Monday, 21 October 2013

Are falling birth and marriage rates really a surprise?



Mendokusai is a word I learned today. Loosely translated from Japanese to English it sort-of means "siiiighhhh, hassle" (the terms the Guardian used was 'it's too troublesome' but I felt a bit more of that heavy shoulder-shrugging gloom about it) and in the context of relationships in which it was used, it made me feel pretty sad.

According to the article I was reading, 45% of females aged between 16 and 25 aren't interested in relationships in the slightest. "So what?" I thought. Reading on, it turned out the issue is far more endemic than simply young women finding independence for themselves. 

A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships)[ - perhaps a good example in itself of Japan's staunchly conservative cultural norms. - KT] Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact". More than a quarter of men felt the same way.(taken from The Guardian)

For a country with more extreme cultural values to our own, it's easy to dismiss these figures as the natural progression of a society primarily interested in 'salaryman' careers and the increase in the number of young people more willing to forgo the traditional trends of marriage and family life. Taking a closer look though could possibly reveal more about Western society as a whole than is entirely comfortable.

Throughout the article, women and men of varying ages between their early twenties and fourties were interviewed to speak about their opinions on relationships and to talk about exactly why they were choosing to remain single - a phenomenon in Japan which the media have dubbed "sekkusu shinai shokogun": literally, 'celibacy syndrome'.

The differences between the interviewees' attitudes to single life and that of a more familiar story taken from our own media was that their single lives weren't seen as temporary or finite. For the most part each person described their desires for sex and marriage as non-existent, stating that they doubted they ever would be interested in anything more meaningful than a platonic relationship. Some said their careers were their main priority, some said they simply were not interested in sex. "Mendokusai" they said. It's too much hassle.

For me, there's nothing surprising about this attitude. Of course relationships aren't necessary parts of human life for a lot people, nor should the traditional ideals of marriage and child-spawning be thrust upon people as the only healthy way to live. I'm not going to talk through the implications these new attidudes are having on the wider population of Japan as I'm sure the figures speak for themselves (you can find them all here) but rather the way they are affecting the sociology of the country. 

Society there has been changing dramatically over the past 150 years. As a culture traditionally set on male-breadwinner, woman-childminder values (much like our own), it has apparently been harder for both men and women to turn these stigmas around due to ingrained ideals combined with conservative Japanese attitudes. Calling unmarried sexually-active people "unsuitable members of society" and assuming that being married automatically requires the partners involved to reproduce isn't exactly doing wonders for young people's faith in the societal norm. 

Now that long-term single life is becoming more commonplace in Japan, the Government and media have attempted to backtrack on what they see as a national crisis, but it might be too late. I read this article and wondered why more countries were not involved in the study, and why it came as a surprise that people are no longer seeking stability in a relationship. In 2013, a long-term relationship couldn't be less desirable to independent people struggling to pave a way financially and socially. Given the state of the world, why should young people feel the need to bring children into it? Why should they be expected to rely on another human when they can provide everything they need for themselves?

I haven't seen a more depressing view of the future. That people would give up the chance to be in any sort of relationship because it's just too much of a distraction makes me sadder than any other news story I've read in recent months. In my opinion, and I know nobody asked me for it but I'm gonna storm in there and give it anyway, years of oppressive stereotypes and pressure to have it all have stopped this generation from seeking the traditional ideals of their parents. Add to this a string of economic and ecological disasters and you've got perhaps the least likely place you'd want to start a happy family.

This isn't about people being unlucky in love. This is about thousands of young adults opting out of relationships altogether in favour of playing reality sims, working 20 hour days and having easier, non-sexual friendships, and it isn't going to just stay within the boundaries of Japan's coastline.

Is that an ideal or is it a nightmare?

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