Monday, October 5, 2009

Talking about kids

As an English teacher in a conversation school that focuses on one-to-one lessons, I have plenty of opportunity to talk to Japanese people about any number of topics. While my students are hardly a representative sample of Japanese people in general, I believe I can get a good sense of how Japanese feel about any particular topic by talking to them.

Every now and then, a topic comes up in a lesson that makes me wonder something about Japanese culture and opinion that I don't know, so I ask students about it. A year ago, when such questions came up, I started to ask the same question of almost every student and keep track of the answers. Again, it's not even close to being statistically valid, but I do think one can draw general conclusions from such information.

A month ago, a 35-year-old female student told me that after seven years of marriage, she told her husband that she wanted to have a child. His response, delivered noncommittally, translates in English as 'is that so' or 'I see'. He added nothing more to his response, and she also said nothing more. To Westerners, I'd think, such a minimalist conversation about something so very important would be baffling, but for Japanese, it's not terribly surprising. Japanese are big on indirect communication, using subtext, tone, and body language to convey things they don't want to say clearly.

What did surprise me, even as a long-time resident who understands the culture pretty well, was that these two didn't have a reasonably clear understanding of what the wanted when they got together. In the West, I'd think that almost every couple talks about this before they get married, and even if they don't have a rock-solid agreement, they have a good idea of where the other person stands on the topic. My student said that before marriage she'd talked to her husband very little about it, and it had only been agreed that they would live for a few years without kids, after which the topic would presumably be addressed.

So, I asked many students this question: Did you talk to your future spouse about kids before you got married? (For unmarried students, the question was, do you plan to do so?) I gave them three choices: no talk, casual talk, and serious talk. I broke the students up into three categories: over 40, under 40, and not yet married (most of whom, naturally, are under 40). The results:

Over 40: no talk 9, casual talk 3, serious talk 2
Under 40: no talk 4, casual talk 2, serious talk 2
unmarried: no talk 3, casual talk 6, serious talk 8

Total: no talk 16, casual talk 11, serious talk 12

I did the age break because I expected the result that occurred: that older people would be less likely to have talked about it than younger people. When I asked the older people why they didn't talk about it, the answer was nearly unanimous: no need. Of course we're going to have children, why do we need to talk about it? The unmarried, who are the youngest group, felt that it was an important topic that needed to be discussed. It is true, of course, that many of my unmarried students are women in their mid-30s, and so would need to talk about it for another reason: to determine whether they even want to try to have kids, given the higher risks her age brings.

Naturally, it seems to me that not talking about this brings the risk of getting married and then finding out that your wishes are irreconcilably different (one student told me of a divorce she knew to be for just this reason). Granted, in Japan your chances of finding someone who wants a kid run 90% or higher, but why take a chance when it's so important? This led to another question, which I asked most everyone: Imagine that a couple, around 30, get married but never talk about kids. After a year, the subject finally comes up, and they discover that one of them firmly does not want children. They end up divorcing. The question is: are they equally responsible for the result, or is the one who didn't want kids more responsible, because he/she should have known his partner would think that if he/she didn't want them, he/she would have said something? Is the onus on the one who doesn't want kids to say something? The results: 23 said the one who doesn't want kids is more responsible, while 12 said they were equally responsible. (Interestingly, those who gave the minority response tended to be surprised that they were in the minority.) Age didn't matter; the percentage was the same for each age group.

Many things in Japanese culture are changing, but this one isn't changing much: it's expected that every couple will have at least one child, and if a couple goes childless, it's assumed that they tried but failed. 'Why didn't you have kids?' is a very personal question, and here should only be asked of someone you know quite well. When I tell my students that my wife and I are childless by choice, the normal response is, 'Don't you like children?' I joke that I like other people's kids just fine, but I find it interesting that people would assume that the reason for not having kids is that you don't like them, as opposed to choosing one lifestyle over another. I think most Japanese would find being childless by choice a baffling choice, thus their tendency to blame the one who neglected to mention their wish not to have children.

Part of my survey was about Japanese attitudes towards children, but part was about the fact that Japanese don't like to talk about serious topics, even ones that they really should talk about. For us, if we're in doubt as to whether to talk to our partner about something, the default tendency would be to talk about it. For the Japanese, the tendency is to not do so. You're supposed to know what the other person thinks about something, and it should only be necessary to say something if your opinion is different from the cultural norm. And, of course, your opinion shouldn't be different from the cultural norm.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't have a clue why this was so, or how it was possible, until I got to your last two sentences, hooking in the Japanese requirement to conform to the 'cultural norm'. That's really interesting, to see how that imperative can silently sit behind a couple's (lack of) communication on such an important topic.

    I'm wondering, now, about the myriad of other Japanese behaviours might have 'the cultural norm' sitting there, like the elephant in the room, on one side of the social equation.