Why Japanese men are choosing the single life

By Andrew Dickens

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Andrew Dickens meets Japan’s ‘herbivore men’ to find out why they’re saying “I don’t” 

A quick glance at the British press recently and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we can’t have too many people in our romantic relationships. So popular are stories of polyamorous pansexuality that it feels like being in a couple is so much fun, we just want to share.

The truth is that the UK is seeing a slight trend towards being happily single, particularly among women. In 2017’s Mintel Single Lifestyle report, 61% of single women said they were happy with their relationship status, compared with 49% of men.

In Japan, however, it’s a different story. While young Japanese of both sexes are increasingly choosing the solo life, it’s men who are giving it the biggest embrace.

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The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research recently claimed that 24% of Japanese men hadn’t married by the age of 50, compared to 14% of women. The 2015 National Fertility Survey (of unmarried men and women aged 18 to 34) shows that 60% of men – and 50% of women – stated they “do not want to get married yet.” 48% of men answered “I do not think I will be lonely even if I continue living alone” – 10 point up from 1997.

Read more: The Ultimate Solo Travel Guide to Japan

Kazuhisa Arakawa, Solo Activity Men Research Project Leader at marketing company Hakuhodo Inc and author of Super-Solo Society: The Shock of the Unmarried Nation, Japan, thinks this is just the beginning.

“It is estimated that in 2035, one in three men will be unmarried for life,” he says. “The percentage of people unmarried for life (people still unmarried at 50, considered by the Japanese government as having a 0% chance of marriage in the future) began rising rapidly in the 1990s. Up until the 1980s, almost everyone in Japan got married.”

These men even have a name: Herbivore Men or Grass-eater Men, a mocking tag insinuating that this group have a somewhat diminished masculinity (it’s pretty harsh on vegans, too). And yet the Herbivores are thriving, many playing the field rather than chewing it. So, what caused this dramatic shift?

“The late 1980s and into the 1990s was when the Japanese economic bubble burst,” says Mr Arakawa. “In the 30 years since then, the average income of white-collar workers has actually continued to decline. Economic concern about the future is one reason that young men have been avoiding the responsibility that marriage entails.

“The main reason they have for staying single is wanting to use their money on themselves. There is a common perception that for men, marriage means having their freedom to use money restricted. This is in direct opposition to women listing ‘financial security’ as one of the benefits of getting married.”

Work-life imbalance

There’s no cash-hungry Greed is Good culture here. I can testify to this as a man who has caused many a polite and patient queue in a Japanese department store because he’s said “yes, please” to the time-consuming yet seemingly ubiquitous gift-wrapping service, applicable to the smallest of purchases.

There are, however, what many would consider outmoded gender norms and an unacceptable level of gender inequality. While Japan is considered one of the safest countries for women travellers, gender politics and feminism as you or I would understand it, haven’t quite reached these shores. The country performs particularly badly against other developed nations when it comes to female representation in government and labour, which might explain women’s financial fears.

Read more: Why Japan is a dream destination for solo travellers

While more women are working, the playing field of opportunity isn’t anywhere near level. This old-fashioned imbalance isn’t helping men, either, who culturally still bear the brunt of an often pressurised working environment that results in people working horrendously long hours. If you’re in Japan and want to make Japanese friends, don’t go moaning about how you have to stay half an hour late every Thursday because that bloody Dave never files his weekly report on time.

Sat next to me on a bar stool in a poncey craft beer bar in Shibuya, Tokyo, is 36-year-old Riku Inamoto. He is what used to be called a confirmed bachelor. For him, time is a big factor.

“I have two things in my life that take up all my time: my work and my hobbies,” he says. “I can’t stop work, so if I get married, I will lose my hobbies, which means I will have no fun. That would be a terrible life.

“I like having my own time and space, being able to make my own decisions, eat what I want, go where I want. I have married friends who look so old now. They don’t seem happy. Why would I want that? I have a good life.”

Convenience is king

Japanese of all genders are showing an increasing preference of personal freedom over relationships, and they couldn’t be in a better country to resist the ‘old ball and chain’, particularly if they live in a city. Japanese cities make having a good life when you’re single very easy. There are vending machines on every corner (some dispense beer), all-night convenience stores, standing bars where you can strike up a conversation, and countless restaurants that cater for solo diners.

