Til death or demographics do us part: the changing face of family life in Japan


At the end of each year, NHK has a ritual contest of male singers vs. female singers, but signs have been emerging of more serious gender conflict on the horizon in Japan. The diverging interests of men and women are evident in a recent book on changing attitudes toward having children and an article on new marriage patterns.

In her book “Kodomo to iu kachi (The Value of Children)” (Chuko Shincho, No. 1588), the developmental psychologist Keiko Kashiwagi looks at the phenomenon of falling birthrates in Japan. Politicians may rail against the alleged selfishness of young women nowadays, but she sees changing attitudes as the natural result of the changed situation in which such women find themselves.

One example of such mutability under changed conditions is the striking shift in child gender preference from male to female over the past two decades in Japan. A male child was long desired to carry on the family business and support the parents in their old age, but with the growth of the nuclear family centered around a company employee, a daughter is now regarded as more likely to look after aged parents — and also as easier to raise.

With the fall in child mortality and access to reliable means of contraception, children become a matter of conscious choice rather than an inevitable consequence of marriage. And with the drop in the number of children and the increase in life expectancy, the life-course of women has dramatically changed. This is well illustrated in a chart in Kashiwagi’s book: A woman born in 1905 had an average of 4.8 children and a life expectancy of 63.5 years, so that she died soon after the marriage of her youngest child, whereas a woman born in 1959 had an average of 2.2 children and a life expectancy of 81.4 years, so that she could expect to enjoy 25 more years of life after her last child left the nest.

Although the younger generation of women are conscious that raising children can no longer be their sole raison d’etre, they are frustrated in their desire to grow as individuals beyond the roles of wife and mother by societal pressures to quit work once they give birth to a child. Another telling chart, which outlines what people consider to be the ideal life-course for women, shows that over 40 percent of unmarried men would like their future wife to quit work upon having children, while only some 20 percent of unmarried women want to be stay-at-home mothers.

Especially with the increase in so-called love marriages (nonarranged marriages), in which both partners start out on an equal footing in terms of education, work and shared interests, women feel betrayed when forced to stay at home with small children, receiving little support from the local community or relatives (who no longer live nearby), while their husbands become increasingly married to their jobs and have little time or energy for meaningful communication.

Not surprisingly, men are more content than women with the present division of labor in which the latter bear the sole responsibility for housekeeping and child-rearing. After marriage, the male rate of satisfaction with marriage steadily rises while the female rate remains about the same until the 15-year mark, when it drops sharply to eventually result in a gap of some 20 points.

In another survey respondents were asked whether, if they were to marry now, they would (1) choose the same spouse, (2) choose a different spouse or (3) not marry at all. In an alarming gap, 70 percent of the men chose the first option while 60 percent of women chose the second or third.

Thus, an increasing number of Japanese women are finding that the negative aspects of marriage outweigh the benefits. In an age in which they can be financially independent without marrying, they are rejecting the sorts of marriages their parents had or that they see around them.

Kashiwagi points out that men as well as women now have an increased life expectancy — and lessening job security — and will face many years of life after leaving the world of work. A healthier balance of work and home life in their earlier years would help them find meaning in life beyond being a breadwinner, as well as help save their marriages.

A recent article in Chuo Koron (August), “Is Tokyo Becoming a Marriage-Free City?,” covers much of the same ground, although in a less systematic fashion. In the article, a research team from the Tokyo Gas Company’s Urban Life Research Institute looks at the trend toward increased diversity in marital patterns in Japan.

They report that in some Tokyo companies 30-40 percent of employees in their 30s are single and as many as 20 percent may never marry. Several singles interviewed by the team cited the negative examples of the married people around them, saying they did not want to become women who could only talk about their husbands and children, or wives who had to worry about their husbands’ infidelities.

Many women in particular expressed a desire to marry sometime, but their financial independence made it a less urgent matter for them. Also, once they had lived on their own it was more difficult for them to think of giving up their freedom and living with someone else. Resentful of being lumped together with “parasite singles” still living with their parents, they have taken to calling themselves “nonpara.”

Divorce is losing its stigma, and some married couples are developing new styles of marriage. For example, one wife is living with her two children near her parents so she can continue working, while her husband lives in their home less than an hour away by train and devotes himself to his own job.

Another trend is retirement divorce, when couples realize that they no longer have any interests in common, and wives demand that husbands start helping around the house if they’re going to be at home all day. There are now, in fact, cooking classes designed for retired men.

In this way, the authors conclude that marriage is becoming more diverse, with a liberalization of “coupling” and “decoupling,” and corporate and family structures will have to adjust accordingly. The prewar age of the fusion of the individual with the state or the high-growth age of fusion of the individual with the company are now over: From now on the emphasis will be on the individual and the pursuit of self-actualization.