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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