Craving Freedom, Japan's Women Opt Out of Marriage
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 before the wedding began, she stood quietly on a staircase, 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 nearly 30 friends gathered in a banquet room in one of Tokyo's most fashionable districts last year to witness Sanae Hanaoka, 31, as she performed a public declaration of her love — for her single self.
"I wanted to figure out how to live on my own," Hanaoka told the group, standing alone on a stage as she thanked them for attending her solo wedding. "I want to rely on my own strength."
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 after December 25.
Today, such outright insults have faded as a growing number of Japanese women are postponing or forgoing marriage, rejecting the traditional path that leads to what many now regard as a life of domestic drudgery.
The percentage of women who work in Japan is higher than ever, yet cultural norms have not caught up: Japanese wives and mothers are still typically expected to bear the brunt of the housework, child care and help for their aging relatives, a factor that stymies many of their careers.
Fed up with the double standard, Japanese women are increasingly opting out of marriage altogether, focusing on their work and newfound freedoms, but also alarming politicians preoccupied 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 time they turned 50, according to government census figures. But by 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, that had changed drastically, with 1 in 7 women remaining unmarried by that age.
And for women ages 35 to 39, the percentage was even higher: Nearly a quarter had never been 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 to single women in particular. There are single karaoke salons featuring women-only zones, restaurants designed for solo diners, and apartment complexes that target women looking to buy or rent homes on their own. Travel companies book tours for single women, and photo studios offer sessions in which women can don wedding dresses and pose for solo bridal portraits.
"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 in Tokyo. A separate section is cordoned off for women, behind sliding doors marked "Ladies Only."
“我想，‘要是結婚了，我就不得不干更多家務活，’”益田嘉代子（Kayoko Masuda，音）說，這位現年49歲的漫畫師來到東京一家單身卡拉OK廳“一卡拉”(One Kara)，獨自在里面低聲吟唱。在寫著“僅限女士”字樣的推拉門后面，有專為女性隔出的一片單獨區域。
"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 War II, according to government estimates. It was the sixth straight year of decline in the nation's marriage rate, which is falling at a much faster clip than the drop in Japan's population overall.
Not surprisingly, the number of births in Japan — a country where few people have children out of wedlock — is also tumbling. Last year, the number of babies born in the country fell to the lowest level since at least 1899, when record-keeping began.
Local governments, eager to encourage marriage and raise fertility, have started campaigns to bring couples together. "We are working on fostering a mind for marriage," reads an ad for matchmaking tours and seminars for singles sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
But for more and more Japanese women — who have traditionally been circumscribed by their relationships with men, children and other family members — singlehood represents a form of liberation.
"When they marry, they have to give up so many things," said Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, "so many freedoms and so much independence."
“結婚時，她們得放棄太多，”東京上智大學(Sophia University)政治學教授三浦麻里（Mari Miura，音）說，“太多的自由和太多的獨立。”
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 of domestic burdens, like filling out the meticulous daily logs required by their children's day care centers, preparing the intricate meals often expected of Japanese women, supervising and signing off on homework from school and after-school tutoring sessions, or hanging rounds of laundry — because few households have electric dryers.
While some men say they want to pitch in more and the government has urged businesses to reform the crushing work culture, employees are still expected to devote most of their waking hours to the company, making it difficult for many husbands to participate much on the home front.
"It's so obvious for a lot of women who have jobs that it's very difficult to find a man who is available to be a caretaker in the family," said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
“對很多在職女性而言，顯然很難找到一個能分擔家庭事務的男性，”京都外國語大學(Kyoto University of Foreign Studies)社會學教授根本宮美子(Kumiko Nemoto)說。
Japan's consumption-oriented culture also means that single women with careers and money have a wide range of activities and emotional outlets that their mothers or grandmothers did not, Nemoto added. And, notably, Japanese women no longer need husbands to ensure their economic 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 with myself or any financial worries. So I did not have to chase myself into a corner and choose marriage for financial reasons."
Women who are not interested in having children often see little point in marriage. Though single motherhood is on the rise in Japan, it is largely due to divorce rather than women choosing to have children on their own.
"It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that people in Japan get married because they want to have kids," said Mary C. Brinton, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who focuses on contemporary Japan. "If you're not going to have kids, there are fewer reasons to get married in Japan."
“說日本人是為生孩子而結婚并不是很夸張，”哈佛大學專門研究當代日本的社會學教授瑪麗·C·布林頓(Mary C. Brinton)說。“在日本，如果你不打算生孩子，那么結婚的理由就不多了。”
Being single comes with trade-offs, too. Hanaoka, the woman who held a solo wedding last year, shares a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Tokyo with two roommates. When loneliness creeps in, she pulls up the video of her ceremony to remind her of the people who support 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 mothers seemed to be "trying too hard to take care of their own children, but not taking care of themselves."
"If I become a mother," Hanaoka said, "I am afraid that I will be expected to act in the mother role 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 last fall.
"I would rather do what I want to do right now," she said.