Western understanding of sexuality and relationships in Japan is often colored by media consumption. This is inevitable – learning about other cultures through their artistic output is, in itself, a good thing.
However, the relatively small selection of Japanese media consumed in the West only tells part of the story. The accurate picture is more nuanced and influenced by day-to-day, pragmatic concerns that we don’t typically see as outsiders.
The prevailing perception that cheating in Japan is considered less “serious” than in many other cultures is an excellent example of this. Relationships and marriage in Japan have evolved over centuries and have been influenced by different social concerns and practicalities than in Western societies. Is it a surprise that perceptions of fidelity may not have amounted to the same status quo?
This article will cover everything you need to know about cheating in Japan.
We move through:
- The history of marriage and relationships
- The influence of class and religion
- How modern social trends shaped contemporary relationships
- The role of fidelity within marriages and the family unit
Relationships, Marriage, and Fidelity in Traditional Japanese Culture
Japanese culture has used marriage in some form for well over 1,000 years. Similarly to in early Western societies, the primary purpose of marriage appears to have been to establish and consolidate bonds between families for mutual social gain and elevation in rank.
The early concept of marriage may have been influenced by Chinese Confucianism, an important cultural force in early Japanese society. Even this early, we can identify a critical fact in the unique development of cheating in Japan – its early society borrowed many themes from Confucianism. Still, strict monogamy wasn’t one of these.
Confucian marriage traditionally implied total and lasting sexual fidelity (especially for Japanese women). This concept didn’t gain traction in early Japanese society, where marriage was often impermanent and could be redressed to suit new social or political goals.
Marriage in Japan
Social mobility and improving a family’s standing remained at the forefront of Japanese marriage for a long time. However, romance and love were acknowledged as valid reasons for marriage throughout the centuries. They continue to be essential concerns today.
During the Meiji period, a more formal difference emerged between omiai (arranged meetings) and ren’ai (love matches).
Omiai was a custom that started among the landowner classes and trickled down through Japanese society. It described a meeting between two intended parties, typically a formality in the broader context of an arranged marriage. The meeting was supposed to let the intended lovers get an idea of their partners, but usually, the marriage would proceed regardless of misgivings.
Ren’ai described a love match, where the suitors brought the case for their marriage to their families. This type of match was perhaps less common than omiai matches, as the sexes typically grew up apart from each other, and chances for meaningful contact were sparse.
The custom of formal matches was part of a broader view that marriage was a functional institution designed to unite families rather than individuals. As such, finding sexual partners outside of a marriage may have been a priority for Japanese of both genders if ren’ai was impossible for them. We cover how sexual fidelity relates to a marriage’s perceived “success” below.
Japanese Relationships and Class
As with many societies, formal marital traditions began with the upper classes and were later emulated by the wider population. Given that social mobility was a primary motivator for Japanese marriages, class played a significant role in determining who could marry whom (and how happy the married couple might be with each other).
Marriages between members of the aristocracy created a relatively small pool of permitted suitors for high-born individuals. The purpose of a match was to consolidate political and social influence. So the extramarital activities of married aristocrats might often be overlooked so long as their marital duties were performed.
Marriage and Social Mobility in Japan
As most matches aimed to marry into a higher rung of society, martial partners would typically be chosen from a different group than the friends and acquaintances that Japanese people might have grown up with.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, wives were increasingly considered an “accessory” of marriage. Married women were expected to prioritize the needs of their husbands’ families above their own. Meanwhile, married Japanese men were encouraged to consider their parents and children more important than their wives.
Japanese weren’t permitted to marry foreigners until 1873. Marrying a foreigner required a Japanese to forfeit their social status, contrary to Japan’s broadly accepted purpose of marriage.
There are distinct similarities between how social standing and marriage were historically treated in Japan and the West. However, Japan’s social class concept is significantly more nuanced and pervasive than in most Western countries. This may have impacted the understanding of cheating in Japan considerably – it may have created a much wider gulf between the romantic and the social.
Japanese Relationships and Religion
In non-Christian countries, things have often evolved differently. Around the world, religion has had a significant influence on how fidelity is treated. In the Western Christian tradition, infidelity (especially for women) has broadly been considered an act of sin and a betrayal of a contract.
Perhaps the most striking difference between cheating in Japan and infidelity across most East Asia is that the Japanese never fully adopted the Confucian understanding of marriage. Chinese Confucian thought perceived marriage as a monogamous bond between a man and a woman. This thinking spread across many East Asian countries and influenced how marriages developed over the centuries.
Japanese marriages didn’t follow this pattern. Especially in early times, they were perceived as convenient for cementing bonds between families, but fidelity wasn’t always seen as necessary – this depended on the families and individuals concerned.
Buddhism & Shinto
Buddhism is Japan’s largest spiritual belief system, while Shinto is the second most practiced. Historically, neither Buddhism nor Shinto explicitly prohibits the idea of “cheating” because marriage wasn’t considered a fundamental concept to either belief system.
However, it’s worth noting that traditional Buddhist beliefs have often considered sexual activity a hindrance to belonging to the material world. Conversely, Shinto (a polytheistic system) has broadly considered sex a creative act and something to celebrate.
Both belief systems have been essential parts of Japanese society for hundreds or even thousands of years. Still, this distinction may have significantly influenced attitudes to fidelity among different population sectors.
Christianity arrived in Japan sometime during the middle of the second millennium AD. It was outlawed in 1612, but after the country “opened up” to the world in the 19th Century, Western cultural influences inevitably carried Christian overtones.
It’s debatable how much Christian orthodoxy has influenced perceptions of cheating in Japan. Only a tiny segment of the population practices Christianity. However, an influx of Western media carrying Christian-influenced ideas of romance and fidelity may have affected some contemporary perceptions.
Cheating in Japan: Meiji-Era Perspectives
The Meiji era oversaw the end of Japan’s self-imposed period of isolation. It also saw stricter, more codified laws and belief systems about marriage and cheating, especially for Japanese women. This may have been due to the influx of Western thinking and repressive ideas about a woman’s role within a relationship.
A Meiji-era law stated that a husband had the right to kill his wife and her lover if they were discovered committing adultery. This law was rescinded in 1908 but described how harshly female infidelity was treated during the period.
Divorce laws during the Meiji period strongly favored the husband for adultery and every other reason. This had been the case for centuries, but women wishing to obtain a divorce in this period gave rise to a burgeoning feminist movement. Divorce laws gradually evolved throughout the 20th Century.
The Salaryman and the Housewife: a 20th-Century Story
Shūshin koyō is a concept that emerged at the end of the Meiji era. It describes the lifetime employment contract common among Japanese companies for most of the 20th Century. In return for unparalleled job security, a Japanese man (or a Japanese woman, in some cases) would commit their future to a single company.
Japanese working hours were incredibly long during the 20th Century – even around 2000, 6-day weeks of 12-hour shifts were very common. The husband’s typical role in marriage was that of a salaryman who provided financial stability, even if that required spending long hours away from home.
This developed parallel to the conventional role of the dutiful housewife who raised 2-3 children, kept the home tidy, and was responsible for cooking, shopping, and other domestic activities.
These roles bear a striking resemblance to their 20th Century U.S. counterparts. However, they arguably fitted more naturally with the traditional Japanese understanding of marriage as a contract of convenience, compared to marriage’s more “romantic” associations in Western culture.
The romantic, Christian associations of marriage in the West meant that despite working long hours apart and having little communication, Japanese wives and husbands were nonetheless expected to remain sexually faithful to each other. These expectations weren’t always achieved, perhaps hence the soaring divorce rate in the U.S. during the 20th Century.
Consider a more pragmatic Japanese understanding of marriage as a family-based bond rather than a sexual, romantic extension of dating. There may have been more space for extramarital partners who fulfilled that role while allowing both married individuals to fulfill their responsibilities to the family.
Is Cheating Considered Acceptable in Japan Today?
While Japanese attitudes towards fidelity may differ from those in the West, it’s worth remembering a simple principle:
There is no hard-and-fast rule about “cheating in Japan” or reliable cultural consensus. Broad Japanese attitudes towards extramarital affairs may differ slightly from those in the West, but this should never be taken as a given. Any “arrangement” depends on the individuals involved.
A betrayal that harms a loved one, undermines your family’s stability or generally negatively affects anyone is considered unacceptable. You should never expect any accommodation of any kind from any person if you cheat on them.
Cheating as Deceit
Deceit with disregard for another is still considered deceit. Love-based marriages and relationships are prevalent in Japan today. These often have similar fidelity bonds to relationships in the West, and breaking those bonds will have the same consequences.
When we speak of “cheating in Japan”, we’re arguably using the wrong word. “Cheating” always implies a covert affair with the intention to deceive. At the same time, “cheating” in this sense happens in Japan, just as everywhere else; a better question is whether attitudes towards extramarital affairs are different in Japan.
Cheating as an Arrangement
Questions from Westerners about cheating in Japan typically refer to articles that suggest that cheating is more widely accepted in Japan than in other countries. This isn’t a nuanced way to approach the question, as it indicates that all relationships fall under the same category.
In reality, these articles refer almost exclusively to a “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” rule that is sometimes tacitly negotiated between married or established couples. It typically takes the form of a practical arrangement that acknowledges a couple’s struggles with fulfilling each other’s desires. This could be because of long work hours, a marriage of convenience that was never romantic, or loss of sexual interest in the other after years of marriage.
The most significant responsibility of any such “unspoken agreement” is that the infidelity doesn’t cause harm. It doesn’t embarrass anyone, it doesn’t create conflicts of interest, and it doesn’t involve an outright betrayal of a loving partnership.
Notably, it also shouldn’t lead to a situation where one party expresses a desire to leave their partner for the subject of their affair. This would violate all unspoken rules around preserving a healthy, happy family and fulfilling responsibilities.
This Isn’t Unique to Japan!
The same situations occur in the West, and almost identical arrangements are formed between partners in the U.S. and Europe. These have been a feature of Western marriages for centuries – the main difference is that they’re more explicitly frowned upon by Christian-influenced doctrine.
People have found themselves in marriages that don’t give them everything they need for millennia. People have found ways around this for millennia. The nature of these “workarounds” can only ever be understood within the context of an individual marriage. This is just as true in Japanese culture as it is in the U.S.
Is Cheating in Japan More Common Than in the West?
When one speaks of “cheating in Japan” being more acceptable than in the West, it describes a cultural perception rather than a difference in behavior. Statistics from 2020 suggest that around 27.5% of men and 21.7% of women in Japan have cheated on a partner in the past. Meanwhile, a U.S. survey from 2017 reported that 20% of men and 13% of women in the U.S. had previously cheated.
However, the divorce rate in the U.S. is significantly higher than in Japan. None of these statistics provide practical conclusions about marital happiness or attitudes towards cheating in the U.S. or Japan – they simply inform us that, as ever, the picture is far more complicated than we can understand in generalizations.
Is Cheating in Japan Ever Considered Part of a Healthy Relationship?
Sexual infidelity happens in Japan, just as it does everywhere else. The reasons behind infidelity are always complicated, and this is even more true when infidelity is part of an “agreement” between long-term partners.
We’ve highlighted numerous factors in Japan’s history and cultural development that may have brought about different attitudes towards “cheating” compared to the West. The difference lies in whether sexual fidelity is considered an important component of trust. However, the upshot is always the same; a long-term relationship is built on trust.
Below we consider the factors that affect how cheating in Japan may be perceived.
Sexual Fidelity Between a Married Couple
Sexual fidelity is typically considered much more important in “love matches,”, especially in their early days. As time passes, families grow, and each party finds less time for romance, it could be seen as more natural to seek sexual gratification elsewhere.
Partners may reach a tacit agreement about this as the marriage cools down. The perceived benefit is that it helps maintain a stable life for the children and wider family.
Impact on the Family
The families of both individuals are typically critical in Japanese marriages. An extramarital affair that caused embarrassment to either side of the family would be considered unacceptable. This applies especially to affairs with a romantic element and might lead to divorce, as this is both embarrassing and expensive for the wider family.
Extramarital activities that impact a couple’s children are also considered disgraceful. If an affair was to serve any purpose, it should be for the ongoing stability and happiness of the family – disturbing a child’s upbringing is the opposite of this.
Impact on Outside Perceptions
“Sloppy” affairs are looked down on in Japan. If one member of a couple is indiscreet or even boastful about their affairs, it creates a certain image of the family to outsiders. This could negatively impact the family’s reputation and embarrass parents, children, and other parties.
Discretion and dignity are prized assets in Japanese culture, just as in the West. Failing to provide your partner and your family with dignity because of sloppy behavior (e.g., public drunkenness or boastfulness) is seen as reprehensible.
In Summary of Japanese Cheating Culture
In practice, there are almost no differences between cheating in Japan and Western cultures. The main distinction would seem to be the Christian marriage tradition, which suggests that a couple should be each other’s primary source of support in all ways. Japanese culture has no such proviso, and it’s perhaps less expected that one person can reasonably take care of all their partner’s needs all the time.
As with families worldwide, Japanese couples have found ways to “make it work” down the millennia. There’s never a block cultural attitude to subjects like marriage, fidelity, and cheating – only the individuals live out those relationships.