By Mark J. Ravina, The University of Texas at Austin
Japan lives today in the shadow of the catastrophic March 2011 disasters: the earthquake, tsunami, and environmental devastation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. One of the areas where this disaster has left its impact is its family policy.
Japan has experienced population shrinkage since 2010. Its young people aren’t getting married. They aren’t starting families. They aren’t making enough children to keep the population from declining. So, by most projections, the Japanese population will shrink for the foreseeable future.
Most developed countries would shrink without immigration. In 2018, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, France, Australia, and New Zealand all had fertility rates of about 1.7 children per woman of childbearing age. But in Japan, the rate was 1.4.
And by some estimates, half of Japan will be single in 2035. It will be a society largely without conventional families.
In Japan—as elsewhere—the decline in family formation is driven by economic insecurity. Women who follow conventional gender roles want men with conventional, stable jobs. And those jobs are less common in Japan after the bursting of the economic bubble in 1990.
And men who follow conventional gender roles aren’t interested in marrying and assuming the responsibilities of a family that they might not be able to support. The decline of ‘lifetime employment’, and the rise of a freelance economy, have made marriage and family formation less attractive.
Government Policies and Traditional Chauvinism
The prospect of Japan as a singles society rather than a family society panics social and political conservatives. Now, there are limits to what government policy can accomplish, but there are some pretty good models for how to raise marriage and fertility rates.
These include business incentives to create steady, full-time jobs; labor laws that raise the minimum wage; laws that increase job security; subsidies for new families; strong family-leave policies; and gender equality in the workforce so women can contribute more to family income.
Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is too traditional, and too beholden to industry, to embrace those kinds of changes. On the contrary, it blocks even symbolic gestures, such as letting women keep their original family names after marriage.
And it doesn’t help when Japan’s political elite keeps sounding like grouchy old male chauvinists. The head of the organizing committee for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Mori Yoshirō, announced that he doesn’t like to include women in meetings because they talk too much. He was already known as a gaffe-prone sexist.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern Japan. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Some cultural critics are attempting to put an optimistic spin on the issues. Arakawa Kazuhisa, a researcher and marketing consultant, has looked to Japan’s past to find a more promising future. Arakawa argues that what he calls ‘super solo societies’ can produce vibrant new cultures.
In the 1600s, for example, the small village of Edo—which is now Tokyo—rapidly turned into a huge city as samurai poured in from around Japan to serve the shogun and daimyo lords. Many of these samurai had left their families at home.
The result was a huge pool of single men who needed lodging and food. And they wanted entertainment. That ‘solo society’ produced much of what we now call traditional Japanese food culture, including sushi, tempura, and soba noodles. The new demand for entertainment also produced kabuki theater. So, traditional Japanese culture had little to do with traditional families.
Cultural critics opined maybe ‘family values’ are overrated. Maybe Japan’s solo society will produce an exciting new future. In most travel magazines, Japan is commonly rated as a great place for solo travelers based on things like 24-hour stores that sell everything from salads to underwear to SIM cards.
It all makes Japan an easy place to thrive as a single traveler or as a freelancing digital nomad. The argument, as put forth by many unmarried young Japanese, is that they might not have enough money or a stable enough job to start a family, but they’ve got more than enough to have fun and travel with their friends.
Convenience Store Woman
In 2016, the winner of Japan’s most prestigious literary prize was a short novel called Konbini Ningen, translated as Convenience Store Woman, although it’s actually ‘convenience store human’.
It’s the tale of a young, disaffected woman who finds happiness in her mundane routine as a convenience store employee. She doesn’t want to marry. She doesn’t even really want a social life. She just wants her routine at the convenience store.
It won the Akutagawa prize and sold millions of copies, and it was adapted as a radio drama. The author, Murata Sayaka, clearly struck a nerve. As one reader tweeted: “What is normal any way, and why should people who aren’t normal have to suffer?”
Japan’s New Identity
Judged by literary prizes and movie adaptations, Japan is full of people finding meaning beyond traditional families. Widows on quests of self-discovery. Secretive Bitcoin miners. But for traditionalists, it’s hard to embrace that future.
It requires giving up the idea of Japan’s military empire in the early 20th century and also Japan as an economic superpower in the second half of the 20th century. But forsaking those visions of empire, and accepting Japan as slower growth, ‘solo’ society, requires a new vision of Japan.
Depending on one’s perspective, that idea is either exhilarating or terrifying.
Common Questions about Japan’s Journey Toward a Solo Society
Japan’s dwindling population is driven by economic insecurity. Women who follow conventional gender roles want men with conventional, stable jobs. And those jobs are less common in Japan after the the 1990 economic bubble burst. Similarly, men who follow conventional gender roles aren’t interested in marrying and assuming the responsibilities of a family that they might not be able to support.
Japan’s cultural critics are attempting to put an optimistic spin on the issue of solo society. Arakawa Kazuhisa, a researcher and marketing consultant, has looked to Japan’s past to find a more promising future. Arakawa argues that what he calls ‘super solo societies’ can produce vibrant new cultures.
Japan is adapting to a newer culture of ‘solo society’. It is full of people finding meaning beyond traditional families, such as widows on quests of self-discovery and secretive Bitcoin miners.