Marriage on the rocks

Marriage on the rocks

Is getting hitched an endangered custom in Japan?
marriage, Japanese lovelife,
The number of people getting married in Japan has long been on the slide.

Japan and its shrinking population appear to be facing a genuine cultural transformation -- fewer and fewer people are getting married these days.

At first it might seem far-fetched, but take a look at the statistics and media reports.

In just the past four decades, government data shows that the marriage rate in the country has dropped by over half, from 12 marriages per 1,000 total population in 1972, down to 5.7 in 2009.

Even in the supposedly more modern United States, the rate is higher, at an estimated 6.8 per 1,000 in 2009.

Topping this, the number of Japanese people who'll probably never get married is also rising. It’s estimated that while the current figure for unmarried men is 16 percent -- and 8 percent for women -- this will rise to 29 and 22 percent respectively by 2030.

What lies behind this wide-scale societal trend? And will it continue?

marriage, Japanese lovelife, Eri Asano, speaking for increasing numbers of 30-something women in Japan. "I want to play around more"

Eri Asano, 27, moved to Tokyo in 2008 from her hometown of Kochi, an island city about two and a half hours by train from the capital.

A full-time office administrator, she currently shares an apartment with her 30-year-old sister.

Both are attractive, outgoing, fun-loving, financially independent -- and single. In fact, although she’s been actively dating since moving to Tokyo, Asano has remained officially unattached for nearly five years. 

But according to her, being unmarried in your late twenties is becoming much more ‘normal,’ and ‘acceptable,’ especially in urban areas of Japan.

“Although most of my friends back in Kochi are married, here in Tokyo very few are,” she says.

marriage, Japanese lovelife, Traditional Japanese weddings are notoriously expensive.

Changing social recognition

Asked why this might be, she suggests that there are probably several reasons.

For one, young urban women are now able to be more independent through their own earnings and want to pursue careers, she says.

“For women, it used to be considered normal to get married around my age or earlier, to quit your job and be a housewife. But nowadays, women want to work and have careers -- having a child would stop that,” she says.

As for the men, she says she often hears from her male friends these days that they want to spend all their earnings on themselves and don’t want to give up that luxury and freedom so easily.

She says the phrase often used to express this desire is, "Motto asobitai," or "I want to play around more."

Despite what seems like a mutual sense of independence being embraced by both urban women and men, however, financial worries are also a major obstacle for many young couples who may want to get married but can’t afford to pay for the ceremony and more responsible lifestyle that follows.

Financial traumas

Such concerns have been further cemented into people’s psyches by the still-lingering financial crisis and compounded with increasing distrust in the government due to scandals such as the pension plan disaster that rocked the nation.

"The whole pension plan issue made everyone think we need to keep money in our bank accounts," Asano explains.

“Even my female friends who’ve gotten married since, they strictly wouldn’t marry somebody without a proper job and financial stability,” she goes on.  

marriage, Japanese lovelife, Yuji Kitazawa is 29, the 'typical' age for getting hitched.

Stability comes first

Office worker Yuji Kitazawa (29) agrees whole-heartedly.

Although both Kitazawa and his girlfriend of over nine years, Emi (also 29), are pretty certain they’ll spend the rest of their lives together and are at the ‘typical’ marriage age, neither feels ready to make the jump.

“Emi has told me that both on a mental and practical level, she feels she’s not yet independent enough,” he explains. “We need to have more financial stability before we can get married.”

For Kitazawa, who clocks approximately 20 hours of overtime a week yet still reckons his salary is meager compared to his peers, marriage just isn’t an option.

Both he and his girlfriend still live (separately) with their parents on weekdays, though they’ve recently started sharing an apartment where they stay together on weekends.

“I can barely afford half of the rent on that place," he says. “How can I afford a wedding, a real home and a future for us both?”

Late marriage 

Perhaps fortunately, they’ve got one thing going for them -- many others in similar situations are also waiting to tie the knot.

“We can marry past our twenties these days,” he says.

“Before, if women were out of their twenties, they were seen as being undesirable for marriage, but it isn’t that way anymore. Women are strong now, they can get by on their own and society is starting to recognize that as well in general -- that Japanese women are more independent now.”

marriage, Japanese lovelife, Traditional Valentine's Day chocolates.Girl power and restaurant weddings

Indeed, if this past Valentine's Day is any indication, Japanese women are certainly asserting themselves in ways that subvert some solid traditions of romance.

Instead of giving their male partners and colleagues expensive chocolates, this year it was reported that they spent their money on exchanging sweets with their female friends.

Meanwhile, there are other trends that are also contributing to declining rates of marriage in Japan, such as changing workplace dynamics.

In the past, Japan’s mostly male-managed corporations and offices had a unique culture where personal and private lives became one.

Bosses were often known to directly intervene in their single employees’ affairs, arranging get-togethers and introductions in the hope that they would lead to marriage.

marriage, Japanese lovelife, Smaller, cheaper weddings could hold the key.

Fading tradition

However, with the numbers of part-time or temp workers increasing over full-time, salaried, lifetime employees, this has changed significantly.

Asano asserts that matchmaking by bosses has certainly become a thing of the past, as work relationships are much less important than they used to be.

She muses, “Maybe it’s the reason for the fall in marriages. People seem to be just more private in the workplace and there’s much more of a divide between work and personal lives than before in Japan.”

Kitazawa, though working in a predominately male office, agrees.

“Work is work, private life is private life. Before you would go out drinking with your boss and co-workers, and thereby make work run smoother, but this doesn’t happen anymore,” he says.

So, with women becoming more financially independent and career-oriented, men happy with staying single well into their thirties, old matchmaking traditions fading, and society in general accepting this, will the trend of declining marriage rates in Japan continue?

Not as far as Tyron Giuliani, co-founder of TIG Dress, a successful 10-year-old wedding coordination and rental business in Tokyo, sees it.

TIG first started to offer Japanese brides an alternative to the incredibly expensive rental costs they saw were standard at the time.

Business has grown steadily, even in the recession, and Giuliani says that 2010 was the busiest year yet. TIG currently serves about 100 weddings per month and he estimates the average age of the clients is about 29.

However, he has noticed one change in wedding ceremonies over the past decade -- the increasing popularity of restaurant weddings in Tokyo.

marriage, Japanese lovelife, But the question remains, will Japan's marriage rate ever recover?

Waiting to get married

“Lots of restaurant venues now reserve their weekends for private wedding ceremonies,” he explains.

This, he says, offers young Japanese couples a break from very expensive traditional venues, such as wedding halls and luxury hotels.

Indeed, as more and more businesses such as Giuliani’s begin catering to couples who don’t want to break the bank, Japan might well start to see an upsurge in people in their thirties and forties getting married.

After all, even Asano -- for all her independence, great friends and challenging career -- wants to settle down, sooner rather than later.

“I want to get married. Although before, I thought I should definitely be married before hitting 30, now I think if I can just be in a good, committed relationship, then I can probably wait until I’m in my thirties to actually take the plunge,” she says.

Ulara Nakagawa is a Canadian-born editor and writer who's been in Tokyo since 2007. She also regularly blogs at The New Emissary and is always on the look-out for a good story.
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