Between Consenting Adults: Japan’s Incongruous Celebrity Sex Scandals

Society Culture

In the first few months of 2016, Japan’s weekly scandal sheets blew the lid off the sexual affairs of several well-known figures, forcing them to withdraw from public life. Comparative sociologist Sechiyama Kaku questions this ritual of public shaming for behavior that the law regards as a matter of private discretion.

First came the Becky scandal in early January. Biracial TV personality Rebecca Eri Ray Vaughan, known simply as Becky, was enjoying a phenomenally successful career in Japan until a weekly magazine pounced on evidence of an affair with married rock singer Kawatani Enon. The exposé triggered a media feeding frenzy and led to the cancellation of Becky’s numerous commercial contracts and scheduled TV appearances. She is now on indefinite leave from show business.

The tabloids’ next victim was Miyazaki Kensuke, an up-and-coming Liberal Democratic Party politician who had attracted notice in late 2015 by announcing his intention to become the first Diet member to take paternity leave. In early February, a weekly magazine reported that Miyazaki had spent the night with a model just days before his wife, also an LDP lawmaker, gave birth to their first child. It was not sufficient penance for him to leave the party; on February 12, Miyazaki announced his resignation from the lower house.

A similar fate befell Ototake Hirotada, a noted writer, journalist, and advocate for the disabled. In March, a different weekly accused him of infidelity, prompting him to issue a public apology on his official website and take an indefinite leave of absence from public life. In a move that heightened the controversy, his wife took partial responsibility and apologized for “causing a public uproar.” But this raises an important question: If the couple has reconciled, what is the public in an uproar about?

Extramarital affairs occur in every society. But how each society views and treats them sheds important light on its attitudes and mores. With this in mind, I would like to look at current attitudes in a historical and international context in an effort to understand the contemporary Japanese media's preoccupation with extramarital relationships.

The Crime of Adultery in Prewar Japan

Before World War II, kantsūzai, sometimes translated “criminal conversation,” was a punishable offense. The crime was applicable only to a married woman who had sexual relations outside of marriage, or to the male partner in such a relationship, and it was the sole prerogative of the “wronged” husband to press charges.

In the context of prewar Japan’s rigid patrilineal ie (family) system, adultery by the wife was seen as a serious infraction, since it could lead to a situation in which a child conceived outside of a marriage improperly succeeded to the property and position of the household head. This perspective explains the lopsided prewar emphasis on female chastity. For men, by contrast, multiple partners in the form of concubines or mistresses were insurance that the male line would continue. Accordingly, extramarital relations between men and unmarried women were viewed neither as a crime nor as a serious moral infraction. In this way, patrilineal systems are linked to conservative attitudes regarding women’s sexuality and a double standard in attitudes toward male and female behavior.

After the war, this blatantly unequal provision of the penal code was deemed unacceptable. There were two options for redressing the inequity: make adultery a crime for married men and married women equally, or remove the crime from the penal code altogether. Japan chose the latter course. By contrast, South Korea and Taiwan (both former Japanese colonies) chose the former option and introduced provisions making adultery a crime for husbands and wives alike. These laws have come under harsh criticism on the grounds that the state had no business interfering in consensual relationships.

On February 26, 2015, South Korea’s Constitutional Court finally put the issue to rest by declaring the nation’s anti-adultery laws unconstitutional. Although the majority of citizens and commentators welcomed the law’s repeal, there were dissenting voices—one comment widely disseminated online suggested that with so many welcoming the ruling South Korea could turn into the “Republic of Adultery.”

Japan’s civil code, meanwhile, treats infidelity as a breach of faith and grounds for unilateral divorce. Unlike the crime of adultery in prewar Japan, this provision applies equally to men and women, embodying the modern familial norm of mutual fidelity between husband and wife. Infidelity is also grounds for claiming compensation in the event of divorce.

Strains in a New Era of Diversity

After World War II, as love matches grew increasingly common, Japan embraced monogamy as one of the governing principles of the modern family. Along with monogamy came social mores—applicable to men and women alike—that sanctioned sexual relations only within the framework of marriage. From this standpoint, not only affairs involving married women but also those between married men and single women (including prostitutes) were deemed improper, regardless of their legality.

Of course, sexual mores do not change overnight, and the double standard of the ie system, which tolerated infidelity by men but not by women, persisted in some sectors of society. This led to the condemnation of adulterous relations in Japan as a manifestation of male privilege and female subjection—an idea still heard both inside and outside the country.

In a February 8 article in the online edition of the British daily The Guardian, Justin McCurry claimed that Becky’s fall from grace exemplified “Japan’s harsh treatment of its female entertainers.” This interpretation is difficult to justify, given the equally harsh treatment of Miyazaki Kensuke. (It is true that Becky has received more attention and criticism than her male paramour, but then, she is much better known.) Nor is it possible in today's Japan to view infidelity as a male privilege and a violation of women's rights.

