In the face of a struggling economy and various social and political issues, relationships in Japan as we know them are vastly changing. From the shifting perceptions of love and marriage, to questioning whether or not to date at all, Japan is currently seeing a rather unique and - some say - potentially dangerous trend that has led the country to be dubbed a burgeoning "singles society".
Increasingly, young people are choosing not to settle down, opting for a life of focused career and personal self-fulfillment as opposed to the more traditional route of marrying and starting a family. Many people are entering their 50s without ever having married, and many of these unmarried are not in any sort of romantic relationship at all.
This comes contrary to what was seen in the postwar era, when it was an expected and regular occurrence to want to marry and start a family as soon as one could. In those days, about 99% of the population had married by 50. However, a 2015 census showed that almost an entire quarter of men at this age have yet to make the move.
(JP) Link: 1 in 4 Men Remain Single: Sharpest Spike in Unmarried Men Since 1990s
男性の4人に1人は結婚しない人生 : 90年代以降未婚率急上昇
This trend soared in the 1990s in connection to the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1986, which saw more and more Japanese women entering the workforce and gaining their own financial independence, and no longer feeling the need to rely on a husband for support.
While this may seem like a positive step forward in terms of more work and social equality for women, how does this increase in singlehood affect the population as a whole? And why should we even care what people choose to do with their personal and romantic lives?
Is It Even A Choice?
As we will explore more in-depth throughout this article, the reasons for such changing outlook on relationships and marriage vary between gender, age group, and even the individual. However what many have in common is that regardless of the person or the circumstance, many have come to the decision to remain single because they feel they don’t have a choice.
From hectic work schedules, to financial commitments, to the overall lack of ability or motivation to go out and search for a suitable partner in the wake of the chaos caused by life in general, marriage and relationships have just become another expectation of society that many Japanese just don’t see as necessary as maintaining their financial status or their sanity.
In other words, while the western world might see a romantic fling as an escape from the pressures of work life, and marriage as a way to ease individual stress and gain more stability, to many Japanese, it is just another burden that they would rather avoid.
Singles Culture vs. Hook-up Culture
Singles culture in the Western world is often depicted as an exciting, freedom-filled experience of hangouts, hookups and one-night stands. (How realistic that depiction is, is debatable.) However in Japan, it is quite the opposite. Rather than use their solo time as an opportunity to meet new people and flex their sexual muscles, many find it more rewarding to focus on themselves. While this may come as a surprise for a country that is often seen as promiscuous with its scantily-clad anime ladies and its history of love hotels, the fact is the latter is more frequently used by the percentage of people already in a relationship, while singles tend to prefer the former. Because of this, singlehood in Japan is viewed to be less like The Bachelor, and more like The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Thanks to this, Japan has become appropriately dubbed a “low-desire society,” in which recent surveys reveal that not only is a huge percentage of unmarried Japanese men and women not in any sort of romantic relationship at all, many of them express a lack of interest, and in some cases total disdain for, sexual contact in general.
A 2011 survey found that about 61% of men and 49% of women in Japan, ages 18-34, were unmarried and not in any sort of romantic relationship at all. About one-third of those under 30 reported never having dated at all, and around 42% of the men and 44% of the women admitted they were still virgins.
Moreover, in a survey of Japanese men and women aged 16-25 conducted by the Japanese Family Planning Association (JFPA), a whopping 45% of women and about 25% of men expressed that they were "not interested in or despise sexual contact" altogether.
(JP) Link: Japan Dubbed 'Low-Desire Society'
Fantasy Over Intimacy
When asked what influenced such opinions amongst so many people, several reasons are noted. The first is the strict Japanese work environment. Busy with company demands and 10+ hour work schedules, many believe that adding a relationship to the mix would just be another burden taking up the time that they already severely lack. And while struggling to live up to the high standards of their bosses and employers, getting married just means one more person with more expectations to meet.
The development of technology is another culprit, as is the increasing availability of erotic entertainment for single young men who want sexual fulfillment without the responsibly of a committed relationship. Japan is infamous as a producer of what are known as "hentai" (変態) and "ero-games", which are basically pornographic cartoons and erotic video games in which you can seduce sexually attractive anime women. Not wanting the emotional complexity of intimacy with an actual human partner, many single Japanese turn to these cartoons and games for a no-strings-attached sexual release. These forms of adult entertainment play a great role and are very commonly seen within the ‘otaku culture,’ a subculture group stereotypically made up of single, middle-aged, anime-obsessed men, as well as in the lives of ‘hikikomori,’ or social recluses.
(JP) Link: Has Japan Become a Single Male Society?
In fact, there was a unique story in 2009 in which a young single man decided to tie the knot with his virtual girlfriend, a character in a Nintendo DS game called Love Plus. His decision to take his virtual girlfriend as his wife came complete with a wedding ceremony in Guam and a honeymoon, leading to reactions of disbelief and in some cases outrage in countries around the world, with one person calling the event “the reason for Japan’s falling birthrate.”
