Being single is an increasingly common experience for Japanese adults. Not only has the average age at first marriage risen continuously over the last decades, so too has the rate of permanent singlehood. In 1990, 5.6% of men and 4.3% of women were “life-long unmarried”, that is to say, never-married at age 50. In 2020, these figures had jumped to 23.4% of men and 14.1% of women, meaning that in 30 years there has been a dramatic increase and widening of the gender gap in marriage rates. According to forecasts, these trends will continue.
The steady increase in the percentage of singles in Japan, particularly the never-married is not new and has been a subject of public discourse since the early 1990s. Numerous terms like ‘parasite singles’, ‘loser dogs’ or ‘around forties’ have been coined to describe this phenomenon, most of them initially disparaging and directed at women. By contrast, the term ohitorisama (singleton or single person), however, was first popularised by sociologist Ueno Chizuko, in her best-selling books on ageing and singlehood (2007, 2009). While Ueno used it broadly to refer to those who were unmarried (including widows and the divorced), the term was popularly embraced as a gloss for the carefree, urban single with ample disposable income (Dales 2015). In his 2017 bestseller, marketing expert and singlehood researcher Arakawa Kazuhisa describe Japan as a “hyper-solo society”, and in his most recent publication from late December 2020, he and co-author, psychologist Nakano Nobuko, describe Japan as a ‘society where living alone will be the norm’.
It is plain that research on the unmarried is critical to an understanding of contemporary Japanese society, in which singles are a population that is both numerically and discursively significant. As social researchers, we are interested in the ways that individuals practice (non)familial intimacy, both platonic and romantic, beyond marriage. We are especially interested in these issues because the relationship worlds of the unmarried have received little attention in Japan so far; academic research and public discourse are mostly characterized by a clear focus on heterosexual marriage (Kottmann 2020), with singlehood long constructed as a status that is incompatible with social maturity.
In September 2020 we began drafting a survey to explore these issues in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey (n=4000), implemented nationally in mid-January 2021, addresses practices of intimacy (Jamieson 2011) among singles between 25 and 49 years in Japan and across three time frames: 1. before Covid; 2. during the first declared state of emergency (2020.4/5); and 3. from June 2020 to the second declared state of emergency (2021.01.07). We are interested in the ways that “self-restraint” and social distancing have impacted unmarried individuals; how calls to avoid “the 3 Cs “ – closed spaces, crowds and close-contact situations – affect the lives of unmarried individuals who live alone, or share housing with friends or stranger, live with their partners, (elderly) parents or dependent children. And finally, we look to explore how Japanese policies and measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 have shaped the experience of being ‘single’, its perceptions and experiences.
For example, while ohitorisama and related terms retain both positive and negative nuances, the image of ‘doing things alone’ (sorokatsu) has arguably benefited from enforced shifts in daily practice resulting from the COVID pandemic, although the beginning of this phenomenon or ‘trend’ can be traced back a couple of years. Magazines, article and even books praise sorokatsu as an expression of freedom: “When you want, where you want, enjoy the luxury of being alone: An experience free from stress”.
While karaoke and bars catering to solo customers have existed for some time, restaurants and cafes have tended to focus on couples and group customers. But where eating and drinking alone was previously stigmatized, the requirements of social distancing has led to an increase in the practice, even among non-singles. As Arakawa Kazuhisa points out, COVID has provided a clear rationale for the service industry to address single diners as a legitimate and significant market: not all customers come in groups; solo diners spend more eating out than do families, and group dining practices (for example, the popular shared dish of hotpot) are not recommended in light of the pandemic. Hence the development of the “solo hotpot” and the promotion of solo-dining can be increasingly seen. Media discourse has certainly contributed to the improved visibility of singles’ lives and practices: among the top 30 “most popular new words” of 2020 was soro-kyanpu (solo-camping).
Against this backdrop, our survey aims to better understand how the lives and relationship worlds of unmarried adults (‘singles’) have been affected by the on-going COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in Japan and how this might affect future practices and perceptions of the increasing numbers of ‘singles’ in Japan (and beyond). The survey pretest was successfully conducted in late December and the actual survey is currently underway. We look forward to contributing to the literature on singlehood and singles in Japan, and hope that our findings will begin fruitful conversations with scholars working on similar issues in other countries.
For further information and updates on news, findings and publications, please see here.
Arakawa, Kazuhisa (2017) Chō soro shakai (Hyper-Solo Society), PHP Shinshō.
Dales, Laura (2015) “Suitably Single?: Representations of singlehood in contemporary Japan”, in Aoyama, Dales & Dasgupta (eds). Configurations of Family in Contemporary Japan. Routledge, pp.21–32.
IPSS (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research) (2017): “Gendai nihon no kekkon to shussan. Dai-15-kai shusshō dōkō kihon chōsa (dokushinsha chōsa narabi ni fūfū chōsa) hōkokusho (Marriage and Childbirth in Japan Today: The Fifteenth Japanese National Fertility Survey, 2015 (Results of Singles and Married Couples Survey).” Survey Series 35, March 31. http://www.ipss.go.jp.
Jamieson, Lynn. 2011. “Intimacy as a Concept: Explaining Social Change in the Context of Globalisation or Another Form of Ethnocentricism.” Sociological Research Online 16 (4): 1–13.
Laura Dales (PhD, UWA) is Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her main research interests include agency, sexuality, friendship and dating across Asia, as well as singlehood and marriage in contemporary Japan. Recent publications include the edited collection (with Romit Dasgupta and Tomoko Aoyama) Configurations of Family in Contemporary Japan (Routledge, 2015), as well as chapters in the books Intimate Japan (Alexy & Cook eds., University of Hawai’i Press, 2018) and Happiness and the Good Life in Japan (Manzenreiter & Holthus eds., Routledge, 2017). She is currently writing a book based on an ARC-funded project examining intimacy beyond the family in contemporary Japan.
Nora Kottmann (PhD, Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf) is Senior Research Fellow at the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) in Tokyo. Her main research interests include personal relationships, intimacy (‘spaces of intimacy’), (not) belonging, mobile and multi-local biographies/relationships and expat communities. She is author of Marriage in Japan: Romantic and Solidary Relationship Worlds in Flux (2016, Springer VS). Recent publications include the edited volume (with Cornelia Reiher) Studying Japan. Handbook of Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods (2020).