Monday, 30 September 2013

There It Is

2.    And you give yourself away

I’m talking about class, of course. We can dress it up in words like ‘socio-economic group’ or ABC1s or whatever, but that’s what it basically boils down to. My parents were both teachers, her dad was a civil engineer, we both have post-graduate degrees and this fact is, to our families and immediate circle of acquaintances, nothing special. Dual-income, 2.4 children, nice house with a garden and foreign holidays on a fairly regular basis. We are quite definitely, smugly, appallingly, middle class. The mothers yelling at their kids in the supermarket are not.

And this is what I’ve found – the reverse peacock, an example of something that’s relatively moderate in Japan but has been taken to extremes elsewhere. It’s not that the UK is obsessed with class, so much as we’ve just acknowledged its existence, whereas many other places like to pretend it isn’t a thing at all. It’s not that the class system in the UK is unique, just that (join in if you know the words) it’s been pushed so far that it looks like something completely different.

By contrast Japan is often touted as an entirely middle-class society, which is demonstrable bollocks. At the height of the Occupy movement there was a trend for highlighting the relative salaries of Japanese CEOs and shop-floor workers in comparison to their US counterparts. While the greater parity is laudable, class isn’t just about money (though even if it is, there are actual numbers which cast Japan in a less benign light). I think class is, ultimately, about expectations; or if you want to be more critical about it, it’s about entitlement.

An ex-girlfriend (the one with the CD player, you remember) was the first of her family to go to university. That wasn’t why our relationship failed (in retrospect that was largely down to me being a bit of a dick), but it was another potential area for discord. In the final analysis we were just expecting different things from our lives; her family felt she’d achieved great things because she’d passed her A-Levels with flying colours, whereas by doing the same I’d merely achieved what was always expected of me. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it was doomed solely because of that, nor trying to belittle either her or her expectations (or indeed me and mine); at that point we’d both achieved exactly the same things with our lives, pretty much, and in a perfect world would have been able to have similar expectations about where we could go from there. Unfortunately this wasn’t that case, and all these background differences add up – ethnicity, culture, education, income, family background, even age; they all contribute to our senses of self and what we expect of our lives, and the more these differ between partners the more potential for discord there is within the relationship.

Potential is the key word here. It’s not definite – far from it. In fact a few differences are essential to keep any relationship interesting enough in the long term, but there’s a tipping point. If you’ve crossed two things off that list then you’ll be fine, but as the number of differences grows, so too the potential for incompatible expectations (it also helps if you don’t act like a dick).

I’ve seen a fair few relationships, and even more unhappily marriages, between foreigners and Japanese people fall down because of exactly this. Ethnicity and culture are the most obvious items on that list so they get all the immediate attention, but 9 times out of 10 if a relationship goes sour it’s because they didn’t recognise the class differences, and thus differences in expectations, between themselves until it was too late to do anything about it cleanly. And you’ll have noticed that ‘education,’ ‘income,’ and ‘family background’ are all really just proxies for ‘class’. If you’re a college educated, middle-class white boy and your girlfriend is a Japanese high-school dropout who hostesses on the side, well... I wish you the very best of luck but don’t hold out much hope, I’m afraid.

Not the sort of thing you'd want the servants to see.

I should make it very clear that I don’t think such relationships are necessarily doomed, merely that the dice are loaded against them, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything inherently more worthy or laudable about the middle class than any other. Additionally, the only reason I’m using the ‘educated gaijin male, uneducated Japanese female’ example is that it’s the most common in my experience (other ill-fated relationship models are available). They both get so blinded by the immediate exoticism of their partner that the other compatibility checks they’d run almost automatically get overridden, and I’m sure we could all claim a few occasions when those checks have failed us completely even without all that cultural fog clouding the issue.

My wife is Japanese because I was single in Japan and statistics are a powerful force, but once you’ve stripped away race and culture our life experiences and goals share more points of similarity than difference. That was never a conscious calculation on the part of either of us, we just got very lucky. I will be eternally grateful for this, never more so than when another one of our friends seeks consolation for a break-up from an obviously unsuitable partner and then says something like, “You’re so lucky. I could never marry a foreigner, we’d just be too different.”


  1. We are of one mind, again:

    "I've seen too many 'international marriages' flounder, not because of the national differences, but because of class differences. You subconsciously peg everyone from home by their speech, or the way they dress. You know exactly where they have come from. Going to take you a while to figure that out in Japan, especially if aren't learning any Japanese."

    1. Yep. In combination with that conversation with my wife this post is also indebted to your musings on the subject. One of the links should be to yours by way of a tip of the hat. If not I can only apologise for the oversight (I wrote this a while ago and am too lazy to check ;)

  2. Entitlement and expectations, yes... I know I'm often hard on those who choose to be my partner (for however brief a time...), and it all comes down to expectations on my part. I expect things from people that most would find nutty. But, those are my issues. The idea of class being a factor in how I've been judged by people here during the last ten years has weighed on my mind. I find it hard to maintain friendships with Japanese men my age, even when we have much in common. I figure they pretty much see me as a fuck-up and ultimately not the kind of foreign guy they're willing to bring into their larger circle of friends. Yet, I know a couple of foreign people who've shit on those same Japanese people behind their backs, yet manage to maintain ongoing friendships with them. And, yes, those foreigners are quite successful careerwise. Most of the girls I've had extended relationships with here have been pretty nutty, so it's no wonder why they left their wagons hitched a little too long with a foreign slob like me :)

    1. Dunno about 'not wanting to admit a fuck-up', it seems to be a fairly recurring theme that foreign guys find it very hard to form decent friendships with Japanese men. I have no idea how to even begin processing that observation, but I guess a lot of it comes down, as ever, to how willing you are to 'play the game'.

  3. I definitely see this dynamic here. To me, things are pretty successful so far and only getting better. To my wife, we're at the bare minimum and in constant danger of living in a dishwasher box in a local park.
    Her next biggest complaint after that appears to be nose hair.

    1. You're getting off lightly there if so. Very lightly indeed ;)