The Parasitic Single Women of Japan

teach english in japan

“You’re already 25. You have to find a boyfriend at get married before it’s too late.” An 11 year-old Japanese boy told me during class as I was grading his homework. Internally fuming, externally cool and without a pause in my corrections, I said “ oh yeah? What do you know about marriage?” Now flustered, the boy replied, “ I don’t know! But I do know that if you aren’t married before 30, you won’t be able to get married ever.” Thanks for that, kid. The average marriage age continues to rise in Japan and it isn’t considered a good thing at all as my student so eloquently pointed out. Society has gone as far as to make a special word for women (and men) like me. Singles, particulary the single women of Japan, who live at home with their parents into their late 20’s and 30’s even though they are working in order to “enjoy a “carefree life” are called “parasitic singles”. I certainly don’t live at home, but that doesn’t spare me the “hurry-up-and-settle-down” talk from my older Japanese friends (and apparently elementary school kids too).  In regards to single women, why can’t Japan just learn to chill? Honestly, why does my marital status mean anything to you? This isn’t 1950. Women in  Japan are becoming more and more independent, so why does society continue to push for women to marry?

Why do parasitic single women of Japan even exist?

There is a multifaceted reason for why parasitic singles even exist in Japan. In a previous article, I discussed some of the difficulties involved in finding a boyfriend. Simply put, whatever dating dilemmas foreigners have in Japan, Japanese people have a lot of the same issues. One other possible reason is that long working hours for young employees reduces time for dating and other social activities. Many new workers in a company have their hands full with learning their job, bowing down to their bosses and figuring out how to be an adult; they don’t have the energy to devote to a relationship. Since World War II, the number of women who work has steadily been increasing with women now entering the workforce in comparable numbers to their male counterparts in recent years. Japan actually really needs these women workers as the country is experiencing an extreme labor shortage due to its rapidly aging population. When women did not work, they had more time to dedicate to maintaining a relationship. Now, young women often have to work to survive and as a result, relationships are becoming burdensome.

Even working full time, singles living in big cities like Tokyo are burdened by extremely high housing costs. Without someone to help out with rent, sometimes a starting salary isn’t enough to cover housing and other living costs. Considering that, it is more economical to commute to work from home. Of course, singles can enjoy home cooked meals and laundry services provided by mom. This sounds like a great set up if you are on good terms with your parents (though of course it’s not always flowers and rainbows). This could make it seem like kids are mooching off their parents, but since when has that been a problem in this country?

Traditionally in Japan, young women live with their parents until they get married without particularly contributing money to the household. Even after women marry, living with mommy and daddy (or mommy and daddy-in-law) has always been acceptable (even popular T.V. shows like Sazae-San shows a typical 3 generation family happily living together). Yet recently single women living with their parents while they work are now called “parasitic”. Why has living at home become unacceptable?

Why are parasitic single women of Japan a problem?

This issue now it that women are working, so they have economic independence. Without housing costs, women are financially free to pursue other things in life besides finding a husband and this is exactly what is happening. Because there are now more choices available to women beyond early marriage, women are exploring those options for much longer than their mothers and grandmothers did, which has sparked a transformation in society and not necessarily seen as positive by all.

This new trend is changing the base of Japanese society, which was traditionally based on the idea that women do not work as much as men. Some changes are not for the better. Logistical issues such as finding child care and sexual harassment in the office have become real concerns for a lot of women.   With more women working, finding a place that will look after young children has suddenly become a battle.  Women used to stay home, watch the children and make food. The sudden increase in female workers combined with retroactive action on the part of the government has created intense day-care drama. Competition to enter child care facilities is fierce and expensive. Child care itself is often lacking in both quality and number of facilities, a frustrating reality for many professional ladies with kids. Because of this, single women with kids often get left in the dust. Who knows how many women (single or married) have given up on kids in favor of a career because Japanese society can’t seem to support women who want both? In a country with a rapidly aging population, you would think the government would want to help women have kids and a job.

Next, the influx of female workers in traditionally male positions has also caused society to take notice of  gender related issues, such as sexual harassment.  New words have been added to the Japanese language since women started working more; phrases like “ sekku hara” (short for sexual harassment) and “ maternity harassment” (harassment directed towards pregnant women) have become media buzz words and sometimes even cited causes in workplace legal battles. While it is hard to know just how common sexual harassment  is, “a recent survey done by the Japanese government shows that over a third of working women reported being sexually harassed at work. Many women often ignore unwanted sexual advances or comments. While the reasons are convoluted, I can make a few educated guesses as to their silence; fear of losing their job, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of being ostracized at their companies. The Japanese society and government hasn’t offered much support working women, why  would companies either?