There are even capsule hotels designed solely for men travelling alone (rather than bathrooms or showers, these places often come with a communal onsen – a kind of bath spa – which requires you to be butt naked, so there’s no shortage of conversational ice-breaking opportunities).

“Recently, there have also been more services provided for people travelling alone,” says Mr Arakawa. “In the past, solo guests could not stay at traditional inns. About 80% of people usually eat lunch alone. Restaurants, karaoke places, zoos, and theme parks are all becoming easier to enjoy alone.”

Mr Arakawa also points out that only 30% of Japanese men are active when it comes to romance. This doesn’t mean 30% are getting jiggy on a regular basis – in fact 42% of single Japanese men aged 18-34 claim to be virgins – it means only 30% are even trying to date. Which, by my complex calculations, leaves a staggering 70% as passive. I.e. seven out of 10 Japanese men make no effort to date whatsoever. To make matters worse, most women are passive, too.

This isn’t through fatigue or apathy, though, it’s because traditionally people got hitched through a form of matchmaking called omiai, no matter what they had to offer a partner or whether they actually wanted to get married.

“With people being free to date who they want,” says Mr Arakawa, “the 70% who are passive when it comes to romance have difficulty getting married.”

Read more: The delights and challenges of dining alone

This is very much the case with Junichi Mishima, 31, who is sat next to me in another poncey craft beer bar (it’s a contractual requirement). This time it’s in Fukuoka, an incredibly cool, hip and young city, full of really attractive people. It must be painfully difficult to be passive here.

“I don’t know if I want to be single,” he says, “but I think I find it easier. I’m not confident talking to women and I can live without them. I see some men who find it easy to approach women, even if they do it clumsily, and it makes me feel even less confident. What do you even say?

“I prefer to read, play games, and not think about dating. Definitely not about having a wife! I sometimes wish I could have sex with someone, but I don’t know where to begin. I know I could pay for this, but I don’t want to do that. Even then I wouldn’t know what to say. I think I’m better off this way. Less stress.”

The future is fine

This pattern of increasing singlehood is not without consequences. The most significant one is that with a lack of people ‘makin’ babies’, there aren’t as many babies. Obviously. While the planet as a whole is drowning in human beings, Japan’s population is shrinking. Great for getting a childcare place, not so great for the future prosperity of your country. Mr Arakawa isn’t worried, though.

“There’s no need to be pessimistic,” he says. ”The exact same phenomenon occurred in the 18th century in Japan. Japanese cultures that exist to this day were created in that situation. Food culture such as sushi (fast food for single men at the time) and tempura, and the idol and cosplay cultures were all created at this time. As were kibyoshi and ukiyo-e, the equivalent of comics and manga today, and entertainment cultures such as kabuki. A society in which many people live alone spawns culture to fulfil their needs.

Read more: 5 great places with a thriving singles culture

“From an individual perspective, although marriage was something with physical and mental health benefits, Japanese people don’t have a particularly negative view of living alone. Those afraid of living alone are divorced men. They tend to be extremely reliant on their wives and the suicide rate is highest among them. They also account for a high number of kodokushi (dying alone without being noticed). Increasingly, people who never married don’t have a negative view of living alone.”

What about our emotional needs? There’s a lot to be said for having the close, intimate support of a partner, particularly if you want to vent. We’re all very much aware of our mental health these days, with a lack of talking about it one of the most damaging problems for men. If you’re going home to an empty flat with no-one to pour your feelings over other than a budgie or houseplant, then surely this can’t be healthy.

“This doesn’t mean it will become a lonely society where individuals live without any connections,” says Mr Arakawa. “Being by yourself physically and being cut off from society must not be confused. People are being connected through networks that did not exist in the past. What’s important is not looking for someone to be with all the time, but having the emotional independence to be able to believe in yourself and say, ‘I will be alright even by myself.’ I call this ‘the strength to live solo’.

“What I want to say is, ‘It’s a lonely road, but we are not alone.’”

Images: Shutterstock 

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