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Family Sleeping Arrangements as Culture
—A marriage compatibility diagnostic more reliable than blood type

Takaji Okubo
Professor, School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University

Speeches at Wedding Reception

As a university teacher, I am occasionally invited to alumni weddings, and I have the opportunity to give speeches on those occasions. I am usually on the bride’s side, because the groom has ordinarily invited a senior at his company to give a speech. As these seniors lead off the celebrations, most of their speeches follow the traditional pattern, whereas in my role as the second speaker, I am expected to set a friendly atmosphere and segue into a toast. At this point in my speech I ask the newlyweds a question like:

Imagine that over a year has passed since your first child was born. Now, what kind of sleeping arrangements would you have? Choose one of the following:

  • Type 1 (C Central Arrangement): All three family members sleeping in the same room, with the baby right in the center.
  • Type 2 (M Central Arrangement): All three family members sleeping in the same room, with the mother right in the center.
  • Type 3 (F Separate Room Arrangement): The mother and child sleeping in the same room, with the father sleeping in a separate room.
  • Type 4 (C Separate Room Arrangement): The parents sleeping in the same room, with the baby sleeping in a separate room.

There is no right answer to this question—whichever of the above you choose is fine. The important point is whether or not both of the newlyweds choose the same one. Family sleeping arrangements (the spatial configuration of a family when they sleep) are one aspect of culture. Various sleeping arrangements correspond to various family images (the way that families should be). Newlyweds’ selection of the same sleeping arrangement shows that they have the same family image, and their selection of different sleeping arrangements shows that they do not. The former case gives the impression of a couple that will get off to a smooth start in their marriage, while the latter case gives the impression of a couple that will encounter cultural friction (one form of marital disagreements).

The mother-child relationship is the core of the Japanese family

A question on family sleeping arrangements was included in a National Survey :“Trails of Families in Post-War Japan”, conducted by Japan Society of Family Sociology in January of 2002. This was the first survey examining family sleeping arrangements on a nationwide scale. The survey used the observable structure of family sleeping arrangements as a means of approaching the unobservable structure of family relations. The results showed that Type 1 (C Central Arrangement) was most common, with 50%, and Type 2 (M Central Arrangement) was next, with 30%. These two types comprised nearly 90% of Japanese family (families of three with a young child) sleeping arrangements. On the other hand, Type 3 (F Separate Room Arrangement) made up about 10% and Type 4 (C Separate Room Arrangement) just 2 or 3%. The tendency for Japanese families to sleep in the same room is extremely high.

This is in sharp contrast to the sleeping arrangements of American families which are primarily Type 4 (C Separate Room Arrangement). The western family image views the marital relationship as the core of the family, and it is thought that bringing a child into the parents’ bedroom—let alone separating the couple with the child in the middle—might create a rift in the couple’s relationship, and it may be bad for the child’s independence as well as the couple’s sexual relationship. In fact, this is spelled out in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock, which has been a longtime best-seller in postwar Japan, but Japanese readers have not emulated this point. The Japanese family image views the parent-child relationship—and particularly the mother-child relationship—as the core, and this relationship between mother and child is maintained intact even in Type 3 (F Separate Room Arrangement) sleeping arrangements, which break the principle of families sleeping in the same room.

Varying Levels of Participation in Childrearing by Husbands in Type 1 (C Central Arrangement) and Type 2 (M Central Arrangement)

Now let us examine the difference between Type 1 (C Central Arrangement) and Type 2 (M Central Arrangement), both of which follow the unwritten rules that families sleep together, and mother and child sleep next to each other. Various analyses of the data from the National Survey :“Trails of Families in Post-War Japan” revealed a correlation between family sleeping arrangements and participation in childrearing by husbands. In other words, husbands with Type 1 (C Central Arrangements) had higher levels of participation in childrearing than husbands with Type 2 (M Central Arrangements). From here on, considering the reasons for this difference involves speculation, but I posit that it may not be a matter of the choice of sleeping arrangements creating different levels of participation in childrearing by husbands, but rather it is the strength of the husband’s will to participate (or the strength of the wife’s will to have the father participate) that determines the choice of family sleeping arrangements.

Family sleeping arrangements are a spatial expression of the family relationship. Type 1 (C Central Arrangement) sleeping arrangements give higher priority to the parent-child relationship than to the marital relationship. Here, the marital relationship is divided by the child. Parents are more acutely aware of their roles as father and mother than their roles as husband and wife. Type 2 (M Central Arrangement) sleeping arrangements, on the other hand, emphasize a balance of the marital relationship with the mother-child relationship, but the father-child relationship is in turn divided by the mother-child relationship. When the husband thinks that, both parents should raise their child together (I will not leave it to their mother), or when the wife would like the husband to think this way, there is a greater likelihood that they will choose Type 1 (C Central Arrangement) rather than Type 2 (M Central Arrangement) sleeping arrangements.

Family sleeping arrangements and compatibility of the couple

We can determine a person’s family image by the type of sleeping arrangements that they choose. I digress, but I would suggest that if you are single and there is someone you are thinking of marrying one day, ask them nonchalantly, what kind of family sleeping arrangements do you think are best? This is, at least, a far more accurate way to confirm a couple’s compatibility than methods such as by blood type or zodiac sign.

At any rate, getting back to the speeches at wedding receptions, I’m sure some of you are thinking that it is all well and good to ask my question on sleeping arrangements when the newlyweds have matching answers, but you are worried about what happens when they don’t match. Not to worry, I actually do a little research on the couple in advance, and I only include the question about family sleeping arrangements in my speech when their answers match. When their answers do not match, I don’t touch on the subject.
But if I were to slip up and ask my question about sleeping arrangements after neglecting to do my research ahead of time, and if the couple were to ominously give answers that did not match, I would simply say without missing a beat that: If we regard the family we grew up in as natural—and typically, as ideal—we will surely be perplexed about some of the things we encounter in our new married lives. But it is the same for our partners, so the important thing is to keep an open mind. I urge you to work together as a couple, take your time, and create your own family culture.

Takaji Okubo
Professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University

Professor Okubo was born in Tokyo in 1954 and graduated from Tokyo Metropolitan Koyamadai Senior High School. After graduating with an undergraduate degree from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I at Waseda University, Professor Okubo completed postgraduate work in the Master’s Program in Sociology at Waseda University. After working as a Lecturer at Waseda University and as an Assistant Professor at the Open University of Japan, Professor Okubo became an Assistant Professor at Waseda University, where he is currently a Professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society. Professor Okubo specializes in Life Story Research, with a particular interest in the transformations in the Life Story (the social norms of life) that come with the fluctuations of modern society. His primary works include Life Story Analyses, Sociology in Daily Life (Both titles: Gakubunsha), Transformational Life (Corona Publishing Co., Ltd.), Where You All Are Now (Suken Shuppan), and Life Course Theory (The Society for the Promotion of the University of the Air). Please refer to the professor’s homepage, Takaji Okubo’s Office, for details.