Category Archives: japan

Japan Sex Statistics by Sagami

Sagami, Japan’s leading condom company, conducted a survey on sex in Japan in 2013. Their results are highly interesting, and I always refer to them. However, there doesn’t seem to be enough information in English, so I decided to write about it.

The survey was conducted in January 2013 with 14,100 respondents with an equal distribution of age (20s through to 60s), sex, and location (prefecture). The respondents completed the survey online.

By the way, Sagami makes fantastic condoms. Even though I tend to go for Okamoto, another top-notch condom company in Japan, both companies are great. I’ve never come across condoms as good as theirs. If you know any better ones, please let me know!

Marriage and Relationships: Japanese people don’t date much but they get married nonetheless

Question: Are you married? If you are not, are you in a relationship?

Results: 22.6% of the twenty-something men are married as opposed to 60.7% of the thirty-something men. As for women, the percentages are 47.2% for twenty-something and 74.8% for thirty-something.

married-men

married-women

relationship-men

relationship-women-png

56.4% of Japanese unmarried men in their 20s are single, while 67% of Japanese men in their 30s are single. As for women, the numbers are 40.9% (20s) and 54.4% (30s).

Now, consider this: while 43% of the men in their 20s are single, the number of singles goes down to 26.3% of the men in their 30s. I think this is partly because marriage is generally more important than dating in Japan.

‘Dating’ is a fairly new concept in Japan. For example, we don’t have a proper Japanese word for ‘to date’. (We just use deto, which is just the Japanese pronunciation of ‘date’.)

I remember that in my Japanese high school, not many people were dating. Even if they were, they didn’t talk about it a lot, and couples were not visible in school. I never felt any pressure that I had to date somebody. I did date somebody, but I hardly ever discussed it with my classmates.

But, when it comes to marriage, it’s a different question. When you are in your late 20s or in your 30s, people start asking you questions: When are you going to get married? Why aren’t you married? People start introducing you to your future husband or wife. My boss did that
to me once.

The Japanese tend to have very different attitudes towards dating and marriage.

Sex Frequency: Yes, Japanese people have sex infrequently

Question: If you have a sexual partner, how many times do you have sex per month?

Results: On average, when they are married or in a relationship, men in their 20s have sex 4.4 times, in their 30s, 3 times, and in their 40s, 1.9 times a month. Women in their 20s have sex 3.9 times, in their 30s, 2.4 times, and in their 40s, 1.6 times a month.
sex-frequency

As for the differences between relationship statuses, married people have sex 1.7 times a month on average, unmarried couples 4.1 times, and sex friends 2.9 times. The overall average is 2.8 times a month.

Do you remember the Durex sex survey in 2005? According to their survey, Japanese people have sex 45 times a year on average, which translates to 3.75 times a month. But Durex didn’t seem to limit the respondents to the ones who had sexual partners, while Sagami did. So if Sagami did the survey with the same conditions as Durex, the average sex frequency would be much lower than 2.8 times.

Japan’s number, 45, is 28 points less than the second least sexually active nation, Singapore, and 93 points less than the most active nation, Greece. Japan is a complete outlier.

These are self-reported surveys online, so we don’t know how accurate the results are. But considering the information we have so far, the most logical conclusion is that Japanese people have significantly less sex than people in most developed countries.

Sexless: 55.2% of the married couples are sexless

Question: Do you think you are sexless?

Results: 55.2% of the married couples and 29% of the unmarried couples think they are sexless.

sexless-married

sexless-relationship

In my opinion, being sexless is a problem only when you are not happy with it, so let’s look at the next statistic.

Sexless: 69.7% of the people in a sexless marriage or relationship want to have sex

Question: If you are sexless, do you want to have sex?

Results: 75.2% of the sexless men and 64.2% of the women still want sex.

want-sex

In other words, 30.35% of the sexless people don’t really want to have sex. Nonetheless, more than two-thirds of the people are in an unhappy sexless marriage or relationship. This is quite unfortunate.

Sexless: The biggest reason that they are sexless is that their partners don’t want to have sex

Question: If you are sexless but want to have sex, why don’t you have sex?

Results: About 40% of the sexless people say their partners don’t want to have sex. About 30% of them say they are too busy or tired. About 23% say having children or family members in their house makes it difficult. (Japanese apartments and houses tend to be small.) About 18% of them say they don’t desire their partner anymore.

Sexless: Many people who don’t want to have sex think sex is too troublesome

Question: If you don’t want to have sex, what is the reason?

Results: About 40% of men and 50% of women say having sex is too much trouble. About 25% of men and 40% of women say they have very low libido. About 30%
of men and women say they are too tired to have sex.

‘Too troublesome’ or mendoukusai is a very Japanese expression; they don’t necessarily dislike sex, but they think it’s probably not worth it considering the effort they need to make.

Sexual Desire: More than 80% of the single men want to have sex

Question: If you are single, do you want to have sex?

Results: About 83% of the single men and 58% of the single women in their 20s and 30s want to have sex.

single-sex

In recent years, Japanese men seem to be gaining a reputation of having a low sex drive. However, the survey shows that more than 80% of single men want to have sex. Of course, you can say 80% is not a lot, but to me, it doesn’t seem too weird that 10 to 20% of them have a low sex drive.

Also, the survey says that 36.9% of the people with a low sex drive still want to be in a relationship even though they don’t really want to have sex.

Sexual Partners: Japanese men have 10+ and women have 5+ sexual partners

Question: How many sexual partners have you ever had?

Results: On Average, Japanese men in their 20s had 7.4 sexual partners, and the men in their 30s had 11 partners. The averages for the women were 5.5 (20s) and 6.8 (30s).

sexual-partners

These numbers don’t seem particularly small to me.

We have seen various stats so far, but the only area where Japan is clearly an outlier is the frequency of sex. But otherwise, Japanese people want to have sex and sleep around like everyone else.

Infidelity: About 20% of the people cheat

Question: Do you have sexual partners outside your marriage or relationships?

Results: 78.8% of the respondents say they don’t have any extra-marital or extra-relational partner. 15.8% say their have one partner, and 2.2% say they have more than one partner. Also, 3.4% say they don’t have fixed partners.

cheating

The question didn’t ask if their main partners know about their extra-marital or extra-relational affairs. But, assuming that most cases are not consensual, we can say that about 20% of the people are cheating.

Infidelity: Japanese people have fun with co-workers

Question: Where did you meet your extra-marital or extra-relational partner?

Results: 21.4% of the respondents met their sexual partner at work, 16.4% of them met through common friends, and 10.3% met in school. Relatively few people were total strangers and only 0.7% of them met in bars and clubs.

where-cheat

If you are a western person and hang out in bars and clubs in Tokyo, you might meet potential sexual partners there. But be aware that the Japanese people who frequent those places are in the minority.

There is another survey that asked where Japanese people meet their spouses. The results are quite similar: at work, in school, and through friends.

Virginity: Less than 10% of the thirty-something people are virgins

Question: Have you ever had sex?

Results: 40.6% of men in their 20s are virgins, but the number goes down to 9.5% for thirty-something men. 25.5% of the women in their 20s and 5.1% of the thirty- something women are virgins.

have-you-ever-had-sex

have-you-ever-had-sex-women

These numbers seem to be in line with the relationship/marriage results: Japanese people don’t date a lot when they are in their 20s, and many of them get married when they reach 30.

Also, Japanese kids don’t have much privacy. Japanese houses and flats tend to be small, and even if they have their own rooms, they often don’t have locks, and walls are very thin. So when they live with their parents, having sex is difficult. Of course, you can always go to love hotels and rent a room by the hour. But love hotels are quite expensive for high school students.

Virginity: Japanese people lose their virginity in their late teens

Question: At what age did you have sex for the first time?

