Like American women, women in many other developed countries are marrying later and not rushing to have babies. Increasingly, a good number choose the single life without fanfare. In Japan and South Korea, however, women are making highly visible, public pledges to remain single.
Weddings Without a Groom
Japanese women are buying wedding gowns and having ceremonies without a groom to make a statement that they are committing to life without traditional marriage. Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo told a New York Times reporter that when Japanese women “marry, they have to give up so many things…so many freedoms and so much independence.” Because of the intense and demanding male work culture in Japan, women get little childcare or household help from their husbands. For Japanese single women, “their married friends with children serve as a cautionary tale,” notes Motoko Rich in her New York Times article.
South Korean women have their traditional mothers and grandmothers to remind them of the life they don’t want to lead. In South Korea, less than half of women think marriage is essential. Bloomberg News talked to Baeck Ha-na, who is one of these women. She’s an accountant and a YouTube star with a large following of women to whom she “promotes the ‘live-alone’ life.”
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Baeck Ha-na’s YouTube co-host, Jung Se-young, told Bloomberg, “This traditional role [marriage and motherhood] enforced on us from a boys-only soccer field at school, to a boys’ club in a company office already makes us second-class citizens, and I don’t want to be used as a tool simply for baby-making.”
Like the “spinster” pejorative we attach to unwed American females, the derogatory label for unmarried women in Japan is “Christmas cake,” referring to stale bakery goods that cannot be sold after the end of the year. In South Korea, unmarried women are negatively referred to as “mi-hon,” but labels don’t seem to affect their determination to escape what they view as the domestic drudgery of marriage and motherhood.
The Fallout from the “Live-Alone Life”
The fallout from fewer marriages is evident in declining birthrates. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world with seven babies per thousand people. Japan and Hong Kong, as well as India and other countries, have similarly low birth rates. In contrast, the U.S. birth rate, while low, hovers around the replacement level of 2.1.
Falling birth rates affect the economy and worry governments who try to convince women to marry and have children. In South Korea, the government started a blind-date program, with the intention that these dates would lead to marriage and eventually more babies. When speaking to Bloomberg News, Baeck Ha-na said that she found the government’s attempts “to boost birthrates are ‘abusive ’ and ‘frustrating’ because they fail to address the lack of legal avenues to ensure career development for mothers or alleviating financial burdens in raising children.”
China, France, and other countries have also tried different incentives to raise birthrates, including improving workplace policies and/or paying money to families having more babies, but most were largely unsuccessful.
When American women decide to go solo
Here in the U.S., the no-marriage trend certainly exists, but it looks different. When American women decide to go solo, they do it without gown-and-veil ceremonies or cult-like followers on YouTube and Twitter. And although they may be ruling out marriage, they often keep open the possibility of parenting without a partner.
Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., an expert on the single life, explains that the number of single people keeps “growing and growing… and a greater proportion of women having children are not married.” So while the happily unmarried numbers have grown quietly without individual public pledges or announcements., single women (and married women, too) are more likely to have children than they were 10 years ago, though they are becoming mothers later, according to the Pew Research Center.
Are Japanese and Korean women following the American feminist lead? Or, will we soon see American commitment ceremonies to the single life and more loyal followers like Baeck Ha-na’s fans negating marriage and motherhood online and in the news media?
Copyright @2019 by Susan Newman
Lee, Jihye. (2019) “The #NoMarriage Movement Is Adding to Korea’s Economic Woes.” Bloomberg News, July 23.
Rich, Motoko. (2019). “Women in Japan Say No to Marriage, and the Burden It Brings.” New York Times, p. 1, 8. Aug 4.
Livingston, Gretchen (2018). “They’re Waiting Longer, but U.S. Women Today More Likely to Have Children Than a Decade Ago.” Pew Research Center.
DePaulo, Bella. (2017). “Record Number of Americans Are Single, and Most Unmarried Americans Never Have Been Married” PsychCentral: Sept. 19.
Newman, Susan. (2008) “Dollars for Babies: Will money convince women to have more babies?” Psychology Today: Aug. 19.