Japanese society has moved beyond the patrilineal ie system, and it is fast moving beyond the monogamous norms of the modern family as well. For the past 18 years, Japan’s divorce-to-marriage ratio has surpassed 30%. This means that numerous married couples are awaiting divorce at any given time, and extramarital relations during that phase of marriage are not at all uncommon.

In 1999, public broadcaster NHK conducted a nationwide survey on sexual behavior and attitudes. It is now more than 15 years old, but it remains the only such Japanese survey conducted in a reliable manner using random sampling.

Of those respondents who said that they had had sexual relations within the past year, 13% of women in their twenties indicated that they had had relations with someone other than their partner. For women in their thirties, the corresponding figure was 10%; for men in their twenties, 25%; and for men in their thirties, 15%. About 70% of those respondents indicated that they had not had relations with anyone other than their partner, while the remainder chose not to answer. These are the most recent reliable figures we have, and it seems fair to assume that the infidelity rate in Japan has risen since 1999.

The modern family was built on the ideal of a mutually binding, sexually exclusive relationship between a married couple. But these foundations are weakening, and the clearest sign of their decline is the prevalence of extramarital affairs.

How Different Cultures View Adultery

The 2013 Global Attitudes survey carried out by the Pew Research Center asked adults in 40 countries their opinions on the moral acceptability of extramarital affairs. Among the respondents, the French were conspicuous for their tolerant attitude, with just 47% labeling affairs morally unacceptable. Next came Germany, with an “unacceptable” response rate of 60%. At least 90% of respondents in each of the Muslim countries surveyed considered infidelity unacceptable. (Only Egypt is shown in the table below). Among American respondents, 84% branded extramarital affairs unacceptable.

Moral Views on Extramarital Affairs by Country

(percentage of survey respondents)

Unacceptable Acceptable Not a moral issue
Egypt 93 2 4
US 84 4 10
S. Korea 81 8 8
China 74 8 12
Russia 69 7 9
Japan 69 12 14
Spain 64 8 27
Germany 60 11 26
France 47 12 40

Source: Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes survey, 2013.

In Japan, just 69% deemed extramarital relations unacceptable. (In South Korea, the corresponding figure was 81%.) Some might argue that this number is too high, given how frequently Japanese marriages survive a bit of infidelity on either side. But if one uses the public reaction to celebrity sex scandals as a barometer, it is surprisingly low.

A Matter of Personal Choice

Although Japan’s civil code regards infidelity as grounds for divorce and monetary compensation, the criminal code adopts the position of respect for self-determination in sexual matters. This suggests that the key criterion for assessing the acceptability of sexual relations is the consent of the parties involved, not their marital status.

To apply this principle consistently, we should treat coercive sex as rape—a criminal offense—regardless of whether the perpetrator and the victim are married. By the same token, if infidelity is neither illegal nor a violation of women’s basic rights, adulterers should not be forced from office, banished from television, or subject to any other form of public ostracism or humiliation.

This is not to suggest that we should all cheat with impunity. Certainly adultery can have negative consequences. The behavior of Miyazaki Kensuke was particularly unfortunate, since it has made it far more difficult to seriously address the issue of paternal leave. (Although Japanese law guarantees parental leave to male and female employees equally, it is very rare for men to take advantage of it, and Diet politicians are ineligible, since they are not classified as employees.) The point is that infidelity is an interpersonal problem to be settled by the individuals involved, not by social sanctions or other outside interference.

Whether or not a marriage or other relationship should be sexually exclusive is a decision for the individuals involved. People can continue to maintain sexual exclusivity in their own relationships if they wish. But they have no more right to impose their sexual values on others than to enforce the dietary laws of their own religions on people of other faiths.

Sexual preference is a basic right, and so is sexual privacy. This is why it is impossible to condone a situation in which public figures are forced to hide in the wings or retire from public office solely because of their private behavior.

In the case of Miyazaki Kensuke, the person who will suffer most from the tabloids’ scandal mongering is the couple's child, whose name will be forever linked to this sordid incident, simply because he had the misfortune to be born to two public figures. What gives the media the right to cast a shadow over the life of a blameless child by willfully turning a private marital conflict into a rite of public humiliation? This is simply irresponsible journalism.

Until we learn to respect one another’s diverse attitudes toward sex, people will continue to suffer needlessly from social sanctions grounded in outdated norms.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 11, 2016. Banner photo: Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Miyazaki Kensuke announces his resignation from the lower house at a February 12, 2016, press conference following revelations of his affair with a model. © Jiji.)

media NHK adultery sex scandal