Results: On average, the men in their 20s lost their virginity at 18.9, and the men in their 30s lost it at 20.2. As for women, the average ages are 18.5 (20s) and 19.6 (30s).

first-time

I think these numbers mean that Japanese people tend to lose virginity when they start going to university when they are 18 or 19.

Masturbation: Japanese men in their 20s masturbate 11.1 times a month

Question: How many times did you masturbate last month?

Results: On average, the men in their 20s masturbate 11.1 times a month, and the men in their 30s masturbate 9 times a month. The averages for women are 2.2 times (20s) and 1.1 times (30s).

masturbation

I don’t really know what to make of these numbers, but, nonetheless, I find them interesting. One thing that is sure is that Japanese men will never run out of porn to watch, given the huge quantity available…

If you are interested in sex in Japan, I would recommend my new book There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan.

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My book about mixed dating in Japan is available to pre-order!

Hi guys, recently, I’ve written a book about mixed dating in Japan and it’s ready to pre-order!
The book features about 15 interviews of people of 8 nationalities who have valuable experience of dating in Japan. Their stories are variously crazy, heart-warming, bittersweet and happy.
The book is available in digital and paperback format and you can pre-order it on Amazon around the world.

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When Japanese people talk to each other, or why they come back to Ishigaki Island

‘So, where are you from?’ the bartender asked me at my first bar in Ishigaki Island (a western island in Okinawa prefecture).

‘I’m from Kanagawa,’ I said.

‘Hey, this guy’s from Kanagawa,’ the bartender said to one of the two customers – a guy and a girl – at the bar.

‘Really? Whereabouts?’ the guy said.

‘Isn’t that where there are a lot of seedy people?’ the girl said.

Before I knew it, everyone was in the conversation.

 

Similar things happened at the next bar. People talked to me and even shared food with me.

This came as a surprise to me. I’d never experienced this level of friendliness in Tokyo during my 20 years of living around there. I’d always thought that Japanese people simply didn’t talk to each other. The friendliest people I’d known in Tokyo were either not Japanese or were those who hung out with non-Japanese people. When it came to a purely Japanese environment, strangers didn’t talk to each other.

 

The next day, I ended up going out with three random Japanese people I’d just met.

How did it happen? I met a girl from Shiga prefecture at the first venue. She said she was going to another place where they also played live music. I went there with her, and she was meeting her friend from Osaka, who’d invited a guy from Shizuoka she had just met the day before.

After the show, the musician came to talk to us. He was called Toshiki. He was born and raised there and a very good singer.

‘Have you been here before?’ Toshiki said.

‘Yeah, I was hoping to see this musician, but apparently he was away. He should be back now,’ the Shiga girl said.

‘Oh, he’s actually my sensei. I didn’t know he was back,’ he said.

‘Really? Shouldn’t you be informed about that?’ the girl asked.

They bonded because of the people they both knew.

‘So, I haven’t asked your names have I?’ Toshiki said to us.

We told him our names. When he learnt the Osaka girl’s name, he said, ‘So you are that girl. I’ve heard a lot about you!’

‘Really? How come I’m that famous?’ the Osaka girl asked.

‘Well, I know these people and those people, and they all talk about you,’ he said.

‘I hope people are not saying bad things about me,’ she said.

They were networking.

‘Anyway, I should be going. I work as a bartender at a nearby bar,’ Toshiki said.

‘What bar?’ the Shizuoka guy asked.

‘It’s called Eden,’ Toshiki said.

‘I’d like to come sometime. Where’s that?’ the guy said.

‘It’s just around the corner. You go to Ooritouri and it’s on the left,’ Toshiki said. Then he left.

 

When we entered Eden, Toshiki was genuinely surprised.

‘Wow, you guys actually came! I didn’t think you were… Well, come and have a seat! What would you like to drink?’ he said.

We weren’t sure what to drink.

‘How about a bottle of Awamori (Okinawan spirit)? The listed price is 3,000 yen (about $30) but I can make it 2,000 yen for you,’ he said.

Then he joined us. We talked, played darts and sang karaoke together.

‘I’m supposed to be working but this doesn’t feel like work at all! I’m just having fun,’ he said.

 

Most of the Japanese people I met on Ishigaki Island had already been there several times. They kept coming back. Some of them were thinking of living there or already lived there.

Before, I didn’t understand why so many people were in love with that island, but I understand now. It’s not just breathtaking beaches and coral reefs. It’s also the connection with people. Once you visit the island, you make a lot of friends. Next time you go there, you know you will see them again. I think this kind of relationship is hard to find in Tokyo or other major cities in Japan.

 

On my way back to Tokyo, I was already thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come back to Ishigaki Island.

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NSFW: How a Japanese magazine talks about sex

This article is not safe for work. Read with discretion.

Japanese mainstream women’s magazines, except for one, don’t talk about sex much. They are full of photos and very little text. If you compare them to western women’s magazines, the contrast is clear.

That’s why an·an is special. an·an, pronounced un-un, is a popular magazine read by girls in their 20s and early 30s. an·an is no Cosmo; it doesn’t teach how to give an epic blow job every month. But an·an has its own way: a special sex edition every summer. They have been doing it since the 70s and it can be as explicit as magazines like Cosmo, if not more so.

I saw one of those magazine ads on a Tokyo train for an·an’s sex edition for this year. I decided to take a look. I went to a bookshop and bought a copy. It must have been quite popular because half of the copies had already gone.

Sex tips

Japan has a world-famous porn industry, so why not ask people there for sex advice? That’s what they’d thought. In the magazine, you’ll see sex advice columns by a porn director and a porn actress.

‘Sex is a cooperation and you need to find what works best for both of you,’ says the porn director. ‘However good you feel, if your moan is monotone, guys will doubt if you are enjoying it,’ he says. ‘You need to use a thin voice or a sweet voice depending on the situation, and add variation when you moan,’ he advises.

He goes on about how guys can get easily hurt by women’s comments about their sexual performances. He emphasises that guys are sensitive beings.

Apparently, you are supposed to say, ‘it was the best sex I’ve ever had’ instead of, ‘you are better than my ex-boyfriend,’ because guys can get jealous if you talk about your ex-boyfriend. Say, ‘I like your big butt’ instead of, ‘your butt is big,’ because it’s more effective to add emotions. And you should say, ‘thank you for coming,’ instead of, ‘you already came?’ because it’s hurtful to say ‘already?’ or ‘not yet?’ to guys.

handjob tips

On the next page, the porn actress says, ‘A lot of women think that guys are supposed to lead when you have sex but it’s only until the early 20s that being passive in bed in acceptable.’ But then she adds, ‘The woman’s role is to give guys opportunities to lead the sex.’

She gives usual sex advice: different positions and blow job techniques. She also talks about six different hand job techniques, which I find quite interesting. I’m yet to meet a Japanese girl who has mastered these techniques and can put them into practice.

Surveys

Japanese guys and sex

Men

This kind of magazine loves surveys (of dubious credibility). This time, they asked ‘100 men’ about sexual preferences. According to them, they found out that Japanese men are ‘more understanding of women’s feelings and they are more loving than expected.’

To the question ‘Do you like sex?’ 87% of men said yes. The most popular reason is ‘because it feels good,’ the magazine says. When they were asked how many dates they go through before trying to sleep with a girl they want to date seriously, 45% of them said they try to on the first date. 25% said the third date. According to them, they need to figure out if they are physically compatible before it gets serious.

One of the most interesting questions is ‘When do you feel a girl wants to have sex?’ The top answer is when she is physically close to them, and the second most popular answer is when she is touching them a lot. In Japan, people tend to keep more physical distance than people in some western countries. It is understandable that in this context, close physical space can be interpreted as romantic interest. This can partially explain why some western girls unintentionally make Japanese guys think they are interested.

