Runestad on Alexy and Cook, 'Intimate Japan: Ethnographies of Closeness and Conflict'

Allison Alexy, Emma E. Cook
Pamela Runestad

Allison Alexy, Emma E. Cook. Intimate Japan: Ethnographies of Closeness and Conflict. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2018. 284 pp. $68.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-7668-5.

Reviewed by Pamela Runestad (Allegheny College) Published on H-Japan (January, 2020) Commissioned by Jessica Starling (Lewis & Clark College)

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Scholars of Japan are all too familiar with the mainstream Anglophone media’s tendency to sensationalize and exoticize issues relating to intimacy in Japan. We are equally aware of the ways in which Japanese media outlets and politicians (who are mostly male and over sixty) decry young people’s lack of adherence to gendered ideals as the cause of Japan’s supposed decay as a nation-state. In their edited volume, Intimate Japan, Alexy and Cook, along with their ten contributing authors, take on this pair of problems of representation. Framing intimacy as physical, emotional, and informational (p. 5) and noting that public discussion of intimacy means it is never completely private, Alexy and Cook demonstrate that ethnographic research on intimate issues such as birth control, co-sleeping, and marital relations provide a window to sociocultural changes in human relationships (ningen kankei) in Japan. The editors identify eight intimacy-related themes that emerged from the collaborators’ projects on relationships: 1) families in a family nation, 2) heteronormative marriages, 3) queer, lesbian, gay, trans, and bi intimacies, 4) international marriages, 5) parents and children, 6) birth control practices, 7) paid intimacies and sex work, and 8) intimacy panics, and each chapter engages at least one of these key themes. Below I provide a brief description of key contributions of each chapter.

Drawing on six key interviews with high school students from three high schools, Yukari Kawahara describes how boys and girls from different social classes variously considered factors such as their future school or work plans, suitability of current partner as a spouse, and peer pressure when making choices about sexual intimacy in the 1990s. Both boys and girls considered condoms to be the responsibility of the boys, although many boys were uncomfortable with or unwilling to use them. Girls, particularly those not planning to attend university, were more likely to be sexually active and risk pregnancy if they considered current partners to be potential spouses. Because most boys planned to marry later in life than girls did, boys were unlikely to link sexual intimacy with marriage potential and were more likely to engage in sex in response to peer pressure. 

Shana Fruehan Sandberg’s chapter includes a succinct history of fertility regulation in modern Japan, which provides useful context for her analysis of unmarried women’s negotiations of birth control in Tokyo in the early 2000s. She argues that women, far from being uneducated or victims of oppression, rely on condoms, the withdrawal method, and the rhythm method because they require less preparation and are viewed as more natural than the pill. Moreover, supplying condoms and use of the withdrawal method are viewed as ways in which men accept responsibility for contraception; successful use of the withdrawal method in particular is viewed as a compromise and demonstration of men’s trustworthiness as intimate partners.

Laura Dales and Beverly Anne Yamamoto draw on data from the Japan Association of Sex Education (JASE) surveys and interviews with thirty-six single women between ages thirty and forty-nine whose lives did not follow the “typical” pattern of marriage and family to demonstrate that although a balance between sexual, romantic, and companionate intimacy in marriage has been idealized in the West, interviewees locate sexual and romantic intimacy outside of marriage. Put in the context of JASE surveys that indicate the rise in sexless marriages and low numbers of singles aged thirty and over who have “lovers,” the cases highlighted in this chapter serve as a reminder that romantic and sexual intimacy are often considered separate from marriage and reproduction in Japan.

Allison Alexy argues that the recent trend whereby counselors advise Japanese married couples to directly communicate their feelings of love is a departure from treating “love as air”—something that is assumed and unspoken, and a product of “mature love”—and indexes shifting ideals of self and spousehood in Japan as well as the variety in which Japanese choose to express themselves. Using the term “disconnected dependence,” Alexy describes postwar couples as having perceived themselves as two dependent halves of a singular unit (ittai) who led largely separate social and emotional lives because of their highly gendered roles; in contrast, contemporary couples are encouraged to recognize their separateness and connect emotionally (“connected independence”) in a bid to balance independence and intimacy.

