Abstract We observed the mating pattern and social behaviour of the pipefish Corythoichthys haematopterus in temperate waters of Japan during three successive breeding seasons. Males cared for a clutch in their brood pouch for 9–19 days until hatching and had several broods in the season with nonbrooding intervals of only 1 or 2 days. The population sex ratio was female biased and some females were always excluded from reproduction. Although males were sometimes courted by unmated females together with their regular partners, they always mated with the latter. The pair bond was maintained until the next season if both members survived. When males lost their partners, they remated with neighbouring unmated females within a few days. In contrast, widowed females remained unmated for a long time. Females had larger home ranges and were more active in courtship displays than males. This pipefish provides the first example of sex role reversal among monogamous syngnathid fish. We suggest that mate guarding by females is a primary proximate factor for maintenance of monogamy in this fish.