National / Social Issues

Japan's low-earning adults find it hard to leave home, marry

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Freelance writer Kenji Ayase was 25 when he moved back in with his parents after finding he couldn’t afford to live on his own. He tried, but found within a year that it just wasn’t paying off.

After seven years, the Tokyo resident’s annual income remains around ¥2 million, the threshold of the so-called working poor. At 32, he remains single.

Nonetheless, Ayase (not his real name) says he considers himself lucky compared with other economically challenged young adults who are unable to move out.

“Unlike many others in my situation, I have a pretty good relationship with my parents,” he said, adding that his parents, both in their 60s, are self-employed and likely to be able to maintain their current income level as long as they stay healthy.

“But if you’re not on good terms with your parents, chances are you may fall out with them and have to leave their home even though doing so means becoming homeless overnight.”

Ayase is among tens of thousands of workers who have no choice but to live with their parents.

As the economy worsened after the implosion of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, companies increased their ranks of nonregular workers, taking on temps and part-timers to cut costs.

Because the economy remained stagnant, many of these workers became stuck as nonregulars, making it difficult to gain financial independence.

To many, living with their parents remains an undesirable but unavoidable part of preventing homelessness.

Critics say the government should help such people stand on their own two feet by making housing subsidies and low-rent public housing available. Policies like these are essential if the nation is to combat poverty among the younger generations, they say.

A survey by the Japanese arm of the homeless charity Big Issue Foundation says 77 percent of the nation’s low-income unmarried youths live with their parents mainly for financial reasons.

The survey of 1,767 nonmarried individuals 20 to 39 with annual incomes below ¥2 million found that many respondents were either jobless or employed on a nonregular basis, including as part-timers, day laborers or temporary workers.

“The result shows that for many low-income youths today, trying to live independently such as by renting an apartment is a risky act that could lead to homelessness,” said Tsuyoshi Inaba, co-founder of independent homeless support agency Moyai. “To avoid such a risk, they choose to stay at their parents’ places.”

But living with parents can be so stressful it could lead to the development of a serious mental illness.

Take Takashi Sato, not his real name, a 37-year-old company employee in Tokyo. Having lived with his prying and overbearing parents his whole life, Sato describes it as “nerve-wracking” to be around them.

Sato says his parents are so obsessed with keeping tabs on the minutest details of his daily life that at one point he stopped socializing altogether to cease their questioning. Even taking a day off from work is no easy task, he says, because it would trigger a relentless torrent of questions on why he needed to take one.

“If I were to tell them I don’t need a dinner one certain night, I’d need to explain why. If I came back home late, they would ask me what I was doing. It feels like I’m under their constant surveillance,” he said. “You may think it’s a small thing to fuss about, but it really wears me out.”

Despite such annoyances and an annual salary close to ¥4 million, Sato says he balks at living alone because at age 37, he thinks it’s too late to start a new life.

The experience of a 33-year-old single jobless woman living off welfare benefits in Saitama Prefecture, agrees with this. She said being under control of her overly strict parents caused her an anxiety disorder.

But now that she lives alone, “my condition has gotten better,” she said.

Tales of strained filial relationships and nervous breakdowns are common among many young adults living with their parents, says Saitama-based social worker and antipoverty activist Takanori Fujita.

“Youths who want to move out of their parents’ homes but can’t are understandably frustrated. As a result, many of them suffer from a variety of mental disorders and some even become violent toward their families,” he said at a symposium in Tokyo in February.

Fujita also said the increase in economically dependent youths could slow the nation’s dwindling birthrate further because living with parents often interferes with their pursuit of romance and marriage.

The Big Issue survey found that nearly 80 percent of those living with their parents are pessimistic about their prospects for marriage, with some convinced they are “incapable” of getting married and others content to remain single.

Sato, for one, at 37, agrees that living with his parents makes it difficult to find a girlfriend. Potential partners found with a matchmaking agency gave him the cold shoulder the moment they learned he was living at home — which they seem to take as a sign that he is either a slacker sponging off his parents or weirdly intimate with them, he said.

Japan lags behind other industrialized nations in helping its impoverished youths become independent, said Yosuke Hirayama, a professor of housing policy studies in Kobe University who played a lead role in the Big Issue survey.

“The thing about Japan’s housing policy is that it only caters to middle-income families, while there is almost nothing to help low-income young adults make a living by themselves,” he said.

For example, Japan is one of the few OECD countries where the central government doesn’t offer the poor housing benefits, he said. Furthermore, studies show that compared with such Western countries as the U.K., France, Netherlands and Sweden, the availability of public housing in Japan is abysmally low, he said.

To top it off, young singles used to be screened out when applying for public housing. This changed when the law was revised in 2011, but in practice some local municipalities still adhere to the old policies and eject singletons during the application process. Those who get priority are those deemed to have dire need, such as the elderly, disabled, crime victims and people fleeing abusive spouses.

Hirayama explains that the government’s lack of aid toward young singles has been based on the premise that they are well paid and don’t need benefits.

When the economy was booming, it was easy for university graduates to get a full-time job. Under the seniority system, their salary would basically increase automatically every year and marriage would be viable. Sooner or later, they would create another middle-income household.

Now that economic growth has plateaued, Hirayama says such life cycles have become a thing of the past, with an estimated 36.6 percent of those under 35 now plagued by hiseiki, or irregular employment.

“Parental homes can’t remain their safety net indefinitely,” Inaba from Moyai said.

“As the parents get older, their economic situation will become tougher and there eventually comes a time when they can no longer afford to accommodate their adult children. The government needs to reform its housing policies drastically so the young can become more self-sufficient.”