Office romance in Japan – how it has been evolving in recent years

By Michael Hoffman
Photo: tuaindeed / iStock

How simple life was, “once upon a time!” Men were men – i.e. warriors, breadwinners, office executives, wielders of power and exploiters if not abusers (without meaning any harm) of women, who were homemakers, geisha, courtesans, office clerks, vulnerable and (outwardly at least) yielding. For 2,000 years the framework held firm against, while adapting to, vastly varying circumstances.

The late 20th century shook the framework, the early 21st toppled it. So if now everyone is a little at sea, the reason is clear enough: the rotten old order collapsed and good riddance to it, but how are men and women to behave toward each other now? Nobody quite knows.

Weekly Playboy (June 26) considers the office romance. A mainstay of postwar Japan’s corporate culture, it typically saw a male junior executive on upward career trajectory dating, often under senior management nudging, a female outer-office clerk, an “office lady” or “OL,” who after the wedding or during her first pregnancy would gracefully retire to full-time wifehood, motherhood and perhaps also, somewhat uneasily in many cases, daughter-in-law-hood, in fulfillment of her supposed feminine destiny, or assigned social and corporate role, depending on how one looked at it.

Gender equality was unknown and largely unthought of before growing restiveness in the 1970s and early ’80s led to the passage in 1985 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. If gender, sexual and power harassment are still with us a generation later, the law at least can be credited with raising consciousness of these evils, and most young men, it seems safe to say, are at pains at least to appear sensitive to and supportive of women’s claims to equality and dignity. Thus, in Playboy’s poll of 200 men aged 20-50 who in the last five years have had an office romance, 30 percent say yes, before embarking on the relationship they were sensitive to, and presumably on guard against, the potential in it for “harassment.”

 Office romance in this day and age? It seems anachronistic, a relic from bygone times, as indeed it is – among the 5,000 men who were the survey’s first respondents, 75.94 percent had not (in the past five years) engaged in one; but that leaves 24 percent who have, and Enon Tanaka, President of the Japan Gokon (group dating) Association, reminds Playboy that the office is still, notwithstanding the recent proliferation of and excitement over smartphone “matching apps” and such novelties, the likeliest place for men and women to meet and get to know one another. What’s left? she asks, quite reasonably: “Almost everybody is almost always either at work, or on the way to work, or home from work.”

Playboy offers us this happy story of a 29-year-old regional finance company employee who, in his role as two-year mentor to new staffers, congratulated one in particular on her performance, which led to a shared drink, a shared meal, shared intimacy, and a relationship that proceeds untroubled and fulfilling to this day. Did he fear, when asking her out, that he might be crossing the fine line into harassment? He certainly would have been if the woman had felt a refusal would mar her professional prospects.

 Not at all, the young man replies. “As a matter of fact, it was she who asked me.” Well – that’s different! An interesting variation on that theme: 30 percent of Playboy’s respondents are younger men dating older female coworkers. If that doesn’t altogether eliminate the harassment issue, it at least dampens it – the older woman is likely to be the dominant partner, the younger man the eager acolyte; the vulnerability, if any, may indeed be on the male rather than the female side.

What better balances a happy tale than a sad one? A man now 31 joined his Fukuoka manufacturing company straight from college; a female colleague confided in him over some work-related trouble, closeness at work led to closeness elsewhere and eventually to marriage. The wedding was a rousing office party that got the young couple off to a merry start and off they sailed – only to founder on rocks.

 “The fact is,” says the man ruefully, “she’s better at work than I am.” She produced, he stalled; she rose, he languished. In her shadow at work, he slipped into her shadow at home too. Work or home, “there was nowhere I could feel at ease.”

 They split and divorced. That got them out of each other’s way at home. We’re not told how they deal with each other at work. It must be awkward for both of them. It’s a recurring problem in office romances. They don’t always last. And when they don’t? There are probably as many answers as there are couples to whom the question applies.

 Japan’s come a long way since 1985. Behavior that was standard then seems gross now. Men no longer relate to women as lords to vassals. Yesterday’s lords are today’s gentlemen. “Harassment” is as readily comprehensible in Japanese as in English, and no one wants to be branded a harasser.

 The COVID-19 crisis may be speeding things along that road, Playboy suggests. The isolation it imposed made us lonely and it made us think – about death, which was suddenly close, about love, which was in retreat. Even now, with the worst apparently over, “people are gentler and more considerate with each other,” says Tanaka  of the Gokon group. “The merest cough elicits instant concern: ‘You okay?’” We’re evolving even as we speak.

© Japan Today

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How simple life was, “once upon a time!” Men were men – i.e. warriors, breadwinners, office executives, wielders of power and exploiters if not abusers (without meaning any harm) of women, who were homemakers...

Hate to disappoint you Hoffman, but this is still the reality for many of us. My wife chooses to stay at home and care for the kids while daddy has to bring home the bacon. But I get you, couples of today are a different breed than those in the past, like Showa era couples; however, that old lifestyle is still prevalent and I don't think Japan wants to completely let go of it.

7 ( +11 / -4 )

I love these weekly playboy tabloid articles. They pose a question and answer it with their premise immediately with their out own curated evidence.

I agree there’s nothing wrong with office romance. In general though isn’t the whole idea of “if it doesn’t work, it’s awkward after” a constant theme around the world though. The fear of it being misconstrued as harassment though can be fixed by you know… not having a weird approach.

still the article touched on the bigger issue with dating outside your daily circle. Everyone is either at or going to/from work. Not a lot of options on the average day. Gotta go for it if you can!

6 ( +6 / -0 )

exploiters if not abusers (without meaning any harm) of women

What a shameful thing to write.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

“people are gentler and more considerate with each other,” says Tanaka  of the Gokon group. “The merest cough elicits instant concern: ‘You okay?’”

Oh come on! That's not consideration for the other; it's concern for self.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Most men are afraid to even compliment a women on the color of her dress nowadays,much less ask for a date, in case the are accused of sexual harrassment.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

A lot of variables here. It can be fine, or it can be bad.

On the whole, it shouldn't be encouraged and ideally wouldn't happen, but that's easier said than done, especially if people have limited opportunities to meet people elsewhere as in Japan.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Playing with fire,I am in dilemma,with a couple women at a bank ,one probably do not care if I show up again,the other woman would be extremely pissed off at her co worker ,if she is the reason I am staying away

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

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