Marriage for Economic Advantage in Japan & How Saving Face Impacts Job Loss

The norm in the West is that one should marry for love.

But imagine growing up in a culture where economic advantage was given priority.

This is largely the case in Japan.

History Repeats Itself

Prioritizing economic advantage in marriage is not unique to Japan and other Asian countries; in fact, it was once a Western norm, as well – and pretty recently, at that.

People were often coupled in European countries according to class and, thus, economic advantage.

If you’ve ever read a Jane Austen novel, then you know that locking down a wealthy suitor, preferably one with plenty of property, was much more advantageous to a young woman (and her parents) than finding someone she loved.

It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that “love marriages” were more commonly sought.

But Confucius saw it differently. He placed economic advantage above love, and in this, the Japanese agree.

Head of Household

One way in which Japanese society differs from the West is that women are more often the heads of household when it comes to finances.

While Japanese husbands have long been responsible for bringing home the bacon just like everywhere else, women are largely in charge of this bacon.

So, what happens when a man should lose his job in Japan?

Well, this is seen as a huge failure on his part – and a personal one, regardless of whether the firing was only an economical company decision.

Job Loss & Suicide Rates

Whereas in a love marriage, a wife would be expected to support her husband through such a crisis, in Japan, not so.

If a Japanese man loses his job, he also loses his social standing…and he may lose his wife too.

Because of the fact that the man would no longer be fulfilling the primary task in the economic marriage compact – making money – he would not expect support from his wife.

Instead, he might expect to lose honor, lose face, and feel the powerful shame that accompanies that loss. This is one of the reasons that suicide rates in Japan after job loss are incredibly high.

According to National Jobs for All Coalition:

“From 1953 to 2003, each 1 percentage point increase in the cyclical component of the male unemployment rate led to a 5.39 percentage point increase in the cyclical component of the male suicide rate. This effect is 38 times larger for Japan than for the United States.” 

Moreover, Japanese companies are very reluctant to fire staff, because of this societal loss of honor and the resulting shame. Layoffs, in fact, are considered taboo. So, instead of firing employees, companies may demote those who are ineffective but keep them on the payroll.

However, don’t consider this act too merciful; although they refrain from firing ineffective employees, they also try to make the office more uncomfortable for them – think smaller, windowless offices without air-conditioning. In fact, they have places called “boredom rooms,” where they essentially try to drive staff to voluntarily quit.

In this way, Japanese norms and values reverberate throughout their culture, with the need to save face permeating up into the very policies and procedures of company culture.

Next week, we’ll continue our tour through marriage in Asia by exploring the “marriage buyer’s market” in China.

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