‘Parasite singles’: problem or victims?

Recently much attention is being paid in Japan to the so-called “parasite singles,” grown children in their 20s and 30s who have left school and gotten jobs but are still unmarried and living at home with their parents.

The sociologist Yamada Masahiro coined the term in 1997 (inspired by the best-selling novel and movie “Parasite Eve”), and late last year he published an interesting nonfiction book on the topic, “Parasite Single no Jidai” (Chikuma Shinsho). In it he seems to at least in part blame such twenty- and thirtysomethings for everything from the falling birthrate and economic recession (because they are not establishing independent households and spending on housing and durable goods) to cultural stagnation (because they are focused on consumption and their personal lives with little interest in political or social change and reform).

Yamada notes the prescience of the mystery writer Uchida Yasuo in 1981 when he started the Asami Mitsuhiko mystery series with a parasite single as his amateur detective. The unmarried Asami is in his mid-30s but works as a freelance writer and lives together with his mother and elite policeman elder brother. He enjoys an affluent lifestyle and depends on his mother and sister-in-law for all his domestic needs.

In 1980 the ratio of unmarried Japanese aged 30-34 was 21.5 percent for men and 9.1 percent for women; less than one in three unmarried men that age were living with their parents. By 1995 the ratio had risen to 37.3 percent for unmarried men aged 30-34 and 19.7 percent for unmarried women, and over 50 percent of unmarried men in their early 30s were living at home (over 70 percent for women). Yamada estimates that there is now some 10 million parasite singles in Japan. One cause Yamada gives for the increase in grown children living with their parents is the rise in the number of young people in suburbs around large cities. They can easily commute to college or work. In the suburbs there is also less social pressure on women to marry or on men to have conventional jobs than in the countryside or tightly knit shitamachi neighborhoods. These young people are the children of the baby-boom generation, which came of age in the high-growth 1960s and is now fairly affluent thanks to the earlier economic boom and the lifetime employment system.

The period of high growth ended around 1975, however, and there is now little incentive for their children to marry and give up their parents’ comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

The government hopes to fix the problems of late marriage and low birthrate by building up the infrastructure necessary for women to have both a job and family (more day-care facilities, encouraging men to help more at home), but Yamada thinks that was the dream of an earlier generation of women rather than of most young women today. He characterizes the distressingly unrealistic dreams of present-day students this way: Women looking forward to being at-home wives want a husband with a good income who will be faithful and help with the housework. Future career women want a husband with a higher professional status than themselves who will take an equal part in housework and child care. Meanwhile, male students want a spouse who will be happy with their income, never complain, and cheerfully do all the housework and child care!

Another social scientist, Genda Yuji, rebuts much of the parasite single argument in an article in the April issue of Chuo Koron. In “Parasite Single no Iibun” he argues that the young are taking fewer regular full-time positions not because they have lost the will to work, or because of the lack of a spirit of independence, but because there are fewer such jobs available to them.

Genda notes that although there has been much in the media about restructuring and unemployment among the middle-aged, relatively few such employees at large companies have lost their jobs. Only a little over 1 percent of the 3 million unemployed in Japan are college graduates aged 45-54, while the unemployment rate for men under 25 has been hovering around 10 percent from the spring of 1999.

The labor force of employees hired during the period of high growth is now aging and expensive: In 1979, shortly after the second oil shock, the percentage of male full-time employees aged 45 or over in companies of over 1,000 employees was 22 percent, but 20 years later in 1998 had risen to 36 percent. However, the investment in their training, their years of experience and restrictions on firing make it cheaper to keep them than to restructure. Since the mid-1990s small and medium enterprises are no longer in a position to accept the transfer of excess labor from larger companies, so the only choice left is cutting back on new hires.

Even though the difficult situation of the young is largely due to social and economic structures protecting the wage levels and jobs of the middle-aged, this is perceived by the young themselves and by society as a matter of voluntary choice. And of course there is psychological resistance on the part of the middle-aged to recognizing that their job security is the cause of youth unemployment.

As Genda says, there does seem to be an element of blaming the victim in the current spirit of parasite-single bashing (I remember when such unmarrieds were indulgently referred to as dokushin kizoku). The attack on any divergence from traditional lifestyles or work values would seem to reflect the deep conservatism of the Japanese system, while the relative absence of crime and social disaffection among the young shows its strength.