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Why marry, or worry, when we can be alone together in ohitorisama Japan?


Maybe humans were meant to live alone.

Two facts militate against that hypothesis: the sex drive and its natural consequence, the birth of children. The family seems an inevitable byproduct. Throughout history it has taken many forms, from tribal and clannish to nuclear. But families there have always been.

Does it follow that there always will be? Certain novelties peculiar to our age sow doubts. One is the primacy of individual happiness. Happiness was always desirable, always hoped for, but it was secondary. Obligations deemed sacred, conventions considered “natural,” came first. They no longer do.

Marriage traditionally was a matter of course, more or less forced on people who felt unsuited to it. You could resist, but it took very strong character. As recently as 1990, a mere 5 percent of men and 4 percent of women in Japan were “lifetime singles,” defined as people over 50 who have never married. By 2010 the percentages were 20.14 and 10.61, respectively. By 2030, demographers say, they will be 30 and 23. Nearly a third of all men and a quarter of all women, never marrying! The exclamation point seems warranted. From a historical perspective, it’s an astonishing development.

It’s where we’re heading, and there’s no end in sight. Marriage serves its purposes more or less well, protecting children and fostering social stability, but happiness? Maybe, if you’re lucky — but other roads to it certainly look less chancy.

One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry, reading Shukan Post’s article on henpecked husbands. It’s a theme as old as marriage, usually played for laughs. Edo Period (1603-1867) rakugo (comic stories) made much of it. Sure, women were submissive; sure, men were domestic tyrants — that’s the myth, but everyone knows who really rules, who really submits.

As then, so now, only worse, Shukan Post claims — “dramatically.”

The evidence is anecdotal rather than scientific, but husbands do seem to be an aggrieved species, the more so as they age and shed youthful illusions.

“Mr. A,” a real-estate broker in his 50s, leaves the house at 7 a.m. and gets back at 9 p.m. To what? Some well-deserved relaxation? Far from it. There are chores to do — dishes to wash, a bathtub to clean. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but his wife superintends, and she’s a hard taskmaster, never satisfied, always finding fault.

“You call that clean?”

“Do it yourself then,” grumbles Mr. A under his breath.

Why under his breath? Because “If I spoke up, she’d get fired up and there’d be no end to it.”

“I work too, you know,” she’d remind him. She does — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You’d think his hours would trump hers, but she doesn’t see it that way, and poor Mr. A is simply too weary to insist.

Wage-earning employment gives a wife dignity and confidence, but housewives seem no less demanding.

“You think it’s easy preparing meals for you every day?” remonstrates “Ms. B.” “The husband next door can cook; he gives his wife a break now and then.” Mr. B. can’t cook, and if the price of home cooking is allowing himself to be led around by the nose, he, like Mr. A, will swallow his pride and bow his head in shame and submission.

There’s the perennial issue of spending money. Japanese wives have traditionally controlled the household budget, husbands surrendering their salary and subsisting on a weekly “allowance.” When the economy tanked 20 years ago, allowances began shrinking. They still are.

“Thanks to Abenomics, my bonus went up a little,” says “Mr. C,” a company employee in his 40s. “You’d think my allowance would too, no?” No. “It went down — don’t ask me why.

“I say, ‘I can’t eat lunch on this.’ She says, ‘There are cheap ramen restaurants all over the place!’ Or she says, ‘Give up drinking after work and have a nice lunch instead.’ But she goes drinking with her friends! Well, good, it gives me a nice quiet evening at home. But then at midnight, the phone rings: ‘Come pick me up at the station.’ ‘Pick you up at the station! I have to work tomorrow!’ ‘You don’t care if something dreadful happens to me!’ ‘All right, all right . . .’ “

On and on it goes. A father can’t give his kid a good scolding without Mom taking the kid’s side: “That’s not how to bring up a child!” “No wonder the kids don’t listen to me!” grouses one husband whose efforts to discipline the children end up with him being disciplined by his wife — in front of the children.

Men no longer feel at home at home. Where to seek refuge? The toilet is one answer, and Shukan Post quotes a humorous haiku to that effect: “Territorial rights: She gets the living room, I get the toilet.” Even that is qualified: “She won’t let me read in there — says it makes the books dirty.”

Sociologists and family consultants have their explanations for the extreme submissiveness they increasingly see in husbands. One, of course, is the blurring of once clearly distinct gender roles. Another is the fact that men, for all their worldly experience, seem less communicative and less socially sophisticated than women. They don’t speak up for themselves because they can’t. Maybe they should learn before their downward slide into domestic oblivion goes much farther.

