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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty


The 2000s witnessed a decline of the lifetime employment system, the rise of the part-time and temporary work sectors, and greater acceptance of a diversity of lifestyles—including indefinitely delayed marriage. Have these changes improved the lives of women? I suggest that the option of remaining single is a major advance for women because it allows greater freedom of lifestyle and diversity in sexual orientation, personality types, and personal goals. That being said, most single women would have preferred a life that included marriage, family, and work. Women were not finding appropriate partners, and they were not achieving the kinds of careers that brought the job security and recognition that their working experience merited because the primary markets that involved women—the marriage and employment markets—continued to operate on principles that valued women's docility, youth, beauty, and ability to serve men. Pressures for younger women were intense, as they felt that they needed to achieve success in both markets while they were relatively young. As women passed the age of thirty, the pressure in the marriage market decreased, in large part because older women were thought to be beyond the perimeters of the market. Ironically, this brought a sense of freedom and psychological ease for women, especially for those who were not particularly determined to marry. Women in their thirties and forties, however, continued to feel pressure to improve their position in the employment markets as they saw that the market was changing, dividing people into “winners” and “losers.” Winners were those with special skills and degrees who could achieve management positions. Losers were those who did not have such degrees or special skills. My informants were concerned that without significant effort and initiative, they would be thrown into the pool of poorly paid part-time and temporary workers.

One might assume that women would be depressed and discouraged when they reached their forties both unmarried and without having successfully established a career. Yet this was not the case. The women i met said that they felt increasingly free and relieved as they aged. At the same time, their actual problems had probably increased as they faced discrimination in the job market, increasing difficulty in finding romantic partners, and concerns about their own and their parents' elder care. Why did women seem to feel Increasingly relieved as they aged? It could be that when they reached their forties, they had a clearer idea of what was necessary in their lives and were less moved by others' opinions about how they should live their lives. It may be that women felt a sense of accomplishment in what they had achieved at work, as they had gained recognition and appreciation from others such as bosses and clients. They understood that they had made contributions to their workplaces. One woman talked about how she had changed the corporate culture in her company by refusing to serve tea and asking for drink machines to be installed. Others fought for promotions and against unequal treatment, and they tried to suggest to their bosses and male colleagues that they change their way of treating women. One woman, for example, said that she told her boss that he could ask her about whether she intended to marry, but he should not raise the topic with other women because they would be offended. These changes may be small given the overall structural problems of gender discrimination in Japan, but for the women who initiated these changes and worked every day in these offices, these were not insignificant achievements.

We have seen that single women, particularly those in their forties, were not responding to the requirements of the marriage market that they provide services to men in marriage or use their youth and beauty to marry early. Rather, they were choosing to continue to struggle in the employment market. Yet this market also valued women for youth, docility, and service. Because women saw that they would be marginalized from both markets, they had begun cultivating alternative values and characteristics that would help them survive, such as perseverance, independence, innovation, hard work, and initiative. We have seen in this chapter that women understood that they had to take the initiative to learn new skills, argue for better working conditions, find market niches in which they could contribute, and even educate men about how to value and treat women. Does this represent an emerging new culture in which women in Japan will adopt a new set of values based on individual achievement and strategy? These values are not new or unique to Japan but emerge from globally pervasive neoliberal capitalism. To a certain degree, single women are being forced to acknowledge and adapt to the rules of open-market global capitalism, which has reshaped the Japanese economy in the 2000s. Single women are not, however, entirely committed to playing by its rules because they are not entirely devoted to their work. They wish for something more in life, although they are generally not able to articulate what they want. For the moment, women remain caught between hopes for work and marriage with relatively unsatisfactory results in both. Their overall material Conditions may have deteriorated, and they were not attaining the kinds of romantic relationships and recognition they would like. At the same time, in the context of the choices that have emerged in their lives, single women in their thirties and forties continue to choose the difficulties of singlehood over an inappropriate marriage.


The work described in this chapter was supported by a grant from the research Grants Council of the Hong Kong special administrative region, China (Project no. CUHK4018/02H). The research was also made possible by a 2001 summer Grant for research and a 2001–2002 Direct Grant awarded by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I thank Moeko wagatsuma and Chan yim ting for their assistance in conducting research.

1. The number of single men has also risen dramatically; 47.3 percent of men in the 30–34 age group were single in 2010, compared to only 21.5 percent in 1980 (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2012).

2. In 2010, for example, the mean age of first marriage for women in tokyo was 29.7, compared to the national mean age of marriage for women of 28.8 (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2012).

3. Some examples are Bus Stop, which was broadcast on Fuji tv in 2000; Around 40, which aired on tBs in 2008; and Boss, which aired on Fuji tv in 2009.

4. For example, in 2010, 32 percent of women and 47 percent of men between the ages of thirty and thirty-four were single (national institute of Population and social security research 2011).

5. My approach is similar to that of Constable, who asks “how love and emotion are intertwined with political economy through cultural logics of desire” (2003, 120).

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