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  • Marina Ogawa

On speaking about one’s relationship in Japan

The act of getting excited about your relationship in public is often frowned upon in Japanese society. Doing so can be seen as being selfish, narcissistic, or even conceited. I feel as if even speaking casually about the happy things that happen in one’s relationship is too much for Japanese society right now. In comparison to this, people of other cultures often speak very openly about their relationship status and their partners. In Japan you can only talk about these things if asked, and if you talk about them on your own accord, people take it as you being conceited. I think the fact that other cultures can speak openly about these things is great, and that Japan should strive to be the same.

I’ll now talk about an interaction I had regarding this topic to illustrate this point: at my workplace, there was a student from America who was here to study Japanese. I was the only person who could really speak English there, so we often spoke in English together. He would often talk about his girlfriend and he looked really happy while doing so, and this made me remember the time I first met my current partner. We spoke about how exciting it is when you first get into a relationship, the butterflies, etc. However, when I’d speak about such things to my friends and family, they would constantly say things like “if you keep bragging like that people won’t like you”. All I could think was “why?”, but I eventually got used to this aspect of Japanese culture, and made a note to not speak about my partner until I was asked. To me, that student seemed really happy and free. It made me think that that was how things should be, and really made me question Japanese society and its values.

So why is speaking about your happiness in a relationship so frowned upon in Japanese society? Apparently there exists the notion that having a partner is to be living one’s best life, and to be single means that you’re sad and lonely. From this societal standard comes the idea that, firstly, if you speak about your relationship with people who aren’t in one, you’re being inconsiderate of their position, and secondly, you’re being pretentious and conceited. In those circumstances, it is as if you’re bragging about how you’re in a better stage in life compared to them because you are in a relationship and they’re not. Essentially, sharing any happiness in your relationship is frowned upon in modern Japanese society because of:

  1. the extreme necessity to be considerate about other people

  2. the extreme necessity to be careful that you are not coming across as pretentious

Going back to the interaction I introduced above, I think that because the student I was speaking with didn’t have any knowledge of Japanese cultural and social norms, I was able to happily accept him speaking about his relationship so openly. However, if I had a Japanese person speak to me so openly like that, I probably wouldn’t think so positively of it. When I think about it like this, it seems clear that there is an issue with this aspect of Japan where we can’t be happy for other people and feel threatened by their happiness. Being able to freely express your emotions and opinions, not just happy and successful ones but also negative and traumatic emotions and experiences; it is important for all kind of emotional expression to be socially accepted. It’s different if a certain kind of story triggers you due to a traumatic experience you’ve had, but if it doesn’t then we should be listening to each other as much as we can; we should be less closed off from our own and each other’s emotions. To have better quality and more fruitful relationships, we need to improve our listening skills and have the courage to speak about our feelings. If we do this then Japan will definitely change for the better.

I believe this way we will be able to live in a less suffocating society.

Written by Marina Ogawa and Mutsumi Ogaki

Translated by Ariel Tjeuw

Edited by Emiru Okada

Graphic by Ayumi White

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