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Marriage for many Japanese has become an unaffordable luxury

18 Comments
By Michael Hoffman

Why marry? What’s the point? Love, children. But love comes and goes, and as for children, they bring great joy but at a cost increasingly seen as frightful – and optional. Why bother? Why not live single? It’s what more and more people are doing. Shukan Gendai (Nov 11-18) proclaims Japan’s “Great Single Era.”

A number can be worth a thousand words. Government figures for 1980 record 170,000 men of 50 and up who had never married. The corresponding figure for 2020 is 3.91 million.

The 1970s and ’80s were Japan’s golden age of weddings. Romance went big time and big business. Traditional omiai arranged matches survived but faded. Postwar baby boomers came of age breathing new air. Ancestors mattered little, love was all, one married whom one pleased, wedding halls were booked solid, TV commercials sang of wedding dresses and wedding cakes – in 1972 nationwide there were 1.1 million weddings, couples aglow with future plans for home ownership, the playroom ringing with the children’s laughing frolics.

It’s a pretty picture – too good to last, maybe too good to be true. There was always something a little tinselly about the conjugal love fest – the social and commercial pressures behind it, the materialist aspirations it reflected. There were the famous “three highs” that women sought in a prospective husband: height, academic pedigree and earning capacity. It gave marriage the cast of a business transaction like any other – which in a sense it was. The age of the career woman was yet to come. Female economic dependence was no less taken for granted than was marriage itself. One conformed or was left out in the cold. An unmarried woman past 25, it was said, was like Christmas cake after Christmas. 

No one says that now. That’s progress, surely. Women today can pursue careers and support themselves. They need no longer bind themselves to the kitchen and the nursery. Men can keep their pay for their own pleasure. Sexual gratification is readily available, for men and women alike, outside marriage. Men and women can go their separate ways, and, more than ever, do. 2022 saw 504,878 registered marriages – less than half the 1972 figure.

It seems the beginning of the end of marriage as we know it. It may be; then again it may not. Eighty percent of men and women say they want to marry at some point in their lives, a National Institute of Population and Social Security Research survey shows. Why not sooner rather than later-if-at-all? It’s not so much the attractions of single life that hold them back, Shukan Gendai suspects, as economic constraint. Marriage for many has become an unaffordable luxury.

Japan’s average wage has not risen since 1997. The past 30 years have dealt blow after economic blow: the bubble burst, hiring froze, the Lehman Shock deepened the crisis, and then came the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and nuclear meltdown, followed more recently by soaring costs of living and COVID-19. Can things get worse? Probably they can; hopefully they won’t.

The weddings of the ’70s and ’80s reflected the reckless gaiety of the times. They cost 5 million yen on average. People had money then, and secure jobs; many today have neither. Weddings can be pared down or dispensed with, but there’s only so much economizing you can do where the kids are concerned. Today’s careers – more so tomorrow’s – demand (or are thought to) intensive, massively expensive education, seen as indispensible if the child is to have any hope of a future, but a deep drain on household finance. Government statistics cited by Shukan Gendai show where this is leading. Thirty-five years ago the average annual income of households with children was 5.3 million yen. Today it’s 7.8 million. Among households earning under 4 million a year, only 16 percent have children.

In Tokyo, with its conspicuously high cost of living, a family of three the magazine introduces feels strained to the breaking point on 10 million yen a year. Taxes and various insurance payments, higher than ever before, leave them take-home pay of 7 million. The couple are in their 30s, the child is in first grade. The husband is still paying off his student loan. They have no car, take no overseas trips, and limit dining out to once a month at McDonald’s. Every yen painfully saved goes into the child’s education fund. “We’re not poor,” says the husband and father – ruefully rather than proudly; they’d be better off if they were. Their income puts them just above the eligibility line for government child support benefits.

By 2040 half of Japanese will be single, Shukan Gendai figures, based on current trends. It will mean a lonely old age for many. The pension and health care systems, buckling even now, face rising strains. And who will provide the requisite nursing care? Young people? There aren’t enough. Immigrants? Why would they come to Japan? Australia (to cite just one example) pays caregivers three times what Japan pays them.

