Marital expectations help ensure singles ranks soar

She’s a 38-year-old Tokyo working woman, enjoys single life, drives a sports car and dines at gourmet restaurants.

But her life might have been different if she had married in her late 20s.

“My boyfriend was transferred overseas (by his firm),” said the woman, who lives alone and holds a managerial-track position at a major automotive company.

“I didn’t want to quit my company (to marry him) because I was being assigned more responsible tasks and getting into my job.”

But this may change, she said, if by her early 40s she finds the “appropriate man” — one who is financially stable and shares similar values — so she can have children. She even added that finding a partner when she turns 60 may also be acceptable.

“I might quit this job if it was necessary for marriage or child-rearing,” she said. “Having my own family would make me emotionally secure after my parents die.”

This woman’s views may not be that uncommon among her single female peers.

Fixed expectations

But then take the 40-year-old surveyor who lives with his parents in Yokohama but wants to marry and settle down. He recently began attending matchmaking parties for singles in search of a “cheerful and healthy” future wife.

He pledged to share in the housework and child-rearing, although his mother currently takes care of his daily needs. But one thing the man thinks he would miss, should he settle down, is surfing.

“Surfing has been everything for me, but I would have to give the hobby up (to support a family). This may be why I haven’t tied the knot,” he said. “But you won’t be regarded as a mature man if you don’t have your own family.”

Single people are forming an increasingly large segment of the population. According to the national census, 2000 saw 42.9 percent of men in the 30-34 age bracket still single, compared with 28.1 percent in 1985, and 25.7 percent of men in the 35-39 group still single, compared with 14.2 percent in 1985.

For women, 26.2 percent of women in the 30-34 age group were single, more than double the 10.4 percent in 1985, while the percentage for the 35-39 group rose to 13.8 percent from 6.6 percent.

The ballooning singles ranks have become a big headache for the government because they are a major reason behind the falling birthrate.

The total fertility rate — the mean number of babies a woman will bear in her lifetime if she were to live through her reproductive years having children in line with age-specific rates — is on a decline. It hit a record low of 1.29 in 2003, plunging from 2.05 in 1974 and from more than 4 during the 1947-1949 postwar baby boom, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

Authorities are eager to reverse the trend to mitigate public concerns about increasing social security costs and a shrinking workforce, which would adversely affect economic development.

A birthrate decline among married couples was the major cause behind the rate’s fall in the 1970s. However, now the figure is more affected by the high percentage of singles, because most Japanese couples only have children after getting married, said Masanobu Masuda, a Cabinet Office director dealing with policies to address the shrinking population.

He noted, however, that marriage is a private matter the government cannot dictate.

“It’s difficult to take a direct approach to encourage singles to get married, so the government is adopting policies that lower the hurdles for them to enter matrimony,” Masuda said, pointing to reinforced measures to provide job training for youths and boost support for single mothers by, for example, increasing financial assistance for the children’s education.

Experts acknowledge that such measures may help. But they also said the single population may keep rising as more people opt for less-traditional lifestyles and the gap grows between men and women over their expectations regarding marriage.

Social pressures eased

“Marriage used to be a must for both men and women if they wanted to get by in society, but now they can afford to choose” not to, observed Chizuko Ueno, a sociologist at the University of Tokyo and a leading researcher in issues regarding women in Japan. “The social pressure that prompted people to get married has receded.”

Marriage had been virtually codified in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) as part of strictly defined roles for men and women under a patriarchal system: Men made the money and women did the housework.

The social situation has changed over the past two decades. With the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985, more women started careers and gained economic power, although a glass ceiling still exists.

In addition, a great deal of infrastructure now caters to the single lifestyle, including the ubiquitous and inexpensive convenience stores, and the taboos regarding premarital sex are now virtually nonexistent.

Singles still in their 30s and early 40s can also get sufficient support from their parents, who were the greatest beneficiaries of Japan’s rapid economic growth through the mid-1970s.

But while marriage may no longer be a necessity, many young people do want to wed. A 2002 government survey showed that nearly 90 percent of unmarried men and women aged 18 to 34 said they intend to marry someday.

Despite this, an increasing number of young men and women put off nuptials and stay single.

Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Tokyo Gakugei University, said one reason for this is the deterioration of the employment situation.

“Young people will marry and have children only when they are confident that they can maintain a certain standard of living,” he said, noting the economic slump has reduced job opportunities and the chances of wage hikes.

The number of part-time workers aged between 15 and 34 rose to 2.17 million in 2003, comprising 10 percent of all the workers in this age group, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Their average annual income ranged from 1.10 million yen to around 1.55 million yen.

Many women, however, still hope to depend on a spouse as the breadwinner, Yamada argued, noting this makes it increasingly difficult for low-income men to marry.

“About 70 to 80 percent of women feel that men should be the family breadwinner, and 70 percent of (working) women give up full-time jobs to bear children,” he said.

Take the case of a 32-year-old Osaka Prefecture woman who lives with her parents and works at a private language school.

She broke up with her boyfriend, who was in his late 30s, about a year ago after the small company he worked for went bankrupt and he was unemployed for months.

‘Marriage is insurance’

“Our relationship soured after he lost his job. I’m now looking for a man who has a similar academic background and an income larger than mine,” said the woman, who has a university degree and earns 5 million yen a year. “As I’m not looking for (big) success in the male-dominated business world, I’m worried about my future. Marriage is insurance.”

Many men are also fettered to traditional attitudes.

A 31-year-old employee at an information technology consultancy in Tokyo said he wants a woman to depend on him.

“It would motivate me to work hard for my family,” he said. “I also expect my (future) wife to concentrate on child-rearing while the children are young.”

According to a 2001 government survey, husbands in families with at least one child under 6 were spending an average of 21 minutes on housekeeping and child-rearing duties on a weekday, while wives with jobs were devoting five hours to such tasks.

Ueno of the University of Tokyo said the allure of marriage has dwindled due to such attitudes on the part of men and a social structure that keeps many women at low-paying jobs.

“Because wives’ incomes are becoming a necessity to support a family, men should abandon the view that housekeeping and child-raising are only women’s tasks,” Ueno said, adding that there is a tendency for women looking to marry to seek out men with higher incomes.

“Women tend to try to raise their social standing through marriage,” she said. In this context, most women in Japan were able to emerge as winners in the mating game as long as the economy grew steadily and men’s salaries kept rising.

Changing such hidebound attitudes takes time.

“Young people’s views on marriage and family life are (still) similar to those of their parents,” she observed.

“(But) we are now seeing a time lag between their consciousness and their behavior. . . . Both men and women no longer want a marriage that is disadvantageous,” Ueno said, noting that changes in the way people act reflect changes in society as a whole.

For people seeking to wed, experts had one tip: Lower your expectations.

“Many (unmarried) women are looking for just a few men with high incomes . . . and each thinks they can win this lottery,” said Yamada of Tokyo Gakugei University.

Ueno, however, said people who are more open to the idea of an equal partnership in marriage — cooperating in making a living, housekeeping and child-rearing — may have a better chance of tying the knot.

Yoko Itamoto, general director of Tokyo-based marriage consultation office Nippon Seinenkan, said the increase in the number of young singles may provide an opportunity for Japanese to think about marriage and the family.

“There is no standardized (lifestyle), and they can draw their own life designs,” she said. “They don’t have to stay within the legal marriage system . . . they can choose to remain single.”

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