The third most popular answer to the questions is when she stays after the last train has gone. This also reflects the cultural context. Many people in Japan need to take the train when they go out.

80% of men think that it’s totally acceptable for girls to ask them to have sex. 18% said it’s OK as long as she is their girlfriend and only 2% said no. On the other hand, when they were asked if it’s OK for girls to tell them what they want them to do in bed, 99% said yes.

Do you want to know about what Japanese guys think of boobs? When they were asked if they prefer to have sex with girls with big boobs, only 51% of them said yes. And apparently, 10% of the guys prefer small boobs. So maybe Japanese girls don’t really need to wear bras with a lot of padding after all?

This one is very Japanese: to the question ‘What do you want to try in bed?’ 34% answered ‘cosplay’. This is Japanese guys’ ultimate fantasy. If you are into cosplay, Japanese guys are the ones you want to date!

The biggest turn-off in bed is a bad smell according to 32% of the guys. But 31% of them said that girls being passive was a turn-off and 22% said they didn’t like it when a girl didn’t seem to enjoy the sex. I hear a lot of stories about how Japanese people are passive and passionless in bed. This might be the area that Japanese people need to work on.

Women

They also asked women some sexual questions.

According to the magazine, 76% of women said that they like sex, 11% less than men. The average age of first sexual experience is 17.6 years and the average number of sexual partners in life is 6.6. Considering the magazine’s demographic is women in their 20s and 30s, the result is somewhat expected.

One interesting result is that 42% of Japanese women think that it’s OK to have a friend’s benefits. It doesn’t mean that they put this into practice but I find it interesting nonetheless.

Sexy photos and porn DVD

The magazine contains 13 pages of sexy photos. It also has eight pages of sexy stories, which mean there are many more photos than stories. Who said women are not aroused visually like men?

Mildly explicit photos are, I think, something quite characteristic of an·an. As far as I remember, a western women’s magazine like Cosmo doesn’t feature this kind of stuff.

Sexy Japanese guy?

The first photo pages feature a famous male actor (whom, by the way, I’m not familiar with because I don’t watch TV). It’s basically a bit of nudity but there’s no full exposure.

Provocative photo

The second series of photos is much more provocative. If you just look at these pages, you won’t think that it’s a mainstream women’s magazine.

These provocative photos come with a bunch of quotes from readers. Let me translate some of them:

  • When I feel his stare, my breasts heat up. ‘Look at me more,’ I think and I become more provocative. (23, Medical professional)
  • When he licks around my ears, I get goosebumps. I can’t think of anything else and I get wet. (25, Secretary)
  • He starts doing it from behind without warning. I want to feel his thrusts forever. (33, Nurse)
  • The pleasure of not being able to move when I put my hands behind my back and he holds them tight. (28, Dentist)

The most intense feature of the magazine is the female-friendly porn DVD. This consists of three episodes of three different couples. You can actually watch some extra content online so check it out if you are curious. (Obviously, the link is also NSFW)

Love hotel guides

This is my favourite part: ten pages of love hotel guides followed by eight pages of love hotel ads.

Love hotel guides

Love hotels are amazing. They are very clean, efficient and fun. Often you find good entertainment such as karaoke, video games, and film collections. (Who sings karaoke in a love hotel? You may ask. Well, I for one love to sing karaoke there.) Some of them lend various costumes for free. With all these, prices tend to be affordable.

I have the impression that women are actually more interested in love hotels than men. Often, love hotels come up with ways to attract women. So it only makes sense that a women’s magazine talks about love hotels. Coincidentally, I know one book and one comic book dedicated to love hotels and both the authors are women.

Guys by prefecture

This is quite silly. They talk about how guys are in bed based on their prefecture.

Guys by prefecture

  • Tokyo: ‘The most sexually aggressive guys are in the east, the shita-machi area.’ ‘Guys in Tamagawa ward don’t have much interest in sex even when they are in love.’
  • Osaka: ‘They actually have good techniques.’ ‘They are selfish in their approach and in the way they have sex. They don’t care about how girls feel.’
  • Kyoto: ‘It is not exaggerating to say that Kyoto people are the most skilful in a relationship and in bed.’
  • Okinawa: ‘They basically love sex!’ ‘They tend to finish early but don’t worry! They are not as inconsiderate as to stop doing it after they ejaculated once.’

By the way, I’m from Okayama. So here goes: ‘They are quite serious about sex. Even though they don’t do it too often, they do it regularly like once or twice a week. But they tend to be mechanical.’ Huh, well, I’m not sure about that.

What’s missing?

Despite the interesting theme, they didn’t really explore the topic in depth. I would say it’s more entertainment than actual education. But it’s just a mainstream magazine, so what do you expect?

If you are curious, you can buy a copy from here.

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Why Japanese Men Pay $30,000 in a Hostess Bar

This is a story of an Eastern European girl who ventured into Japanese hostess bars. Let’s call her Anna. She was very curious about Japanese hostess bars and wanted to know why guys pay so much money. So she decided to try it out herself.

What’s special about Anna is that she ended up working for a very high-class hostess bar. Usually hostess bars cost a couple of hundred dollars per night, but she says that in a high-class bar, it’s not unusual to spend $30,000 a night.

‘These guys are billionaires,’ she tells us in a business networking event. Girls are told not to press customers to order drinks. They are too rich for that.

‘Top girls earn $100,000 a month,’ she says. The minimum salary is about $2,000, but the customers spend so much money that some girls end up earning much more.

Despite the extremely high salaries, the girls don’t seem to offer much. It’s a legal hostess bar and there’s no sexual service involved. Normally, Japanese hostess bars have an option for clients to go out with hostesses before or after shifts, but according to Anna, her place doesn’t offer that service either. In fact, a lot of customers don’t even talk to the girls; they just socialise among themselves.

‘Girls are more like regular waitresses,’ she says.

Then, why would men pay tens of thousands of dollars?

That was what she set out to find out. She didn’t find the high-class job at first. On the contrary, her first place was a very seedy bar. Consider that she found her first job on craigslist. You can easily imagine the nature of the kind of hostess bar that posts an anonymous ad on craigslist.

‘How much do you think those girls get paid per night?’ she asks. She is talking about a strip club she knew. Being a stripper is not an easy job and girls have to entertain many customers a night. Yet, according to her, they only get paid about $100 a day. That’s extremely low pay for sexual work considering Tokyo’s standard.

She didn’t work at the seedy bar for long. Eventually, one of her customers introduced her to a different bar, a very high-class one. Working conditions were completely different.

‘I wasn’t even a hostess,’ she says. She was just helping the management. All she had to do was work on her laptop, except she was expected to use a table inside the bar that was filled with men. But she didn’t have to talk to anybody; just sitting there and working was enough. She was paid about $300 a night.

She was confused. Why were they willing to pay her that much money for minimal work? She asked the owner, a middle-aged South American woman. She didn’t get a clear answer. She asked another question:

‘Why do men pay that much money to see the girls even though the girls don’t seem to do much and some men don’t even talk to them?’ The answer was very revealing:

‘These men don’t come to talk to the girls. They come to see me,’ the owner said.

They come to see a middle-aged woman instead of young girls? Why?

‘Because they are my friends,’ the owner said. So that was the trick. The girls at the bar simply didn’t matter much because it was the relationship between the owner and the customer that was crucial to the business. Japanese society is very relationship-oriented. Often, Japanese people choose to do business with somebody they know well instead of somebody who has the best track record. The owner knew how to do business in Japan.