The history of marriage can perhaps be summed up in terms of various levels of stultification. It’s high time we evolved beyond it, some might well say. But evolution can take many paths. The one it’s on doesn’t look too good.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

18 Comments
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Wow.

An article that tells it how it is.

How refreshing.

0 ( +14 / -14 )

By 2040 half of Japanese will be single, Shukan Gendai figures, based on current trends. It will mean a lonely old age for many. The pension and health care systems, buckling even now, face rising strains. And who will provide the requisite nursing care? Young people? There aren’t enough. Immigrants? Why would they come to Japan? Australia (to cite just one example) pays caregivers three times what Japan pays them.

The inverted pyramid will eventually reverse back, but Japan is decades away from that point, from now on things are only going to be worse and worse unless a deep social change is made to prevent (or at least alleviate) the multiple problems that are coming, if nothing effective is done the country is projected to have a few decades of heavy social problems and immense sacrifices.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

 love was all, one married whom one pleased...

I think "fashion was all" might be a better way of putting it. Yes, big weddings were "big" at the time, but I lived in Tokyo around the end of the 80s, and besides the "Christmas cake" line, another term I remember hearing a lot was "Narita divorce", which referred to the common phenomenon of couples returning from a miserable honeymoon abroad (having hardly known each other in the first place, more than likely) and racing to get a divorce asap.

Anyway, it looks like sanity is prevailing these days. Most young people feel less bothered about whether they get married or not, meeting societal expectations in that regard etc.

limit dining out to once a month at McDonald’s

Ugh! The misery...

I don't know why more young people don't move to the countryside. Property is dirt cheap. If you're prepared to get your hands dirty, there's a good life to be had in rural Japan. My guess is that more young people are going to start waking up to that soon.

11 ( +13 / -2 )

Live events become more and more expensive in Japan, at least for marriage people can plan before that. For funeral many caught by surprised, their loved ones and families have no saving to cover all necessary cost.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-25/fed-up-with-world-s-highest-funeral-costs-japan-shifts-to-simple-farewells

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

The title seems a bit misleading. Marriage costs nothing and a couple can live cheaper than to singles. It is children that cost money.

15 ( +17 / -2 )

Japan’s average wage has not risen since 1997

Since average wages are skewed by high earners, it is usual to use median wage. I wonder what has happened to that.

The family of three in Tokyo seems to just be existing.

-6 ( +6 / -12 )

Please give a downvote to this post if you don't like or accept what the article is saying.

-13 ( +3 / -16 )

If you make marriage all about money, as this article seems to do, you're probably doomed before you start. It makes people out to be poor now in one of the richest countries on the planet, by comparing finances over the past few decades. It's not a good way of doing that but I hear people fall back on that a lot. You don't have to have a lavish wedding. You can go to city hall as a few of my friends, Japanese and Western, have done or just have a small(er) wedding. Love is the main reason one should get married, not financial status. Seems to me what's missing is natural affection.

11 ( +12 / -1 )

Since average wages are skewed by high earners, it is usual to use median wage.

Median is a form of average. Another is the mean average. It's not clear which is used here. But I don't imagine there would be a great difference.

The link below says the median monthly salary is ¥471,000. (I'm assuming bonuses are included in that calculation.)

https://tokyoportfolio.com/average-salary-in-japan/

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Japanese seem obsessed with the glory of past. How rich they used to be before their bubble burst. It's like all those people need to die before the narrative can change.

-5 ( +3 / -8 )

Most traditional Japanese men would probably be most happy in a traditional marriage relationship . . . . If you grew up with a successful Dad and Mother, then you probably have some good memories of what life was like . . . . When I was single in my 20s, I remember struggling by myself and wondering what is my life going to be like when I am older? . . . Of course you want to think about how you will share your life with a significant other . . . . The US govt definitely makes it clear that your life will be a bit easier if married, as married couples pay less tax than single adults . . . .

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Smart. Marriage is a very very heavy harness. Be free stallions!

