In Japan, Can Marriage Be a Hobby and Friendship for Real?

Guest post by Asian Studies scholar Laura Dales

Posted Dec 20, 2013

[Bella’s intro: There are so many sensationalist stories in the media these days about single people in Japan—are they sexless? Are they hiding out in their rooms for months and never coming out?—that I was delighted that a scholar who has actually studied single women in Japan was willing to share what she has learned. She is Professor Laura Dales. (You can read more about her in the “About the Author” section at the end of this article.) Her contribution is in three parts and the first two have already been published elsewhere: Single women in Japan, Part 1: Getting called loser dogs and parasites, and Part 2 of single women in Japan: ‘Loser dogs’ bite back. This is the third and final part. Thanks, Laura!]

From Laura Dales: As Natalie Angier’s recent article detailed, in America today “family” is an umbrella term for an array of connective relationships, not limited to those based on blood ties. Sociologists in North America and western Europe have suggested that factors such as increased divorce, delayed marriage, and an increased proportion of people living alone, challenge notions of the family—and intimacy—as contained within one discrete and fixed household. When the family is fluid, there’s good reason to seek support in other places.

Although the majority of Japanese women and men do still marry, more Japanese are spending more of their adult lives unmarried—never-married, divorced or widowed. While there has been a lot of recent excitement in western media about Japanese trends in sexlessness – sometimes in a slightly sensationalist, “wacky Japan” manner (see Yuta Aoki’s critique of these reports) there has been less focus on intimacy outside the bedroom, and indeed outside the home. With delays in marriage, and more people living alone, friendships and other non-family relationships can provide valuable alternatives to the networks of material and emotional support that family relationships have typically played for the Japanese.

Feminists in Japan have written extensively about the significance of non-familial relationships, and the ways that they reflect the convergence between the personal and the political. Chizuko Ueno’s 1988 book Women’s Networks Change the World (Joen ga yo no naka wo kaeru), identified the relationships created by women in Japanese society as distinct from kin, company and neighbourhood ties. More recently, in her Ohitorisama books about singlehood in old age, Ueno calls friendship “a security net,” and suggests that the practice of developing and maintaining friendships is essential preparation for the senior years.

Feminist writer and TV personality Yôko Haruka, who has written widely about being an unmarried woman in the entertainment industry, also stresses the significance of friendship for Japanese women in her 2008 book Women Friends (Onna Tomodachi). She argues that friendships, complicated, changeable but ultimately a source of support and intimacy, are comparable to marriage. Comparable, and perhaps preferable: Haruka, whose other works include a book called “I’m Not Getting Married”, is typically critical of marriage and romantic relationships, which she suggests should be at best considered a “hobby” for women.

Haruka and Ueno offer explicitly feminist perspectives on friendship, but their assessment of friendship is one I have heard from a number of Japanese women and men. In my research on singlehood and intimate relationships outside marriage, I’ve interviewed a number of married and unmarried Japanese women and men. I’m interested in the relationship between marriage and friendships, singlehood and intimacy, and gender differences in the ways that intimate relationships are maintained and perceived.

Ms Wada is an academic in her late 30s, a petite woman with a soft face and a thoughtful expression. She lives alone in Nagoya, and while she feels that she may yet marry in the future, seems unconcerned about her present situation: “I don't really have a sense of urgency, but that's not to say I’m rejecting marriage. I think I’d like to marry, if I had the opportunity.”

Wada is more highly educated than the average Japanese woman, but she wouldn’t describe herself as “transgressive”, nor does she align herself with feminists like Ueno and Haruka. She is a professional woman who happens to be unmarried. And for Wada, the possibility that she will not marry is mitigated by other elements of her life that bring satisfaction—namely, her work and friendships. She says:

I would be ok to be alone (single) my whole life. I think there will be more people like me, so maybe people in this situation will start to live together… and help each other, and I think the…way of thinking is changing so I’m not worried. In order to be able to do that I have to save money and I have to build my career.

Its important to note that the desire to marry does not always lead to marriage: many of the women I have spoken with are open to marriage, but have not met a man who fits the bill. This may be about balancing the costs and benefits of singlehood versus marriage. It may also be a lack in opportunity to meet suitable partners – prohibitively long working hours, for example, make it hard for women and men to meet prospective partners.

Stephanie Coontz notes that marriage in the 21st century demands different things of us than it has in the past. This reflects the broad sociopolitical changes that shape individual behaviors and attitudes – the big picture in which we each sketch the details of our personal lives. The costs, benefits and meaning of marriage have changed, in Japan as in the West. And we could make the same argument of singlehood.

Friendships and connections made with other unmarried women don’t necessarily displace the desire or intention to marry, but they may mitigate the vulnerability of being unmarried in a familist society. Ms Wada notes that outside the family there are possibilities for community and belonging, and that these are growing along with the demographic shifts. For the future, she says, “I think saving (money) for yourself is important. Friends and networks are important too.”

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.