When Web designer Soko Hirayama moved to Tokyo five months ago, she did not expect to be living solo.
Originally from Fukuoka in Kyushu Prefecture, the 26-year-old had spent the previous eight years in Washington D.C., living mostly in share houses, and hoped to do the same in Tokyo.
Instead, she is living alone for the first time in her life, after being unable to find a friend to share an apartment.
“In Japan it’s not really common to live with strangers or even with friends,” Hirayama says, “so I didn’t want to do that if it’s unusual here. In the United States, it’s a different story because everybody does it.”
While her experience living overseas for so long is atypical of many, Hirayama says she quickly adjusted to solo life in the capital. She now loves having her own place because it gives her “100 percent control” over her home, her free time and how and when she sees her friends.
And she is not alone. A recent study by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS) found that in 2006, for the first time, one-person households were the most common living arrangement in Japan, outnumbering couples with children.
In 1980, one-person households were just 20 percent of the total in Japan, but this figure rose to 30 percent in 2006 and is expected to pass 37 percent in 2030, according to IPSS predictions. The trend is set to continue, says Toru Suzuki, a researcher at IPSS, as the population ages and birthrates remain low.
For now, most of those living solo are young and single, with under-40s making up 42 percent of such households. Suzuki points to changes in family life such as the decline in marriage and fertility rates, increasing divorce rates, and more unmarried people living alone in urban areas as key reasons for this shift.
He says the increasing wealth and health of the elderly, as well as a shift from traditional household arrangements — such as three-generations of a family living in the same house — are also contributing factors.
“Spreading urban lifestyles may also make living alone easier,” Suzuki says. “There could be an increase in the preference to live alone among currently unmarried people.”
The situation is most striking in Tokyo, where almost 43 percent of households contain just one person, according to the 2005 national census. Elsewhere in Japan, such homes are just 17 percent of the total.
Translator Kasun Kang, 31, also lives alone in Tokyo, but she was born and raised in Hyogo Prefecture. Kang has lived in shared houses both in Tokyo and Canada, and she says most of her friends who live alone in Tokyo also did not grow up there.
Kang says she often feels lonely living by herself, but she enjoys the independence it offers and being able to hang out with her friends as much as she wants. She says this is a luxury many of her friends who still live with their parents cannot afford.
Clinical psychologist Akiko Oshima says some people living alone experience loneliness and isolation, especially if they grew up in a tightly-knit or small family. But for many others, the experience can be positive, giving them a sense of freedom and self-reliance.
“The widespread use of e-mail and blogs and portable phones has given them the means to connect, not only among their friends but also with strangers,” Oshima says. “Compared to older generations, they may write fewer letters but call one another more frequently — often several times a day.”
Recent returnee Hirayama agrees, saying many of her friends who live alone tell her that they are happy to do so because they can stay in touch with loved ones and friends online.
“We have the Internet, we have PlayStations, we have online games, so you don’t have to have other people to live with, you can stay by yourself but have friends online,” she explains.
Both Hirayama and Kang say that while most of their friends in Tokyo live alone most of their friends who opted to remain in their hometowns still live with their parents.
Backing this up, IPSS researcher Miho Iwasawa says that nationwide, nearly half of single 20- to 34-year-olds still live with a parent, though the proportion is much lower in Tokyo.
Tokyo real estate agent Hidashi Murakami says that although sharing apartments may be uncommon in Japan because of cultural traditions, it is also difficult to find a landlord willing to lease a property due to the guarantor system.
According to Murakami, who works for the Sei Corporation, under this system many landlords see a financial risk if one roommate is to move out during the lease, so they are reluctant to rent their properties as shared apartments.
Kang believes many people may choose to live alone in the capital because they do not have many friends when they arrive and would prefer to live alone than with a stranger.
“Japanese culture is more conservative — people can’t be really open,” she says. “It would make them uncomfortable being with others all the time, so they think it would be more comfortable to live alone, especially in Tokyo, where you may only have friends from business.”
Kang says she would like to share a house again, as long as it is with a friend.
“The bottom line is I don’t want to live with someone I don’t know at all,” she says.
Hirayama would also share a house with a friend if the opportunity arose, she says, because most one-bedroom apartments in Tokyo are “ridiculously small.” It would also give her more space to entertain at home.
She admits one disadvantage of her current living arrangement is being alone when she is stressed or scared, especially after spending so much time on — literally — solid ground in D.C.
“I was in the U.S. for eight years without any earthquakes, so it is really scary nowadays,” Hirayama says.
If singles under age 35 are increasingly living alone or with their parents, it seems unmarried couples are in no mad rush to try living together either.
Iwasawa of IPSS says less than 2 percent of all unmarried Japanese women of reproductive age are currently living with a partner. There has been a rapid increase in the number of couples living together since the late 1990s, she says, but it remains much lower than in many Western and European countries.
Kang has lived with a boyfriend in Canada and in Osaka. She says she may not have considered moving in with a boyfriend if she had not tried living with housemates in Canada first. But because she did, she had valuable experiences that taught her a lot about relationships.
“I found out some things that I wouldn’t realize until I lived with him,” she says. “When it comes to marriage, you have to live with him for the rest of your life, so you have to see how he actually is at home before you make a commitment.”
And while Hirayama believes it is important for couples to try living together, she is in no rush to move in with a boyfriend any time soon.
“Sometimes I want to make a ridiculous amount of fried chicken and just eat it watching YouTube or something like that,” she jokes. “And I don’t want to be seen when I do that.”
When Soko Hirayama finished house hunting in Tokyo this year, she asked her real estate agent whether she should offer the traditional aisatsu greeting to introduce herself to neighbors. She was surprised when the realtor told her not to speak to them just to be safe — especially as she would be living alone.
“It used to be our culture that if you move to a new apartment you bring sweets and say, ‘Hi, I just moved in,’ and to introduce yourself to your neighbor,” Hirayama says. “But my real estate agent told me ‘you shouldn’t go next door to say “Hi” because your neighbor might be a psycho.’ “
In a January 2008 Goo Research survey of 1,017 single people who live alone, 47 percent said they would not even recognize the faces of their neighbors. Whether based on real or perceived dangers, it seems fear of crime is driving some to isolate themselves, a common hazard in many urban communities.
Despite these fears, only 22 percent of respondents to the Goo Research survey said they had been a victim of crime while living alone. Stalking was the most common crime at nearly 28 percent. Still, the second annual Global Peace Index, released last week, ranked Japan as the world’s fifth most peaceful nation — a measure that includes societal safety and security.
For Hirayama, it’s a chicken and egg situation.
“These crimes happen because people don’t interact, so what comes first?” she asks. It’s a dilemma perhaps best solved by sharing a meal of oyakodon with your neighbor.