[Bella’s intro: The previous article here at “Single at Heart” was a guest post by scholar Laura Dales, “Single Women in Japan, Part I: Getting Called Loser Dogs and Parasites.” This is Part 2.]
Part 2 of Single Women in Japan: ‘Loser Dogs’ Bite Back
Guest Post by Laura Dales
The term ohitorisama (“singleton”) got a further shot of publicity in 2009, with the Japanese broadcaster TBS-screened drama Ohitorisama. The plot centered on the work and love travails of an intelligent, driven, but domestically-incompetent 33 year old female high school teacher. The term ohitorisama offers an alternative path to women: a positive, hopeful identity available to women who do not marry, and do not have children.
Of course, not all single heterosexual Japanese women aspire to marriage. Tokyo-dwelling Ms Kuroda, in her late 30s, is a writer and activist on issues relating to women’s poverty and unemployment. She lives alone and has never seriously thought about marriage or living with a male partner. Kuroda suggests that women’s under-employment and unemployment (and ergo their lack of financial capacity) is obscured by an implicitly standard progression in life course:
People think you can just be supported by your husband. Japanese people tend to think if you’ve got family then you’re ok—it’s alright if you have a father or a husband.
As a happily unmarried woman, Kuroda rejects this idea and instead argues that the lack of affordable housing and unemployment are the key barriers to women’s independence. And although she is single and lives in Tokyo, Kuroda also distances herself from the term ohitorisama — the term implies a lifestyle of consumption that is light-years away from what is possible for an activist and writer.
As buzzwords, makeinu (“loser dog”) and ohitorisama (“singleton”) can be understood as indicators of cultural trends. The recent history of Japanese women’s singlehood is signposted by such catch-phrases, marking the particular ways that singlehood is problematic for women. The terms are sometimes appropriated by feminists—as in the case of Sakai’s “loser dogs”—but they retain a sufficiently negative connotation that most women, like Ms Kuroda, don’t adopt them seriously. While the term ohitorisama is not pejorative like “Christmas cake” or “parasite single”, it’s not necessarily an identity taken up by all women who might qualify.
This is partly because the boundaries of inclusion are relatively narrow. Ohitorisama are usually perceived to be urban, professional women who have the financial and physical wherewithal to consume – food, fashion, beauty services and leisure – as they please. They are committed to work and reluctant to sacrifice their hard-won careers.
This is an attractive alternative to being a housewife. It’s also a marked improvement on being a “loser” because of an absent wedding band.
Of course, the currency of terms like ohitorisama is not a silver bullet for single women’s marginality. As Ms Kuroda points out, women with care responsibilities, the under-employed and unemployed, and those with physical or mental health difficulties, are inevitably excluded from the glamorous consumption of the ohitorisama lifestyle as it appears on TV.
The other problem with these terms is that they obscure the main sources of that marginality: financial insecurity and structural inequality. Japan ranked 105th of 136 countries in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, with women representing only 10% of company executives. It is still difficult to be single, financially self-sufficient and female.
There’s no doubt that for some unmarried Japanese women, marriage is a desired future destination. For some, it’s desirable because it represents a normalized lifestyle progression, or because it enables other roles that provide meaning (namely, childbearing). Being married means access to the social cache of wifehood and (potentially) motherhood. And as Sakai Junko’s “loser dog” discussion makes plain, this can overshadow all other achievements in a woman’s life.
However, it’s also clear that for many women, including Ms Tanioka, marriage may be desirable but not essential: security and meaning otherwise found in the reproductive family may be found in career achievements or other intimate relationships. For others, being married is neither desirable nor essential. The single-at-heart Japanese woman, such as Ms Kuroda, doesn’t look to marriage as the ultimate goal. Rather, she aspires to having the economic stability, security that marriage promises.
Delaying or rejecting marriage may be an intentional act of resistance, a challenge to the belief that a woman’s happiness is only truly to be found in marriage and motherhood. But it may also be a pragmatic decision, made in light of the costs and compromises involved in marriage.
Whatever the reason, the outcome remains: single life is attracting more attention, and more careful consideration to the kinds of relationships that bring meaning to women’s lives, before and beyond marriage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Dales is Assistant Professor in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her research interests include women’s groups, sexuality, singlehood and marriage in Japan, and she is the author of the book Feminist Movements in Contemporary Japan (Routledge, 2009). At present she is working on an Australia Research Council-funded project on intimacy beyond the family in contemporary Japan.
Asian woman image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 17 Dec 2013