In fact, the owner had been a hostess herself. Her current customers were her long-term customers when she was a hostess. During the decades when she was a hostess, she was slowing building business relationships. When she retired as a hostess, she started her own business. From day one, she had loyal customers.

‘The customer service is very impressive,’ Anna says. There are numerous notebooks in the bar and each customer has many pages of entries recording details of his birthday, personal history, relationship status, business trip schedule, children’s profile etc. All the important information is there. When a customer comes back from a business trip, the owner asks him about the trip. When it’s his birthday, she celebrates it with him. She is almost like his family.

Still, spending tens of thousands per night is a lot. Why would they choose that expensive bar instead of more affordable ones? Why doesn’t she lose customers because of the high prices?

‘It doesn’t really matter to them. These guys are true billionaires,’ she tells me. Does this mean that they spend money because they can? ‘Yes, because they can!’ she says.

Indeed, the customers are very high profile. Amongst the examples she gives, there is the CEO of an internationally known Japanese company, executives of a very famous global American company, and a few celebrities (even though most are business people). They have more money than they can spend.

‘So, is it more like a normal bar except that it’s extremely expensive and there are some beautiful girls to look at? They don’t care that they won’t get anything from the girls?’ I ask.

‘Yes,’ she says. If they wanted something sexual, they could get it somewhere else. Money isn’t an issue. They just go there after work for a few drinks with their co-workers just like normal people do. They happen to choose that place because they are regulars.

‘So, what kinds of girls work there?’ I ask. I am curious. Surely, there’s something special about them for it’s a very well-paid job.

‘Well, they are actually not that special,’ she says. They are just normal Eastern European girls like her. But if there’s something special about them, it’s their ability to connect with people. These girls are very good at making connections. When they go to parties, they always get new customers.

‘But there’s one thing many guys don’t know,’ she says importantly. ‘In order to work in a legal bar, the girls need to have a legal status in Japan. Unless it’s a very seedy bar, nobody wants to hire them without a working visa. Do you know what this means? It means that they are always married, and their husbands know what they do.’

‘One thing I learned there was that guys like quiet girls who don’t challenge them,’ she continues. ‘The best girls don’t talk too much, and in the end, guys like them.’ I’m not sure if it applies to all men.

‘Do you think it’s universal though? Don’t you think that’s something cultural?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she says, ‘every guy likes quiet girls even if they claim otherwise.’

‘Well, I prefer someone I can have a good discussion with. Quiet girls are not very interesting to me,’ I say.

‘You are just saying that! You secretly like the quiet ones like all the other guys,’ she says. She is very firm about it. The thing is, she seems to be a very outspoken person who is not afraid to contradict people; she is the opposite of a quiet, docile girl. Is there resentment in her voice? I’m not sure. But, it makes me think about what kind of life experience had made her believe in that idea.

If you are interested in sex in Japan, I would recommend my new book There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan.

If you've read this far, you should probably subscribe to my blog and follow me on twitter or Facebook.

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When to Use Keigo (Honorific Speech): Hierarchy in Japanese Society

Have you ever been unsure whether you should use keigo (honorific speech) or not in Japan? I have. Growing up in Japan, I’ve always faced the uncertainty of speaking keigo. If you are a fluent Japanese speaker or serious Japanese learner, I think you will be able to relate to my experience.

* I will refer to casual speech as tamego (タメ語) in this article although tameguchi (タメ口) seems to be more common.

How the Japanese learn keigo

Happy days

In the beginning, everyone is equal. In kindergarten and elementary school (1st to 6th grades) you don’t worry about keigo. You speak ‘normally’ with other children regardless of your grade. When I was six, I lived in an apartment building where there were many elementary school kids. Some of them were younger and some older. I never used keigo with them.

As far as I remember, children don’t use keigo with grown-ups either. I spoke tamego with my friends’ parents as well. You can even address your teachers without keigo. You may think that teachers are well-respected in Asian cultures and that’s certainly true to some extent, but teacher-student relationships in Japan can be quite casual (including in universities, although you will definitely use keigo with professors).

Still, you might use keigo with strangers or perhaps your distant relatives. When it happens, your parents guide you through it. Keigo is not easy for children so even if you make mistakes, adults are forgiving. Some kids won’t use keigo unless their parents explicitly tell them to.

When you are a kid, everything is simple.

Wake up call

Things are not quite the same once you enter Japanese junior high school (7th to 9th grades); you are introduced to the Japanese hierarchy.

You will notice some changes. All the older kids you used to play with start acting differently. They are now considered senpai (elder ones) and are entitled to be respected. You are suddenly uncomfortable talking to them. Something is wrong. You are supposed to use keigo with them from now on.

The change is so drastic that it’s funny. I used to take care of kids in some extracurricular activities. They spoke tamego with me up to the 6th grade but as soon as they were in junior high school, they started to speak keigo. I didn’t ask them to do so. I would actually have preferred it if they had continued speaking tamego. But they felt they had to speak keigo. In fact, some of them took pride in doing so. For them, speaking keigo was a sign of adulthood.

The senpai-kohai system in junior high school is quite strict. Some people abuse the power. It’s not unusual for a senpai to ask a kohai (younger one) to do menial tasks. For example, your senpai might ask you to buy a drink for him from a vending machine. This is called pashiri (パシリ). You don’t want to be a pashiri. It’s demeaning.

Some are unhappy with this hierarchical relationship. I would often hear kids say, ‘Why do senpai act so arrogantly as if they are superior human beings? They are just one year older than us. That’s not much different.’ Well, too bad for them; once you enter the hierarchy, there’s no going back.

And so it goes.

Afterwards

You will pretty much be using keigo throughout the rest of your life except with your close friends. The innocent days are over. Now you will face uncertain situations where you don’t know whether use keigo or not. Welcome to adulthood in Japan.

When to use keigo

Basic rules

The basic rule is simple: use keigo for older people. Have you noticed that Japanese people ask your age within a minute of meeting? That’s because they need to figure out whether you are older than them or not. If you are older, they will keep using keigo; if not, they might drop it.

Workplace

The rule for the workplace is quite easy: always use keigo. As long as you stick with keigo, you are safe. With your boss, subordinates, clients, other colleagues, using keigo is almost always appropriate. This is especially true if you are new to the company. Use keigo regardless of your position until you figure out the company’s hierarchy. When you are not considered new there anymore, you might explore other possibilities.

Exceptions: traditional Japanese company

If you are a new graduate and newly hired, you will use tamego with other new graduates. This rule usually applies to traditional, large Japanese companies that only hire new graduates once a year. If you go to this kind of company, you are likely to go through some kind of training programme with other newcomers where you build tight relationships with them.

Traditional Japanese companies are a lot like school: you have equal relationships only with people in the same year. With them, you use tamego; with people more senior (senpai), you will use keigo; with newer people (kohai) you will use tamego but they will use keigo with you, so the relationship is not equal.

Exception: smaller companies

Things are different in smaller companies as they tend to hire experienced people throughout the year. These companies have their own unique cultures and hierarchy. Some companies might be very strict like the traditional ones but others are much more relaxed.

In my company for example, people tend to speak keigo with each other regardless of their positions. Some people use tamego to newer people but it’s entirely up to them. As for me, I almost always use keigo except with four people (out of 50). Obviously, I used keigo with them initially, but as we went to lunch and sang karaoke together many times, I dropped it and they followed. The interesting thing is that most of them are actually older than I am. On the other hand, they are newer. My analysis is that since I’m younger, they are comfortable using tamego with me and since they are newer, I’m comfortable as well. It also should be noted that their personalities are very frank. They are not the most traditional Japanese people either; coincidentally, they speak above average English for the Japanese.

Workplace warning

Mind you, just because you get close to somebody at work it doesn’t mean that you can drop keigo. Many people keep using keigo even if they become friends. This is rather remarkable because friendships in the workplace occur quite often in Japan.

