Business | YEN FOR LIVING

Can the financial roadblock to marriage ever be dismantled?

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

Special To The Japan Times

On Dec. 20, an advisory panel assembled by the Prime Minister’s Office drafted a final proposal for a bill that has a long-term goal of increasing the country’s sagging birthrate.

The bill’s short-term goal is to promote “marriage activities” among employees of companies and other organizations. One of these activities is a “system that allows local governments to acknowledge and award” good results in promoting marriage at work places. One aspect of this system financially supports local governments in encouraging employers to designate “marriage mentors,” meaning married staff or outside consultants who can give advice to single employees on how to find mates. According to an article in the Huffington Post by Yuriko Izumiya, women’s groups don’t like the bill, but they especially object to the mentor idea, believing it would give companies license to “harass unmarried employees.”

Under pressure from these groups, the panel agreed to remove the “mentor” idea from the bill, but otherwise it will be submitted for approval sometime in the next three months.

In fact, funds were already approved for similar measures in the second supplementary budget of 2016. Local governments can apply for these funds to carry out programs that aim to boost marriage and childbearing rates.

The central government has various award systems in place to recognize progress in these matters. The welfare ministry, for example, gives awards to companies that do something exceptional to “support child-rearing activities” among employees. The award even comes with a tax break. (For the record, advertising giant Dentsu received one of these awards, but it was retracted after a court decided that one of its employees killed herself in December 2015 due to overwork.)

One of the members of the advisory panel told Izumiya that the bill they drafted is not meant to pressure anyone into getting married, but rather to help “create an environment” where employees can realize the kind of “marriage they desire.” However, this person did admit that “the system could end up functioning as a quota at certain companies.”

Izumiya also talked to company employees about the system. One gay man told her that he has not “come out” at his firm, and therefore if his company asked him about his marriage prospects he would consider it “harassment,” since it could force him to reveal his sexual orientation.

Another salaryman in his 40s welcomed the bill since he is already paying money to a matchmaking service. If his company established such a service, “it would be very economical for me,” he said, adding that might also feel uncomfortable because then “everyone in the company would know I’m looking for a mate.”

But more than the issue of privacy and how much the government wants to involve itself in citizens’ romantic lives, the whole idea of funding such activities strikes many as being fiscally irresponsible. In her article, Izumiya says that it isn’t clear if local governments will use the money they receive directly for matchmaking purposes since the purport of the measure is to support such services at companies and other workplaces — something that’s difficult to monitor.

A more realistic complaint came from social critic Maki Fukasawa during a discussion of the bill on Bunka Hoso Radio. Fukasawa says the ¥4 billion the government has earmarked for the program would be much more effectively utilized if it were spent directly on people who either already have children or are trying to have children.

Fukasawa argues that the government should spend it on single mothers struggling to support their families, on childless couples who want to explore fertility treatments, on increasing day care services, and so on. If the government showed that it was willing to provide such direct support, then young couples might be less reluctant to have children, knowing that the authorities have their back. Instead, the government thinks the problem is that not enough people of child-rearing age are getting married.

Toshihiko Maita, a columnist for the online version of the magazine President, believes marriage rates are completely dependent on personal finances. In his Dec. 28 column, he compares male incomes with marriage rates. In 2015, the Cabinet Office carried out a survey that found that 32 percent of males between the ages of 35 and 44 were not married. In 1950, the rate was 2.6 percent for the same demographic. Disregarding changes in social outlook — arranged marriages, for instance, were much more common in 1950 than they are now — Maita found that the main disincentive for marriage now is a man’s relative income.

Another survey, conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2012, found that the unmarried rate for men increased as their incomes dropped: 57 percent of men making ¥2 million or less, 7 percent of men making ¥8 million or more.

Maita also cites findings by the Meiji Research Institute that say 70 percent of unmarried women in their 30s “want” a potential husband to make at least ¥4 million a year, and about half of this group want them to make at least ¥5 million.

However, among men in their 30s, about 50 percent make ¥3 million or less, which means there is a considerable gap between what women expect financially from prospective mates and what men can deliver in that regard. Only 10 percent of women in their 30s say they would marry a man who makes ¥3 million or less.

Maita goes on to dismiss the notion that these results indicate that women “want too much.” Married women in Japan, he says, “have a different reality.” When Maita compared incomes of full-time unmarried male workers to those of full-time unmarried female workers, he found only a slight difference. However, when he compared incomes between married full-time male workers and married full-time female workers the difference was huge.

Married men make much more than unmarried men, while married women make much less on average than unmarried women. The reason is obvious: Married women, whether they work full-time or part-time, are still primarily seen as being bound to their families, while married men are invariably seen as being bound to their employers.

Employers only value female workers if they are unmarried, because they think there are no conflicts. However, married male workers receive more pay and benefits because employers assume they have families to support and will work harder because of it. Women understand this dynamic, which is why they seek mates who make more money. They know that even with two incomes they cannot expect the kind of financial security they need to raise a family unless their male partner makes a certain amount.

Maita points out that this way of thinking is taken for granted by professional matchmaking services, which typically ask male applicants to list their incomes. Female applicants usually don’t have to supply such information. Consequently, the marriage promotion bill, with or without the mentor idea, is likely to fail, since it doesn’t consider the matter from a financial standpoint.

The government thinks marriage is simply a matter of will. As Fukasawa pointed out on Bunka Hoso, philosophically the authorities don’t like to spend money directly on social problems due to an obsession with “personal responsibility.” They are happy to meddle in the public’s romantic lives, but when it comes to money everybody’s on their own.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.