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How Ashley Madison Pulled Back the Curtain on Japan’s 'Infidelity Economy'

The explosion of “affair dating” website Ashley Madison in Japan is proof that infidelity is rife in the country. And maybe that’s a good thing.

by Jonathan DeHart
Jun 16 2014, 6:24pm

IMAGE: ASHLEY MADISON

Sex in Japan has made a splash in the media recently, this time via the explosion of Ashley Madison, the world's largest "affair dating" website. Ashley Madison's success in Japan has pulled back the curtain on the widespread adultery in the country, where the approach to marriage seems to accommodate infidelity.

According to Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman, the site's success world-round is proof of a simple, if hard to accept, fact of humanity: "We're not monogamous. We pretend to be. We pay lip service, but we're not, and we have proof that we're not. So let's stop pretending," Biderman told Motherboard.

Love or loathe him, Biderman knows what he's talking about. A friendly former lawyer with quick answers, "the king of infidelity" dispenses facts on the widespread breakdown of traditional marriage with good cheer. To date, more than 25 million members across 38 countries have crafted profiles on Ashley Madison, complete with their age, physical traits, location, and a description of what they're seeking. Men pay for credits to write emails, initiate chats, and send virtual gifts to women, while women join and navigate the site for free. The model is working; last year the company raked in a profit of $40 million, while reaping a revenue of $125 million, up from $100 million the previous year.

The popularity of the controversial matchmaking site is especially explosive in Japan, Ashley Madison's fastest growing market worldwide. Japan broke one million members on the affair site faster than any other country: in just eight months. There are now over a million men and women with profiles on the clandestine hookup site in Japan, a country that prides itself on social status and proper appearances.

"Infidelity exists in every culture, but there are nuances. And they're sizable," said Biderman. But nowhere are these nuances more pronounced than in Japan, where the "infidelity economy," as Biderman calls it, thrives alongside a culture that strongly emphasizes marriage and raising children.

"Japan actually has a healthy appetite for sex. They just go about it in a really dichotomous kind of way and make it hard for themselves."  

The historical roots of Japan's approach to marriage can be clearly traced. According to Jennifer Robertson, Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan, "monogamy was introduced in the first modern Constitution/Civil Code of 1890 after the fall of the feudal shogunate in 1868 and the formation of a constitutional monarchy thereafter."

Until the penning of the nation's postwar Constitution of 1946, adultery was solely defined as a crime committed by married women. "In addition to giving free reign to men's sexual desires, this one-sided, punitive definition of adultery was rationalized as a way to prevent confusion about the paternity of a married woman's child," Robertson said.

That's neither fair nor a recipe for romance. But in Japan, Robertson says, romance "is not at all the main motive for the legal institution of marriage, which brings two extended families into alliance, enables the marriage partners to achieve 'social adulthood' and is the only sanctioned context for reproduction, which in turn ensures the continuity of the household lineage."

This intensely practical attitude towards marriage often confounds the Western media. From coverage of the "herbivore men" trend to the BBC's documentary No Sex Please, We're Japanese, a widespread meme suggests Japanese have all but stopped doing the deed and are content to sit back and watch their population implode.

The reality on the street tells a vastly different story. Standing outside any one of the nation's estimated 30,000 "love hotels," the unending stream of couples—some married, some not—doing their best to slip in and out undetected is telling. Or stand on a random corner of Kabukicho, Shinjuku's red light district, and watch throngs of tipsy salarymen file into establishments pandering to everything from flirtatious chatter (hostess clubs) on down the erotic spectrum to "soapland" establishments and sexual massage parlors that make up the country's massive and highly visible multibillion-dollar paid sex industry.

Kabukicho, a red light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Image: Japanexperterna (CC BY-SA)

"I think Japanese culture has a really deep-seated desire to project one way but behave a different way," Biderman said. "Japan actually has a healthy appetite for sex. They just go about it in a really dichotomous kind of way and make it hard for themselves."  

Japan's approach to marriage as Biderman sees it, with its focus on practical matters over matters of passion, is in some ways "more evolved" than elsewhere. In his estimation, this is a good thing and could even provide a model worth emulating.

"Japan has a chance to be the breakthrough society," he said. "They have a chance more than any other society to find a successful platform for marriage where marriage is about economics, raising kids. It's not about sexual entertainment. That's secondary."

