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Japanese Women Live, and Like It, On Their Own

Gender Roles Shift As Many Stay Single

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A01

TOKYO -- Junko Sakai, a stylish 37-year-old sipping fresh grapefruit juice at a hip center city cafe, insisted that she did not mean to create a furor when she wrote her blockbuster book about the little-told lives of single Japanese women. Instead, Sakai said, she was merely out "to clear up a few misconceptions."

But in a male-dominated culture in which a woman's success has long been based on her ability to bag a good man, Sakai's book is a rallying cry for the modern single woman.

Nagako Motomiya, a senior administrator with the City of Tokyo, said she hasn't "given up yet on marriage. . . . But in this day and age, you can live comfortably as a single woman in Japan." (Akiko Yamamoto For The Washington Post)

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"Marriage is not an institution that fits everyone," said Sakai, whose book, "The Howl of the Loser Dogs," describes the advances of women who were once considered "losers" for not getting married. "Modern Japanese women who have jobs . . . don't want to spend their lives cooking and cleaning for traditional-thinking Japanese men. Basically, we like to say we're just too beautiful and smart to marry. . . . But the truth is, we are single, and we shouldn't hide from that word."

Japan is undergoing a major redefinition of gender roles as women enter the workforce in record numbers, according to analysts. The result is the rise of financially independent Japanese women. And when it comes to marriage, increasingly, they are just saying no to men.

Today, some luxury condos around Tokyo are being marketed strictly to successful women. The Tokyo Stock Exchange recently offered a workshop aimed at luring well-off single women to invest. And with the wedding ring business in decline, Camellia Diamonds, a large Japanese jewelry firm, has begun running advertisements in which a single woman boasts she no longer needs a man to treat herself to gems.

"There's no question the Japanese woman is changing, coming into the center from the periphery of society," said Eisuke Sakakibara, an economist at Tokyo's Keio University. "They have discovered they can stay single, spend money more freely, and have fun without having to take on the traditional responsibility of taking care of a man. With those options available, they are asking themselves, 'Why get married?'' "

The percentage of singles in Japan has already surpassed the percentage in other industrialized nations, including the United States, where the ranks of the non-married are already inflated by far higher divorce rates than in Japan. In 2003, 54 percent of Japanese women in their late twenties were single, compared with only 24 percent in 1980.

About 43 percent of Japanese men in their early thirties are unmarried, double the rate in 1980. By 2020, almost 30 percent of Japanese households will be headed by singles. In Tokyo, the world's largest urban area, the number is more than 40 percent, according to government statistics.

The decline in marriage, in part, is a result of the protracted economic slump that began in Japan in the early 1990s, when men were less confident about their ability to support families and were more reluctant to marry, according to analysts.

But academics mostly point to a shift in the lifestyle choices of urban Japanese women. Even during the recession, Japanese women were heavily courted by employers initially seeking cheaper sources of labor in the service sector, which was not hit as hard as other parts of the economy by the recession. Although Japanese women still lag far behind women in other industrialized countries in terms of representation in the upper echelons of business and politics, they are well-established in the labor market as Japan's economy recovers. Last year, for instance, the percentage of women in the workforce hit a high of 40.8 percent -- compared with 35.9 in 1985, during the days of Japan's bubble economy.

Japanese women have often been herded into marriage out of tradition, obligation and, ultimately, financial necessity. But now their access to the workplace is being viewed as a breakthrough in women's rights.

A growing minority of single women have even opted to stop waiting for marriage to build their dream houses. Nagako Motomiya, 49, a senior administrator with the City of Tokyo, hired a Kyoto-based architect who published a book about homes for singles to build a $400,000 one-bedroom, three-level house in west Tokyo. With delicate and pricey furniture and a floor-to-ceiling "moon-gazing window" for relaxing evenings at home, it is tailor-made to her lifestyle.

Only a decade ago, such a move would have been seen by many in Japan as shockingly self-indulgent for a woman. But the country, Motomiya said, is changing.

"I haven't given up yet on marriage. . . . But in this day and age, you can live comfortably as a single woman in Japan," she said.

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