Japan's New Material Girls
'Parasite Singles' Put Off Marriage for Good Life
By Kathryn Tolbert
Happily unmarried, living with her parents while working as a bank teller, she is what people here call a "parasite single." There are so many women like Miki that they have become the focus of a heated controversy.
Depending on whom you ask, they are good for the economy because they spend their salaries on clothes, cars and dining out, or they are destroying society by refusing to get married and have children. They are young women with no responsibilities, or they are trailblazers, trying to find a path different from their mothers'.
They are the first significant group of women in Japan to stay single beyond their early twenties--the percentage of women in their late twenties who have not married has risen from 30 to about 50 in the last 15 years--and their opinions and lifestyle define a kind of Tokyo yuppie devoted to leisure and luxury.
Miki and her girlfriends have formed a social circle they laughingly dubbed with an English acronym--DSS, for Darling Searching Society--but none of them wants to get married, for now. They invite guys they know to join them for dinners out, and one evening recently there were six women and two men crowded around a table, smoking, drinking red wine and eating spicy food at the Asian Kitchen.
Miki said she wants to get married and have children. But the ideal age to get married, she said, is 30. "It's not necessary to be in a hurry about marriage," she said. "If I have my first child by the time I'm 35, that's early enough."
Editorials talk about the need to spiff up the image of marriage and child-rearing. But single women don't frown on married life. Rather, they are content with the status quo and feel the possibilities open to them now will be closed later on.
They study. English conversation schools are filled with women, and the boom in special skills courses, from computing to accounting, is fueled more by women than men.
They shop. Rings and watches by Cartier, Bulgari, and Hermes costing $2,000 to $3,000 are particularly popular among working women, who buy themselves presents for special occasions--a Cartier ring to celebrate her 10th anniversary on the job, or a gift to herself on turning 30.
They travel. Miki, who earns about $28,000 a year, frequently makes quick shopping trips to Korea, has been to Hawaii three times and to Malaysia and Egypt as well--all with girlfriends.
They can afford this lifestyle because they have jobs, live with their parents and treat most of their income as spending money. They have also been less affected by Japan's economic downturn. While the recession pushed the average unemployment rate to 4.7 percent last year and hardships caused by company restructurings are widespread, the number of contract and part-time jobs, usually filled by women, has been increasing. Fewer women than men are out of work. Visitors to Tokyo looking for visible signs of recession are struck by the crowded department stores and the bustle on streets lined with luxury boutiques--a phenomenon due in large part to spending by single women.
The ease of a social life among girlfriends is one of the striking aspects of life in Tokyo. In restaurants, particularly the upscale French and Italian ones, more women than couples are dining together. Hotels offer special packages for women traveling together, like the one at the popular Cinderella Night at the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel--deluxe room, aromatherapy session, use of the pool, gym, and sauna and room service breakfast for about $225 per person.
"In Japan we treat our girlfriends well. Boyfriends come and go, but girlfriends are your sustenance, your life," Miki said.
Mariko Kawana, 31, organized a Christmas millennium party for her girlfriends. She and seven friends rented a suite for a night at the Park Hyatt Hotel--cost: about $750--had dinner from their favorite Italian restaurant brought in and partied until 4 a.m.
The money Mariko spends on going out with girlfriends is her biggest monthly expense. The second-biggest is the payment on her BMW.
She isn't sure why she's still single. "I used to think I would marry early, but somehow it just didn't happen," she said. She lives at home, works as an assistant to traders at an international investment bank and takes frequent trips abroad--half the time with her mother, the rest with her girlfriends.
She talks a lot about uncertainties in her life--how she would like to have a career in finance but is not sure how to advance; how she wants to get married but hasn't been able to meet the right person.
The widely held image of life after marriage, among both women and men, is that the wife will look after the child and the home and be supported by her husband. For so many women it seems like an either/or situation--work and do things for themselves or get married and take care of a house and children.
"In the United States and Europe, it's possible to pursue a career even after marriage, even after having a baby," said Tamako Sarada, a writer. But in Japan, she said, "if after marrying, a woman then realizes there is something she wants to do, she has almost no chance to come back to it."
Sarada takes issue with the label "parasite single" and its negative connotation. She thinks mothers want to let their daughters do what they themselves were unable to do. "Deep in their hearts, single women think there is something they can do and want to do," she said.
Yuriko Kuramochi, 26, works for a movie distributor and is certain that she doesn't want to be a housewife. "There aren't many women my age who haven't gone to college," she said. "We go to work and meet many different people. It makes us more aware of ourselves."
More than 70 percent of the single women in Tokyo live at home, according to various surveys, and about half pay some kind of rent to their parents. Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Tokyo Gakugei University who coined the term "parasite single," said that many more single men than women are living on their own. "Guys want to get married so they don't have to do the housework they've been doing all along."
Yamada says the main reason women are delaying marriage is that life at home is too comfortable. They don't cook, do housework or laundry.
"Yes, my mother takes care of me and cooks for me," said Mariko. "It's almost like her hobby, like it's fun. So of course it's comfortable. But she gets older every year, so we may change roles one day and I'd be the one to take care of her."
The twenty- and thirtysomethings who live at home generally did not come back to the nest after college. They never left. The limited dormitory space at universities is only for out-of-town students.
Yamada believes that young women were spoiled by Japan's affluence in the 1980s and want to maintain that lifestyle. But because they expect to quit work after marriage, getting married means having less money and a lower standard of living.
"The problem with marriage is that the husband usually doesn't want the wife to work, and then it's hard to work when you have children," said Kuramochi.
Most young women in Japan feel that their current situations are defined by their parents' affluence, and that their future lives will be defined by the husband's job, Yamada said.
"Parasitic singles feel that whatever they do is not going to make any difference," he said. "So they might as well relax and enjoy themselves."
Special correspondent Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.
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