Nearly 40 percent of single people in their 20s and 30s do not want a romantic partner, according to a survey by the Cabinet Office released in June. The survey was included in a government white paper on Japan’s notoriously low birthrate that also found 46.2 percent of singles claiming that relationships were “bothersome.” That phrase may in part explain why Japan’s birthrate has dropped precipitously, but it also points to what improvements might help all people in or out of relationships.

Of those surveyed, 28.8 percent said they are unmarried and are not in a romantic relationship. Of those, 39.1 percent of women and 36.2 percent of men said they did not even want a romantic partner. The percentage of people who have never married by the age of 50 is also increasing, the survey found.

Low-income earners were even less interested in romantic relationships. Perhaps they have already given up on the possibility. An earlier survey found that 30 percent of unmarried women would only marry someone who made over ¥5 million a year. In Japan, romantic potential and financial security seem to be linked closely, but the full effect of the economy on relationships is hard to ascertain.

The government has vowed to provide support for all stages of individuals’ lives to encourage couples to have children, but it could start by helping to curtail long working hours. Working until midnight, it is hard for people in their 20s and 30s to meet anyone outside of work, much less potential partners. Insufficient leisure time means no chance to unwind and recharge, but also no chance to socialize.

Gender inequality also affects attitudes toward romantic relationships. When 70 percent of women quit their jobs after their first child, with few returning afterwards, it means men remain the breadwinners in most families. But if it were easier for women to return to work, find stable employment and earn more, relationships would change considerably for the better. Gender inequality puts pressure on the nature of all relationships in society.

Other factors causing this rejection of romance are harder to comprehend, and to combat. Many young people complain that relationships have simply become too complicated, and surely the omnipresence of technology, which dominates off-work time and mediates many relationships, makes face-to-face contact less common.

The government can’t do much to engineer social attitudes and suddenly make relationships easier and having children inviting. However, the government can do a lot to help reduce overtime hours, ensure that work stress is reduced and work toward erasing gender inequality. Focusing on those issues it can influence, the government can create the conditions for young people to pursue what in other times and places is one of humanity’s most common pursuits — romance.

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