Japan’s unmarrieds seek new connections beyond the family

Japan’s unmarrieds seek new connections beyond the family

With marriage rates declining in Japan, friendships are assuming greater importance, for both men and women, writes LAURA DALES.

It is a fact that by now barely needs mentioning—Japan is a hyper-ageing, low-fertility society. Japanese women and men are also marrying later, and less. Those who do marry are having fewer children than in the past, with an average of 1.96 completed number of children per married couple in 2010.

But with only 2.4 per cent of all births occurring outside marriage, (cf Australia’s 34 per cent in 2011), it is clear Japanese prefer to marry before having children. A decline in marriage therefore means fewer babies.

Among the factors in the declining trend in Japanese marriage rates are socioeconomic barriers, such as economic insecurity and underemployment, as well as differing perceptions of marriage and marriageability between men and women. But whatever the reason for the delay and decline in marriage rates, remaining single in Japan is an increasingly common, and increasingly long-term, experience.

In light of the shifts in marriage patterns, it is worth considering how relationships beyond marriage and the family shape the social landscape and the individual lives of Japanese women and men. This is the starting point for my current research,* which explores some of the ways that intimate relationships—friendships, workplace relationships and romantic relationships that do not lead to marriage—are formed and sustained in Japan, among women and men, married and unmarried, straight and queer.

Couple on a bench1
Friendships enable people to create and express identities.

The question of friendship is relatively underexplored in sociological and anthropological literature. Research on friendships is important both because it foregrounds the shifts in family and marriage trends, and because close non-familial relationships are often overlooked or subsumed under other studies of community.

Sociologist Michael Eve has argued that friendships enable people to create and express identities, and also offer them the opportunity to develop and practise skills and competencies that may not be revealed in other relationships. The capacity to create and maintain friendships is mediated by the meanings given to friendships among different groups such as mothers, workingmen, student club members and the elderly. The social weight of friendship is balanced against other obligations such as paid and unpaid work, and the obligations that flow from other roles—for example neighbour, daughter or non-governmental organisation volunteer.

When the ideal of marriage as a lifelong commitment is particularly dissonant with its practice, a focus on friendship raises questions about the kinds of relationships that are ‘privileged’, legally and socially, and of the ways intimacy is developed in the home and outside it.

Sociological studies of marriage and marriageability outside Japan have suggested that high levels of extra-marital births, divorce and marriage delay present new ways of conceptualising intimacy beyond the reproductive family or marital unit. A focus on friendship and other intimate relationships can therefore redress the privilege attached to conjugal relationships.

This project was in part driven by questions raised in earlier research I conducted with Professor Beverley Yamamoto, at Osaka University, in which we focused on unmarried, divorced and otherwise ‘unconventional’ women aged 25–60 years. [ratina][/ratina]Many of the unmarried women we interviewed were content with their single status and cited things such as work, family and friendships as providing a sense of belonging and meaning in their lives.

Building on this, my current project presumes that the connections between marriage and friendship are best explored from the perspective of both married and unmarried, people, and how experiences of friendship—like marriage—differ between men and women. One area of difference between men and women’s accounts in my research so far is how friendships are practised. How often, and in what capacity, friends meet is partly a function of competing demands on time. The nature of these demands reflects gendered roles and obligations, affecting both parties in the friendship. For women, even those who are unmarried or don’t have children, the marital and motherhood status of their friends is salient to the kinds of friendship practices that are possible, such as day or night-time outings, weekday activities or shared travel.

For men, particularly those working full-time, time constraints are largely related to work commitments. Corporate practices, particularly long working hours, limit the time and energy workers have to pursue interests and relationships outside work. While family obligations may also affect men’s time availability, they seem to be secondary in married men’s discussions of friendship practice and its limitations, and barely at all for unmarried men.

Men’s friendship practices

It seems work is the significant variable in men’s friendship practices. Work remains central to the definition of masculinity in Japan. While senpai/kôhai (junior/senior) workplace relationships have long been considered central to Japanese male sociality, changes in employment trends and practices over the past two decades have challenged the workplace foundations of these relationships. Job insecurity, poorer working conditions and employment expectations make workplaces ambivalent places for friendships, for both men and women full-time workers.

Friendship, more than just a relationship between two people, is constituted by the social fabric—what Michael Eve calls ‘the substratum making individual exchanges possible’. For women, this substratum includes motherhood, which produces conditions enabling new friendships between a mother and other women—but also potentially limits friendships formed before children, or with women without children. For men, the substratum is dominated by work and workplace relations, and although marriage and children may affect male friendships, they generally appear to be less significant. Unmarried women seem to negotiate marriage via their friendships in ways that unmarried men do not.

Shifts in demography and the social landscape indicate that while marriage continues to feature in the life course of most Japanese women and men, it is only one possible lens through which to understand adult relationships of intimacy and belonging. For never-married, queer, divorced and widowed Japanese, non-familial relationships offer scope for happiness and belonging built on ideals and practices of affinity.

In the context of demographic patterns, such as the decline and delay in marriage, and the destabilisation and restructuring of employment, relationships crafted beyond the family take on new meanings and new importance, for married and unmarried Japanese alike.

*Supported by an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.

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