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Losers, winners in contemporary Japan

by Janet Ashby

Bridget Jones in London, Ally McBeal in Boston, Carrie and her friends in New York City. Now Sakai Junko has published a best-selling volume of essays on singletons in Tokyo over the age of 30, like herself, whom she calls — in a mix of ruefulness and pride — makeinu (losers). In “Makeinu no toboe” (literally, “The distant barking of losing dogs”), Sakai examines the causes and characteristics of makeinu.

Sakai herself first realized she had become a complete makeinu after turning 35, when a married friend — a kachiinu (winner) — praised another single friend for not being envious of her for being married and having children. Had Sakai’s silence in the face of housewifely talk been taken as jealousy? And how unworldly of her friend to feel pity for them and guilelessly blurt it out. Sakai felt a glass wall between herself and her girlhood friend, as well as between herself and her rapidly receding youth.

Sakai notes that, like herself, few women consciously choose to become, in the eyes of society, a loser, but rather one day wake up to find themselves past marriageable age and with their biological clocks loudly ticking away. Various social and personal factors put them on this path.

A new latitude in upbringing and financial independence, as well as the freedom of the city, allow them to not automatically marry in their early 20s and go on to have children. Personally, when faced with a choice between (1) the safe but boring, or (2) the risky but exciting — whether in regard to men, work, or travel — the makeinu personality type will invariably choose the latter. Thus a future makeinu will choose a date at a fugu restaurant with an older married man over a date at an izakaya with a callow youth her own age (i.e. with a potential husband).

Sakai also feels that makeinu have a certain scrupulousness that keeps them from playing male-female games like acting dumb or trapping a man into marriage with a pregnancy.

Another structural factor making marriage difficult for older, highly educated women in Japan is the traditional pattern of men marrying down — choosing women lower in age, education and earning power. A woman of a certain age will look around her and find that the unmarried men consist of male makeinu: otaku only interested in cute idol singers or virtual women, commitment phobes, male chauvinists, and other unattractive types.

As indicated by Bridget Jones et al, such conditions are not entirely unique to Japan. Sakai notes, however, that Tokyo is a particularly makeinu friendly city because of the lack of a fully developed “couples culture” in Japan. Aside from a brief period of premarriage dating, most socializing is done in same-sex groupings.

And once one has become a makeinu? Among Sakai’s 10 recommendations are making friends with well-adjusted older makeinu; keeping male friends; maintaining a discreet silence about one’s sex life; developing a coping strategy for lonely times; taking care of one’s health; having non-makeinu friends; and not indulging in “what ifs?” (If I hadn’t broken off with him our children would be teenagers now, etc.)

Since the publication of Sakai’s book last October, her makeinu commentary has gained much media attention. Aera in particular has devoted four stories to it: one includes an analysis of makeinu and kachiinu magazines (2/9); one is on male makeinu (3/1); and another is on mothers who help create makeinu daughters (3/29). In addition, a survey of single women aged 35-40 can be found in the March 7 issue of the Yomiuri Weekly.

The first Aera story on makeinu, in the Jan. 19 issue, includes an interesting conversation between Sakai and the psychologist Ogura Chikako, author of a recent book on marriage titled, “Kekkon no joken (Terms of marriage).” Ogura notes that by adopting the negative label of others — i.e. makeinu — Sakai has removed its sting. They agree that it is better to acknowledge the downside of being an unmarried older woman rather that insisting that one is not lonely at all, that one is perfectly happy in every way.

Ogura believes that attitudes and expectations are set early, by nursery school age. Girls growing up in an urban environment of material wealth are less likely than those who have glimpsed the lower depths, so to speak, to seek a dependable breadwinner — to marry early, carry on working, and have two children. Sakai also cites the urban problem of infidelity: Once a young women has experienced the money and worldliness of an older married man, then the men of her own age look especially young, poor and boring.

Ogura mentions that one reason she wrote her latest book was to move beyond the simplistic division of women into married and unmarried. In Japan today, with its wider questioning of postwar democracy, it is no longer so easy to define women’s happiness; marriage is no longer a guarantee of happiness. Sakai agrees and says that in her writings she never meant to equate makeinu with unhappiness, or to imply that kachiinu were better than makeinu. The many communications she has received from married women since her book came out have made her realize that, in today’s complicated world, both married and unmarried women are feeling pain; it is only the precise area of that pain that differs between the two.