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