On the other hand, if you date somebody from work, you are most likely to drop keigo. But then, many couples keep using keigo at work to keep it professional. They also might want to keep it private from their co-workers. If you want to know more about this, take a look at my article about Japanese office love (http://www.yutaaoki.com/blog/japanese-office-love-what-everyone-was-doing-behind-my-back).

Parties

Parties are where the real trouble begins. Let’s define a party as a gathering of people who don’t necessarily know each other beforehand (so I’m excluding office parties and parties with your close friends here). International meet-up events or your friends’ semi-public birthday parties are good examples. These parties are so out of the traditional Japanese context that you don’t know what kind of Japanese you are supposed to speak.

Remember the general rule: use keigo when the other person is older. This is the polite and correct way. However, in the modern Japanese context, using keigo isn’t always appropriate. It can also create a distance and you can be seen as cold if it’s a casual party and people are there to have fun. Imagine a party in a casual bar or club. In this setting, speaking keigo can be seen as uptight or even pretentious. Keigo reminds you of the traditional hierarchy which young, edgy people might not be fond of.

Sometimes, using tamego with older people is more appropriate. But the question is this: how do you know? This is a difficult task. Can you just ask him? Well, it can be awkward and rude. Can you just assume? You also risk being rude. You have to figure it out yourself in some way, but in order to decide, you have to talk to him first, which means you have to choose whether to use keigo, or tamego.

This is where your dilemma lies.

For this reason, getting to know Japanese people at a party has always been tricky for me. It takes me a while to be comfortable talking to Japanese people (or people who speak fluent Japanese). I need time to establish the social context; I need to know what kind of person he is, his social and educational background and age.

Gender effects

This is an interesting observation of myself: I have less trouble talking to random Japanese women than men. In a casual setting, I tend to just use tamego with Japanese women even if they are older and it makes things a whole lot easier. Also, younger women always figure out that it’s OK to use tamego with me even if I don’t explicitly say so. I’m not sure why I can do this. Maybe it’s because women tend to be less hierarchical. I could speculate that women put more weight on personal relationships than social hierarchy.

This also seems to apply to non-Japanese people speaking Japanese. It seems that whenever they speak Japanese, my brain automatically tries to put then in a Japanese context. So when they are men, I have the same difficulty but when they are women, I can just use tamego (unless they are exceedingly polite).

This is a very personal experience of mine so I’m not sure if other people experience similar things. If you have an opinion, please let me know.

Family relationships

You can freely use tamego with your family unless you live in an ultra-traditional patriarchal family. I’ve seen Japanese historical dramas where people speak keigo with their fathers, but I don’t think those families are common today. I’ve been using tamego with my parents and brother since I started to speak.

There’s one situation where I get uncomfortable: texting. I always feel awkward texting my family. Perhaps it’s because texting is still quite new for me. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I got a mobile phone, and before that I rarely wrote to my family.

Also, talking to my grandmother is very awkward for me. I didn’t talk to her much when I was a child and now, I just don’t know how to speak to her. It feels too polite to use keigo but too casual to use tamego. One possible reason is that she speaks the Hiroshima dialect which I used to speak but don’t anymore. If I hadn’t forgotten the Hiroshima dialect, maybe it would be easier to talk to her.

In public

Use keigo when you order something in a restaurant. This might be different in other regions (I live in Kanto), but here, speaking keigo is the norm unless you are a regular and know the staff well. You might see some old people use tamego with waitresses (my father does that sometimes), but I consider that an exception.

If you work at a restaurant, you are most definitely expected to use keigo with customers.

I’ve heard that in 109 (a young women’s clothing store complex in Shibuay, also known as a mecca of gyal style fashion) the staff tend to use tamego with their customers who are usually young girls. This is seen positively and it also gives them a sense of belonging: using tamego means that they belong to the same group and they are friends. This is a very good example of how using keigo and tamego can have different effects in different contexts.

Conclusion

Being highly individualistic and egalitarian, I’m not very fond of keigo and the Japanese hierarchy . But that doesn’t mean I think keigo is bad in itself. On the contrary, I consider it to be part of the richness of Japanese culture. It’s just that living in that culture isn’t always easy.

Also, the rules I wrote in this article are based on my experience which is essentially biased. I’m sure that other people have different experiences from mine. So, if you have different rules, please share!

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Essential Japanese: Nanto-naku – Without Any Particular Reason – なんとなく

When I was in high school, I was almost never late. Well, that’s not exactly true – I was late from time to time. My school had a rule about being late: we had to fill out a form writing down the time and reason. After filling out the form, we had to find someone from the teachers’ office to get his approval.

I thought that the practice was time-consuming and unnecessary, especially having to write the reason which I thought was utterly useless. ‘What difference does it make?’ I thought. Most students simply overslept. Wasn’t it obvious? Sure, there were some lazy ones who got up early enough but were still late because they were watching TV or whatever procrastination they were involved in at the moment, but what were they supposed to write? ‘Watching a particularly engaging morning show’ surely wouldn’t cut it. We would just end up writing the same old excuse (I overslept) again and again and I don’t think the teachers enjoyed it. (Actually, I fantasised about writing ‘saving people’s lives’ but unfortunately the opportunity never presented itself.)

One day, I got creative. I wrote nantonaku (without any particular reason) as the reason. I thought it was an interesting choice of word; the kind of inexplicableness that the word possessed pleased me. ‘We humans don’t always have clear motives to do things’, I thought, ‘and hopefully, some teachers will understand my sense of humour, and even if they don’t it’ll be interesting to see their reaction.’

What I didn’t know was that the only teacher who was available at that moment was an American who didn’t speak fluent Japanese. When I handed the form to him, he got confused.

‘What does nantonaku mean?’ he asked.

‘Ah, well …’ I looked at him awkwardly. I didn’t know how to explain for I wasn’t particularly fluent in English back then. The nuance of the word seemed awfully complicated.

Nantonaku is such a useful word. It is a perfectly valid answer when somebody asks you ‘why?’

‘I wanna eat Thai food today?’
‘Why?’
‘Nantonaku.’

‘Why are you dating him?’
Nantonaku.’

‘I’ve been feeling nantonaku sad since this morning.’

‘I nantonaku feel something good will happen today.’

The best thing about this word is that you can give a reason without giving a reason. We don’t always know the reason why we are doing something or feeling in a particular way, but when we talk about it, we may feel giving a reason is expected. Now you know how to deal with this: just say nantonaku.

That’s how I’m going to answer this question: why did I write this article? Well, nantonaku

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The Day I Begged

Until that day, I had never thought 130 yens (about $1) could make such a difference.

It was one of those hot Japanese summer days. I went to Yokohama for some shopping. Back in those days, I would go to Yokohama quite often because it was on the way to my high school. Yokohama was a medium-sized city with 3.6 million people and there were several places of interest to me, conveniently located on the same train line. My routine started from a bookshop in Kannai, followed by a big library in Sakuragi-cho, and finished in HMV, the record store, in Yokohama. The whole itinerary was covered by three stations but I often walked to save money.

It was a holiday. I started off with the bookshop in Kannai. I loved bookshops and still do. They had always been my favourite place in the world and I would easily spend hours there. Some of my friends also liked bookshops but I always outstayed them whenever we went together. It was like the internet in real life. I didn’t always buy books – just browsing was fun and besides, being a high school student, I didn’t have much money.

