The Guardian has an interesting article on sex and marriage in Japan – seems Japan’s young people aren’t much interested in either. This is a topic where it’s tempting, perhaps inevitable, to project one’s own interests and biases on to the facts. But, as I read the article, it mostly boils down to the economics of raising children.
In our agrarian past, I am told, having kids was an economic advantage to the family. You didn’t have to sink a bunch of resources into their development before you could put them to work in the fields and they would earn their keep. Early industrialization was much the same with young kids working in appalling conditions. Now, even if they could be put to work at an economically advantageous age, we don’t have the stomach for that kind of child abuse. Probably for the best.
There was also a period of time, apparently, in our industrial and post-industrial society (and, for all I really know, this was mostly the 40s, 50s, and 60s) where the income from one spouse was sufficient to support the entire family. Even though kids required a lot of resources and were probably not, from a financial standpoint, even a break-even proposition; at least the family could afford to have one person devoted to running the home and raising the kids. Now that’s becoming less the case with two incomes being more likely necessary to support a family.
In Japan, the expenses are apparently such that affording a family requires a grinding work schedule – if you can find work; but, more likely, requires two incomes. And, apparently, employers in Japan aren’t terribly interested in employing women with children on account of them not being as willing or able to devote themselves as fully to a job with a grinding schedule.
I’m not sure if the article explores the attitudes about two-income, childless marriages among young Japanese people; but, over all when it comes to romantic relationships, they are apparently deciding that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. (“Mendokusai” translates roughly to “too troublesome”.)
The article mentions the phenomenon called the soshoku danshi which translates loosely as “herbivores” or more literally as “grass eating men.” These are men who shun traditionally masculine roles; eschewing pursuit of sex, women, and the life of the family-supporting salaryman for more self-centered (and often more “feminine”) pursuits.
The sense of crushing obligation affects men just as much. Satoru Kishino, 31, belongs to a large tribe of men under 40 who are engaging in a kind of passive rebellion against traditional Japanese masculinity. Amid the recession and unsteady wages, men like Kishino feel that the pressure on them to be breadwinning economic warriors for a wife and family is unrealistic. They are rejecting the pursuit of both career and romantic success.
“It’s too troublesome,” says Kishino, when I ask why he’s not interested in having a girlfriend. “I don’t earn a huge salary to go on dates and I don’t want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage.” Japan’s media, which has a name for every social kink, refers to men like Kishino as “herbivores” or soshoku danshi (literally, “grass-eating men”). Kishino says he doesn’t mind the label because it’s become so commonplace. He defines it as “a heterosexual man for whom relationships and sex are unimportant”.
Women, for their part, apparently view marriage and children as a death sentence for their careers and the beginning of a life of drudgery.
Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery, from the exorbitant costs of buying property in Japan to the uncertain expectations of a spouse and in-laws. And the centuries-old belief that the purpose of marriage is to produce children endures. Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like”.
Relationships, love, marriage, and children don’t make economic sense in Japan; if the statistics in the article are to be believed. Add to that on one side, technology that substitutes to some extent for the physical and psychological benefits of such relationships and, on the other, a relative absence of the types of religious and social pressures that push young people toward such relationships where they are beneficial for society at large even if they are not especially advantageous to the couples/parents as individuals. (Economically, you probably come out a winner if you are childless but the rest of the country produces and raises plenty of children paying into a tax structure that benefits you in your old age. So maybe there is a Tragedy of the Commons aspect to this.)
There is probably cautionary value for the United States in this. My preference would be to structure our economy in such a way that people can afford kids — there will always be sacrifices (and, it must be said, non-fiscal rewards) associated with having children. But there are limits to what people will do. But, our culture being what it is, I expect the more culturally popular solutions will be to, as much as possible, stigmatize the technological substitutes and to amp up the social pressures that keep the whole system limping along.