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How “Traditional Marriage” is Killing Traditional Marriage

I devote a chapter of my book to “Workhorse Wives.” To be perfectly clear about my definition: a Workhorse Wife marriage doesnot mean one with a stay-at-home dad who pulls his load, or a husband who’s holding the house together for his breadwinning wife, such that both partners feel that things are happy and fair. No, the “Workhorse Wife” refers to a marriage where the wife isn’t so sanguine. She’s doing the breadwinning and childrearing and the chores, while her husband pursues a big (read: risky and terribly-paid) dream, like being a novelist.

A story today on declining fertility rates hints at entire nations of Workhorse Wives. In Italy, Purdue professor Patricia Boling observes, wives often shoulder breadwinning and childrearing, owing to a vestigial “macho” culture. If the wife’s doing it all—working and childrearing—while their husbands are out drinking every night, she speculates, then it’s not worth it to have children.

Boling mentions Japan as another example, and it’s a good one.

In the last five decades Japan has gone from almost universal marriage (only one percent of women in the 1950s never married) to the least-marrying and least-fruitful place on earth.

Fifty-four percent of Japanese women in their late 20s in 2004 were single, up from 24 percent in 1980. A national life insurance survey found that half of single women between 35 and 54 had nodesire whatsoever to marry; a government survey found that the happiest group in Japan was single women in their 20s, 78 percent of whom said they were “content with their lives.”

Corporations take some of the blame. They no longer play matchmaker, as they used to, for their famously hard-working, dark-suited “salarymen.” Imagine marrying the person that your boss selected for you!

Tokyo is becoming a sumptuous single woman’s paradise, styled like Sex (Not) and the City. That’s right, sex is out: Japanese inventors have devised techno-fixes to the apparent chore of romance—such as, last year, a kissing machine, to simulate an actual kiss.

Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Gakugei University, coined the term “Parasite Single” to describe the 90 percent of single Japanese women who live with their parents, and “use their rent-free incomes to [shop].” The women’s jobs aren’t prestigious, but they’re not stressful, and “give them enough spending money to buy designer handbags, shoes, clothes and jewelry.”

Shopping is strangely prominent in many journalistic accounts of post-marriage Japan. Jewelry stores saw their business plummet apace with Japan’s marriage rate, but now they advertise to single women that they should buy their own engagement rings, cutting out the middleman of a husband or marriage. A Tokyo secretary has no plans to marry. She enjoys traveling abroad with her “best friend and shopping companion,” in lieu of a husband.

Meanwhile the Parasite Single’s mother stays home, cooks her meals, cleans her room, and does her laundry.  

This means that Japan’s Parasite Singles are living out the wry utopia that Judy Syfers wrote about in her 1972 essay in Ms. magazine, “I Want a Wife.” They have a wife—their mother—who does the domestic chores and caregiving that they’d otherwise have to do for a husband.

Parasite Singles would rather have a traditional Japanese wife than be one. Who can blame them?

Politicians have tried shaming women into matrimony. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori inveighed against single women who “grow old living their lives selfishly, and singing the praises of freedom.” 

His shame offensive backfired. Instead, some women now have business cards that proclaim them proudly as a “Parasite Single.”

In comparison to the single life that sounds like Barbie’s groovy Malibu digs but without Ken stomping around looking for sex, the traditional marriage script in Japan is extremely unappealing. It prescribes that the hard-driving husband work back-breaking hours and carouse drunkenly in karaoke bars with male colleagues after work, while the wife tends to the children and home and caters to the husband’s whims.

Single women freely wield the statistic that the average Japanese husband spends 23 minutes on child care or housework per day, while women spend 4 ½ hours. Junko Sakai wrote a bestseller, The Howl of the Loser Dogs, about unmarried Japanese women. “Modern Japanese women who have jobs… don’t want to spend their lives cooking and cleaning for traditional thinking Japanese men,” she says.

It sounds nice for the husband, but Japanese men don’t care for the script that much either. A 40-year-old single man explains that “men don’t want to spend time with their girlfriends [or wives], especially shopping.” A 31-year-old bachelor did not “want to give up deep sea fishing every weekend. I wanted to spend the money I earned on myself. If you get married, you have to hand over your paycheck to your wife and live on an allowance.”

Significantly, it took him and his girlfriend eight years to realize that they could change the script of marriage, to customize their idea of it. They wed only after she agreed to keep working after marriage so that they could split expenses, and each keep their own money.

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And that’s an example of the larger problem: Young Japanese view the traditional marriage script as unappealing. But they also view it as inflexible, Procrustean, and unchangeable.

Therein lies the problem.

When marriage is undesirable but socially compulsory, people will do it because they have to. When marriage is desirable, but not compulsory, people will do it because they want to. When marriage is both undesirable and not compulsory, people won’t do it.

Communities vary in how much they see marriage as something that couples define, or something that defines couples. Does the social institution make the marriage, or does the marriage make (and change) the institution? Japan seems to lean toward the former.  In short, traditional marriage may be killing traditional marriage. The persistence of inflexible, undesirable roles over improvisation in an age of optional marriage weakens it. In contrast, the more marriage can sway a bit with the winds, the stronger it is.


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