So this is marriage! Not inevitably, not for everyone, but what’s a young single adult to think, reading Shukan Post’s story? One of two things: “My marriage will be different” — or, “My marriage won’t be different; to hell with marriage, I’m staying single!”

Last month’s edition of Shincho 45 magazine profiled several Japanophile foreigners (BIJ, Feb. 2). What do they like about Japan? One of them, Swiss-born TV personality Haruka Christine, praised “ohitorisama culture.” “Ohitorisama” refers to people living and doing things alone. Japan seems to be spawning the trend faster than other countries — certainly faster than Switzerland, she says, where being alone is seen as pathetic rather than bold and potentially fulfilling. In Japan people dine out alone, sing karaoke alone — and, increasingly, live alone. Thirty-two percent of all households nationwide are single-occupant.

Is Japan evolving into an ohitorisama nation? Time will tell, but for now it’s easy to imagine Shukan Post’s harassed, aging marriage victims sighing, “If only ohitorisama culture had been around 30 years ago. I might have lived, instead of . . .”

  • The cultural false alternatives between the “bondage” of a relationship and the “freedom” of being alone is always going to result in one thing.

    It’s time to stop carrying dead people’s baggage: the traditions and culture that pre-define what being in a relationship has to mean. But defining that for oneself would mean thinking and acting on one’s own individual judgement, as well as believing in the other person’s capacity to do so: a tall order for most.

    Often in trying to develop themselves, people cast off many of their relationships. They assume the other person shares the common cultural baggage and flee when things become serious. Or they think that having a relationship as such will keep them from their dreams. When “marriage” and romantic relationships in general, are defined with all these strings attached, to the point where it prevents dialogue between partners, due to these assumptions, people will tend to run from each other, or resentfully accept the relationship as bondage. Neither of these alternatives are desirable.

    The way forward means understanding that to be in a relationship is to promote your own well-being. We love people because they make our lives better. And we cultivate relationships on that premise. The unit that is formed by a romantic relationship is not a unit that supersedes the two individuals involved which they are duty-bound to, it is a unit that only should exist because it is a great benefit to the two individuals involved. It is a place that nurtures serenity and focus in one’s own endeavors. If it’s not providing that, then maybe it should end.

    But if we begin with the wrong premises and expectations, we are always going to hurt ourselves: by trapping ourselves by duty, or half-living by being unable to believe in others. The goal of life is to live, and if the price of being “free” is to totally shut down a wonderful and entirely possible aspect of life, then running away is not freedom, it is simply fear and compartmentalized self-disownment (usually rationalized in the name of “self-fulfillment”, “self-reliance”, “finding my independence”, etc.)

    If we want to live and be free to use our own judgement, that includes using it in the context of a romantic relationship. A belief to the contrary is a belief in a metaphysical fear towards others. Running away for this reason is just as much self-denial as staying in a suffocating relationship is. The damage wrought to one’s self is similar, it only feels different because in your own mind you can flee from reality, whereas another’s person is always there as a concrete reminder of your situation. It is the difference between future pain and present pain; sooner or later, your own mind will catch up to you: it is always keeping score, and the reality you are evading will strike home. Forget living in ” reaction”, one way or another to cultural incentives and norms: think for yourself in all aspects of your life, or be prepared to pay the price in spirit, happiness, and serenity.

    • Bill Brown

      Hear, hear!

  • dawnshine

    Wow… women sure have it made in married life in Japan!! That is not the case in many places where women Do Not rule, and being a working party of the joint just means a woman has to do it All while the husband sits in front of TV to get served after work and the woman continued the endless jobs after work of cleaning, cooking, and raising And disciplining the children, as well as most of her salary going towards the bills. Some very talented women have the control spoke of as the assumed majority of wives in Japan elsewhere… but it is definitely Not the Majority. Ohitorisama is best for women too, so as to avoid such pitfalls that kill all their freedom and relaxation and joys.

    • Who chose to marry him?
      Who chose to marry into that situation?
      She did.

      There is a world dating market out there. Rejection of the whole notion of a romantic relationship is pure laziness based on broken beliefs; the laziness to not look for what you would rather have in another person. Submission to the lifestyle of being alone for this reason is proof of the kind of weak person that would also accept being in the situation you describe. The only difference is they went from being a person with fear and obligations, to a person with fear and disillusionment.

  • Amathis

    “Maybe humans were meant to live alone.” Is this sarcasm?
    “Marriage” is not a matter of “happiness”. The one thing has nothing to do with the other thing. It’s about family and safety. Bringing up problems men with women have is nothing new, too and old as the time. That’s why we are different and pubs and soaps were invented.
    The real problem is our careers collide more and more with the concept of marriage and family. And not only in Japan.