But that day, I bought a book: after browsing through various book shelves – from travel literature to philosophy – I got curious about one particular book that cost 10,000 yens, or about $100. Obviously, it was very expensive for me. The decision came slowly: flipping through the pages with careful deliberation, calculating my level of satisfaction after buying the book, doing a comparative analysis of the outcomes of action and inaction, not to mention measuring the risk/reward ratio of the investment. The execution of my decision was far from speedy: I picked up the book, made my way to the cashier only to have second thoughts, turned around, almost changed my decision, and finally plucked up the courage and bought it.

When I got out of the bookshop the sun was already setting. I was hungry after going through all these highly complicated, multi-variable decision-making processes.

It was a busy shopping street and food wouldn’t be hard to find. I saw First Kitchen, a Japanese fast food chain, something between KFC and McDonald’s. (Also, if you want to know, a popular abbreviation of First Kitchen is Fakkin, which sounds like ‘fucking’. Some people deliberately say it because they know it sounds like swearing and think it’s funny.) I didn’t like any of those fast food restaurants even though I secretly enjoyed some of their stuff. First Kitchen, for example, have cheap-tasting chips (fries) with various cheap-tasting flavours. They are rather tasty just like those cheap-tasting cup noodles.

Not having much money was a perfect excuse to go for fast food. I bought a simple hot dog and ate it with ketchup and mustard. It cost 130 yens in total.

Being less hungry, I decided to walk to Sakuragi-cho where my favourite library was. Sure, I had just bought a 10,000 yen book, but I could look for more books, and why not for free? At the library, I borrowed some books and decided to head to Yokohama, my final destination. All the places were within walking distance although it could easily take 30 or 40 minutes. Taking a train would definitely be quicker but again, I wasn’t exactly a rich student.

It was then that I had a thought: I didn’t have any notes in my wallet. I had spent all of them on the book. Also, the last time I looked inside my wallet – when I bought the hot dog – I didn’t see many coins. So, how much money did I have?

I took out my wallet and opened it. Indeed, I didn’t have any notes, which I already knew. Then I checked the coins. I counted them: one, two three. I only had 150 yens. My return ticket would cost 210 yens. I would need 60 yens more.

I realised that I made a terrible mistake. I had overspent. I shouldn’t have bought the hot dog. Now I wouldn’t be able to get home. I tried hard to come up with a solution.

I knew the answer: vending machines!

It is well known that Japan is a vending machine nation. The last thing you need to worry about when wandering about Japanese streets is dying from dehydration (this is, of course, assuming you have enough money). But what’s not so well known is that people are often too lazy to make sure that they collect all their change. Every child in Japan knows this. Finding uncollected change is one of their favourite pastimes.

I searched every single vending machine I encountered on the way to Yokohama. Finding vending machines was no challenge. I put my fingers into the small boxes where you collect the change, hoping to find some coins. Once, my fingers touched something hard and round. Please, I prayed, give me 100 yen. But it was a 10 yen bronze coin, glittering dimly.

Disappointed, I continued on my way to Yokohama. I didn’t find anything else in the vending machines and now I had 160 yens – 50 yens less than I needed for my ticket to home sweet home. How would I find 50 yens more?

I decided to pretend that the problem didn’t exist for a while. I went to HMV and listened to music. Obviously, I didn’t buy anything. Before I knew it, it was 7:30pm. It was time to go home – only I didn’t know how.

Now, you may think that I could have just called my friends. There were a few problems with this. First of all, people came to high school from all over the prefecture. An hour’s train ride wasn’t unusual so it wasn’t likely that there was somebody living nearby. Secondly, I didn’t have a phone and a public phone would cost money, which I didn’t have. But the other problem was that I didn’t really have friends.

My eyes were desperately searching the ground hoping to find a 50 yen coin someone had miraculously dropped. One didn’t come across such luck every day. There was not a single shiny object in sight.

I had one final thought: what was in abundance in Yokohama’s street wasn’t free money, but people, and people had money. It was their money but, I thought, it could become my money if I asked nicely. All I needed was 50 yens and for most people it would be nothing.

The idea of asking strangers for money made me uneasy. You don’t talk to strangers in Japan (at least in Tokyo), let alone for the purpose of obtaining cash. How did I do it?

I remembered an important lesson I had learnt in India, where I had spent two months some time earlier. I had never seen beggars before I went there. It was an unfamiliar sight but I soon learnt that they were part of people’s everyday lives; they had known local beggars for a long time. Indian beggars were quite hard-core: amputated legs and arms, body parts grossly swollen by elephantiasis, deaf and blind. I had never seen so many variations of visible misfortune. But my most interesting observation was that some beggars were more skilful than others.

There was one man who impressed me in particular. He positioned himself in a train station near the ticket counter. Just when people took out their wallet to pay for the ticket, he would beg. People were already holding money. All they had to do was hand some of their money to the beggar. Clever. I was fascinated. I would often pass a beggar without giving him anything because I wasn’t happy with the idea of taking out my wallet in the middle of a busy street, even though I would be perfectly happy to give my money away otherwise. His tactic totally solved this problem. I gave him some rupees.

This technique would surely work in Japan too. I went to Yokohama station and positioned myself by the half-dozen ticket gates. It was a busy station – there was a constant flow of people. But as I watched them, I faced new anxiety: approaching strangers was scary.

What if they said no? What if they were bad people and beat me up? Maybe they would get annoyed. They might not want to be bothered. I didn’t want to talk to young men – too much fresh testosterone. Young women were out of the question; I didn’t want them to think I was hitting on them. What about older women? No, they looked intimidating.

I settled on mature men wearing suits. I was still hesitating but it was getting dark and I was hungry. I wanted to go home. I approached the first guy.

‘Excuse me, I don’t have enough money to get home. I only need 50 yens more. Would you please spare me 50 yens?’ I said.

‘Ah … well … I don’t know, this is … well … I am also …’ He became uneasy and apologetic. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, and left. I got rejected.

Oddly enough, getting rejected was not as bad as I thought and I was now more confident and less hesitant. I spotted another middle-aged guy wearing casual clothes. I liked that he looked a bit nerdy and not intimidating at all. I approached him right after he bought a ticket.

‘Well let me see’, he searched his wallet. ‘Uh, I think I only have 100 yen coins. But, what the hell, it’s yours.’ He handed me the coin and took off.

‘Hey, I have change’, I was about to say. But he had already gone. I had 100 yens in my hand and 160 yens in my wallet. I bought a 210 yen ticket and took the train home.

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Growing Up in Post-war Hiroshima

That summer, we decided to make a thousand origami paper cranes. It was a collective project involving a few families: me (about six at the time), my brother, my mother, my friends, their parents—whoever had time made cranes, as many as possible. A thousand cranes was a lot: it would take about 20 man-hours.

Every child in Hiroshima knew how to make an origami crane. It was made popular by the story of a little girl who was an A-bomb victim. Making a thousand paper cranes was her prayer; it would cure her disease caused by the bomb. Despite her wish she died, but the prayer stayed.

Every child in Hiroshima knew how the city was affected by the A-bomb:

August 6, 1945, a hot summer Monday morning. People were hurrying to work. It would be another ordinary day, they thought, until they saw a US plane dropping a ‘parachute’, followed by a blinding flash then a loud explosion.

Tens of thousands of people were instantly killed, some of whom were said to become ‘shadows’, evaporating into the air with no trace of their existence except their ‘shadow’. Many who survived lost their human shapes – unrecognisable by their closest family – only to die within a few hours. A lot of people suffered from permanent disease caused by radioactivity.

By the time we went to school, we were already very familiar with the story. In school, we would listen to the survivors telling their personal stories. They often arranged such opportunities. A typical story goes like this:

…and then on August 6, it was a morning without a cloud in the sky. My factory was closed because of the electricity shortage, but we went to work anyway because we were going to extend the building using some wood from abandoned buildings. Some first graders in junior high school had already gone to the city centre to get the wood, but we were still at the factory waiting for our lunchboxes to arrive.

