One of the things the Japanese media love to discuss is kazoku no hōkai (家族の崩壊, collapse of the family) — an evergreen topic that’s been around since the late 1960s, a time when most urban Japanese families could first afford a television. Academics and tarento (TV personality) commentators would come on the air and warn that Japan’s sacrosanct family life would fall into ruins from excessive Westernization (and too much TV). No one paid attention, of course, they were too busy fueling the rapid-growth economy, or being mesmerized by Godzilla and Yomiuri Giants’ baseball games.

Besides, the kazoku seikatsu (家族生活, family life) in Japan was never much to brag about. My own experiences consisted mainly of dodging the iraira (イライラ, irritation) and frustration of the otōsan (お父さん, father) while dealing with the sengyōshufu (専業主婦, housewife) stress of the okāsan (お母さん, mother) until I could find a tiny recess in our cramped house to read manga and relax before one or another of my brothers came around to yell at me. All my friends had similar experiences and the unspoken feeling was: Konna mondayo(こんなもんだよ, this is just normal).

The Japanese never had much use for kindness when it came to family and relationship issues. Work and status always came first, supported by a centuries-old gender discrimination system designed to hoist the bulk of household maintenance onto the shoulders of women.

Until as recently as the 1980s, omiai (お見合い, arranged marriages between families) were common among shinkon fūfu (新婚夫婦, newlyweds) outside Tokyo. Even now in the very traditional areas in Kansai and Kyushu, couples are reluctant to tie the knot unless their families approve and the bride-to-be has been diagnosed as kenkō de kodomoga umeru karada (健康で子供が産める身体, healthy and capable of producing offspring). Marriages were about function, longevity and sekentei (世間体, the face one shows to the world), and Western notions of love and personal happiness were kojyareta seiyōshikō (こじゃれた西洋志向, newfangled Western notions). My own mother used to say: “Chokinmo naiyōna otoko ni shiawase wo kataru shikaku wa nai (貯金もないような男に幸せを語る資格はない, a man without a sizable bank account has no right talking about happiness).” Nice one, mom.

Consider that, until the immediate postwar years, parents sold their daughters to sexual slavery for a chunk of cash. In the 1970s, close to 20 cases of patricide were reported per year (currently it stands at 10). When one half of a couple is found dead under mysterious circumstances, it’s almost always the spouse who’s responsible. Though Japan ranks 46th in the world in terms of rikonritsu (離婚率, divorce rate), 1 in 3 couples divorce and the saikonritsu (再婚率, remarriage rate) is dismal.

My oldest brother likes to observe: “Nihon no onna wa otoko ga iranai (日本の女は男がいらない, Japanese women don’t need men). He has become a kind of foreign guest in his own family: his wife and two daughters exclude him from kaigai ryokō (海外旅行, overseas trips), gaishoku (外食, restaurant outings) and family discussions about schools and events. “Marude hōmu-sutei shiteru kibun (まるでホームステイしてる気分, It’s like I’m staying with a host family),” he says. After work, he hits his favorite local izakaya and the place is packed to the gills with ojisan (おじさん, middle-aged men) in the exact same predicament. They all clink beer steins and watch whatever game comes on the built-in TV screen. Everyone is happy.

So this kazoku no hōkai thing works for us. The Japanese rarely get upset over the lack of love; we all know that lack of funds, resources and onsen (温泉, hot springs) are much more crucial. “Ishoku tarite reisetsu wo shiru (衣食足りて礼節を知る, A person only knows civility when she or he has enough clothing and food),” goes an old saying and it’s probably true. No one expects much from family in terms of emotion or passion — we look to “kaigai dorama (海外ドラマ, Western TV dramas)” for fulfillment in that area. Yay for “Desperate Housewives.” Yay even more, for “Desperate Housewives” viewed in an onsen ryokan (温泉旅館, hot springs inn).”

And let’s not forget that reigi (礼儀, politeness) and omoiyari (思いやり, consideration) yield the most mileage when navigating the fukuzatsu kaikina (複雑怪奇な, weirdly complicated) network of Japanese relationships. But add love into the equation and the whole thing may sputter and die. “Fūfuwa tsukazu hanarezu ga yoi (夫婦は付かず離れずがよい, it’s best for a married couple to keep a reasonable distance from each other),” is a maxim that has been around since the Meiji Era, as is “teishu tasshade rusu ga ii (亭主達者で留守がいい, it’s best for the husband to be healthy and absent from the household).”

I once asked my father what makes for a happy life in a Japanese home. He didn’t hesitate when he answered: “tanshinfunin (単身赴任, going alone to a far off work-place without one’s family).” He said it without sadness — it was a simple fact. In his view, trouble begins when you dare to pretend otherwise.

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