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.

What Makes a ‘Face’: Losing Face, East vs. West

When you hear the term “losing face,” more often than not, you associate it with Eastern cultures. But people of every culture have “face” that they can either lose or save.

Basically, “face” is pride, esteem, and reputation, which is interpreted and determined in different ways, depending on the culture in which you live. Face is, in short, the idea that you must behave or achieve in a certain manner to preserve your image. What makes up your “face” and how to “save” it depends on what your culture values.

Face: East

Tradition is greatly emphasized in Eastern cultures, and face can be had by birth (i.e. if you were born into a family of status or wealth).

Last week, we talked about how collectivist societies tend to value group harmony over individualism. Personal ambition or success is much less important than improving the whole.

This prevents individualist characteristics from being fostered from youth. For instance, I’ve been told by Chinese students that they receive lower marks or fails on essays or exams if they contradict the teacher’s opinion or the culturally accepted sentiment on any given topic, no matter how well argued. For this reason and for similar standards set during primary socialization, you find fewer who will “rock the boat,” so to speak, in collectivist countries than you might in their capitalist counterparts.

Individualism is considered much more radical in places like China. It is not embraced, and those who are unconventional and break the mold are thought to be aggressive. Due to the fact that harmony is of the utmost importance to collectivist cultures, anyone considered disharmonious would lose face under this set of cultural values.

Face: West

Western cultural values lie in individualism and independence. They’re also geared toward innovation and so embrace change more readily over tradition.

And in the West, you must earn your face. It isn’t given to you. Even if you’re born into a wealthy family or a family of status, more often than not, you must prove yourself to establish a face.

To make your face, you must make yourself. And to do so in an individualist culture, you must stand out from the crowd. You can do this through professional/personal success or achievement, status, wealth, etc. And once you obtain a certain level of recognition, whether in your town or nationwide, whether in your company or your industry, you must reassert your voice regularly to maintain face.

What can make a Western person of stature lose face?

Disgrace can. Disgrace paramount to much of what is going on in America right now, with sexual assault and harassment scandals knocking down titans of entertainment, politics, and industry. This is just one of the things that can make a Westerner lose face.

Can Face Be Restored?

Face can be restored only through drastic measures in collectivist cultures. In the East, once one’s reputation has been damaged, it’s nearly impossible to recover. As put by sociologist Marcel Mauss, in such cultures, “to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit.” It’s better to avoid such face-destroying conflict, altogether.

In Western cultures, if face is lost, it can be more readily restored. In fact, many cheer comebacks, and the restoration of a good reputation might even be considered inspirational by some.

Whether face is restored or not, the loss of it cuts deep in any culture.

Next week, we’ll continue contrasting Eastern and the Western values by discussing the differences in social power structures and business culture. Stay tuned.