We heard a siren at around 8:00 so we moved to the shelter, but we went back to the factory because the siren was soon cancelled. It was hot. We were chatting inside the building, taking off our protective hoods when we heard someone shouting outside, ‘There’s a parachute coming down!’ No sooner had I looked back toward the window than the bare light bulb on the wall caught fire, and I saw a huge fireball that was orange or pink spreading over the next building, covering the entire sky. A strong light flashed and I was temporarily blinded. It was like thousands of camera flashes going off at the same time.

About an hour passed I think. I was shocked when we went outside: although I thought that it was just our building that had fallen down, it was actually all the factory buildings. Those who had managed to get out from the debris were trying very hard to rescue the people who were still buried inside. We joined them. They told me that those who were outside at the time of the bombing were severely burned and had already been evacuated to a nearby mountain.

I couldn’t believe what I saw on the road. It was full of people escaping from the city. The scene was horrifying: everybody was almost completely destroyed. Their clothes were torn like a feather duster and burned skin hung from their bodies; they looked like walking rags. I said ‘burned’ but I can’t possibly describe it with words. Their faces were black and swollen, so bad that I couldn’t tell where their eyes and noses were. Their arms were burned, skin falling off their hands like gloves. They were burned beyond recognition. They couldn’t possibly walk – but they were walking from the city.

I think it was around noon when the ‘black rain’ began to fall. ‘They are burning fuel oil to kill us all’, somebody said. We were panicking, but eventually the rain stopped and we became calmer. I was curious and climbed to the mountain top, hoping to see the city. I couldn’t see the Mitsubishi buildings across the river. I looked harder and they turned out to be completely demolished. I looked at the city centre and saw a lot of fires. It was only then I thought ‘Something has gone horribly wrong. The bomb could be something completely unheard of.’ I had never heard of such a thing as an atomic bomb.

Eventually, the entire city was on fire, and the sky was covered with dark smoke. A friend of mine began to cry, ‘My mum! My mum!’ He was living in the city with his mother because his father had died in the war. My other friends were extremely worried too but there were more and more people escaping from the city, so we didn’t say anything. People around me were dying. Some of the dead were carried away by their family members who came from the city to find them. I think they were luckier than most people because at least their family were able to find them.

We were too busy taking care of other people to think about our families. I told myself that my family should be all right because our home was close to Miyajima. The sun was setting and the fire was getting worse, colouring the sky red. I spent the night there among the dead bodies and the wounded. I couldn’t sleep at all but I wasn’t able to help people either.

(The next day, she walked home.) I reached home after a long walk. The roof had been ripped off and the windows blown away, but my house had retained its shape despite its horrible appearance. My mum seemed to have been worried about me and had been going outside and coming back into the house over and over again. When she saw me, she looked at me from top to bottom then bottom to top again as if she was seeing a ghost, and said, ‘Ah, you are alive’, then she hugged me. I think she had been thinking I was either dead or burned beyond recognition because all the people she had seen escaping from the city were severely injured or burned. I will never forget the taste of the suiton she made me that night.

The experience of growing up in Hiroshima was different from in any of the other places I spent my childhood. My family moved a lot; we lived in three different cities until we settled in the Tokyo area. No other cities had such intense stories of World War II. In Hiroshima, the memory of the atomic bomb was still vivid. Many survivors were still alive. Some of them were living in a hospital which specialised in A-bomb victims. We would watch documentaries in the classroom and at home on the TV. Every year on August 6, we observed a minute’s silence at 8:15 – the time the bomb was dropped.

Going into the city wasn’t possible without thinking of the war. Every time we went to the Memorial Park, a favourite local hangout spot, I would see the Atomic Bomb Dome, the famous building that retained its shape despite being fairly close to ground zero. I liked to see the half-destroyed A-bomb Dome. In my eyes as a child it looked very mysterious and stirred my imagination. The broken walls seemed to remember the day as if it had happened just a couple of years ago.

I still remember the lyrics of a song we would sing in school. It was my favourite song:

Because I wanted to be reassured that I am still alive
I’ve been walking all along from Hiroshima city
My suffering is my word, my sorrow is my rage
I walked here, dragging my wounded body

When I cover my ears, there are voices I still hear
When I close my heart, there’s love I still feel

Fly paper crane, from me to you
Fly paper crane, from you to the world

I often imagined what it would have been like to be in the city at the time the bomb was dropped. Orange lights, explosion, suffering people – the scene I was projecting in my mind was vague but sufficiently disquieting. I would carefully put myself in the situation and think of how I would have reacted, what I could have done to maximise my chance of survival, and various scenarios of what could have happened to me.

I would imagine how the city looked after the bombing. This often left me puzzled. How was it possible that I was living in a city that was supposedly destroyed not very long ago? Why were my grandparents still alive? How did people survive after they had been affected by the bomb?

My questions were endless, but, looking back, some important questions were missing: why it happened and what we can learn from it.

I was barely six at the time and might not have been ready to understand the complexity of war, but as far as I remember, these questions were never really asked throughout my whole school education in Japan. People in Hiroshima told story after story, but they failed to provide the context necessary to understand the significance of the event.

The way they teach history in Japan can partially explain the lack of understanding of modern history. Both Japanese and world history were taught in chronological order and we would always run out of time at the end of the year; we never really had time to discuss modern history in detail. This system gets criticised a lot. Even my very basic knowledge of modern history comes from the books I read after leaving school.

Later in my life, I came to realise that Japan has a lot to think about World War II. Obviously, it was a very important turning point in Japanese history but, apart from its historical significance, the whole process of the war can be seen as a good case study of Japan’s opportunistic decision-making process. This may or may not be partially responsible for the catastrophe of World War II and it hasn’t changed much since the war.

People were telling stories in Hiroshima, but they were not reflecting upon the chain of events that led to the bombing. They were sending anti-war messages, but they didn’t seem to be interested in how they could actually prevent war from happening. People in Japan are by and large anti-war, but few seem to try to understand the complexity of war.

When we finished our bundle of a thousand origami cranes, we offered it to the Memorial Park where quite literally tons of contributed origami cranes were displayed. It took us a long time to finish them. I liked origami and would do it for fun but making hundreds of the same crane felt like real work. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t do unless someone else took the initiative. But there was something memorable about it – I remember it clearly after more than 25 years – and it represents my childhood in Hiroshima.

I still know how to make an origami crane; it’s like riding a bike – I can do it without thinking. I don’t think I will ever forget it.

But knowing how to make cranes isn’t really enough.

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Why Don’t Japanese Men ‘Appreciate’ their Girlfriends and Wives? – A lesson from a Japanese-French couple

Sho, a Japanese guy in his late twenties, met Lorie in Vancouver, Canada. Lorie was from France and she was studying there. Lorie, who was studying Japanese at the time, was interested in meeting Japanese people (and why not cute guys?) Soon after they met, they started dating.

They had to go back to their own countries at the end of the stay but they stayed together. After spending a while in a long-distance relationship, they ended up living in Japan together. Lorie had always been interested in Japan, so why not? Their life together seems to be going pretty well despite a few cultural differences. Or does it?

One might have a mixed opinion after listening to their interview on a podcast hosted by Anthony from GaijinPod. The interview went quite amiably but some people didn’t have good impressions of it. One blog comment caught my attention.

‘Am I the only one who feels like Sho doesn’t appreciate his girlfriend? He hardly can find things he likes about her. She seems so sweet. He seems to take her for granted’, writes a ‘western woman in Tokyo’. ‘What came across to me was a young lady totally in love and a Japanese man who thinks the Japanese way of life is the only right one.’

I found that comment interesting because I had a similar impression. For example, this is how they talk about their first impressions of each other:

Lorie: What was your first impression when you saw me?
Sho: Tall.

