Romance in Japan

A traditional Shinto wedding ceremony in front of a temple in Japan. There is a large vermillion tori gate in the foreground.

“Japanese are born Buddhist, marry Shinto and die Buddhist” is the old adage about religious tradition in Japan. However, these days it would probably be more appropriate to say “born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist”. Ritual is popular in Japan. Religion not so much. Most Japanese consider themselves not to be religious, but they do perform all the rituals and ceremonies associated with religious tradition. It is one of the things I love so much when visiting. The rituals add an element of structure that I feel is so lacking, particularly in our Australian culture.

It is very uncommon for people in Japan to say “I love you”. It is considered that to do so somehow “cheapens” the bond of understanding between the two people, whose love for each other is unspoken and mutually understood. The culture of dating and marriage in Japan is very different from Western culture. Historically, Japanese weddings were often arranged (omiai) and they were considered not to be so much about love, which was seen to be disruptive to the very preciously protected social harmony, but more about family, tradition and lineage. Some couples chose their own partners (rennai) but this was less common. It was not uncommon for people (well, men) to have lovers or visit courtesans and as there is no concept of “sin” in Shintoism, there are far fewer hangups about hedonism being sinful. The western concepts of love have definitely changed the way love and marriage are viewed in Modern Japan.

Omiai or arranged marriage still happens in Japan, however it is more like a matchmaking service that people can employ if they wish to find a partner. Konkatsu parties are also arranged matchmaking parties where the desired goal of the participants is to find a spouse. Another less formal form of meeting people is a goukon, which is a casual group drinks with a number of single people attending. Of course all the other methods of meeting people such as Tinder, or Japan Cupid in Japan, are also popular. Marriage and having families is becoming less common in Japan however and the birth rate is in a steep decline. The percentage of men never married aged 50 is 20%, and the prediction is this will rise to 29% by 2035.

Public displays of affection are very uncommon in Japan. Young couples will hold hands, but you are unlikely to see young couples kissing, or older couples for that matter. There is a sweetness and innocent awkwardness to the generally accepted dating protocols. Letting someone know you like them is essential from the beginning so everyone is on the same page, however coming right out and saying it would be slightly inappropriate. The most romantic “dating” day on the calendar is Christmas. I spent one Christmas Day at Universal Studios in Osaka and it was very busy with many, many couples on a Christmas Day Date, dressed in Santa costumes (both men and women). Valentine’s Day is strictly a women to men transaction and in Japan the 14th of March is White Day, the reciprocal day for chocolate giving from men to women. It is generally accepted that the amount given for Valentine’s Day will be exponentially increased in return on White Day.

Marriage is definitely imminent if the couple are introducing each other to their parents. This is a tradition, which is followed by the two sets of parents meeting, called Yuino, and a very intricate, highly etiquette laden and symbolic gift giving process which may include things like hemp rope, dried seafood, money and fans. The old fashioned way that a man would ask a woman to marry him could be “Will you make my miso soup every morning”, which implies “will you marry me and cook for me”. Alternatively, “let’s lie in the same grave”, as Japanese families share grave plots. Another, which I am struggling to find any information about, but know it as a line in an old Enka song, taught to us by our Japanese teacher, is “I want to see our washing drying on the same line”, or something similar. Many older Japanese or traditionalists value this indirectness of speech. We may find it so indirect so as not to be able to understand it. I personally find it quite romantic…other than the obvious blatant sexism. I will be writing a little more about romance in Japan as I am currently researching rituals for my own and Super Sake Boy’s upcoming wedding. Although not wishing to culturally appropriate, we are very much wanting some ritualistic structure to our ceremony.

You can read more about Valentine’s Day in Japan here.

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