One of the biggest changes in Tokyo women over the past five or so years has been their new-found capacity for solitude. Tokyo joshi (女子, young girls, single women or any female who sees herself as being a relatively free-spirited individual) had been notorious — even among themselves — for their inability to be alone.

From grade school upward, girls were expected to tsurumu (つるむ, stick together like vines) at all hours of their public lives. Now women on their own are everywhere. From hotels and cafes to women-only apartment blocks and urban spas, the sight of a ohitorisama (おひとりさま, reverent lone woman) getting a little respite from the business of living has become common enough that no one gives her a second glance.

Behind the phenomenon is the low, low marriage rate. More women are opting out of long-term commitments that would almost certainly cramp their style. According to a 2009 government survey, women in the Kanto region value their work and financial freedom over marriage unless there is an assurance that their quality of life would go up rather than down. The bad news is: In this day and age it’s almost always likely to go down or rather, to plummet to the center of the earth. And the good news? It’s so okay to be alone.

Miyoko Taniguchi (41) says her absolute favorite method of unwinding is the hitori-zake (独り酒, drinking alone) in her neighborhood bar. “Hitorino hōga zettai kiraku,” (「一人の方が絶対気楽」, “It’s definitely more relaxing on one’s own”) is her take — and though she has a boyfriend, Taniguchi prefers solo intoxication over the hassle of an intimate dinner.

But Taniguchi and thousands of other ohitorisama can remember a time in their lives when they had to tsurumu with other girls/women or risk murahachibu (村八部, social ostracization). During their school years, girls often went home exhausted after a long day of doing everything isshoni (一緒に, together) with other girls — and this included going to the restroom during recess. The joshi toire (女子トイレ, girl’s lavatory) was, and still is, a hotbed of gossip and bullying — to be absent when peers were giggling in front of the mirror often led to social hazards and was best avoided. Referred to obliquely as tsureshon (連れション, accompanied peeing), it was a rite of a passage in the lives of most Japanese girls.

And once these women matured into adulthood and became employed, the tsurumu factor was likely to accelerate rather than wane. If a woman had no dōki (同期, female colleagues who entered the company in the same year) pals to eat lunch with, she was considered odd, unpopular and possibly lacking some urgently desired trait. Women instinctively knew that to be seen alone in public was on a par with being branded with the scarlet letter, and to this day the dreaded practice of benjomeshi (便所メシ, eating in the toilet stall) remains. This is the practice of hurrying to an ekibiru (駅ビル, train station shopping mall), ducking into a public toilet stall and wolfing down a kashipan (菓子パン, pastry bread) for lunch, rather than risk being spotted in a restaurant alone.

Once a Tokyo woman gets past her mid-20s however, life gets easier. Taniguchi says that for her, the breakthrough came at around 29, when she decided not to care anymore whether she got married. And she also allowed herself some privacy, by taking a conbini bentō (コンビニ弁当, convenience store lunch box) to a park bench during lunch hour. Her colleagues respected her enough to leave her well enough alone.

Atashi wa hitoridemo daijōbu,” (「あたしは一人でも大丈夫」, “I can make it on my own”) says Taniguchi. She now considers this to be her biggest personal asset.

Actually, Japanese women have a history of concealing themselves in little societal pockets of independence and solitude. Kyoto and Osaka are several steps ahead Tokyo in this respect — because women merchants and shopkeepers there have always exercised a sizable amount of control, there have always been places to provide Kansai women with a little comfort and relaxation. Tucked away in the cites’ side streets are tea houses and noodle places that cater to women only. Many mid-class hotels have josei senyō furoa (女性専用フロア, women-only floors). This is to ensure that solitary women travelers won’t have to run into male strangers in the corridors or lie on matresses that could have been used by male bodies.

There’s a belief among Japanese academics that what triggers Japanese urban society isn’t money or corporate logic but a deeply ingrained ningen fushin (人間不信, distrust of others). Maybe they’re closer to the truth than we’d like to admit.

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