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Japan’s tribe of lonely people continues to grow

by Philip Brasor

Results from Japan’s national census last year are dribbling in and the reaction in the media often focuses on one pair of statistics: The number of households is increasing while population is declining, which means that there are a lot more single-person households than there were 10 years ago and there will be even more 10 years from now. In fact, experts predict that single-person households will be the dominant demographic in a short time, and many if not most of them will be occupied by lonely old people, presumably with no families to fall back on, thus placing even greater strain on an already overburdened social welfare system.

Asahi Shimbun covered this issue in a multipart series of articles for which the editors coined a word, kozoku, that combines the characters for “loneliness” and “group.” Prime Minister Naoto Kan has already adopted the term for a government-sponsored panel to study the phenomenon. Though Japan’s graying society and low birthrate have been hot topics for years, the series approaches them from a different angle, with a sense of chickens coming home to roost. Japan’s dark future is not due to the serendipity of markets and changing social values, though those aspects do have their impacts. The series implies that the “kozoku country” Japan is turning into is the logical outcome of the entire postwar experiment.

In an editorial adjunct to the series, editor Hiroki Manabe says he was inspired by a helicopter flight over Chiba and Kanagawa Prefectures that revealed a vast expanse of “carbon copy” houses. After the war, government policy and the attendant media message said that social life should adhere to one model: a man who is a lifetime employee of a company; a woman who is a wife, mother and housekeeper; and a home that they own. Because this model prevailed, it is easy to disregard what an enormous undertaking it was to achieve in the course of a single generation. It required the construction of a rigid welfare and education system that places society’s burdens squarely on the shoulders of nuclear families.

This scheme operated according to plan as long as economic growth continued, but once the country reached a certain level of affluence it broke down. The rest of the world was bound to catch up, and companies had to adjust accordingly to remain competitive. Lifetime employment became an option, thus stressing workers as individuals who are expected to prove their worth on a day-to-day basis. Families were and still are the operative social unit in the eyes of the government, but nuclear families constitute only one of several household demographics. However, social policy has not adjusted to this new world of single-person households, and in Japan, people who exist outside the “norm,” according to sociologist Masahiro Yamada, “tend to lead unstable lives, regardless of their age.”

Almost all the Asahi articles profile men who are unable to communicate. When these men are removed from families and workplaces, they are helpless. If they are single, they become virtual shut-ins after retirement, with lives built on a foundation of negatives: aisatsu shinai (no greetings), tomodachi inai (no friends), renraku shinai (no connections). In 1987, 788 men died alone (kodokushi) in Tokyo residences. In 2006, the number was 2,362. The relative kodokushi numbers for women were 335 and 1,033. More significantly, the average time between death and discovery of the body for men in 2006 was 12 days, for women 6.5 days.

Work has always been the only source of self-esteem for this cohort, and they resist exposing what they see as failures to family and community, which are, according to social policy, the only support groups they have. One Asahi article told of a 61-year-old Hamamatsu man who worked at a factory. When his pay was cut from ¥1,200 to ¥850 an hour, he quit, more out of wounded pride than out of anger. He thought he would find another job, but couldn’t. For several months his neighbors saw him on the street looking dejected, but he never made connections. He killed himself.

But even without the stigma associated with losing one’s status as a “member of society” (i.e., a company employee), younger men seem to suffer from the same crippling reticence. In another piece, a 39-year-old man found it difficult to make ends meet after his mother died. He ended up starving to death. Why didn’t he ask for help? A more pertinent question to many Japanese is: Why wasn’t he married? A recent article in the weekly Aera provides examples of women who want to marry but are unable to find any men they can talk to. The “man of few words” was once considered the ideal; now, he’s a turnoff. He literally has nothing to say.

Many blame technology, but the Internet is a crutch, not a cause. It can’t supplant a community that doesn’t exist for these men, but it can act as a false substitute. Last November, a 24-year-old man in Sendai hung himself during a live webcast while viewers posted messages telling him to “Hurry up!” He had a good job, but he couldn’t deal with people in the flesh.

Maybe because women have always been on their own in terms of building self-esteem, they seem better equipped for this uncertain future. Last week, NHK’s current affairs series, “Closeup Gendai,” ran a feature about “womanomics,” which showed how women, including married women with children, are demonstrating confidence in their capabilities. At present, 13 percent of intended business startups by men actually get launched, while for women it’s 27 percent.

Despite the romance of the full-time homemaker during the high-growth era, women were marginalized, which may explain why they are now less reluctant to assert their individuality. Conservatives take a dim view of individualism, since to them it denies the importance of family and community. It’s something they’ll have to get used to.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.