The cozy home scenario is easy to envisage. On a weekday evening, a middle-aged salaryman returns to his 3LDK “manshon,” located 75 minutes by train from his place of employment. He’d purchased it for just under 50 million yen while in his mid-30s.
Shouting out, “tadaima” (I’m home), his son, a high-school student, and daughter, in middle school, respond “okaeri nasai” (welcome home) in unison. His wife’s voice resonates from the kitchen, where she’s preparing supper. It’s the most tranquil moment of the day—the time when all his hard work seems worthwhile.
Their marriage was a “love” match made in his late 20s with a co-worker at the office. His wife left the job after becoming pregnant with their son.
As mundane as these may seem, it’s a reasonably happy existence. After retirement from the job, the couple looks forward to motor trips around the country in the family car.
But in the Japan of the not-too-distant future, even such modest aspirations may no longer be viable. Divorce now affects one marriage in three, and the hubby might very well end his days as a temp-help worker, living in a one-room apartment and subsisting on a single hot meal of “gyudon” (stewed beef over rice) each day.
As Shukan Gendai (Dec 15) reports, this year the number of regular staff at major corporations who have applied for early retirement is said to have more than doubled over 2011. Prof Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University was quoted in the morning edition of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nov 7) as saying that these and other developments do not bode well for the continued existence of what is referred to as the “standard family” (husband, wife and kids). Particularly for the generation born from around 1970 onwards, the number of workers no longer able to sustain the standard household is projected to keep growing.
“Men who remain single into middle age and who live alone have been on the increase,” notes Katsuhiko Fujimori of the Mizuho Information & Research Institute, Inc. “Looking at trends in single males in their 50s and 60s, during the 20 years from 1985 to 2005, the number increased between four to five-fold. If this continues, by 2030 about one male in four in his 50s and 60s will be living alone.”
Factors influencing the growth of this segment include men who cannot marry due to unstable incomes and/or irregular employment; men who lived off their parents (so-called “parasite singles”) who are unable to achieve financial independence; and families that have fallen apart due to the main breadwinner’s loss of gainful employment.
This trend toward single households is already starting to manifest itself in various aspects of society. Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher at the NLI Research Institute points out that two years earlier, the cooking lessons aired on NHK’s educational channel began to reduce recipe servings from four to two.
“In Tokyo, the average number of individuals per household has already dropped to 1.99 persons,” Doteuchi points out.
In other words, Japan’s typical “model” family, of a working husband, wife as a full-time homemaker and one to two children, has already begun to disappear.
What sort of implications does this mean for Japan’s future? One change will be a rapidly growing number of socially alienated elderly. And Doteuchi also expects that suicides will increase.
“Of the 33,000 cases of suicides per year, those aged 60 and over account for some 12,000—or more than one-third of the total,” he says, adding that alienation and health problems are considered the most common causes of suicide. “Particularly because of an increasing number of divorces between couples in their later years, there’s a trend toward even greater social alienation.”
The crumbling family structure will have wider consequences for many sectors of the nation’s economy.
“People won’t need to own cars, and there will be fewer home buyers,” an unnamed business consultant tells Shukan Gendai. “Changes will also impact service industries. Likewise for outlays for children’s education—many cram schools are likely to disappear.”
A single temp worker, a man in his 60s, reflects the sense of purposelessness and emptiness in his life. “I’ve given up on the idea of ever getting married, but I’m afraid to die alone,” he says. “So I’m accumulating savings to get myself into a rest facility.”
As laughter of families vanishes from cities and towns, the Japan of the future will instead be one reverberating with sounds of pain and misery. That, predicts Shukan Gendai, is the kind of country that Japan is in the process of becoming.