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Letters from Japan: ‘Co-Sleeping And Sexless Marriages’

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
March 25, 2022
Ask Hilary

Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Send it to: askhilary@savvytokyo.com.

Hi Hilary. 

I’m an American woman in Japan. I saw this on Reddit and was wondering: why do Japanese people insist on co-sleeping with their kids? Like I’ve seen entire families sharing a bedroom in movies and TV shows, and heard of other people sharing a futon with their kids instead of their spouse until the child is nearly in middle school. Sexless marriages are already such a huge thing in Japan, doesn’t that make it worse? 

-Why Japanese People

Why Japanese People,

I’ve wondered about this myself for years, but never really put much research into it until now. I’ve never heard of anyone sharing a futon with their kids until middle school before, but I’ll take your word for it that it exists. I think that is an entirely different issue than co-sleeping, however.

Co-sleeping overseas is a hot topic for parenting groups, doctors and so on, but in Japan as many as 70% of Japanese infants and toddlers co-sleep with their parents. It’s been a tradition as far back as anyone can tell in Japan. Some studies have indicated that Japan’s overall low Sudden Unexplained Infant Death (SUID) rate is related to co-sleeping, although this is up for debate.

in Japan as many as 70% of Japanese infants and toddlers co-sleep with their parents

Soine (co-sleeping) is traditionally done in kawa no ji, or the shape of “川” (the character for river): mother on one side, baby in the middle, father on the other side. It’s meant to promote feelings of security and contentment between the mother and child, and hopefully the father as well.

Practically speaking, the main reason for co-sleeping in the modern era is related to housing. Most younger families start out in very small apartments where you might only have one bedroom for everyone. If there are two bedrooms, sometimes the mother moves into the baby’s room to keep an eye on them through the night and to prevent disturbances from disrupting the father’s sleep. 

Co-sleeping is also considered a good option because of emergencies, such as earthquakes. Some parents I know found that they went back to sleeping as a family in the post 3/11 years because they were worried about their kids’ safety. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, others found it was better to co-sleep as a family because it helped to keep everyone’s anxiety down.

“We pretended we were camping or would watch movies together as a way to unwind at the end of the day.” (American woman, 30s)

Co-sleeping is also considered a good option because of emergencies, such as earthquakes.

However, as you pointed out, having the entire family sleeping in the same room is a good way of ensuring that mom and dad do not create any new siblings for said infant. Or is it?

Apparently not.

“I don’t think it has any correlation.” (Japanese man, 30s)

Within the Japanese-only and mixed ethnicity couples I spoke to, the vast majority of them pointed out that they have showers, cars and love hotels in order to meet their needs.

“It’s more about planning to have sex and making it a priority instead of a thing that just happens.” (Australian woman, 30s)

“Taking my wife to a love hotel reminded us about our dating lives. I think that’s how we ended up with five kids.” (Japanese man, 40s)

“If you’re in a sexless relationship it’s not the kids or co-sleeping that caused it” (American woman, 40s). “Even without kids some people just stop being interested in sex at a certain point. It’s up to the couple to figure it out.” (Japanese woman, 30s)

There are dozens of reasons that marriages can turn sexless. Immediately after pregnancy, most women struggle with pain, hormone fluctuations, body image, childcare and scores of other issues that may make having any kind of intimacy uncomfortable, if not a source of stress.

Men, too, can experience hormone changes and stress that may make them less inclined to be interested in sex. Those struggles don’t get better once the pregnancy ends and, if the couple isn’t in sync regarding parenting and a number of other points, sex is typically the first thing to go.

There are dozens of reasons that marriages can turn sexless.

Older generations and people coming from traditional backgrounds have claimed that when a wife becomes a mother she no longer has any interest in sex or that motherhood has made her no longer someone to have sex with.

This has been used as an excuse for extra-marital affairs for generations but does not seem to be working with younger people.

“If all you wanted was sex, why bother marrying someone and having kids with them? That’s just dumb.” (Japanese man, 20s)

Younger generations, in general, are not having children, but those who do and have co-slept with their kids don’t see co-sleeping as being a barrier between the couple.

“We’d whisper to each other over the baby while they sleep, and sometimes we’d go to the other room to be together.” (Japanese man, 30s)

Even couples who married much later and had children later don’t see co-sleeping as being a barrier to intimacy.

“It was a struggle and we went sexless for a while, but we talked about it and when we were both in a better place, it was like our honeymoon all over again.” (Japanese woman, 50s)

Co-sleeping might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and turns a relationship sexless, but it’s not the only reason. Generally speaking, a lack of communication and a lack of effort by one or both parties is what brings a couple to that state. There is no one perfect solution to the issue, just as there are scores of factors that can cause a couple to end up sexless, but it’s not co-sleeping that causes it.

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