What Japan Can Teach Us About the Future of Relationships
Japanese young people are increasingly choosing to go solo
Posted January 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Japan is leading the pack in the age of singlehood. Three separate surveys conducted between 2010 and 2018 in Britain, the U.S., and Japan reveal that the proportions of women aged 18 to 24 who are currently single were 65.6 percent in Japan, 62.6 percent in the United States, and 41.5 percent in Britain. Yet the gap opens up wildly when looking at the proportion of women aged 35 to 39 who are currently single. The numbers in these surveys were 24.4 percent in Japan, 16.6 percent in the U.S., and 14.0 percent in Britain.1
Another recent population census in Japan revealed what many have feared for decades: for the first time since the census’ 100-year-old history, Japan’s birth rate is officially below replacement. More specifically, the population shrank by approximately 947,000 (0.74 percent) in the five years between 2010 and 2015.1
While some Western European countries may have birth rates similar to those in Japan, the lack of significant immigration to the country means that Japan is more immediately at risk of the consequences of population decline than other developed countries.2 The social, economic, and political consequences are therefore potentially enormous, and as such policymakers and demographers are focused on deciphering the social patterns that are behind the changes in the country.
To that end, a quick survey of relationship statistics in the country reveals that Japanese society is becoming increasingly characterized by singledom. The latest survey from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research points to some telling statistics: 49 percent of unmarried women and 61 percent of unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 34 were not dating or in any type of committed relationship—approximately a 10 percent rise from the survey five years previously.3 Moreover, one-third of adults under 30 in Japan have never dated.
For those who are interested in dating and forming relationships, the future for even purely physical relationships is not necessarily bright. Some 45 percent of women and 25 percent of men between the ages of 16 and 24 reported they are not interested in, or even despise, sexual contact.4 It is therefore not surprising that almost half of all respondents in the same survey had not engaged in sexual activity in the month leading up to the survey.
These statistics portray the romantic and physical apathy that is taking increasing prominence in Japanese society. It has already shaped discourse and language in Japan. Following the release of Masahiro Yamada’s book “The Age of Parasite Singles”,5 public attention was turned to a growing demographic in Japan.
Masahiro broke a taboo and began to talk about the growing number of singles who continue to live with their parents past their late twenties and into their thirties. He coins the 60 percent of single men and 80 percent of single women who do so as parasaito shinguru (Japanese for “parasite singles”). The reason for this derogatory (and unacceptable by the author) term: Singles who live at home can save money on rent, and are often not responsible for household chores. This means that most of the singles’ income is disposable, and as such economic incentives for leaving home or considering a family life conflict with the desire to continue with an economically secure lifestyle. Moving out or getting married would mean giving up this type of casual affluence.6
This problematic term is not the only term dominating societal discourse in Japan regarding singles. In 2006, in a prominent newspaper, author Maki Fukasawa referred to the increasing number of men who are uninterested in intimate relationships as sôshoku danshi, or “herbivore men.” Intimacy and physical relations in Japanese are referred to as the “desire of flesh”, thus labeling a man who does not want to pursue intimacy can be considered as a deconstruction of Japanese masculinity with a wide variety of effects.7, 8
To that end, while the increasing prominence of singles and singledom has generated debate in Japanese society about how to move forward as a society and challenged many traditional cultural and familial values,9 it seems that the young generation today has already begun to reposition the place of singles in Japanese society. For instance, following the first media references of herbivore men, the term attracted attention, gained popularity, and became popular and trendy. Notably, sôshoku danshi was on the 2009 shortlist for a national competition of buzzword of the year, and by 2010 was accepted as a standard noun.8
While buzzwords tend to have a short lifespan, there is the possibility that the accelerated popularity of “herbivore men” is indicative of an epochal change in the conception of gender, masculinity, and relationships in Japan. In fact, soon after the term gained prominence, surveys revealed that between 61 and 75 percent of single men in their 20s and 30s consider themselves to be herbivores.10
The readiness and rapidity with which young Japanese men and women are ready to identify as preferring singledom may at first seem somewhat paradoxical. Especially when compared with Western English-speaking countries, Japan is a relatively collectivist society,11 and as such any shifts away from family norms may be unexpected. Yet relationship trends show that more and more Japanese are choosing to not enter relationships, sometimes as a result of the growing popularity of digital technologies, fruitless online dating,12 or a preference to form relationships with humanoid robots or inanimate objects (for example, robo-sexism).13
Yet the choice to remain single may also seem increasingly logical for those who see family life as directly contrary to their hard-earned careers. While the population decline in Japan may be more severe than in any other developed country, a closer look at other national contexts will reveal that Japan is by far not the only society heading toward new societal paradigms regarding relationships and that it is only at the forefront of the age of singlehood.
1. Statistics Bureau of Japan, "Population Census," (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Tokyo, 2015); https://phys.org/news/2020-11-japanese-increasingly-disinterested-datin….
2. E. A. Chung, Immigration and citizenship in Japan. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
3. R. Hayashi, "Social Security in Japan," (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Tokyo, 2014).
4. Japan Family Planning Association, "Biannual Survey," (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 2014).
5. Y. Masahiro, Parasite Singles no Jidai (The age of parasite singles). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, (1999).
6. Y. Masahiro, Parasite singles feed on family system. Japan Quarterly 48, 10 (2001).
7. R. Appleby, Singleness, marriage, and the construction of heterosexual masculinities: Australian men teaching English in Japan. PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 10, 1-21 (2013).
8. M. Morioka, A Phenomenological Study of “Herbivore Men”. (2013).
9. W. Lunsing et al. (JSTOR, 2003).
10. A. Harney, in Slate. (2009).
11. Hofstede Center, National Cultural Dimensions: Japan. itim International, (2012).
12. J. Farrer, J. Gavin, Online dating in Japan: A test of social information processing theory. CyberPsychology & Behavior 12, 407-412 (2009).
13. J. Robertson, Gendering humanoid robots: robo-sexism in Japan. Body & Society 16, 1-36 (2010).