A whopping 84 percent of Japanese women and 61 percent of Japanese men considered their extramarital liaisons beneficial to their marriages.

The divorce rate in Japan hums around 27 percent, about half the rate in the US. And Ashley Madison's internal survey found that the number one reason most Japanese respondents gave for seeking out an affair was "not enough sex" in their relationships. Fifty-five percent of women and 51 percent of men named this as their impetus for joining up on the site.

Combine those two stats and you can start to see the role extramarital trysts play in the culture. What's more, couples in Japan tend to feel less guilty about infidelity than other parts of the world. The Ashley Madison's survey found that of the 3,500 respondents from Japan, only 2 percent of women and 8 percent of men felt pangs of guilt for their flings, compared with 8 percent of women and 19 percent of men worldwide.  

It's worth noting that some experts are critical of the site's internal "guilt" survey, pointing out that its users are making a premeditated choice to cheat after all, so are more likely to report low levels of guilt. But the survey findings reflect the country's comfort level with casual sex outside of marriage.

Increasingly, that's true for both men and women, Maya Yamashita, a Tokyo-based researcher on romance and sexuality and author of the books Tokyo: Departing for Global Love and New Rising Sun: The Future of Multicultural Japan, explained.

"I recently talked to four friends who are housewives and all of them are having affairs. Usually after they have kids they become interested," she told me. "And they don't feel bad about it. They are not thinking of divorcing. They think that affairs are positive things for their marriages." The numbers support that theory. Ashley Madison's survey found a whopping 84 percent of Japanese women and 61 percent of Japanese men considered their extramarital liaisons beneficial to their marriages.

Religion likely plays a role in Japan's dichotomous cultural attitude toward sex. "Japan is of course not a Judeo-Christian society, and the morality governing ideas about sex and sexuality is very different. Shintoism celebrates fertility and sex, and Buddhism is relatively unconcerned with these issues," Gabriele Koch, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Michigan who is finishing her dissertation on the Japanese sex industry, told me.

Just how big is Japan's sex industry?

Koch first dug up the official stats as compiled by the police. Legal sex-industry businesses, which have been licensed since the time of the Tokugawa shogunate—from the 17th to 19th century—are located in the correct zoning and do not offer penile-vaginal intercourse or services by minors or foreigners without proper working visas. Japan was home to 30,969 such businesses last year, a combo of fixed locations and "delivery" services.

"My own ballpark estimate would be that there are at least a quarter million women working legally nationwide," Koch said. "Of course, these numbers don't account for underground businesses. The Japan Subculture Research Center estimates the country's sex industry earns between 1 trillion ($9.8 billion) to as high as 2.5 trillion yen ($24.4 billion), with some sex workers earning 10 million yen ($97,574) annually.

With sex for sale on this scale, it shouldn't come as much surprise that morality on the issue has traditionally revolved around "containing excess rather than prohibiting male indulgence," Koch explained. "It's overdoing it that's seen as a problem. Of course, there's also long been a double-standard—male sexuality is indulged while women's sexuality is policed and seen as belonging to the household."

This may gradually be changing. Today, "Japan tolerates a huge number of host clubs, which serve sexualized entertainment to women," said James Farrer, a professor of sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo who researches sexuality in Japan and China. "So I think there are no specific obstacles to women seeking affairs in Japan, more than there would be in other societies. It is quite a liberal society for women."

With the arrival of Ashley Madison, women have a chance to do what men have long done in red light districts around the country. And judging by the numbers, many are doing just that.

This may seem to suggest that Japan is at ease with and open about its sexuality, but it's not so simple. Maintaining proper appearances in Japan is crucial, and the success of Ashley Madison in the country is putting something out in the open that is usually kept hidden. Despite the success of the business, the desire to keep up appearances saw Google Japan refusing to run ads for Ashley Madison out of respect for perceived cultural norms.

The dichotomy creates a conflict. But there's an opinion that if Japan would just make peace with the way it handles marriage, it might realize that extramarital sex is not such a bad thing. Although it's not going to fly in many countries on moral grounds, some may even consider it an approach worthy of consideration.

"Of course it's not the ideal situation to have an affair," Yamashita said. "But in Japan, given the social constraints at play, it seems to be the best way to balance the situation for many."