No School Dance
One thing they have in North American high schools that they do not have in Japan is the school dance. It’s a significant occasion and venue for the sexes to socialize and it seems to play a rather significant role in North American mating rituals - on a par with cruising in cars. (I say “seems to” because I never attended a school dance when I was growing up in Canada, so I did not participate in such mating rituals. My ideas about school dances come mostly from watching American movies, so I could be terribly wrong about everything.) Still, the sexes don’t mingle here like they do in North America.
Typically, to my eye and the eyes of many other North Americans who work or have worked with young people in Japanese schools, the sexes appear markedly less mature in their adolescent years than their peers back home. This is largely due to the fact that when they are wearing the mandatory school uniform they unavoidably look younger than similarly aged persons in America who attend school wearing make up and accessories, and their own choice of clothes. But it is at least partly a reflection, I suppose, of the place and importance of cuteness in Japanese esthetics, culture and manners. (One student actually told me once, in English, that it was important to be cute in order to “appeal” to others. That was his own word.) And it may also reflect the comparatively smaller degree of individual independence experienced by Japanese youth. Japanese rely on their mothers for much longer than North Americans, to the extent that many children never leave home even after marriage thus leaving the multi-generational home a staple of traditional Japanese culture. So for such reasons people here may appear less mature to a foreign eye. (Remember that group reliance and harmony, not individual independence and eccentricity, are the social ideal here. That does not mean that there are not independent, strong willed, eccentric Japanese types, or that such types never prosper. There are such people here, and some of them do prosper. But as a rule the social engineering in effect discourages that kind of personality. The same could be said about North America. But I think that a stronger case can be made for the opposite suggestion, that culture in North America actually encourages such personalities. If not that, then it is certainly easier for such people to prosper in America than in Japan.)
When it comes to adults I propose that the observation of immaturity remains true. I mean, it might be said that Japanese adults continue to behave in an immature fashion by North American standards, and in less than generous times I have sometimes felt agreement with the observation attributed to General Douglas McArthur that the average Japanese adult is like a 12-year-old American. The relationships of the sexes are still reserved and often segregated beyond what I expected when I arrived here. Physical affection like kissing in public is practically unheard of. But even casual affection like holding hands, although far from rare, is much less than common. If I see a male/female high school age couple holding hands on the street or in the train I must admire them for their bravery. If I see a middle aged or elderly couple walking and holding hands I admire their comfortable familiarity.
I understand and sympathize with the Japanese concern with size because I’ve seen Japanese men in the bath.
The situation is such that professional matchmakers still exist and prosper in Japan. (Fortune tellers too, which could be the topic of another essay.) Their job it is not so much to arrange dates and to arrange introductory interviews based on personality profiles - and even family history research. It’s quite formal. It sounds odd, but mating discrimination is widespread and culturally deep, and singles can find themselves single for a long time if they or a family member has a frowned upon medical condition, a legal history of any kind, or perhaps an ancestor from an undesirable social class, etc. (Tales of discrimination against the Japanese “burakumin” class - traditional leather workers and waste handlers - are legendary.)
How then do adults become acquainted with the opposite sex and eventually meet their mates? The matchmakers do their part, of
course, which accounts for only a small fraction of introductions. Mostly they do it the old fashioned way by chance meetings, and often by introduction through siblings (the case of my in-laws). At the college/university level the sexes mingle much more than they do as adolescents in high school, and many people meet their future partners in college classes, or college clubs, or at their post-graduation jobs. I know a single Japanese woman in her 30s. She frets a little about her situation, and since we are familiar in a friendly way through our work I counseled her that to meet a man she has to frequent a supermarket, or a gym, a library or a laundromat. She should attend church or a temple, or else join some kind of club. Meeting a compatible man at her work seems unlikely because I think her problem is partly that she is too educated, too smart, and too independent to attract a lot of Japanese men. As a near fluent English speaker with an outgoing personality and broad knowledge of the world it is easy to conclude that she is better suited to a foreign man. But I could be wrong.
Because of growing demographic problems - the aging population, the declining number of teenagers and working adults, the overall decline in population and the potential implications for the economy, the slow emptying of the countryside as more and more people flock to the cities, the nascent crisis in social security and health insurance, the declining birthrate, shrinking size of the average family, rising age of first marriage and first pregnancy, plus the numbers of permanently single adults and permanently underemployed adults - sex relations and gender policy have moved from the supermarket magazines to the mainstream newspapers, and now to the federal cabinet policy committees. The government here is endlessly fiddling with child care policies, or maternity/paternity leave proposals, or family allowance payments as mechanisms to address the declining birthrate. None of these addresses the primary reason for fewer children and declining population, which is that it is just too darned expensive to have children in Japan. But no one in authority wants to, or can admit that, and so each new (doomed) whimsical idea dreamed up by an out-of-touch, elderly male politician is announced in the press as a brave new population/family initiative. The latest that I read about in The Japan Times newspaper this month was that the government will now commence certifying matchmaking agencies. Perhaps they want to standardize things for maximum efficiency in the hope of optimum results. Until now, matchmakers have usually been grannies using their own initiative, inspiration and social network to bring young people to the marriage bed.
Personally, although I consider all the demographic issues that I listed above less as “problems” than as opportunities, I still understand and sympathize with the Japanese concern with size. (I’ve seen Japanese men in the bath.)
Are Japanese missing anything by not having school dances? Not really, I think. Would they be better off or more comfortable mixing with the opposite sex if they had? Who knows and who cares? Are school dances important for any reason at all? No, not really. Those reasons make the school dance idea akin to other gender policy ideas that have been floated, and so it qualifies or meets the standards of Japanese politicos.