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

When my wife and I married, we decided to avoid like the plague having a ceremony of any kind. My friend's son just got married, spending 4 million yen on a two hour ceremony. It would be far better spent on a deposit for a house.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

Our desires for a better standard of living may be in conflict with the expenses of raising a family. I cannot imagine not having raised a family, but I try to understand those who for whatever reason do not raise a family. Certainly we would have had greater personal wealth without children, but the joy they brought to our lives is incalculable.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

The family in the article seem to know what’s up. Despite being in the upper end of the average they still have to budget appropriately and think economically even at 7mil income.

It’s crazy how much we have to consider income for family planning but I chalk it up to simply becoming more common sense about it.

Heck me and my friends tried a service in our town that matches singles. The first and most prominent stat was the persons income. Not their type, life experience, or even picture. Unsurprisingly most of the ladies were making part time or office lady salaries around 2 mil or less and their wanted partner income was over 8… granted this was one setup by the local municipality so I wasn’t expecting anything lol

4 ( +6 / -2 )

By 2040 half of Japanese will be single,

I predict it will come sooner than that. Anyway, you have to think about this-

If half are single, then that means the other half are either just dating, in sexless marriages, or have 1 child. What % of the people will have 2 or more kids? My guesstimate would be at less than 20%. And we will have a fertility rate like that of S Korea's or worse.

The weddings of the ’70s and ’80s reflected the reckless gaiety of the times. They cost 5 million yen on average. People had money then, and secure jobs; many today have neither. Weddings can be pared down or dispensed with, but there’s only so much economizing you can do where the kids are concerned. Today’s careers – more so tomorrow’s – demand (or are thought to) intensive, massively expensive education, seen as indispensible if the child is to have any hope of a future, but a deep drain on household finance. Government statistics cited by Shukan Gendai show where this is leading. Thirty-five years ago the average annual income of households with children was 5.3 million yen. Today it’s 7.8 million. Among households earning under 4 million a year, only 16 percent have children.

There's the answer to the gov woes about the low birthrate. The LDP can't have its cake and eat it too. They can't overtax and impoverish people while they live the high life AND expect the commoners to breed for them like cattle. They are going to have to ease their economic boot on the neck of the people if they want them to start families.

Otherwise Japan will very soon wink out of existence.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

We had a wedding, it cost us about 1.3 million yen. Compared to raising three kids, its a drop in the bucket. It wouldn't even buy a new kei car.

As for the article, a lot to unpick. The Japanese population aged between 20 and 40 has crashed. There may be half as many marriages as 1972, but compared to 1980 (the data I have available) , the number of men aged 20 to 40 has also shrunk from 18m to 12m. A third fewer people are having half as many marriages. This suggests a fall of 1/6 not one half.

Today’s careers – more so tomorrow’s – demand (or are thought to) intensive, massively expensive education, seen as indispensible if the child is to have any hope of a future, but a deep drain on household finance. 

I would say this is complete BS and driven only by fear and marketing by Benesse etc. The smaller population makes it very easy to get into "good" schools now, which still have the same number of places. You do not need to send your kids to juku. Even the top of the tree, Todai, is is way easier to get into than Ivy League. Any Japanese person who disagrees is just being melodramatic (a national trait). Just look at the number of applicants to places. The "top" senior high school in Nagano, Nagano Koukou, is one-to-one applicants to places. Kids don't apply not because its hard to get in (it isn't) but because there are restrictions on how many schools you can apply for (making parents and kids very conservative) and noone wants to be the dummy in the class. Many firms in Japan are desperate for staff and will accept workers as "chuto saiyo". They do not care whether workers had a "massively expensive education". My wife's cousin's husband is on the management stream at a large Toyota supplier (i.e., elite manufacturing). He only went to tandai, two years of university, which was one of the ko-sen technical colleges.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Utter garbage.

Marriage in Japan is almost free, just go to a ward office and pay a few hundred yen for a certificate.

You want a massive party that you can't afford, well that's on you, it's not mandatory.

Kids, now that's where the money goes. Kids are expensive. Marriage is not.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

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