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The death of romance in Japan

The pressure of work and an increasing number of unmarried people bode ill for the country's future

Two young women, dressed in traditional outfits to mark 'Coming-of-Age Day' when the country honors people who turn 20 to signify adulthood, stand outside a train station in Yokohama on Jan. 10

Two young women, dressed in traditional outfits to mark 'Coming-of-Age Day' when the country honors people who turn 20 to signify adulthood, stand outside a train station in Yokohama on Jan. 10. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 30, 2022 10:17 AM GMT

Updated: August 30, 2022 10:18 AM GMT

Over a decade ago, as Abenomics kicked in sending millions of women to fill the workforce, Japan increased productivity but at the expense of the number of nuclear families created and babies born.

The work-life balance in Japan is so skewed towards work that women rarely have the will to take on the challenge of getting into a relationship and when they do it seems just too late.

Miho Inoue is a sales manager at a company in Osaka, she is 33 and even though her goal is to get married she has a hard time finding the right person. “The men I meet online are mostly not interested in long-term relationships, to begin with, let alone having kids,” she said.

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Thanks to the measures introduced since the first Abe government in December 2012, around one million women have entered the job market and the number of female members on the boards of companies has increased by about 30 percent.

According to a major rating agency, the potential benefit of reducing the gender employment gap could translate into GDP rising by as much as 13 percent. But nobody seems to be able to tell us how this theoretical 13 percent hike in GDP will solve Japan’s long-lasting demographic downturn — or shou-shika as they call it.

"Both my husband and I have to work as we would not be able to sustain a family otherwise," said Natsuko Sato who lives in Osaka and has a one-year-old child. They are both 31 and Natsuko doesn't plan to leave her job any time soon.

"You need to consider the long distance you often need to travel as you rarely live in the same neighborhood"

"Some of my friends who have decided to move back near their parent's house are able to leave their job, as the grandparents are a great help, not only with their presence but also financially", she said.

On the one hand, the media and politicians urge women to find full-time employment, on the other, few seem to realize that for working women finding a partner once they pass 30 has become incredibly difficult.

Kaori is 37 and works as an OL (office lady). “Meeting people takes quite an effort, your schedules need to match almost perfectly as in one month there are only a few days when you are really available. Plus you need to consider the long distance you often need to travel as you rarely live in the same neighborhood.”

On top of that, it is common practice for company bosses (joushi) and seniors (senpai) to invite the entire team to dinner at an izakaya — where drinking is the main objective. This is a common practice that employees of the older generation follow to initiate social relationships with co-workers and it still represents the standard of interaction for millions of white-collar workers. A way to artificially create team spirit, it is also an exhausting ritual that younger women suffer the most, forced into often very cramped spaces to put up with tedious sermons from elderly inebriated superiors.

So it is not surprising that in a recent survey it turns out that as many as 60 percent of Japanese women say they do not feel sufficiently rested, both mentally and physically, to undertake a ren-ai (a love relationship).

"Watching Korean romantic dramas has become the number one impediment preventing Japanese women from getting involved in romantic relationships"

"Just two decades from now the country will run short of two million care providers for the elderly. At that point, the only options left will be relying on foreign labor which will become harder and harder to convince to emigrate here as Japan will have become economically poorer, and other countries could look more attractive options," said Professor Yamada of Chuo University.

But there is one more trend that emerged from interviews with women in their 30s, and that is entertainment appears to have replaced the tough search for a partner. According to a 2021 survey, the main hobby of young working women was watching movies on their computers or smartphones, followed by listening to music and reading books — activities that are usually performed at home.

Since the most popular hobby of Japanese men of marrying age is playing video games, we should not be surprised that fewer and fewer people get to find a partner.

It is ironic that watching Korean romantic dramas has become the number one impediment preventing Japanese women from getting involved in romantic relationships. And this trend has only increased over the last three years.

"I am currently looking for a partner to hopefully get married to but since the semi-lockdown, I have barely gone out, and even now despite the vaccinations my habits have become increasingly more indoor than outdoor," said a 37-year-old woman who works as a teacher at a middle school in Osaka.

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