individual-focused philosophy that would have been the
base for healthy conjugal relationships. Instead, persistent concern with
peripheral aspects of the ie outlook linger. The Japanese have continued
to emphasize the importance of the roles they have to play, maintained
their obsession with superficial order (not substantial order and principles at home), and have made mother-and-child interdependence the
core of family life. With the patriarchal figurehead gone, the Japanese
family system has reverted to its original matriarchal orientation.
Even if the divorce rate exceeds todays high levels, and people realize
that marriage does not necessarily guarantee security, Japan will not see
the creation of the couple-centered family model that exists in Western
countries. Such social change will take a long long time to occur, and will
require the Japanese to digest a new concept of marriage. Instead of building meaningful conjugal relationships, people will choose to divorce and
maintain highly interdependent relationships with their parents and children. In their post-divorce lives, these will remain the main source of
social support. Although the contemporary ideal of marriage and family
is that of a man and a woman developing a conjugal relationship as equals,
somewhere deep in the Japanese psyche, there lies a yearning for the sense
of oneness with a maternal figure that unconditionally allows and accepts
anything one does. The fundamental desire for a boundless fusion of oneself and another is not uniquely Japanese, but Japan does possess a cultural
and psychological tradition that has enabled this mentality to survive and
flourish. This may make it particularly difficult for the Japanese to confront critical issues at home, as this attempt at oneness goes completely
against the idea of individual choice and decision-making.
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The Japanese Family Today


But how does the psycho-cultural environment of the Japanese family affect childrens socialization processes? How do factors facing families influence young peoples ability to cope with lifes problems? The
next chapter will take an in-depth look at these questions.
NOTES
1 Hill, R., 1958, Generic Features of Families Under Stress. in Family Stress. P. Boss
(ed.), 2003, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
2 Japan Almanac 2005, Asahi Shimbunsha, p.20.
3 Faiola, A., 2005, Sick of Their Husbands in Graying Japan. Washington Post,
October 17.
4
.
(Husband
presence
stress
syndromes).
(http://www.kyosai-cc.or.jp/health/mental/SP_1/5c_pages/c5_26.html accessed
April 19, 2008.
5
.
(Husband
presence
stress
syndromes).
(http://www.jili.or.jp/lifeplan/event_type/lifeevent/marriage/10.html)
accessed
April 19, 2008.
6 Abe T., 2004,
. (Psychiatry of the sexless). Chikuma
Shobo Publishing.
7 Go, M., 2005,
32%
(32% of the married sexless),
Mainichi Shimbun, April 26.
8 Asahi Shimbun 2007,
3
(One third of couples sexless. Found by the Ministry of Health and Labor research
section). http://www/people.ne.jp/27/03.18/jp20070318_68918 html accessed
March 19, 2007
9 Honkawa Data Tribune 2005,
Sex
(The frequency of sex and degree of satisfaction in different countries)
http://www2.tten.ne.jp/~honkawa/2318.html accessed April 19, 2008.
10 Yomiuri Weekly 2004,
(Increasing sexless: reasons why a husband and wife cannot do it). October 31.
11 Yoshimi, S. (ed.), 1988,
. (Women and ie). Doseisha.
12 Ibid.
13 Meguro, Y. and H. Shibata, 1999,
(Corporatism and family)
in Meguro, Y. and H. Watanabe (eds.)
2
(Sociology Course 2
Family). Tokyo University Press, pp.5988.
14 Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, 2004,
16
(Reality of working women 2004). http://wwwhakusyo.mhlw.go.jp/wpdocs/
hpwj200401/ body.html accessed April 19, 2008.
15 Sugimoto, Y., 2003, An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, pp.14681.
16 Reuters News 2002 Japanese men shirk housework, study shows in Japan Today.
http://www.japantoday.com/e/?cpmtemt=news&id=205793 accessed March 13,
2002.

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17 Yamada, M., 1998, The Japanese Family in Transition. About Japan Series, No.19,
Foreign Press Center, p.21.
18 Ibid. pp.1617.
19 Okonogi, K., 1998,
. (Crisis of moratorium
nation Japan). Shodensha, pp.15862.
20 Slote, W., 1998, Psycho-cultural Dynamics within the Confucian Family In
Confucianism and the Family. W. Slote and G. De Vos (eds.), State University of
New York Press, pp.3751.
21 Kawai, H., 1981, Violence in the Home: Conflict between Two principles
Maternal and Paternal. In Japanese Culture and Behavior. T.S. Lebra and W.P.
Lebra (eds.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986, pp.297306
22 Kawai, H., 2002,
. (Thinking about family relations).
Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, originally published in 1980.
23 Nichols, M. and R. Schwartz, 2001, Family Therapy. Boston: Allyn and Bacon,
p.125.
24 Saito, S., 1999,
. (Family addiction). Shincho Bunko.
25 Ogi N., 2001,
. (How should we see the crisis of children?). Iwanami Shinsho, pp.1357.
26 Tanaka, K., 2004,
. (Mother-child adhesion and child-raising difficulties). Kodansha.
27 Watanabe, H., 1999,
(Parent-child relationship in post
war Japan) in Meguro, Y. and H. Watanabe (eds.) ibid. Chapter 4, pp.89117.
28 Tanaka, K., ibid.
29 Morotomi, Y., 2002,
. (Lonely men). Chikuma Shinsho.
30
. (Bedroom situation next door and mine)
http://www.suzune.net/sodan/archives/2008/02/post_64.html accessed April 6,
2008.
31 Go, M., ibid.
32 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA 2004,
Sex
(Dont hate sex,
young people!). May 3, pp.1619.
33 Abe, T., ibid.
34 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA. Ibid.,
35 Abe T., ibid. pp.2239.
36 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AER. Ibid.
37 Morotomi, Y., ibid.
38 Abe, T., ibid.
39 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA. Ibid.
40 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA 2004,
(Though sexless, we are a close couple), August 2.
41 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA 2005,
(Sexless: mens
honest opinions). October 31, pp.348,
42 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA 2005,
(Sexless:
women fight back), November 7, pp.3740.
43 Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA 2004,
(Though sexless, we are a close couple), August 2.
44 Faiola, A., ibid.
45 Morotomi, Y., ibid.

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46 Yamada M., 2004,
. (Hope disparity society). Chikuma shobo.
47 Kawanishi, Y., 1998, Breaking up Still Hard to Do, Japan Quarterly, JulySeptember, pp.849.
48 Asahi Shimbun 1998,
(Lower hurdle against
extramarital affairs or divorce). January 1.
49 Yamada, M., 2004, ibid.
50 Ibid.
51 The Economist 2005,
2007
40
(Divorce in 2007 estimated to be
400,000 cases), November 22, pp.1831.
52 Ibid.
53 Kawai, H., 2002, ibid.

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