Love is in the air as actress Yui Aragaki, 32, and actor-musician Gen Hoshino, 40, announced last week they will be getting married. Apparently, plans for a proper wedding ceremony are still up in the air — and, of course, it’s too soon to even ask about kids — but nevertheless it was a piece of celebratory news that lightened the spirits of many a Japanese fan.
While we can’t call the couple exceptions, statistics indicate that wedding bells are ringing less and less these days. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, only 492,908 couples tied the knot last year, down 12.8% from the previous year, and the number of newborn babies born in Japan and to Japanese nationals abroad hit an all-time low of 872,683.
So the Hoshino-Aragaki union is a bit of a morale booster when it comes to romance. The pair met on the set of the 2016 runaway hit miniseries, “Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu” (“The Full-Time Wife Escapist”), which is about an undateable bachelor named Hiramasa (Hoshino) who slowly falls in love with his housekeeper, Mikuri (Aragaki). Eventually, he proposes.
“Nigehaji,” as it’s referred to by fans, plays on two fantasies that the media likes to play up for singles: First, that a man such as Hoshino’s character could land a woman 10 years younger than him, and second, that people find love in the workplace. Weekly women’s magazine Shukan Josei Prime says that what was so electrifying about the Aragaki-Hoshino coupling was that the on-screen fantasy actually came true — the happy ending was real life. Since the show was a big hit when it aired, the magazine hinted that perhaps it could light a spark with Japan’s pandemic-weary singles.
Toyo Keizai Online reports a possible “Nigehaji” effect in one article that says konkatsu (matchmaking) agencies are now receiving inquiries from men in their 40s wishing to meet women who are around 10 years younger than themselves. Hmm, that may have been the wrong takeaway from the wedding news. Toyo Keizai seems to agree, taking a brusque, peremptory tone with such men, informing them that “the demographic that’s most likely to meet and marry younger women are younger men.” Ouch.
Look on the bright side, at least Japanese men are looking. A week before the Aragaki-Hoshino announcement, Nikkei Business was warning that “if there are no love relationships, there will be no children” in an article that decried the bleak state of dating amid the pandemic.
The magazine interviewed Masashi Kawai, the head of the Population Decline Countermeasure Research Institute and the man who coined the phrase “baby shock” to describe the sudden dip in the number of births in Japan.
“The coronavirus has possibly fast-forwarded Japan’s birthrate decline by 18 years,” said Kawai, adding that while 2020 was bad for births, this year could be even worse, with a predicted dip to 750,000, which Kawai had originally predicted would happen in 2039.
“Amid the pandemic, many couples were hesitant to hold wedding ceremonies — or marry at all — as people were not supposed to go out,” Kawai said. “And with news that the hospitals are being overwhelmed at this time, married couples have been less willing to have babies.”
Love happened a little later in life for Hoshino (the average age for men to marry in Japan is 31), and writer Kazuhisa Arakawa, who specializes in all things related to bachelorhood, says that traditional paths to the altar and life afterward are simply falling out of favor. Four years ago he wrote in Toyo Keizai that “childlessness is happening not just among singles but among married couples, too. The number of married adults with no kids has tripled in the past 40 years.”
Now add to that the isolation of a pandemic, economic worries brought about by said pandemic and the fear of having to go to a hospital to give birth and be exposed to COVID-19 and, well, we’re not exactly living in romantic times.
Arakawa and other experts have been suggesting that love and marriage, while nice to have, aren’t absolute necessities in the modern world. Even Anan, a weekly women’s magazine famed for cover stories on sexual desire, says relationships based on love are overrated.
That’s not to say people aren’t interested in romance. On May 20, Arakawa wrote a piece for Nikkei Comemo about the “ideal family” that was triggered by the Aragaki-Hoshino nuptials. As soon as he heard the news, Arakawa says he was consumed by “an overwhelming need to talk over the issue with someone over drinks.”
However, the gist of his argument remains the same: “The ideal family is a notion that doesn’t exist,” he wrote. “If you start thinking that there is an ideal anything, you’re standing at the entrance of hell. … We all have to figure out who we really are as individuals, before we can think about sharing (ourselves) with others.”
Perhaps that will be what provides Hoshino and Aragaki with a strong foundation for their marriage. Congratulations are in order to both of them, and I’m sure the news is bound to have Japan’s middle-aged singles dancing on the inside.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.
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