Sexual harassment and difficulties finding child are really the bi-products of increased female independence.  As more women choose work and the single life over marriage, the rest of the population has to figure out how they feel about people diverging from their traditionally accepted path. For Japan, the knee-jerk reaction has been to reject them, thus the term “parasitic single” came into usage.

Is this phenomenon unique to Japan?

Japanese women are not the only women dealing with problems rooted in their choice to be independent. American women, who have a history of fighting for the right to marry on their terms, have similar issues. Japan is fairly open in its hostility towards unmarried women, America, however, is much more subtle. Laws, constitutional amendments and precedents from Supreme court cases have protected the gains women have made in the past. Still, the attitude of much of society has long had the notion that unmarried women have “empty lives” unless they are married. This way of thinking is prominent, but not limited to in the American south, within many religions, and in the GOP. When Barack Obama nominated unmarried Janet Napolitano to he the head of Homeland Security in 2008, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendall said, “she’d be great for the job because she has no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to her job.” His comment implied that a women with children is less able to do her job.  Ironically, both of  Napolitano’s male predecessors each had 2 children. While Rendall is a jerk for saying this, he has a point; women who are not married and have no children are free to focus on themselves and their work. Young women have seen the difficulties their mothers have faced and actively are choosing to delay marriage. The percent of never-married adults in America from 2000 to 2009 from ages 25 to 34 rose from 34% to 46%.

Sadly, women who choose to work rather than marry early are already at a disadvantage. In America, health, life, home and car insurance is more for single people. Landlords who discriminate against single renters are well within their legal right to do so. The tax system is structured to benefit married couples, while singles pay more across the board. All of this combined with a wage gap of 93 cents to every dollar a man makes is America’s subtle way to tell its citizens (especially women) to hurry up and tie the knot.

Single mothers have it even worse. In 2013, 43% of all births in the U.S. were to unmarried women. That’s four times the rate in 1970. Yet 42% of people living in households headed by single mothers live below the poverty line. Old school ways of thinking have wrongfully lead Americans to believe that poor, single mothers are undeserving of working citizens’ tax dollars in the form of welfare, such as food stamps. Anti- women’s rights spokeswomen, Phyllis Schlaffy argued in 2012 that single mothers believe that government benefits can replace a husband and that having a husband with an income is an important step to getting out of poverty. In actuality, benefits have been slowly disappearing over time since the Regan era, but in recent years perhaps the final nail on the coffin has been placed. Government spending on SNAP, the food stamps program, fell 11% from 2013 and another 7% in 2014. You can see how this trend is expected to continue here. Schlaffy is correct in thinking that second income can help raise a struggling family out of poverty if one assumes that the man providing an income also does not cost additional time and effort to feed, clothe, house, get out of jail or uses money for drug/alcohol addictions.

Single women and single mothers continue to rise in America in record numbers even knowing they are playing on an uneven playing field. From my own experience, I feel that people are becoming more supportive of women like myself. Social media, celebrities and many parents are cheering on young, single ladies even if politicians, government, and the system in general is not. I’d like to believe that someday companies and the government will accept single women and households headed by single women as the new norm, but that day is still far in the future I fear.

That day may be even farther for women in Japan. Having lived in Japan for more than four years, it is my opinion that Japanese society is even farther behind America’s in terms of being okay with single women.  Japanese society remains unfavorable to this growing number of the populatkion trying to make it professionally and even less so towards single women. Working women make up 43% of the Japanese work force, which is up almost 10% compared to a decade ago and this number shows no sign of decreasing. Some of these women are singles who live at home and get slapped with the “Parasitic single” label. Married women who live with her parents, husbands and children don’t face this kind of discrimination. No, the single women of Japan catch more flak because they are economically free to pursue what they like, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Marrying later and avoiding pregnancy to enjoy other things in life  isn’t what women are traditionally expected to do and is ultimately seen as selfishness by society. Japan cannot be cool with single, working women until enough single working women flood the workforce to the point where this thought process simply must change. In short, Japan will get used to it eventually. Until then, young women like myself will just have to deal with the those opposed to our lives styles one at a time. For me, it will be starting with an 11 year-old boy.