At midnight every night, Shoko Ohara, a 39-year-old construction company employee, drives to the station to pick up her hard-working husband Takeshi, an engineer. The two chat during the 10-minute ride to their suburban home, and while Takeshi takes a bath, Shoko warms up his dinner in the kitchen. She then goes upstairs to their roomy bedroom and falls asleep in a comfortable double bed — where she spends the night alone.
Throughout their 13-year marriage, the couple has rarely slept in the same room, except for a few months after moving into their upmarket house in the city of Okegawa, Saitama Prefecture, for which they specially purchased the double bed.
In the two years before that, they took turns sleeping in a single bed in the bedroom and on a futon in the tatami room in their apartment. The new double bed was spacious and comfortable, but soon Takeshi began sleeping separately, either in his study next door or in the tatami room downstairs.
At first, Shoko was a little surprised when she woke up in the morning and found Takeshi had not come to bed. “But I just accepted it,” she says. “I thought he was just falling asleep while watching videos.”
Ten years passed and separate bedrooms have become part of the couple’s married life. “Now I think I’m lucky to be able to stretch out comfortably in the big bed,” Shoko says. “It’s good for my health, and I can get my beauty sleep.”
A surprisingly large number of Japanese couples are sleeping in separate rooms. A survey of 1,500 men and women by Asahi Chemical Industry Co. (which, in addition to producing other products, designs prefab homes) showed that 15 percent of the respondents slept apart from their spouses. Even among those sharing bedrooms, 40 percent said they had wished, at some point during their marriage, that they had separate bedrooms.
The survey found that the reasons are varied. Spouses of people who snore or kick in their sleep want to rest free of such annoyances. Other couples cited different sleeping schedules. Some people simply want to read books and watch videos while in bed without worrying about waking their partner. Others cited different preferences of room temperature.
A newly married 26-year-old respondent wrote, “My husband and I slept together at the beginning, but I moved to the living room to escape his snoring. For a nurse, getting a good night’s sleep is essential.”
Husbands in exile
For married couples with children, the practice of sleeping separately is a widespread custom. In a country where mother-child bonding is considered very important, most mothers sleep with their newborns, leaving fathers with two options: join the group or sleep in a separate room.
Yoshiyuki Hirano, a 35-year-old gas company employee, chose the latter. For the first few months after his wife Michiko gave birth to a girl two years ago, the couple slept together as usual in their two-bedroom apartment’s main bedroom, with the baby sleeping next to them in a baby bed. But they soon found the arrangement inconvenient, Hirano says.
“Our small bedroom was too cramped with the baby bed,” he said. “And the baby cried every two hours. It was really hard for me.”
Some couples return to sleeping together again when children are old enough to have their own rooms (in many cases due to lack of space), while others just continue sleeping separately throughout their lives.
Couples in the latter category used to be reluctant to tell others about their sleeping arrangements, out of fear that people would think their marriage was on the rocks.
The new wave of separate sleepers, however, aren’t necessarily estranged. Ohara and her husband get along very well, she says. Although they are not as passionate as newlyweds, she says they do love each other.
Furthermore, she says, they still have a sexual relationship. “You might think it is odd, but he visits my room several times a month,” Ohara says. “Afterwards, he just goes back to his own room.”
Some couples go one step further by spending most of their time at home separately, in a dormitory-style living arrangement with private rooms for both the husband and wife as well as the children.
Noritaka Sano, a 62-year-old company employee, has been living this way for the last 15 years. Upstairs at his home in the city of Yokohama, Sano and his wife occupy separate rooms, next to each other. Surrounded by a TV, a study desk, a golf set and books, Sano spends his weekends reading and watching TV. He meets his wife in the dining room at night, when they chat over dinner.
When Sano first said he wanted his own room, his wife looked a little sad, he recalls.
“At first she seemed to suspect that I was having an affair. But she had had an operation for colon cancer, and I thought sleeping together wasn’t good for her health,” he says. “We raised children together, but at some point I think it’s good for each of us to pursue our own lifestyles.”
A mixed blessing
Although separate bedrooms do help couples to avoid unnecessary conflicts and give each other space, Yuko Shinohara, a lecturer at Japan Women’s University who has studied the sleeping patterns of Japanese couples, feels couples who sleep apart are in fact more vulnerable.
In her 1991-92 survey of 1,800 female readers of the magazine Fujin-Koron, Shinohara found that more than 30 percent of women who slept apart from their husbands had seriously considered divorce at some point, while the figure was only 13 percent for women who slept in the same room as their husbands. She also found that women who slept apart had less physical contact with their husbands, were less satisfied with their husband’s participation in child rearing, and were prone to regard the husband as “a roommate” rather than “a partner.”
“It may appear that separate sleeping arrangements help married couples stay together, but often it just buries the real problem,” Shinohara says. “The more personal space you have at home, the less priority you may put on working on your relationship with your spouse.”
Warnings such as these, however, may not be heeded, especially since house manufacturers appear to be endorsing the trend. Last year Daiwa House Industry Co. marketed a home with separate bedrooms, targeting middle-aged and elderly couples. Architects are also proposing similar house plans with private or semiprivate rooms for both husband and wife.
For wives who want to have their own rooms but are hesitant about broaching the topic, this trend is a blessing, says architect Reiko Wakabayashi. “There is a tacit understanding in society that couples have to sleep together,” she says. “We are breaking that taboo. There should be many different sleeping arrangements for different couples.”