Issues of sex and gender matter because they sit at the heart of the demographic shifts that will shape the coming century for Japan. Sex, sexuality and gender reveal tensions that affect the lives of individual Japanese, and which consequently steer the economic and political direction of the country.
Marriage is no longer the universal norm it once was: in 1965, only 1.5 per cent of men and 2.5 per cent of women remained unmarried at age 50. In 2010, these figures had jumped to more than 20 per cent for men and 10 per cent for women.
Those who do marry are having fewer children than in the past, with an average of 1.96 ‘completed number of children’ per married couple in 2010. Extramarital births account for just 2.4 per cent of all births, and ‘shotgun weddings’ have steadily increased. It is clear that Japanese prefer to marry before having children, and so a decline in marriage means fewer babies.
This declining trend in Japanese marriage rates reflects socioeconomic barriers, such as economic insecurity and underemployment, as well as differing perceptions of marriage and marriageability between men and women. The qualities that make individuals marriageable and marriage-minded — along with the circumstances in which prospective partners meet — have shifted considerably since the post-war period.
Two decades of recession, economic insecurity and underemployment make the male breadwinner model untenable. Unable to support a wife — not to mention children — men working as non-regular or part-time (freeta) workers are increasingly priced out of the marriage market.
One way to address the problem of marriageability would be to remove this barrier for underemployed men: a revision of marriage roles that would see both paid and unpaid work shared more equally.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ policy ostensibly aims to address gender barriers by promoting greater full-time female labour force participation. But, as many have noted, the policy does not address the gendered inequality on which the system is based. It is still predominantly women who are corralled into a domestic caregiver role, supporting men who work prohibitively long hours in rigid corporate structures, with limited flexibility for leave or alternative work styles. There is little incentive for educated women who want a family to stay in the workplace.
And what of those women who do not marry? Unmarried women experience a number of labour-market and non-market constraints. In addition to the gender wage gap, unmarried women are much less likely to own their dwelling and more likely to live in private rental dwellings or with their parents at all ages.
Divorced women with children are particularly vulnerable. Although the vast majority work, typically for more hours per week than their married counterparts, they do not tend to have greater earning levels than married women. For professional women decreased social pressure to marry along with the increased convenience of urban life make marriage less inevitable and possibly less attractive.
In light of a growing percentage of individuals who do not marry, the implications of other relationships become salient, for individuals and for the state. In March 2015, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward Municipal Office became the first place in Japan to officially recognise same-sex unions, passing an ordinance to allow it to issue ‘partnership’ certificates to gay couples.
The conservative Abe government is opposed to legislative reform on marriage. But the Shibuya ordinance suggests an increased public awareness, if not acceptance, of the rights of those outside the mainstream. This is also evident in increased corporate activity on LGBTIQ issues: employee training in diversity and gender sensitivity, sponsorship and participation in events like the Tokyo Gay Pride Parade.
Making non-marriage a supported and realistic life possibility requires policy support that extends beyond pronatalism to more fundamental gender equality. It needs something close to the definition given in Chapter One of Japan’s 1999 Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society, which aims for a society ‘where both women and men shall be given equal opportunities to participate voluntarily in activities in all fields as equal partners in the society, and shall be able to enjoy political, economic, social and cultural benefits equally as well as to share responsibilities’.
While marriage continues to feature in the life course of most Japanese, it is only one possible lens through which to understand intimate adult relationships. For never-married, queer, divorced and widowed Japanese, non-marital — and non-familial — relationships offer scope for wellbeing and belonging. For this growing population, there is a critical need for policy initiatives that support new possibilities for housing and care, particularly for the elderly and the economically marginalised. This includes share houses, co-operative housing and LGBTIQ friendly aged-care.
Far from being marginal concerns, gender and sexuality are central to the socio-political landscape of contemporary Japan. The decline in marriage demonstrates that institutionalised constraints have a significant effect on labour force participation and on fertility levels.
But rather than construing current demographic trends as symptomatic of the decline and doom of Japanese society, it is possible to see them as an opportunity to invent new traditions of community that extend beyond the nuclear, reproductive family. Considered attention to the needs of the increasing number of people who do not marry, or do not remain married, invites a broader conceptualisation of what it means to be a Japanese woman or man in the 21st century.
Laura Dales is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia.
An extended version of this article was published in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia’s Intergenerational Challenges‘.