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.”

  • KietaZou

    If the LDP and Japan Inc. wanted Japanese to have more children, they’d have done something on this 20 years ago. Instead, they are going to allow, if they get their way w/ their swindle of a majority, with making it harder for hard-working young people to ever get a secure job by allowing endless abuse of “temps” and “contract workers.”

    Like the scorpion said to the frog in the fable, it’s their nature.

  • Steve Scott

    Maybe the problem is that companies aren’t paying their workers enough. I was looking at moving to Japan, but, for example, technology jobs, the salaries are half what they are in the USA. A science graduate making $40k a year is unheard of in the US. Japanese housing isn’t as expensive as housing in New York or San Francisco, but (most of us) make so much more than the Japanese, at least enough for an apartment. I could never live in New York for such low wages, yet many in Tokyo are forced to. You get what you pay for. If you want people to have homes and families, and if you want to attract talent, you have to pay well.

  • Btd

    The government should help these people to stand on their feet” so say critics…. So if someone decides to become a freelance writer or studies underwater basket weaving at university with a guarantee to be unemployed later the government should help. Wake up people, study something useful or learn a trade/profession and you won’t’ need the state, pathetic!

  • Jack

    “Critics say the government should help such people stand on their own two feet by making housing subsidies and low-rent public housing available.”

    That’s rather oxymoronic. Sorry, folks, but your not living independently if you are dependent on the government. Such people SHOULD be living with their parents.

  • Nina Bradford

    The young people in Japan are going through the exact same issue as young adults everywhere in America. Most of these jobs they have here in the US simply don’t pay well enough to handle the astronomical living costs in most of America’s major cities. That and also with the lack of aid for young adults out there make it really hard for us to even attempt to make ends meet. This is a common trend throughout the world that is constantly damaging the psyche of society.

    Trust me, I know. Even when you learn a trade, most businesses will go out of their way to undercut you on your lack of field experiences. Also half these trade schools will hit you with loans after loans making it still damn near impossible to earn enough money to start your own family. These are the challenges young people face: low paying jobs, extremely high living costs, and even worse loan interest costs.

    No wonder young people like me are having a tough time everywhere.

  • Smile

    We face a similar problem in major cities in Canada right now. A 7-year declining economy, ever-rising housing costs completely out of proportion with stagnant wages, fewer living-wage, family-supporting jobs every year, more and more low-paying jobs with part-time hours or temporary contracts, is causing more and more young adults to delay moving out of their parents’ homes, marriage, first home purchase, and having children. The birth rate stays below the replacement rate. Our governments response has been to increase immigration, to keep total population growth around 5%/year, and also to bring in hundreds of thousands of low-paid Temporary Foreign Workers, to fill an alleged “labour-shortage”. The import of hundreds of thousands of mostly highly-educated, middle-class workers, who must frequently settle for low-paying unskilled work, drives down wages and increases demand for low-cost housing, and so makes the job-shortage and housing-shortage all the more acute.

    Prominent articles on The Economist and Forbes decry Japan’s “population black hole”, and “shrinking population crisis”. Japan’s ultra-low fertility rate, coupled with no strong immigration policy, are allegedly causing a devastating shortage of workers, which will collapse Japan’s economy. If Japanese young adults face a shortage of living-wage jobs, and a shortage of affordable housing, then these claims sound dubious. A shortage of workers should result in higher wages. A shortage of new household formations (lower demand for homes) should result in lower prices for homes. A lack of international real estate investment, should keep local housing prices tied to local wages, and therefore affordable to local workers.

    Perhaps Japan’s declining economy isn’t caused by a rapidly declining population. Perhaps Canada’s declining economy isn’t caused by a rapidly growing population. Perhaps major economies rise and decline as a cycle of capitalism, or perhaps both economies are simply equalizing in an ever more globalized world economy, to more closely resemble the living standards currently seen in developing economies around the world. My coworker from Mexico says it’s perfectly normal for adults in her country to live with their parents until they get married, and not uncommon for a married couple to share a family home with one set of their parents as well as their children. In Europe too, multiple generations sharing a home is considered normal.

    Perhaps Japan’s government has taken a better-thought-out approach to cushioning their people from the discomfort of life in a declining economy. By taking no special steps to stimulate population growth, japanese young people at least face no extra competition for an inevitable post-decline reality of limited jobs and housing.

    Perhaps the angst felt by so many Canadians and Japanese aged 20-40 years old, is caused by our own unrealistic cultural expectations. Our parents thought it was normal for a young married couple to achieve full employment, high wages, benefits, a single detached home, 1 or 2 cars, new electronics, and occasional family vacations. These goals were so easily attainable in our parents’ lifetimes, a person who did not attain them was considered abnormal. Yet, for most of pre-1945 Canadian history, this lifestyle was not attainable for most Canadians. In most of the world today, even for most people in BRIC countries, this lifestyle is a lofty new goal, but not yet achieved by most people. I think that for most of human history, simply being able to probably provide your offspring a basic subsistence, was the only requisite to marriage and parenthood. If you could do that, you felt good about yourself, and ready to try. Perhaps young adults the world over ought to lighten up on ourselves and potential partners about career disappointments, and just let love happen. Anyone else got a better idea?

  • anoninjapan

    “…“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.”…”

    Not to most foreigners living in Japan it doesn’t. It’s part of daily life living in Japan the constant monitoring by all walks of society.

    Until Japan gives up its self proclaimed uniqueness and “we are different” to address any criticism, addressing society issues such as above will only get worse. The dwindling population and lack of Govt. fiscal control added into this mix…it is a powder-keg ready to go off, coming to a street corner near you very very soon! Get ready…

  • Ashwin Campbell

    What the government should do is force companies to pay higher wages, give benefits, and allow more paid vacation. I’m working in Japan making close to ¥6,000,000 a year in a managerial position and that is not even enough to pay the mortgage, send my kid to school, cover all of the bills and taxes, and save. I need to make another ¥100,000 a month then maybe I could save some.

  • Isabella McInally

    This article is citing the exception not the rule. I lived on my own in Tokyo for many years. My expenses were $1300/month – rent, food, utilities and entertainment – transportation was paid by the company. I could have moved into public housing ‘danchi’ if I wanted to. My friend has lived in one for a decade and supports her mother. Some of my friends work for minimum wage $8.80, live at home, or alone, and enjoy life. You have to be able to distinguish luxury from necessity. I’m back in Canada where most people believe owning a car, a home, dining out, cell phones, cool furniture, a 25 degree home in winter, a dryer, dishwasher etc. are necessities. I didn’t come across this sense of entitlement or desire in single people in Japan until I read this article. Certainly, minimum wage should be raised and the Japanese should be able to take their paid vacation, maternity leave, sick days and avoid unpaid overtime without a guilt trip or opposition. But all over the world the days of permanent full-time employment for 100% of the work force and extravagant arbitrary salaries for college grads are gone – and were only around for a few decades. Ware tada taru wo shiru.