Some say that ’70s feminism began its fall from grace in 1986 when a study claimed that a woman’s chances of marrying sometime in her life drops to 5 percent after she passes her 35th birthday. The notion that so many nominally liberated women found this conclusion distressing gave rise to the cynical belief that reconfiguring a woman’s place in society is fine as long as she isn’t required to give up that ring.

This has led to what in the latter half of the ’90s has been termed “Duh Feminism,” which takes in Ally McBeal, “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and the multifaceted martyrdom of Monica Lewinsky. For a time in the 1980s, Cosmopolitan and Glamour reluctantly boosted job hunting over man hunting, but they’ve recently returned in full glory to the three topics they’ve always liked best: sex, sex and sex (not necessarily in that order). And with titles like “10 Make-Him-Throb Moves So Hot You’ll Need a Firehose to Cool Down the Bed” (from January’s Cosmo), it’s obvious who that sex is for.

Japanese women have always been considered a step-and-a-half behind their Western sisters in the march toward equality, so if the rise of Duh Feminism and the popularity of “The Rules” indicates a retreat of sorts (at least in the U.S., where both have become an obsession of the media), it may mean that young Japanese women with a realistic sense of themselves have pulled up abreast (no pun intended).

The very bulky and widely advertised 10th anniversary issue of Elle Japon contains a special feature on single life that goes beyond the usual articles about how a girl living on her own can save money on food and clothing. It actually dares to promote the single life as having emotional advantages over married life — an idea that is tantamount to heresy in the Japanese media.

The subtitle of the feature is “More women all over the world are choosing a life of freedom.” The opening page lists 10 conditions a woman should meet if she wants to truly call herself “single.” She must “feel that the freedom of living by oneself is more attractive than the security of living with someone else.” She can consider herself single even if she wants to get married, provided she’s also determined “to keep her job and her interests unchanged by marriage,” which may sound like a copout but is actually quite a feat.

The article quotes a survey by the omiai service company OMMG in which 88 percent of single Japanese women in their 30s said they don’t mind being unmarried and, in fact, would not get married if it meant giving up their present lifestyle. The unrealistically large number is easy to understand when you discover that the only answers possible are “yes” or “no.” Most people, single or married, have much more complicated and varied opinions about marriage. A more credible statistic is the one provided by the magazine itself. Seventy-two percent of its readers worldwide think a single woman “can have a fulfilling life,” but the portion drops to 65 percent for Japanese readers, the lowest of any region surveyed.

The reason this statistic is credible isn’t due so much to any perceived conservatism on the part of Japanese women, but to the very structure of Japanese society, which makes it difficult for a woman to live comfortably on her own. Many companies in Japan have a policy of not hiring women who live alone, and, in fact, a lot of landlords in Japan refuse to rent out to single women. Office ladies, especially those in their 20s, rarely make enough money to afford a modest one-room apartment within commuting distance of their workplace.

So while the Elle article is heartening from the standpoint of promoting a lifestyle that other Japanese publications tend to treat as being the result of tough luck or a bad complexion, it’s unrealistic in its presentation of that lifestyle. All of the women profiled in the article live in major international cities and are self-employed in fields that Elle readers will certainly find glamorous, namely fashion, the arts or media. Since a good three-quarters of the magazine’s 394 pages is taken up with high-concept, expensive-looking fashion ads, one would have to be naive to expect otherwise.

Single life is given an allure, but this allure also makes it seem unreachable. The majority of Elle readers are probably women in their 20s still living at home with their parents. Nevertheless, even if these readers don’t identify with the beautiful, independent women depicted in Elle’s feature, they can at least pick up something that counterbalances the negative view of single life advanced elsewhere in the media.

In Japan, selflessness remains the feminine ideal and continues to be promoted on home dramas and by news reports about housewives taking care of their bedridden parents-in-law. Pundits decry what they see as a tendency among today’s young women to place their own wants before their “responsibilities” as wives and mothers. (A development cited as the main cause of the “enjo kosai problem”; which, according to a report I saw last week on Fuji TV, has spread to OLs in their 20s.)

Ironically, within this feminine ideal lies the potential for singlehood becoming a more acceptable way-of-life to Japanese women than it is to Western women. Westerners look for mates because they believe marriage or its equivalent “completes” them. You are nothing if you are not half of a couple, married or not, straight or gay.

Japanese women, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily looking for soul mates, just someone to confer the title of okusan on them and assure them that they won’t starve. Once Japanese women gain the level of economic independence that Western women enjoy, they can probably do without husbands. (Why is Jodie Foster such a role model in Japan?) An increasing number of these women have no romantic illusions about marriage, which is why they’re putting it off as long as possible.

As the saying goes, “You are born alone and you die alone.” In fact, it’s a Japanese saying.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.