For the first time, single people have become the largest category of household in Japan. A preliminary tabulation of last year’s government census revealed June 29 that the number of single-member households exceeded 30 percent of the total 50.9 million households in the country.

Japan once was a country that prided itself on its family cohesion and group orientation, but with some 15.9 million people living alone, it is now becoming a nation of individuals.

The change has been swift. Since the last census in 2005, single-member households leaped 10 percent. Previously, households of couples with children were the most common. They are losing ground, though, as couple-only and single-parent households have steadily increased.

Other demographic studies even predict that by 2030 there will be more households of couples without children than with children.

Already, the average number of persons per household is at a record low of 2.46, a significant change in the image of the traditional nuclear family as the core of Japanese life.

Part of the reason for smaller households was revealed in a separate Cabinet Office survey released May 11. Japanese are not only living alone, they are living with less income. That survey found the rate of marriage for Japanese men depended heavily on annual income.

The fault line between married and unmarried was ¥3 million. Below that income level, only 8 to 10 percent of men in their 20s and 30s were married.

Above 3 million, the proportion rose to 25 to 40 percent married in different income brackets. By their early 30s, 30 percent of nonregular workers and 56 percent of regular corporate employees were married. That significantly higher ratio for regular employees shows stability is as important in the decision to get married as income, though the two usually go together.

All of that might suggest marriage has gone out of fashion. However, the majority of men and women in their 20s and 30s insisted they were willing to get married. More than 80 percent of both men and women said they would like to get married. Apparently, they are waiting for the right person with the right job at the right pay before they do so.

The Cabinet survey also pointed out that the majority of families with children in 1997 had incomes of ¥5 million to ¥6.9 million. By 2007, however, most families with children had incomes of ¥3 million to ¥3.9 million per year.

In practical terms, that drop in average income is equivalent to a year’s tuition and expenses for two kids.

Why more and more couples are choosing to have fewer children, or none at all, just might be that they have lost the means to pay for their education. Many, of course, are not bothering to get married at all.

This radical shift in the social structure means that Japan’s concept of itself is due for revision and reconsideration. A society where only the wealthy can afford to get married and raise children is not a fair and democratic one.

Each culture around the world provides customary ways of looking at marriage, children and family, which undergo evolution while guiding individuals in deciding what to do. But in Japan, those decisions have become increasingly limited.

Few Japanese would agree that money should be the basis of life’s most important decisions.

The solution to this problem depends on reducing the costs of education and improving conditions for workers. Putting education and child-raising costs within the financial means of more workers is essential, but it is not just about money. People need greater freedom of choice.

Ensuring sufficient holiday and leisure time is also crucial. Giving employees time to pursue activities where they can connect with others outside work will encourage social interaction. That will help reduce the isolation of living alone.

If a more supportive and nurturing economic environment was provided, maybe many of the 80 percent of people in their 20s and 30s who say they want to get married might go ahead and take the plunge.

At the same time, the past half-century of government policies aimed at the nuclear family must be reconsidered. Those policies have not slowed the march toward individualism; nor have they achieved their stated goal of slowing the falling birthrate.

If the nuclear family is no longer the basic social and economic building block in Japan, policies to support other types of households must be instituted as well.

Those Japanese who live alone, especially elderly people, whether by choice or circumstance, also deserve help and support.

That Japan has become a differently structured country has both positive and negative sides. It is now a reality that must be admitted so the negative side can be made better.

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