“Why don’t they get married?” anguished parents wonder of their aging unmarried children.

The various explanations boil down to two: “I don’t want to” and “I can’t” — can’t for economic, social or psychological reasons; don’t want to because, for example: “For meals there’s the convenience store, for laundry there’s the dry cleaner’s. And I’ve discovered I don’t have an overwhelming need for sex.” Or, from a woman’s point of view, “If I were to come home late from work some evening and my husband asked me, ‘Where’s my dinner?’ I’d kill him.”

Those snippets come from Spa magazine — not the current issue but that of Nov. 11, 1998. So if the Japanese family is in crisis, as a glance through the table of contents of Ushio magazine’s “overview of the family” this month suggests it is, it’s not a cataclysmic crisis but a slowly unfolding one — maybe, therefore, reversible, if there’s any point to reversing it.

Is there? Or is the family an archaic institution that has served its purpose and must at last succumb to social changes that make it redundant?

Ushio’s table of contents implicitly warns the reader: This is no tale of family happiness — rather one of “poverty,” “domestic violence,” “fraud,” “hikikomori.” Has civilization’s oldest institution come to this?

Only yesterday, it seems, almost everyone was, or aspired to be, a member of a family. It didn’t necessarily make for happiness — the family sowed as much hatred as love, and everybody knew it — but it made us complete, somehow, or seemed to, as solitude, generally speaking, did not.

There have always been reasons not to marry. The story goes a lot farther back than 1998. In “A History of Japanese Political Thought: 1600-1901,” historian Hiroshi Watanabe cites a text from 1735 that idealizes homosexual love among warriors honed and hardened by their intimacy with death. Marital love is the milk-and-water substitute for those not so honed and hardened. They, the text contemptuously concludes, “may as well renounce the love of men and be led about by the nose by some meek and compliant woman.”

For women of the time, this advice (quoted by the same author) was current: “For a wife to talk too much not only sounds bad, but it can also cause her to alienate people and be abandoned by her husband.” And this: “From the day she becomes a bride, a woman’s chief task is to behave in such a way as not to be cast aside (by her husband).” A young woman reading that might well say, prefiguring the woman Spa spoke to 2½ centuries later, “If my husband ever talked to me like that, I’d kill him!”

And yet, somehow, marriage endured, even flourished. The Meiji Period (1868-1912), famous for mass industrialization and commercialization, had a softer side — a domesticity boom, we’d call it today. Among a flood of Western imports was the homū (home) — a setting not for the stiffly hierarchical family relations of traditional Japan but one in which, according to a 1903 text on modern manners cited by historian Jordan Sand in an essay titled “At Home in the Meiji Period,” one should “institute a conversation or (tea) gathering every evening for an hour or two after supper, bring the family together, and console one another with mutual love and kindness after the day’s labors … gaze at the baby’s endearing face and smile together; or listen to the innocent voices of the children recounting the subjects they studied or the moral lessons they learned at school.”

“Mutual love and kindness” masked, unfortunately, the chattel status of women. Rape, for example, explains lawyer Yukiko Tsunoda in an Asahi Shimbun interview published this month, was defined by the Penal Code of 1907 as a crime against the woman’s husband or father — not against the woman herself.

Few living today will fail to be horrified by that — a measure of how far we’ve come; as the derisory smirk that comes as an involuntary response to Meiji sentimentality is a measure of how far we’ve yet to go.

Ushio’s “overview” is a portrait of, if not a failed institution, one buckling under the severe social strains of modernity gone somehow wrong. The vast wealth it spawns is tainted by the poverty it also spawns: One-sixth of children in Japan live below the poverty line, the health ministry says. Burgeoning technology with its limitless communication network helps breed hikikomori: the official number of people with hikikomori now aged 40-60 after some 20 years of reclusion is 610,000. Domestic violence is an indication of stress and dissatisfaction: The number of abused children in 2018 was a record-high 80,104, so far as the police know.

Among Ushio’s several contributors, Tokyo University professor Shin Sato most directly addresses the question of why so many more people than ever before opt out of marriage. “Lifestyle change” is a frequently recurring motif. Never before, he observes, have people been so free to choose a “lifestyle.” The pattern set in Meiji and resumed postwar — boys becoming husbands, fathers and dedicated, reasonably well-paid workers; girls becoming wives, mothers and homemakers — crumbled in the recession of the 1990s. Good riddance to it, said those who relished the dawning new freedom; but the recession and its accompanying hiring freeze crimped the economic opportunities just as technology mushroomed and longevity soared — creating a brave new world to which the family has yet to adapt.

And yet we need it, says Ushio; we need, if nothing else, the protection it affords against a brand new array of lurking menaces “out there.” Journalist Fumiaki Tada, in his contribution, marvels at the sinister ingenuity of fraud artists who are as comfortable with the new technology as their mostly elderly victims are at sea in it. The fraudsters come at you in the guise of lawyers, bankers, police officers: “You ordered ¥3 million worth of Olympic tickets.” “I didn’t!” “Ah, well then, someone has stolen your identity; please don’t worry; we’ll put it right, for a fee” — and so on. “Do nothing on your own! Consult your family!” is Tada’s advice. To do that, of course, you must have one.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.