Kaoru Kuwajima describes the ways in which survivors of domestic violence struggle to disentangle intimacy, love, and violence as they work with shelter staff on future plans. Rationale for staying in an abusive relationship—economic security, reluctance to break the family, fear of further abuse—is contextualized with national statistics that indicate one-fifth of married Japanese experience domestic violence (p. 114), and Japanese scholarly explanations that link such violence to gendered roles and concepts of dependence (amae). Noting that shelters focus more on case work and legal issues (divorce, debt, child custody) than therapy, Kuwajima describes how the act of writing a “chronological report of events” (p. 122) may simultaneously work to demonstrate abuse for legal purposes while also helping women recognize the extent to which they have been brutalized. Once on paper, it is more difficult for some to allow intimate feelings toward their husbands or hope that they will change to outweigh the violence they have experienced.   

Emma E. Cook analyzes the struggles of Naoki and Yoshie, participants in the 2008 documentary Japan: A Story of Love and Hate in the context of her ethnographic research on masculinity and economic precarity. Comparing conversations in the film to interviews she conducted in the course of her research, Cook argues that although shifts toward more temporary positions and fewer full-time, permanent jobs could in theory create space for Japanese couples to renegotiate gendered roles for work and intimate life, inability to adhere to gendered ideals of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers because of economic constraints is more likely to result in conflict and trauma than in renegotiation in practice.

Elizabeth Miles draws on participant observation at a “Smash Christmas” demonstration and a matchmaking event (machikon) to illustrate the ways in which young Japanese men explain their struggles to find love and get married. In the context of the demonstration, dating is expensive, competitive, and predicated on hierarchies of financial stability; in the context of machikon, love as an ongoing effort with another to person to build a relationship that also requires continuous self-improvement is viewed by some as a burden. It is clear from Miles’s work that men’s desires for intimate partners who accept them as they are—perhaps financially unstable and personality as-is—are at odds with the economic realities of work, costs of living in Japan, and society’s changing ideals of personhood and relationships as works-in-progress.   

S. P. F. Dale uses a subset of their data (five interviewees of twenty-five) to describe how the term x-gender has allowed nonbinary Japanese individuals to carve out identities for themselves in ways that dichotomous terms and assumptions about clear demarcations between gender and sexuality prevent. Such negotiation takes place according to scripting at the sociocultural level (gender assignment can only be changed after sex-reassignment surgery, Gender Identity Disorder has been a medical category in Japan since 1998, and media depictions of nonnormative sexualities still tend to be normatively gendered), interpersonal level (what identities and physical attributes people wish to explore), and intrapsychic level (fantasy). Thus, through Dale’s analysis it is possible to understand how x-gender helps, for example, a male-assigned, male-presenting person attracted to men assert their femaleness and reject classification as “gay” in their intimate life—and the stigma that may come with it.

Low adoption rates in Japan are often explained as reluctance to confer family status to those without blood ties. Kathryn E. Goldfarb problematizes this simplistic explanation in her chapter, arguing that more than a child’s “blood” per se, the Japanese people Goldfarb interviewed fear the situations from which a ward of the state came because their need for institutional care signifies a breakdown of familial structures and forms of intimacy. They are also uncertain about their abilities to raise a child as truly their own, and without framing difficulties as a result of the child’s past. “Blood ties,” which is a product of modernity and has had various meanings since its inception in Japan in the 1800s, has become a loose gloss for relatedness that is in part fostered by intimate interactions between family members.

Chigusa Yamaura examines the process of rendering brokered transnational marriages between Japanese men and Chinese women “ordinary” by companies and their clients to pave the way for intimacy post marriage. The normalization process requires attention to problems of perception (particularly since marriage between Japanese nationals who have met “naturally” is favored) and maintenance (since couples need to learn how to communicate and live together despite cultural and linguistic differences). Brokers focused on how social conditions such as marrying late necessitate brokerage over natural meetings, removing blame from the client. Marriage to a Chinese woman is often first broached when brokering a marriage to a Japanese woman proved difficult. Men were encouraged to see similarities between Chinese women living in Japan and Japanese women to better envision the former as potential partners. When men made this connection but still failed to find a match, they were encouraged to travel to China to increase their chances of finding a suitable bride. Brokers, who often offered services for newlyweds, tended to explain post-marriage difficulties in terms of gender rather than language or culture, thereby further “normalizing” difficulties as ones that any married couple would face.

