Allison Alexy’s Intimate Disconnections describes divorce in contemporary Japan “as a moment of personal and familial transition”—not as the end of a marriage. Because Alexy focuses on legal marriage, she limits her scope to heterosexual unions recognized by the state. The book connects the stories she collected from interlocutors with macro-level phenomena, including changing norms about divorce in Japan considering history, Japan’s legal system, family registries from the late nineteenth century, and neoliberalism. Alexy’s ethnographic study is based on her recorded interviews of seventy-two Japanese people in the greater Tokyo area and Matsuyama, the largest city in Shikoku, who were “married, divorced, or divorcing; whose parents or grandparents had divorced; or who were counselors or lawyers paid to assist divorce proceedings” (24). Out of the seventy-two, twenty-eight were represented in the book. Alexy reveals the interconnectedness of the lived experiences of the divorce process and its emotional, psychological, and financial effects.
Alexy’s thought-provoking work urges the reader to explore her positionality as an ethnographer. In interviewing people about a possibly stigmatizing topic such as divorce, Alexy states that both her background as a daughter of divorced parents and her “non-Japaneseness indexed a lack of critical judgment—or, more pejoratively, a welcome cluelessness—that made people more inclined to share potentially stigmatized experiences” (27). My own experience made me doubtful of this reasoning: I am a Japanese woman who moved to the US in my early thirties but I still struggle with the English language almost thirty years later. It is unlikely that, if I interviewed divorced Americans in my second language, my “non-Americanness” would have the positive effect that Alexy seemed to enjoy. Therefore, more than her “non-Japaneseness,” probably a mixture of language ideology, racial ideology, and stereotypes about Americans worked to her advantage in her interviews in Japan.
One of the dominant language ideologies in Japan is that foreigners do not understand the Japanese language (Gottlieb 2012). There is a racialized element of this ideology. I speculate that Japanese people still tend to be more impressed by proficiency in Japanese when they encounter it in white people than people from other Asian countries. Because Alexy is white, her fluency in Japanese probably had a positive effect on her interlocutors.
I was also struck by Alexy’s opening questions: “How did you decide to get married?” or “Why did you get divorced?” (24). However, as shown in research in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, language use is closely connected with social convention. The directness of these questions initially bothered me until I remembered that this was not an ordinary conversation between strangers but a research interview. I also thought that Alexy’s directness might not have offended the interlocutors because they had been recruited precisely because of their divorce experience; therefore, they were probably prepared for these questions. As Japanese people also tend to assume that Americans have a direct communication style and a much higher divorce rate, they probably did not find such direct questions from an American interviewer surprising. The interlocutors would be more offended by these questions from me as a Japanese person than from an American. I would hesitate to conduct this kind of interview myself out of respect for the feelings of the interlocutors. Therefore, Alexy’s research, which creates a new space for this difficult topic, is valuable.
Her interviews also invite us to explore how the interlocutor’s accounts might differ if the interviewer were not Japanese. Did interviews with an American position the interlocutors as representing Japan? If so, the interlocutors might have wanted to make sure that their accounts did not give Alexy or her readers a negative impression of Japan. In this sense, it is noteworthy that several interlocutors mentioned stereotypes about Japanese men and women and commented that their own divorces were typical of divorces in Japan generally.
Alexy also discusses the monetary and social costs of divorce. Contrary to the popular image of divorce as evidence of women’s social and economic advancement, she shows how divorce increases the risk of poverty and vice versa. More importantly, Alexy writes that, despite these outcomes, the women who initiated the divorce did not regret their divorce.
A final chapter evaluates the state of “popular discourse about the new lack of ‘social bonds’” (155). More specifically, based on her participation in five different support groups for divorcees and her interactions with the participants off-site, Alexy asserts that the divorcees and the divorcing can create new meaningful relationships in specialized spaces such as support groups. She also points out that these therapy spaces are tailored more toward women than men. A narrative shift in this chapter is also interesting because Alexy appears “as a character here, as someone divorced men and women accept, reject, and include in their lives” (157).
Because all her interlocutors lived in the greater Tokyo area or the largest city in Shikoku Island, I initially thought that referring to the topic as something like “divorce in urban areas of Japan in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century” would be more accurate than the “contemporary Japan” of the book’s subtitle. I wonder if access to such divorce support groups as she describes, for example, might be less common in other areas. However, counseling, particularly in online formats, has rapidly increased recently, probably reflecting the increased needs of online access and mental health due to the pandemic (“Seikatsu” 2020). Therefore, although Alexy’s primary fieldwork is from some time ago, her significant findings are even more relevant today.
Although the general hardship of single mothers is well-documented in publications in Japanese, this book may illustrate, more than any other work, how divorce in Japan is so deeply intertwined with its history, political economy, and legal and tax systems. The author’s attention to diversity and other harbingers of change, such as a growing interest in joint custody in Japan, is also informative.
This book engaged students in my undergraduate Japanese sociolinguistics course at a deep emotional level, inviting them to reflect upon their own lives. Alexy’s repetition of important points, such as the lack of joint custody in Japan, makes it accessible for classroom teaching and non-specialist readers. Furthermore, because this book is also available in open access and the appendix consists of selected original Japanese language interviews, it is also suitable for foreign-language-across-the-curriculum (FLAC) pedagogy, connecting advanced Japanese language study and content courses. In sum, this book is an important and timely contribution to Japanese studies, Asian studies, gender studies, and sociocultural anthropology.