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Tying the knot is unraveling in Japan

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Love, marriage; marriage, love. It was so simple, once upon a time.

No, that’s not true. It never was.

So ancient a subject calls for a classical allusion. The 14th-century “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”), random musings of a monk named Yoshida no Kenko (1283-1350), is a perennially delightful source. “A man should never marry,” wrote Kenko. “I am charmed when I hear a man say, ‘I am still living alone.'”

But Kenko also said, “A man may excel at everything else, but if he has no taste for lovemaking, one feels something terribly inadequate about him.” Then again, “Nothing leads a man astray so easily as sexual desire.”

What is one to do then? Love, or not love? Marry, or not marry?

Marriage as an institution, and love as a sentiment, are in crisis. Economic constraints, weakening libido, the expanding range of socially acceptable alternatives — solitary sex (via adult videos, adult toys and the like), virtual sex (human lover courting virtual-anime-character beloved), asexuality — have led to a situation where 1 in 5 marriage-age Japanese considers himself or herself, triumphantly or disconsolately, a “lifetime single.” Within 20 years it is projected to be 1 in 4.

Against this background the biweekly magazine Pen takes up the theme of marriage — past, present and (maybe) future.

All civilizations ritualize reproduction. So awesome a thing can hardly go uninstitutionalized. Hence the universality of marriage, in one form or another. The modern mainstream view of it as one man and one woman united for life would have seemed as peculiar to many people of the past as evolving future variations seem to many today.

Sociologist Masahiro Yamada is the authority Pen turns to for a thumbnail history of Japanese marriage. If time confers respectability, polygamy has a much weightier claim to it in Japan than monogamy, which has roots going no further back than the feverish imitation of Western ways that characterized the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Imitation has limits, however. “Broadly speaking,” says Yamada, ” the West prioritizes love; Japan and China, money.”

That’s speaking very broadly indeed, but it is probably largely true that Japanese women set financial standards for future husbands more openly than Western women. The standards are high. Love is good, but an income of ¥10 million a year is better. But how many men aged 20-30 earn ¥10 million a year? Roughly 0.7 percent. Unwillingness to settle for less despite massively negative odds helps keep people single.

Perhaps it wouldn’t, other things being equal. In past ages far poorer than ours, people struggled and often starved, but they married all the same. It was a matter of course. That’s the heart of the matter: it no longer is.

Nor is poverty — as, for most, it long was. There’s no such thing nowadays as acceptable, honorable poverty. Most economically disadvantaged people today were not born into poverty but fell into it when the economic bubble of the 1980s burst in the ’90s. Children at the time, they grew up and entered the job market, or tried to, when it was least open. Many found themselves condemned to a life of perpetual “freeter-hood,” stuck in part-time jobs that, career-wise and salary-wise, lead nowhere.

Others did better, joining or starting small companies. That’s challenging and stimulating but financially unstable. You never know what tomorrow will bring. That has deep implications for child-rearing.

Men and women view marriage differently, Yamada says. Men think first of themselves. Women think of the future children: “A woman is likely to think to herself, ‘I’m short, I want a tall husband so my children won’t be short,’ whereas a man will think, ‘I want a wife who will understand me.'”

As with height, so with wealth. Greed, not necessarily absent, is not necessarily everything, either. A woman thinking ahead to the birth of children wants certain things for them — above all, education, a gateway to a rewarding future. But education is expensive. Will a husband’s income suffice? If not, what then? Accept and even delight in poverty seasoned with love, in the manner of Western romantic poets? Or … not?

The latter, Japanese women are saying en masse, which has the paradoxical result, Yamada points out, of breathing new life, amid expanding diversity, into old discrimination — against short, academically disadvantaged, financially unstable men.

It’s odd from another point of view too. Women are wage-earners themselves now, no longer dependent on men for support. Can’t they afford to focus on a man’s character and qualities rather than, as of old, on his earning capacity?

Yes and no, Yamada answers. Women do work and earn, and are more independent than they used to be, but the corporate male chauvinism that continues to crimp their economic future crimps their self-confidence too. A financially struggling husband may seem an unaffordable luxury. Asked by Pen what’s needed to get people marrying again, Yamada replies, “First, get the economy back on track.”

Others have other answers, one of which, surprisingly at first blush, is artificial intelligence. It’s the most futuristic of all known technologies, and it’s on the verge of revolutionizing marriage, Pen hears from NTT scientist Eisaku Maeda.

Meeting, mating, co-habiting — that’s life, that’s marriage. If men and women are made for each other, why are their relations so fraught? Because our brains are limited. But AI is not, or very much less so. AI, says Maeda, “can look into the heart.” It can measure your dilated pupils, count your eye blinks, know you better than you know yourself: “We humans react bodily (to stimuli) before we’re even aware of them.” If AI analyzes your pulse and tells you you’re in love, you are. If it tells you your wife is angry, she is. Whatever you’re doing, pause, back off, save your marriage, live happily ever after.

Has Maeda checked out the latest in AI-equipped sex dolls? He doesn’t mention them, but they’re out there. “We hope to create something,” sculptor Matt McMullen, who designs them, tells The New York Times, “that will arouse someone on an emotional and intellectual level beyond the physical.” Is marriage en route to post-marriage?

“What a foolish thing a man’s heart is!” wrote Kenko. “The holy man of Kume lost his magic powers after noticing the whiteness of the legs of a girl who was washing clothes.”

That’s by the way.

Michael Hoffman’s latest books are “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”