By 2035, half of Japanese aged 15 and up will be single. Japan will be a “super-solo society,” says advertising copywriter and commentator Kazuhisa Arakawa, writing in Shukan Asahi (Jan 19). Family ties, community ties, workplace ties, will fray, perhaps snap altogether. For better and/ or worse, the individual will be on his or her own.
It’s a sea change. From the dawn of the 20th century to its end, people married as a matter of course. They had children as a matter of course. Not everyone, of course, but lifetime singles never numbered more than 5 percent of the population. Now they number 20%. By 2035 one man in three, and one woman in five, will never marry.
Even now, one-quarter of Japanese households are single-occupant. They outnumber households comprised of parents and children.
You needn’t be single to be “solo,” Arakawa observes. Divorce, separation and widowhood – all three on the rise – lead in the same direction.
Other trends weaken other ties. Lifetime employment, for example, is a fading custom. Ambitious and restless, “nomad employees” switch jobs readily, or start their own companies, which thanks to crowdfunding and other novelties is easier than ever to do. The relationships you form with colleagues, clients and suppliers you expect to be dealing with for life are different from those that take shape among individuals who are where they are merely on the way to somewhere else.
All this sounds uniquely modern, uniquely 21st century. It’s not, Arakawa finds. The prototype he discovers is surprisingly old – centuries old. The city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), in its formative phase 250-odd years ago, was also a “super-solo society.”
Edo was a man’s town, populated first by samurai warriors, then by merchants pouring into the new city from all over the country, catering to samurai needs and wants. They throve, and drew in others. In 1721, Arakawa says, Edo’s merchant class population was roughly 500,000 – 320,000 men, 180,000 women. Such a disproportion produces a lot of lifetime singles. An 18th-century Edo denizen whisked to 21st-century Japan might be less disoriented than other obvious differences would lead us to expect.
Single men, then as now, as a rule didn’t cook. Restaurants sprang up, as did food stalls and food delivery services. Fast food got its spur then. Especially popular was the item we know today as omusubi, a vinegared rice ball wrapped in dried seaweed.
A family anchors you. Family-less and unanchored, single Edo men bought little and rented much. Everything was for rent – clothing, bedding, furniture, dishes, mosquito nets.
But the Edo individual was not the atom lost in the mass he (and increasingly she) tends to be today, Arakawa says. The fearful and growing modern phenomenon of dying alone without anyone noticing would have been rare in Edo. Neighbors would surely have noticed – or failing them, the strangers who called regularly, prominent among them the itinerant recycle man. Everything in Edo was recycled – night soil, used ashes, old nails, even hair fallen out.
Often enough life makes solos of even married people. That’s hardest when it happens at an advanced age. Older men, Arakawa finds, are particularly vulnerable. Women, once their children have grown, are better at making friends. Men rooted in 20th-century corporate culture know only their families and their colleagues, usually the latter more intimately than the former. Post-retirement, workplace attachments tend to wither, leaving a void difficult to fill.
A super-solo society need not be bleak, Arakawa concludes. We’ll learn over time to live alone, we’ll form new contacts via the internet – there’s no telling what new forms of social (and post-social) life will evolve in the next few years and decades. It will be interesting to watch it happening.© Japan Today