Guest Post by Laura Dales
[Bella’s intro: There has been so much in the media lately about single people in Japan, much of it sensational. Have they given up on sex? Do they hide out in their rooms and never come out? When I read stories about single people in Japan, I always wonder what people who actually study single people in Japan have to say. So I was delighted when the very smart and thoughtful scholar Professor Laura Dales agreed to tell us what she has learned about single women in Japan. This is Part 1. Thanks, Laura!]
Single Women in Japan, Part I: Getting Called Loser Dogs and Parasites
Guest Post by Laura Dales
You can do as you please. The best thing is that there is no one interfering in things. You can come home whenever you like. No one gets angry if the dirty clothes build up.
These are the advantages of being single, according to 36 year old Ms Tanioka, a white-collar heterosexual professional who lives alone in Osaka. She’s a perfect example of the kind of Japanese woman labeled over the years as “the single aristocracy”, “Christmas cake”, “loser dog” (makeinu) and “singleton” (ohitorisama). Bright, articulate and energetic, Tanioka is no unhappy spinster. And although she is 8 years past the average age at which Japanese women first marry, she is far from a rarity.
Japan is a low-fertility, hyper-aged society. This means that alongside its declining birthrate, there is an increasing proportion of the population aged over 65 years (more than 23% in 2011). On average, each Japanese woman will have 1.3 children over her reproductive life. This is well below the number needed to replace the population (2.1 – which is coincidentally the 2011 total fertility rate for the US). And with the highest overall average life expectancy in the world (78 yrs for men, 83yrs for women), Japan’s population is skewing dramatically towards the elderly.
Its also, slowly, starting to skew towards singles. As people marry later, and women particularly are outliving their partners, an increasing proportion of Japanese adulthood is spent outside marriage.
More single women, very few single mothers
While single women form a majority of their age group until they reach 29 years, it is after this age that singles start to move to the margins. Unmarried women between the ages of 35 and 74 are a numerical minority. Historically, marriage has been a normative marker of maturity in Japanese women’s lives, marking the passage into responsible adulthood and allowing for the birth of children. In fact, a striking feature of the social landscape in Japan is that the never-married woman is very unlikely to have children, because the rate of births outside marriage is negligible (2.1% in 2008).
Single (especially never-married) mothers in Japan are therefore particularly marginalized. Ekaterina Hertog, an anthropologist who has studied single mothers in Japan, suggests that the guilt of failing to meet an ideal (of the two-parent family) is a key factor in keeping Japanese women from having children out of wedlock.
However, the percentage of single (divorced) mothers is on the increase. This may suggest that the initial contract of marriage, which ensures that the child is registered on the family registry (koseki) under the father’s name, is more important than maintaining the marriage. Or it may be that with increased prevalence of divorce, there is less stigma against divorced single mothers. Interestingly, weddings that follow pregnancy (dekichattakon or “shotgun weddings”) increased from 2.4% in 1980 to 9.4% in 2004. It is clear that women’s fertility remains tightly bound to marriage.
Its not surprising then that the role of single women in Japan’s population decline has been a topic of interest for several decades now, evidenced by the array of different terms that construct singlehood as problematic.
Getting called ‘loser dogs,’ ‘parasite singles,’ and ‘Christmas cakes’
In the 1980s Japanese women like Ms Tanioka who remained unmarried beyond 25 were labeled “Christmas cakes” (i.e. of no value after the 25th). In the late 90’s, unmarried women who lived with their parents were labeled “parasite singles” by sociologist Masahiro Yamada. [Bella’s note: I made fun of the “parasite single” conversation in Singled Out.]
In 2003, Junko Sakai’s bestseller, The Howl of the Loser Dog (Make inu no Tôboe), satirized the stigma attached to unmarried women in their 30s. Sakai, unmarried and in her mid-30s at the time of the book’s publication, was critical of the disproportionate value accorded to marriage: no matter how beautiful, how successful or accomplished a woman was, if unmarried by the age of 35 she is designated a “loser”. Social stigma aside, Sakai paints a glowing picture of single life – her makeinu are typically well-educated, urban-dwelling professionals with disposable income.
More recently, the term ohitorisama has appeared, variously translated into English as “singleton”, “single woman” and “individual”. The term was coined by the late journalist Kumiko Iwashita in her blog “The Association for the Promotion of the Single” (Ohitorisama no Kôjô Înkai). It was then the term popularized in the 2007 best seller “Living Senior Years Alone” (Ohitorisama no rôgo) by feminist sociologist Chizuko Ueno. Ueno focuses on singlehood towards the end of life, but her basic argument is salient for all women: be prepared for life as a single!
In a low birth rate, ageing population, the time that women spend “doing family” is contracting. Even if they have a spouse, given the average life expectancy, in most cases the husband will pass on first. At most there are one or two children, and at some point they will leave home.
If that’s the case, women need to prepare themselves, to obtain the know-how not just to “do family”, but also how to live alone. If everyone, at some point, ends up alone, the difference is just whether you start preparing for it earlier or later (2007, p. 2).
[Bella’s note: Part 2 is coming soon. Here it is.]
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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From Psych Central's website:
Part 2 of Single Women in Japan: ‘Loser Dogs’ Bite Back | Single at Heart (December 17, 2013)
Last reviewed: 20 Dec 2013