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Why are young Japanese rejecting marriage?

June 24, 2022

One in four Japanese in their 30s say they have no plans to get married. Analysts say that's due to increasing financial pressures and a desire to live without social obligations.

A symbolic photo of a wedding ring on an open book, its shadow forming the shape of a heart
Having a shrinking population can present several problems to JapanImage: blickwinkel/McPHOTO/M. Gann/picture alliance

At 37, Sho says he is content. He has a job that pays enough for him to get by comfortably, he has friends whom he sees regularly, a range of hobbies and the time to enjoy them. The one thing he does not have is a wife, and that is just fine by him.

A report released this month by the Japanese government indicates that Sho is one of a growing number of people in their 30s who have never been married and have no intention of tying the knot. And that is a serious cause for concern in a nation that is already seeing a rapidly aging and contracting population. 

According to the Cabinet Office's 2022 gender report, 25.4% of women in their 30s and 26.5% of men in the same age group say they do not want to get married. Slightly more than 19% of men in their 20s and 14% of women similarly have no plans to wed.

Life begins (again) at 70 in Japan

Fewer people getting married

The report points out that 514,000 marriages were registered in Japan in 2021, marking the lowest annual figure since the end of World War II in 1945 and a sharp decline from the 1.029 million weddings in 1970.

Women taking part in the survey said they are shying away from marriage because they enjoy their freedom, have fulfilling careers and do not want the burdens of the traditional housewife, such as household chores, raising children and looking after elderly parents. 

Men said they also enjoy personal freedoms, but many additionally said other motivators for remaining single included concerns over job insecurity and not being able to earn enough money to sustain a family. 

That resonates with Sho, who lives in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and is reluctant to reveal his last name. 

"I'm happy," he said. "I can do the things that I want to, when I want to and I don't have to think about anyone else. I can stay up late playing computer games or see any film at the theater that I want, or I can meet my friends. I like that," he added.

"Some of my friends have gotten married, of course, but they have changed and I do not see them so much any more," Sho told DW.

"That is good for them, but having a girlfriend or being married just seems to be mendokusai," he said, using the Japanese term that translates as "troublesome." 

In its conclusion, the Cabinet Office report said, "The idea behind the Japanese family has changed and marriage is no longer seen as a safety net to guarantee a stable life."

A plummeting birth rate

It also coincided with the release of statistics by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare that showed that 811,604 babies were born in 2021 — nearly 30,000 fewer than in the previous year.

The ministry said the impact of the COVID pandemic has been visible on the falling birth rate, with the fertility rate — the average number of children that a woman will have during her lifetime — falling for a sixth consecutive year to 1.30. And with 1.44 million Japanese dying in the same year, the nation's population is contracting more rapidly than anticipated. 

 A Japanese health care worker helps feed an elderly resident
Japan's aging population has been a cause for concernImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Aya Fujii, a psychologist who provides mental health support for a government-run employment assistance program in Tokyo, points out that Japan's birth rate has been in decline since the 1970s, but that the problem has now become far more acute and the government appears to be struggling to devise ways to halt the decline. 

"There are several reasons that I see in society," Fujii told DW. "One is that unlike in other countries, wages here have basically remained the same for many years. And that means that lots of young people see it as too much of a financial burden to try to have a family."

Connected to that, more women have opted to remain in the workforce instead of leaving to have a family, but a good number have discovered that they actually like having a career and want to continue. The pressures of a job, however, make having a family even more difficult, so this generation of working women are increasingly remaining single. 

Common preference for anime over real relationships

"I also see that many young people now like manga comic books and anime shows. They prefer that to meeting and speaking with people in real life," Fujii said. "The characters in manga and anime don't argue or talk back and that's just easier for many people." 

"I think a lot of young people today lack social skills and that has been made worse as a lot of families are only having one child now, so that child is growing up not interacting or developing the social skills that he or she will need in later life," she added.

Fujii believes the population will not stop shrinking in the near future. "Ultimately, Japanese people in their 20s and 30s who are unable to communicate with members of the opposite sex are going to find it more difficult to find a partner, and the nation's pattern of a shrinking population will continue," she said.

Edited by: Leah Carter

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea