Friday, March 17, 2017

Marriage, Japan, and Manga

I recently started watching the Japanese drama Tokyo Tarareba Musume. It is a show about three women in their 30's who are desperate to get married before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The show is what some in the alt-right would call “red-pilled” in that it shows how hard it is for women to quickly find a suitable husband after partying away their 20’s. The show’s protagonist, Rinko, suffers a number of indignities as she learns that she has hit “The Wall,” and cannot attract high status men as easily as she once could.

When Rinko is in her early 20’s, her moderately successful male coworker, Hayasaka, asks her to start a relationship with him. She turns him down quickly because he is not terribly stylish and she figures she’ll find a much better man eventually. In the show’s present, the 30-something Rinko still works with Hayasaka, who has now been promoted to the level of Producer and is still single. Rinko is still a relatively low level script writer with a career going nowhere fast. Rinko now dreams of Hayasaka asking her to marry him and start a family. Instead Hayasaka takes Rinko out to dinner only to ask her advice on how he can start a relationship with a much younger girl who works in the same office. Rinko is of course crushed and briefly considers suicide.

While it is a bitter pill the show is still basically a comedy. I could not help but compare it to Nigehaji which I recently reviewed. Both shows I think have good social messages because they present marriage in a generally positive light and encourage women to be realistic. The best way to see this is to contrast the attitudes of the two female protagonists.

Rinko is a typical spoiled city girl who greatly overestimates her own talent and attractiveness. For this reason she dismisses perfectly decent men for trivial reasons. In fact we see her dismiss a handsome bar owner later in the series because he asks her to change her hairstyle. Her attitude toward men is basically, “How is this guy not perfect? Where is there a flaw I can use to disqualify him?” Her resulting loneliness is her own fault. We may even experience some schadenfreude when men now choose to casually dismiss her the same way she dismissed them.

Mikuri from Nigehaji has the opposite attitude. When she works for Hiramasa as a maid she has numerous reasons to dismiss him as a potential mate. He is nerdy, antisocial, cold, kind of skinny, and generally unmanly. Yet instead she comes to see all of his good qualities – his earnestness, his intelligence, his suppressed desire to love and be loved. Hiramasa is reluctant to start a relationship, even suggesting Mikuri find her own boyfriend at one point saying it is her “free choice.” Mikuri is annoyed with this, eventually throwing the words back in his face and making him decide to either start a romantic relationship with her or not. Mikuri did not want to be free. She wanted Hiramasa to claim her and she convinced him to do it with a lot of patience and work. While Rinko never considers for a moment that maybe she isn’t entitled to better than her respectable coworker, Mikuri works hard to prove her worth to her geeky employer.

In Tarareba, Rinko eventually does start a relationship with her coworker Hayasaka. While a lot of men might not love this (Yay! The girl who dissed me ten years ago is now ready to let me wife her up! Lucky me!) I think since this is a story written by and for women, it is a reasonable development. Rinko has been humbled by her experiences and is rewarded for her self-knowledge. Ultimately it is meant to advise women on the danger of being overly picky. Not all women can expect their Hayasaka to still be waiting for them. (***Update: The TV series ended recently and Rinko and Hayasaka do not stay together. The series ends with Rinko single and still seeking Mr. Right with her two friends***)

Hayasaka and Hiramasa are representative of typical Japanese guys. Neither is rich or especially handsome, but they have ordinary virtues – maturity, diligence, and kindness. In a healthy society guys like this have no trouble getting married. So why are Japanese men struggling? Sure, the ladies might be pickier but by and large they want to get married. Childless after 30 is still frowned upon in Japan, even if it is becoming more common. So while fastidiousness is an issue on the ladies’ side, I think another big factor is lack of incentives for men.

The character of Kazami in Nigehaji has a great quote about why men ought to avoid marriage: Nakute komaranai mono wazawaza kau? It means, “Why go out of your way to buy something you can live without?” He’s basically saying that men do not actually need women, especially not in the age of casual sex and abundant internet porn. He perceives marriage as nothing more than a loss of autonomy. And that’s not even considering the legal risks which are even worse in the western world. Women have limited fertility. Marriage grants them children, a provider, and higher social status, in most cases. What is in it for men?

Both Nigehaji and Tarareba put some effort into answering this question, particularly the former. Keep in mind that both are stories written by women. In Nigehaji we see not only the practical benefits of having a housewife (spotless house, healthy home-cooked meals, etc.) but also the love and companionship that invigorates Hiramasa’s life. Furthermore the role of husband is presented as something respectable and honorable. Both Rinko and Mikuri (and I’d argue most Japanese women) are seeking a leader more than an equal partner. They want the man whose babies they produce and whose last name they take to be someone they admire. I’d wager most men want to feel that from their wives – gratitude, respect, admiration. Contrast that with American TV, where often the role of husband and father is presented in a very negative fashion.

While in theory there may be good reasons for a man to get married, it ultimately comes down to finding the right partner. With the existing social systems that is a tall order. One thing that did occur to me though is that Nigehaji’s idea of a ‘Contract Marriage’ could be a good solution. The contract forces Mikuri and Hiramasa to be up front about their expectations for their married life together. Both the man and woman know exactly what they are offering and exactly what they are getting. This might be a good paradigm in a society like Japan where people by and large still want marriage. I think if more Japanese guys could see the benefits clearly enumerated in writing we would see more of them giving it a shot.