(JP) Link: Reactions to Love Plus Wedding from 22 Countries Around the World
『ラブプラス』結婚式が世界22カ国以上で話題に！海外からの反応は！？ ｜ ガジェット通信 GetNews
Is Marriage Worth the Stress?
Despite these trends, when asked, many people still expressed wishing to marry someday, citing concerns such as losing the chance to start a family and not wanting to die alone (an increasingly common problem in the country).
However, at the same time, many wonder if it's even worth the risk, with so many complications and the possibility of a new relationship coming to an end. The decision of whether to marry or not seems to have become a major catch-22, in which people want marriage without the stress and time commitments of dating, yet cannot know who is a suitable marriage partner without dating them first.
Why do so many singles, even those who do desire marriage, find it so difficult to find a partner? One reason is the lack of opportunities to meet people in the first place, due to the incredibly rigid work culture that barely allows free time to mingle outside of work.
But another is the shifting perceptions of love and marriage. Historically a country in which the two were often divided, marriages in Japan were generally arranged by parents for their children according to the needs of and benefits to the family. However younger generations have opened up to more individualistic ideals of marrying for love rather than status, which is a difficult value to hold in a society so strongly shaped by career and politics. This leaves those who cannot marry for love deciding they would rather not marry at all.
Finally is the hassle involved in getting married at all. Unlike their western counterparts, Japan still follows a very strict and complicated marriage process with old-fashioned rules, such as both parties being legally required to share the same surname, and same-sex marriages still being forbidden.
(JP) Link: Half of Japan Single by 2035: Can A “Single Society” Survive?
Money Over Marriage
With work and money being one of the strongest influencers of Japanese lifestyles, income still plays a big role in deciding whether to marry or not. After all, marriage is more than just a romantic commitment. It's also a major financial commitment, leaving many people to choose money over love.
For men, many express feeling unable to financially provide for a wife and family, while others outwardly admit that they just don’t want to give up their hard-earned salary to a partner and would rather keep and save it for themselves.
For women, who have made great strides in the Japanese work force, many challenge the norm and become independent working women. This movement was celebrated by author Sakai Junko in her groundbreaking book Sour Grapes (負け犬の遠吠え; makeinu no tooboe), in which she staunchly defended her decision not to marry. These women, many with a sense of pride in their career-related accomplishments, shun the idea of needing to depend on a husband, and many will not even consider dating a man who makes less income than she does.
(JP) Link: Marriage Rate in Women Decreases as Annual Income Increases: "Japan Becomes a Nation of Singles" by Professor Hayashi
Aside from the financial aspect, because women have become so active in the workforce than they have been in the past, many say that they are just too busy or tired to care about dating and relationships, and would rather not waste time on “dating that leads nowhere.” For them, it is much more satisfying to simply go home and relax alone after a hard day’s work.
However, unlike their male counterparts, women are more likely to consider marriage as they reach middle-age, though more often than not do so because of pressure from their family, and concerns about childbirth, stability in their later years, and dying alone. For people like these, group events have been established called konkatsu (婚活), or “marriage activities.” These are organized activities somewhat similar to western dating apps and singles groups, but with the aim of meeting a potential marriage partner rather than for casual dating and random hookups.
(JP) Link: Why People Are Turning to 'Konkatsu'
Bachelors and Babies: Singlehood and the Declining Birthrate
Ultimately, if these recent trends of decreased desire and less marriages continue, it could mean trouble for the population of Japan, which is already facing difficulty due to ever-widening gap between the birth and death rate of its citizens.
In a 2017 study, the number of Japanese babies born amounted to approximately 941,000, making it the second consecutive year for birth totals to fall under 1 million. This all-time record low was attributed to the sharp decline of women of childbearing age not having children at all. If this trend continues, Japan’s population is projected to fall just under 100 million by the year 2053.
(JP) Link: ''Birthrate Falls Under 1 Million for Second Consecutive Year - Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare
In response to this phenomenon, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended efforts to attempt to increase the birth and fertility rate by installing programs with the goal of helping families raise children, such as work leave for mothers to spend more time raising their kids, and a universal, taxpayer-funded child care system.
(JP) Link: Changing Japanese Views vs. An Unchanging System
However, these programs have also received much criticism from the public, who point out how difficult it is for mothers to re-enter the workforce after a long absence. Moreover, even if such programs were improved to help already existing families, what effect would they have on the population of singles who don’t even want kids?
It seems to be less of a problem of available government programs, and more a problem of society's changing outlooks on relationships and the family dynamic in general. And unless something happens to ease work and societal pressures, and shift this view to motivate young people to start dating again, the issue of the falling birth rate could become even more severe.
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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