I’m not planning to get married any time in the very near future (man, I hope that my girlfriend’s not reading this one) and to be honest, looking around here, I’m hardly alone. As many people are aware, Japan is in the middle of a demographic crisis. Fewer people than ever are getting married, or having children. Those that do have children often seem to have just the one child.
At the same time, everyone’s lifespans are increasing with women now living to almost 87 years old. On average! (You should see the swimming pool I go to on Monday afternoons – it’s like a brightly-lit zombie movie with the slowest, kindliest zombies that ever were.) This year, the government was forced to raise sales tax from five to eight percent, mostly in order to pay for the largely excellent welfare state that Japan provides, especially for older people. (http://www.bbc.com/news/26830486)
Furthermore, according to a piece last year in the Guardian, young people aren’t even interested in relationships or human-to-human contact, let alone marriage and children. ‘Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery, from the exorbitant costs of buying property in Japan to the uncertain expectations of a spouse and in-laws’ , writes Abigail Haworth. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex)
I’m not sure I agree with Haworth about everything in her article, interesting as it is. (Although she’s spot on about ‘skinny-jeaned boys with meticulously tousled hair’ – as someone with slightly tousled hair myself, I’m often asked if it’s a perm. Ridiculously popular here for unfathomable reasons and you see it everywhere.) One very presentable young woman, an acquaintance of mine, prays regularly at a shrine dedicated to finding a husband. She’s only 27 years old.
Another male friend in his early thirties often attends ‘matchmaking’ parties, designed in order to find a suitable partner. Not quite speed dating but not far off, Japan has a long history with what it calls omiai, which is essentially matchmaking with a strong emphasis on a future marriage taking place, usually in the not-too-distant future. There are professional matchmakers – nakodo – whose job it is to sift through self-generated personal histories and photographs, usually taken in formal and relaxed attire, before attempting to set up a match, or host a meeting party. Often, parents come along too to these first meetings.
With more formal contemporary matchmakers, participants are even required to show their family’s history, to prove their racial and medical purity, along with their family’s education level and status. A little more complex than your average Western dating site then. However, the omiai system doesn’t work for everyone. As the website Japan Reference points out, ‘people who actively indulge in match-making parties feel exhausted and despaired after experiencing a string of failures.’ (http://www.jref.com/culture-society/marriage-japan/) While matchmaking does persist, and has done for hundreds of years, of course there’s more regular, non-parentally sanctioned dating here too, of course.
Marriage also isn’t undertaken – when it is at all – with only specific interest in raising a family and providing security for both partners. Women, influenced largely by Western media, have desired renai kekkon or ‘marriage with love’ more and more. This isn’t a country that has grown up on Jane Austen novels in the same way that Europeans and Americans have for generations – the concept is relatively recent, and the very fact that there’s a specific word for it is telling.
As mentioned previously on these pages, Ian Buruma’s A Japanese Mirror is excellent for providing a window into this. Although his book was written in 1984, Buruma, while writing about arranged marriages, mentions that ‘this is not to say that romance is not pushed as an ideal at all. It is, especially in women’s magazines. Being “happee” with one’s loved one, living in the lifelong glow of a “romanchiku moodo” is perceived by many young girls as their goal in life.’ A glance around any packed train carriage in the morning will confirm this – while men read manga comics about giant robots and high-kicking schoolgirls, women’s comics often have some variation on a girl smiling brightly at an effeminate, aloof looking male. With soulful eyes though, of course.
Things have also changed substantially from when Buruma writes about seeing an advertisement for a marriage agency ‘written in bold characters under a large photograph of a dejected-looking boy dressed in a tight suit: “Get married! The final act of filial piety!” One marries to please one’s parents, to fulfill one’s social obligations.’ As much as I would love to see this kind of advertisement myself, Japan’s probably better off. Even if the population is forecast to drop from the current 125 million to just over 100 million by 2050.
I’ll leave you for this week with one final thought, this time from a character in David Mitchell’s (no, not that David Mitchell) excellent short story ‘Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut’. (Mister Donut is a popular doughnut and coffee shop franchise in Japan.) One of his characters is thinking about the marriage proposal she just turned down.
‘There’s a lot of talk on TV with pop idols and professors about why women in Japan don’t have babies – as if it’s the greatest, darkest mystery of our age. But it’s obvious. If I’d said yes to Hiro tonight and drunk his champagne, I’d be kissing goodbye to my job, my shopping trips, my meals out with Tomomi and the girls, my annual trip to Hawaii, my independence. And in return? I’d get an apartment in a thirty-year-old company block on the edge of town where I’d cook for Hiro, clean for Hiro, iron Hiro’s shirts and pour Hiro’s beer; swim in the shark pool of Hiro’s colleagues’ wives; and give Hiro sex when he came home drunk[…] The question isn’t ‘Why are so few Japanese women getting married and having babies?’ The question is ‘Why on earth would we?’ I’ll buy my own champagne, thank you very much.’
A fictional character, but a very persuasive argument!
Completely unrelated link this week:
The author of this piece is mostly wrong, Japanese pizza is fine… Except for cod roe on it, I agree there, it ought to be criminalised. Anyway, the cute cat videos are the reason to check it out, which probably makes this similar to the past three things you clicked on before this article.