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As Japan undergoes social change, single women are in the firing line

An increasing proportion of Japanese adults will remain unmarried their whole lives, and should be considered full citizens rather than underperformers. Shutterstock

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party MP Kato Kanji recently commented that women should have multiple children, and implied that single women were a burden on the state. His comments continue a tradition of politicians promoting women as vessels for population growth.

Criticism from fellow LDP MP Noda Seiko notwithstanding, Kato’s comment reflects widespread paternalism and sexism among Japan’s political elite.

It also shows they are out of touch: Japanese women and men are marrying later and less. In 1965, only 1.5% of men and 2.5% of women remained unmarried at age 50. By 2016, these figures had jumped to more than 23% for men and 14% for women.

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But marriage delay and decline does not necessarily mean a decline in marriage aspiration: in fact, the desire to marry has remained relatively constant over the last two decades, with more than 85% of single Japanese people reporting in 2015 that they “intend to marry someday”.

Why the decline in marriage?

Marriage trends suggest a gendered gap in the expectations of marriage partners. While women seek husbands who can financially support them and also contribute to housework, men seek wives who will provide domestic care (possibly while also working outside the home). For some, the risks and sacrifice of marriage are not balanced by its rewards.

Marriage decline also reflects broader economic instability: the decrease in the proportion of men working full-time, who are therefore able to support a family.

The ideal of a full-time male breadwinner model persists in Japan, even as women’s participation in the workforce has increased since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was introduced in 1985.

Women now make up more than 42% of the total Japanese workforce, but still participate at a lower rate than men: in 2012, 70-75% of women aged 25-60 were working, compared to 90-95% of men. A gender gap also exists in the proportion of regular and irregular (including casual and dispatch) workers: 75.3% of male workers are regular workers, while only 41.9% of women fall into this category.

A system that favors men

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has implemented policies — called “womenomics” — ostensibly designed to promote greater full-time female workforce participation. But, as many have noted, the policy does not address the inequality on which the system is based.

Similarly, pro-natalist policies such as the provision of subsidised childcare and maternity leave have not extended to allow for flexible or family-friendly work practices.

Overwork and an inability to combine work and family remain a challenge. Japan is well-known for its culture of long work hours – the term karōshi describes “death from overwork”, a phenomenon that has worsened under the current government.

The expectations of marriage can also be unattractive for women, particularly those who intend to continue working after marriage. According to a 2013 national survey, wives still complete 85.1% of household chores in Japanese marriages.

The promotion of particular kinds of gender relations and household structures in Japan since the postwar period has constructed the reproductive family, and women in particular, as an absorber of economic and social risks, relieving the government from the responsibilities and expense of this work.

But the benefits of marriage for women may outweigh the costs. For women, marriage means financial security because women are economically disadvantaged by social security and corporate policies that privilege the male-breadwinner household. The “safety-net” function of marriage is magnified for women with children, as they must balance paid labour participation with domestic care work responsibilities.

In addition to the gender wage gap, unmarried women are less likely to own their houses than their married counterparts, and more likely to live in private rental dwellings or with their parents at all ages. Among the elderly, the poverty rate of single women reaches 50%.

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Divorced Japanese women with children are extremely vulnerable. Nearly 90% of single (divorced) mothers are in the labour force, of which 61% live in poverty.

Although the vast majority of these women work, and typically for more hours per week than their married counterparts, they tend to have lower earning levels than married women. In fact, Japan has the highest rate of single mother poverty in the developed world.

Kato Kanji got it the wrong way around. An increasing proportion of Japanese adults will remain unmarried their whole lives, and should be considered full citizens rather than underperformers.

It is also the unpaid and underpaid labour of Japanese women that underpins the smooth running of Japanese society. The burden of inadequate state support for essential services like child- and elder-care rests on them.

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