Craving Freedom, Japan's Women Opt Out ofMarriage
TOKYO — The bride wore a birthday cake of a dress, with a scalloped-edge bodice and a large hoop skirt. A veil sprouted from her black bob. Moments beforethe wedding began, she stood quietly on astaircase, waiting to descend to the ceremony.
"Wow," she thought. "I'm really doing this."
This was no conventional wedding to join two people in matrimony. Instead, a group of nearly30 friends gathered in a banquet room in one of Tokyo's most fashionable districts last yearto witness Sanae Hanaoka, 31, as she performed a public declaration of her love — for hersingle self.
"I wanted to figure out how to live on my own," Hanaoka told the group, standing alone on astage as she thanked them for attending her solo wedding. "I want to rely on my ownstrength."
Not so long ago, Japanese women who remained unmarried after age 25 were referred to as"Christmas cake," a slur comparing them to old holiday pastries that cannot be sold afterDecember 25.
Today, such outright insults have faded as a growing number of Japanese women arepostponing or forgoing marriage, rejecting the traditional path that leads to what many nowregard as a life of domestic drudgery.
The percentage of women who work in Japan is higher than ever, yet cultural norms have notcaught up: Japanese wives and mothers are still typically expected to bear the brunt of thehousework, child care and help for their aging relatives, a factor that stymies many of theircareers.
Fed up with the double standard, Japanese women are increasingly opting out of marriagealtogether, focusing on their work and newfound freedoms, but also alarming politicianspreoccupied with trying to reverse Japan's declining population.
As recently as the mid-1990s, only 1 in 20 women in Japan had never been married by the timethey turned 50, according to government census figures. But by 2015, the most recent yearfor which statistics are available, that had changed drastically, with 1 in 7 women remainingunmarried by that age.
And for women ages 35 to 39, the percentage was even higher: Nearly a quarter had neverbeen married, compared with only about 10% two decades earlier.
The change is so striking that a growing number of businesses now cater to singles, and tosingle women in particular. There are single karaoke salons featuring women-only zones, restaurants designed for solo diners, and apartment complexes that target women looking tobuy or rent homes on their own. Travel companies book tours for single women, and photostudios offer sessions in which women can don wedding dresses and pose for solo bridalportraits.
"I thought, 'If I get married, I will just have to do more housework,'" said Kayoko Masuda, 49, a single cartoonist who stopped by to croon in private at a One Kara solo karaoke salon inTokyo. A separate section is cordoned off for women, behind sliding doors marked "LadiesOnly."
“我想，‘要是结婚了，我就不得不干更多家务活，’”益田嘉代子（Kayoko Masuda，音）说，这位现年49岁的漫画师来到东京一家单身卡拉OK厅“一卡拉”(One Kara)，独自在里面低声吟唱。在写着“仅限女士”字样的推拉门后面，有专为女性隔出的一片单独区域。
"I loved my job, and I wanted to be free to do it," Masuda said of her unmarried status.
Last year, the number of couples getting married hit the lowest level since the end of World WarII, according to government estimates. It was the sixth straight year of decline in the nation'smarriage rate, which is falling at a much faster clip than the drop in Japan's populationoverall.
Not surprisingly, the number of births in Japan — a country where few people have children outof wedlock — is also tumbling. Last year, the number of babies born in the country fell to thelowest level since at least 1899, when record-keeping began.
Local governments, eager to encourage marriage and raise fertility, have started campaignsto bring couples together. "We are working on fostering a mind for marriage," reads an ad formatchmaking tours and seminars for singles sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
But for more and more Japanese women — who have traditionally been circumscribed by theirrelationships with men, children and other family members — singlehood represents a form ofliberation.
"When they marry, they have to give up so many things," said Mari Miura, a professor ofpolitical science at Sophia University in Tokyo, "so many freedoms and so muchindependence."
“结婚时，她们得放弃太多，”东京上智大学(Sophia University)政治学教授三浦麻里（Mari Miura，音）说，“太多的自由和太多的独立。”
The shift is tied to the changing Japanese workforce. Close to 70% of women ages 15 to 64 now have jobs — a record. But their careers are often held back by a relentless tide ofdomestic burdens, like filling out the meticulous daily logs required by their children's daycare centers, preparing the intricate meals often expected of Japanese women, supervisingand signing off on homework from school and after-school tutoring sessions, or hanging roundsof laundry — because few households have electric dryers.
While some men say they want to pitch in more and the government has urged businesses toreform the crushing work culture, employees are still expected to devote most of their wakinghours to the company, making it difficult for many husbands to participate much on the homefront.
"It's so obvious for a lot of women who have jobs that it's very difficult to find a man who isavailable to be a caretaker in the family," said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of sociology atKyoto University of Foreign Studies.
“对很多在职女性而言，显然很难找到一个能分担家庭事务的男性，”京都外国语大学(Kyoto University ofForeign Studies)社会学教授根本宫美子(Kumiko Nemoto)说。
Japan's consumption-oriented culture also means that single women with careers and moneyhave a wide range of activities and emotional outlets that their mothers or grandmothers didnot, Nemoto added. And, notably, Japanese women no longer need husbands to ensure theireconomic security.
"One reason to get married for a woman is to have a stable financial life," said Miki Matsui, 49, a director at a Tokyo publishing house. "I don't have any worries about being alone withmyself or any financial worries. So I did not have to chase myself into a corner and choosemarriage for financial reasons."
Women who are not interested in having children often see little point in marriage. Thoughsingle motherhood is on the rise in Japan, it is largely due to divorce rather than womenchoosing to have children on their own.
"It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that people in Japan get married because theywant to have kids," said Mary C. Brinton, a professor of sociology at Harvard University whofocuses on contemporary Japan. "If you're not going to have kids, there are fewer reasons toget married in Japan."
Being single comes with trade-offs, too. Hanaoka, the woman who held a solo wedding lastyear, shares a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Tokyo with two roommates. Whenloneliness creeps in, she pulls up the video of her ceremony to remind her of the people whosupport and love her.
Hanaoka also recalls that, when she was growing up, her mother often seemed unhappy. Then, after college, she taught kindergarten, giving her a firsthand look at how many mothersseemed to be "trying too hard to take care of their own children, but not taking care ofthemselves."
"If I become a mother," Hanaoka said, "I am afraid that I will be expected to act in the motherrole that is demanded by Japanese society, rather than being myself."
She has dated on and off, lives frugally and, relishing her freedom, took a trip to Mexico lastfall.
"I would rather do what I want to do right now," she said.
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