Shock Value

I have a new German student, an almost 60 year old man who wants to learn German because he loves Germany and would like to visit it at some point. We have been studying together for some two months now, and he is eager to make progress and he’s doing very well indeed.

We are using a brand new textbook a friend of mine has recommended, and there is one thing that keeps popping up that seems to shock him greatly every time it’s mentioned: Divorce. The first time it came up was in a scene were students showed family pictures: “Where’s your dad in that photo? – Oh, my parents are divorced.” Another time it was required when filling in a form: “Are you married? – No, I’m divorced.”

Destroyed Wedding RingBoth times, my student was rather shocked about the directness of the question and the answer. In Japan, this is not a topic to discuss with anyone, he says. He even claims that a question for marital status wouldn’t even come up in a job interview. Apparently, divorcees are seen as “bad” people, in the sense of “you can’t even get marriage right”, and it reflects badly on other plans or pursuits. According to my student, there is still stigma around being divorced, even though about 1/3 of all marriages in Japan fail.

Interestingly, most divorces in Japan happen upon mutual agreement, instead of in court. The paperwork is simple and can be handed in at the city hall directly by the soon to be ex-couple. Also, I have just found that the divorce rate was much higher back in the old days (before WW II), when women’s rights had not been implemented at all, and when men could simply send their wives back home to their families (children would stay with the father’s family, by the way).

I guess in Japan, the only acceptable marital status for an adult of my age is being married. Divorced is not good, never married makes you sound like a leftover, and I don’t think widowed would be a good option either, even though there might be less stigma attached to that one. So, it’s probably good that the Japanese don’t usually ask whether you’re married – they simply assume you are.

3 thoughts on “Shock Value”

  1. I wonder what your student has to say about same-sex marriage. That must be even weirder than a divorce for him. 🙂

    1. Actually, homosexuality as such doesn’t seem to be a big deal here. I am friends with a gay couple, one of them comes from a tiny village somewhere in Gifu, and they go home to his parents regularly. Doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. And samurai took male lovers all through the Edo period, at least before they got married – and before Christianity came along with the Meiji restoration. 😉

      As for gay marriage, it’s not allowed. I’m not sure whether it’s on the political agenda at all. But since people don’t openly talk about their private lives in general, I guess the government doesn’t see any need to change the law…

      1. I have only read a few articles on LGBTQA+ issues in Japan and what I gathered is that in general it’s not an issue since PDA is not a thing in Japan in general, but that families usually disapprove because of the whole marriage, producing grandchildren, taking your place in society thing… I know that in the past homosexuality was even encouraged because they wanted to keep birth rates down – or so I was taught at university 😉

        Actually, they can have something like a civil partnership nowadays… it’s not a marriage per se, but it grants them equal rights to married couples. I think it’s a fairly recent development, though. Maybe a couple of years…

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