Why Japanese Women Are Avoiding Marriage

08/21/19 01:30PM EDT

This is an excerpt from a new Demography Unplugged research note written by our Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and get a special deal.

Why Japanese Women Are Avoiding Marriage - zff

Fed up with traditional cultural norms, Japanese women are increasingly postponing or opting out of marriage. For these women, marriage is tantamount to giving up their freedom—and no amount of pro-marriage messaging from government officials can change their minds. (The New York Times)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been fairly successful in raising the participation of women in Japan's traditional men-only workplace. Since the GFC, Japan has experienced rapid gains in female employment. Japan's female LFP is now up to the EU average. And this is great for raising the growth rate of real GDP when your total working-age population is shrinking every year.

Abe's agenda, however, wasn't just about economic growth. It was also about higher fertility. Abe was hoping that Japan would adopt a more flexible work environment in which women could raise children at the same they work.

Here, Abe has been much less successful.

Japan's total fertility rate. hardly budging over the past decade, remains very low. (See "Trendspotting: 7/1/19.") The problem isn't so much that employers won't accept working moms (though that still can be a challenge). The problem is that the Japanese institution of marriage remains a highly traditional, either-or proposition.

Wives are expected to devote full-time attention to their husbands, their children, their children's schooling, their household, and their in-laws. Women could get around this by having children outside of marriage. But very few women pursue this option. Extra-marital children remain highly stigmatized.

As a result, more employment opportunities for women in Japan--rather than spurring births by raising family income, as it might in America--may have the opposite effect. It may discourage births by offering women an alternative life path: Permanent singlehood. Back around 2000, the Japanese media coined the term "parasite single" (parasaito shinguru) to describe career women in their late-20s and early-30s who were refusing to get married. Now the phenomenon is aging into midlife.

According to demographer Kazuhisa Arakawa (author of The Super Solo Society), an estimated 23% of men and 14% of women were unmarried at age 50 in Japan in 2015. (Single men outnumber single women because male births are favored and also because men typically marry younger women, who in a shrinking population are typically smaller in number.) Those percentages sound astounding enough in a society that traditionally has no role for celibacy, bachelorhood, or spinsterhood.

Yet by the year 2035, Arakawa projects, an estimated 33% of men and 20% of women will be unmarried at age 50.

What triggered the rise of Solo Living in Japan, says Arakawa, was the rise of equal employment opportunity for women and the decline of upward economic mobility--both of which occurred during Japan's Lost Decade of the 1990s. The shift in economic incentives is illustrated by the very high correlation between the earnings of young women and their unwillingness to view marriage favorably.

Traditional culture is often viewed as support for strong families and high birthrates. But sometimes tradition can itself become the problem. Japan has a long history of "remaking itself" out of traditions that no longer work. Let's see if Abe can remake Japan out of this one.

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