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Clock ticks for women in Japan seeking love at work

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Special To The Japan Times

As much as I hate to spoil the whole 春の陽気 (haru no yōki, springtime cheer) thing, I have some bad news about Japanese love relationships, specifically 社内恋愛 (shanai-renai, intra-company love affairs).

Despite our 超高齢化社会 (chō-kōreika-shakai, super-aging society), an increasing awareness of alternative lifestyles and the ever-growing number of women in the workforce, some things remain stubbornly the same. It’s hard for women over 30 to find a partner within the workplace circle, and the odds are stacked higher against her with each passing year. This means that if the fresh-faced 新卒 女子 (shinsotsu joshi, newly graduated young woman) in the ubiquitous black リクルートスーツ (rikurūto sūtsu, “recruit suit”) wishes to find a marriage partner in her 会社 (kaisha, company), she has less than eight years before her chances get drastically reduced.

Apparently, 30 is the cut-off point — 婚活 (konkatsu, partner hunting) agencies point out that only 23 percent of Japanese women get married between the ages of 30 and 34, and that rate gets whittled down to 11 percent between the ages of 35 and 40. No wonder a lot of the young women I talk to these days say more or less the same thing: 学生時代の彼氏をキープしとかないと後がつらい (Gakusei-jidai no kareshi o kiipu shi to kanai to ato ga tsurai, “It’s better to keep your college boyfriend close at hand, because hard times may be ahead”).

For the shinsotsu joshi, the clock has already started to tick, but as a 新入社員 (shinnyū-shain) up to her eyeballs in one 研修 (kenshū, training session) after another, combined with doing all the 雑用 (zatsuyō, odd jobs) expected of a first-year employee, it’s hard to shift her attention to her college 彼氏 (kareshi, boyfriend).

After hours, she must navigate the treacherous waters of 飲み会 (nomikai, drinking parties), obligatory 合コン (gōkon, match-making parties — which young women must attend whether they have boyfriends or not) and their variants, and still get home with her sanity and dignity intact. For these reasons and more, the first few months of leading the 会社員 (kaishain, company employee) existence almost always lead to a text message break-up. It’s rare for shinnyū-shain couples to actually meet up and discuss relationship termination — everyone is just too busy.

Three years later, the shinsotsu joshi will perhaps regret this decision. She is no longer a new graduate, nor a rookie. She’s a little older and a lot wiser, with a clear-eyed vision of the people around her in the office. And in these three years, she has probably clocked up more 残業 (zangyō, overtime) and attended more nomikai than she’d like to admit.

Her 20s are disappearing fast as she hurtles down the road toward her 三十路 (misoji, 30s) and she’s feeling in need of a break, either via 転職 (tenshoku, changing jobs) or 結婚 (kekkon, marriage). On the other hand, for many 女性社員 (joseishain, women employees), this is also a time when the work actually feels 楽しい (tanoshii, enjoyable). Mid- to late 20s is when many Japanese women feel comfortable in the company, having gained their footing, made friends and earned the right to wield some power over the younger 社員 (shain, employees).

Fifty years ago, the average Japanese woman had little experience of men outside her family circle. Marriage came between the ages of 20 and 24 and was effectively mandatory for all. The definition of 女の幸せ (onna no shiawase, a woman’s happiness) was a mortgaged house in the suburbs, two children and a salaryman husband who stuck with the same company until death or retirement, enabling her to be a 専業主婦 (sengyō shufu, stay-at-home wife), with no need to fend for herself or do anything as みっともない (mittomonai, unseemly) as 外で稼ぐ (soto de kasegu, earn money outside the home). And up until about two decades or so ago, it wasn’t uncommon for mothers of eldest sons to voice concerns about potential brides with work experience — they were thought to be too 生意気 (namaiki, cheeky) and ill-suited to a stable marriage.

Here’s the astonishing thing: Today, the term onna no shiawase is still in popular use, with the same old meaning. Japanese society and most Japanese women still equate happiness with marriage. They still hanker for a big wedding (preferably in Hawaii, or at least a faux church in Tokyo’s swanky Aoyama district) and a gorgeous white dress while in their 20s, since the younger the 花嫁 (hanayome, bride), the better the photos will come out.

And to a large degree, Japanese men and their parents still prefer younger women with less work experience to become their wives and daughters-in-law, respectively. The reasoning behind this hasn’t changed much either: The more 経験 (keiken, experience) a woman racks up, the less likely she is to settle down and make a good wife. She has fought too many battles in the workplace, and has had too much fun in her life.

One more thing to note, after hitting 40, the marriage rate for women crashes to 2 percent. So much for the Abe administration’s 女性が輝ける社会 (josei ga kagayakeru shakai, society where women can shine).