Diana Addis Tahhan describes family intimacy in Japanese-Australian families in terms of sleep arrangements. Drawing from interviews with Japanese women married to Australian men, she notes the tendency for mothers to co-sleep with their children (as many women do in Japan) despite cultural expectations in Australia that they would sleep with their husbands. Interviewees stated that although their husbands understood co-sleeping as “Japanese custom,” they felt their husbands did not understand the deeper reasons why they did it. Women talked about sustained intimacy with their children through proximity and touch, and the primacy of their children’s needs over their husbands’—even when they said they had good relationships and good communication. 

The volume closes with a unique chapter that gives contributors a chance to describe their experiences with ethnographic fieldwork. This strategy allows the reader to compare methods employed by the contributors (participant observation in schools and women’s shelters, participation in online communities, analysis of a documentary, and reciprocity and strategic vulnerability in interviews, to name a few), while also keeping the focus on data and interpretation in the main chapters. For students of ethnography in particular, this chapter makes it clear that fieldwork is hard work that requires imagination, tenacity, and the willingness to question assumptions—not just about cultural norms, but about who can carry out what research, with whom, and in what conditions. Will Japanese women want to talk to foreign women? Will schoolboys open up to female researchers? Will strangers disclose private details in one-off conversations? Anthropologists can guess what will and will not be effective based on positionality and what they think they know about the study population, but they will not always be correct in those assessments and will have to adjust when it is clear that expectations and reality don’t match. Moreover, research itself is an intimate act and the levels and types of intimacy researchers experience with their interlocuters will vary. And finally, the quality of information gleaned from an encounter is not necessarily a predictable function of closeness. As Goldfarb discerns, “Sometimes the most intimate conversations happen with total strangers,” while “deep relationships with other interlocuters and my participant observation research helped put these one-off stories into context” (pp. 251-2). In summary, the work of each contributor and the volume are all the richer for the variation in intimacy they themselves experienced during research, and their reflexivity about it.

This volume is content-rich and includes groundbreaking work on difficult-to-study topics such as domestic violence, adoption, and decision-making about contraception, among others. William Kelly’s and Allison Alexy’s adaptation of Kawahara’s dissertation research is noteworthy, as is the inclusion of both Japanese and non-Japanese researchers at various stages in their careers. In other words, the contents reflect efforts to discuss intimacy from multiple vantage points, both in terms of topic and researcher positionality (the editors note that only female researchers accepted their invitations to contribute). The range of topics, depth of each chapter, and consistent organization/style from chapter to chapter make this book a good choice for an upper-level undergraduate course on Japan or ethnographic methods. Individual chapters may be useful for researchers with interests in related topics.

This volume could have been strengthened with the addition of a concluding chapter that returned to the themes outlined in Alexy’s excellent introduction. Putting these chapters and their authors in dialogue with one another—comparing, for example, the desire for more indirect understanding between spouses amongst Tahhan’s Japanese interviewees living in Australia compared with the encouragement of spouses to communicate their feelings directly detailed by Alexy—would have further demonstrated the diversity of forms of intimacy expressed by contemporary Japanese people. Chapter to chapter, this volume effectively problematizes multiple stereotypes about Japan, but I would have appreciated a clear bookend message (equivalent in strength to the introduction) that articulated how these chapters collectively debunk the rather tenacious myth of the homogeneity of the Japanese people, which is central to the two issues of representation that Alexy raises in the introduction. Otherwise, this is a fine collection and a strong contribution to anthropological studies of Japan and research on intimacy.





Citation: Pamela Runestad. Review of Alexy, Allison; Cook, Emma E., Intimate Japan: Ethnographies of Closeness and Conflict. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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