Anthony (host): What was your first impression of Sho when you met him?
Lorie: ‘Oh they look so young.’ But Sho looked so cool and, especially as soon as he started to speak English, I loved his voice. His English was so good, so I was impressed because many Japanese people are not so fluent. So I was like, ‘Oh he speaks so well and his voice is so cool.’ (Laugh)
Anthony: I think Sho is turning red!
Sho: (Sigh) You talk too much.

There is clearly a gap between their attitudes. Lorie was very appreciating from the start, but Sho only thought of something very general and factual.

What’s more interesting is Sho’s rather disapproving remark ‘You talk too much.’ It’s as if he doesn’t like her liking him.

Talking about showing affection in public:
Sho: If we hug in the streets people stare at us especially she’s taller than me and a foreign girl … like hugging a tree. It’s pretty embarrassing.

This is a very honest comment, but at the same time it doesn’t sound very nice. Couldn’t he have phrased it a bit differently?

Talking about why Sho has never visited France:
Lorie: You can say you don’t like France.
Sho: I don’t like France, not at all.
Anthony: Have you been?
Sho: No, but maybe I don’t like the food, and maybe people say that in Europe the weather is not good, and I don’t speak French …

Again, it’s not particularly flattering to show a dislike of your girlfriend’s country of origin when you don’t even really know much about the place and people.

Sho hasn’t been too talkative up to this point, but as soon as the host introduces a new topic about unfavourable elements in their lives, he takes over the conversation.

Anthony: When you started to live together here in Japan, what were some of the challenges you encountered, say, cultural challenges or misunderstanding…
Sho: She doesn’t take shower often.
Lorie: What?
Sho: Like, for Japanese, we take shower always before going to bed.
Lorie: It’s better in the morning. It’s cleaner.
Sho: Okay, okay. And I was kind of shocked that you don’t wash your hair every day. It’s cultural…
Lorie: Because it’s scientifically proved that it damages your hair if you wash it everyday.
Sho: I don’t know but for us Japanese we wash our hair everyday.

Lorie: I think everything went well. He’s a good cook and if I ask him, he’s gonna clean a bit. But yeah, I think you are a good room mate. But, we had a big fight and that’s the only thing.

Anthony: So did you guys have any other challenges when you came to Japan?
Sho: Yes, she’s not punctual. That’s a big problem really.
Lorie: But today, I was on time. It’s actually a miracle.
Anthony: I don’t think it’s Lorie specifically. That’s the French nation, Europe nation …
Sho: I hated it. Really hate it though.
Lorie: That’s our culture, being late…

Sho seems to be more comfortable focusing on Lorie’s undesirable qualities while Lorie is the opposite. She is happy to show her appreciation. This contrast becomes much more obvious when Anthony asks him to share things he likes about her.

Anthony: What are some of the traits that you guys noticed in each other that you do appreciate?
Lorie: I know, he’s kind of serious. You do important things well. I mean, he’s very talented. For me, it’s kind of my vision of Japanese people. They are talented for many things. I think he’s talented for so many things ’cause, like many Japanese kids when he was a kid he studied piano, calligraphy and a lot of things, so he’s good at everything. I love this.
Sho: Yeah…
Lorie: What about me?
Sho: I’m still thinking… I just need to say something why I’m staying with her right?
Anthony: You know the longer you wait to answer the more the problem that’s gonna cause for you later, right?
Sho: Eh… Oh, yeah, she really cares about Christmas and … hold on, I don’t know what to say. Uh …
Anthony: Well, compared to dating a Japanese girl what are some of the things you appreciate?
Sho: Uh … I don’t know … she … um … What did you say to me? What were my good points?
Lorie: There are so many good pints. I can make a list.
Sho: She’s really nice, and, uh … now I don’t feel comfortable with showing affection in the train or in the street but I actually like it and I think it’s something French and not Japanese. I can tell that she really cares about me and loves me.

Sho is really struggling here. If you listen to the podcast, you will hear a lot of pauses in his sentences. It’s so easy for him to point out things he doesn’t like about Lorie, but when it comes to good things, he’s lost for words.

‘Western woman in Tokyo’ seems right in what she says about Sho not appreciating Lorie. At least that’s what Sho appears to be saying. I initially had that impression too but, after giving it some thought, I realised something important: a lot of things Sho said would make perfect sense if he had said them in Japanese.

If the conversation had been between a Japanese couple in Japanese, Sho’s remarks would be nothing unusual. On the contrary, they would be socially expected. Overly complimenting your partner can easily be seen as boasting and not modest. It is customary to point out your partner’s shortcomings even if you are madly in love with that person and loving every single bit of life together.

Consider this conversation (imagine they are talking in Japanese):

First Japanese man: I heard you got married to a beautiful lady last year. You are so lucky!
Second Japanese man: No, no. She just wears a lot of makeup. She is no more beautiful than average-looking women.
Man 1: And they say she is very kind.
Man 2: Well, that may be true but she doesn’t have any housework skills. She started to learn to cook only recently.
Man 1: Oh, I know you are just saying that. You must really love your wife.
Man 2: Well, I guess …

The second man doesn’t sound as if he appreciates his wife, but with the right tone of voice and facial expression, he can totally convey that in fact he loves his wife a lot. Note that his ‘complaints’ are nothing serious. His objective is not to condemn his wife but not to appear conceited. A couple can be seen as his extension of oneself – Japan has a slightly different concept of individuality. In fact, not being overly complimentary is in itself a sign of a couple’s closeness. You will miss the gist of the conversation if you focus on the literal meaning of his disapproving comments.

Likewise, the following conversation is very unlikely to happen between traditional Japanese men:

Man 1: I heard you married a beautiful lady last year. You are so lucky!
Man 2: I know! She’s breathtakingly beautiful. Every morning when I wake up and see her face, I can’t help thinking how lucky I am.
Man 1: And they say she is very kind.
Man 2: I’m glad that you pointed that out. She’s the sweetest thing ever. When I’ve had a bad day at work, she attentively listens to my story even though she must also be tired because of her own demanding work.

While it is not true that Japanese men never verbally express their appreciation – they certainly do – it may require certain conditions for that to happen: the right kind of relationship, social settings and the amount of alcohol they drink.

If you consider the Japanese cultural context, Sho’s comments will make a lot more sense. He said ‘You talk too much’ because in his context, it is socially embarrassing to praise one’s partner like Lorie did. For the same reason, he was uncomfortable enumerating Lorie’s desirable traits. He had no hesitation in pointing out her shortcomings because that can be seen as a non-direct and non-boastful way of showing affection. The shortcomings Sho pointed out might be somewhat disturbing but nothing really serious; it was not his intention to disprove that Lorie is a worthy girlfriend, but to not appear full of himself.

All things considered, I don’t think Sho doesn’t appreciate his girlfriend. I am not the only one. Lorie, too, seems to have the same opinion. In reply to the ‘western woman’ she writes, ‘In reality, Sho is really sweet and caring 🙂 He was just kind of shy during the interview.’ She manages to go deeper than his apparent lack of appreciation and understands Sho’s good intentions. Lorie might be too fond of Japan and Sho to see the negative side of things, but it is fair to say that she is making a good job of appreciating Japan and its people. Lorie appears quite ‘mature’ to Sho’s mother, which is a good indicator that she fits the Japanese idea of maturity which is likely to involve the capacity to consider other people’s needs and understand the implicit meanings of their messages.

The important thing is that Lorie thinks that Sho really likes her (which I hope is the case) and Sho knows she’s quite into him. If the feeling is mutual, that’s all that really matters.

If you are interested in sex in Japan, I would recommend my new book There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan.

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