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The Changing Face of Marriage in Japan

July 28, 1998

(Source: National Institute of Population and Social Security Research)

The term omiai, denoting the traditional Japanese arranged marriage, seems to be falling rapidly out of use. Half a century ago, about 70% of all marriages in Japan were arranged; now, less than 10% are. In another shift, more couples these days are of the opinion that having a girl is preferable to having a boy. Seeing the birth of a son as a joyous event ensuring the continuation of the family name also seems to be outmoded. These and many other changes in attitudes toward marriage and the family are now sweeping Japanese society.

Picking Their Own Partners
In June 1998, the Ministry of Health and Welfare released the results of a national survey carried out every five years to examine Japanese attitudes toward marriage and childbearing. The survey, which collected responses from 7,354 couples where the wife was younger than 50, shows that only 9.9% of all marriages arranged marriages. In a traditional omiai, letters of introduction and photos are exchanged as the potential bride and groom seek someone who meets their requirements. Until the early 1940s, arranged marriages accounted for about 70% of the total. Before World War II, many weddings took place between two people who met each other for the first time on the day of the ceremony. After the end of the war, however, omiai saw a steady decline. "Love marriages" overtook arranged weddings in the second half of the 1960s, and have been widening the gap in percentages ever since.

The survey also points to a decline in the average difference in age between a husband and wife. The ratio of marriages where the wife is older than her husband has nearly doubled over the past 10 years to reach 23.2% of the total. The percentage of same-age couples is also on the rise. Couples where the husband is older, once the overwhelming majority, have dropped by 10% in the last five years to account for only 60% of all marriages today. This trend is closely tied to the decline in arranged marriages, which are generally carried out between older men and younger women. As one sociologist points out, "The selection of partners based on the husband's taking a dominant role in the relationship is vanishing fast. The numbers show that an equal partnership--where a husband and wife enjoy work, relaxation, and life in general together--is now the norm."

Plan Ahead; Have a Daughter
Dropping birthrates are troubling developed countries around the world, and the problem is especially serious in Japan. The average age of Japanese at the time of their first marriage is now 28.4 years for men and 26.1 for women--an increase from a decade ago of 0.2 years and 0.8 years, respectively. This is giving rise to fears of a further drop in the childbearing rate and an even more top-heavy population pyramid. The ratio of young couples (married for less than 10 years) who choose to have children is dropping. Fully 42.6% of couples married for four years or less report no children (up from 38.9% five years ago), while those married from five to nine years without children now account for 10.3% of all couples in that range (up from 8.6%). Couples married for less than five years give the ideal number of children as an average 2.33 children, but the number of kids they plan to have as only 2.12. Almost 40% of the couples explain this gap between their ideal and actual situations with the fact that "child-rearing is expensive."

Amid this trend toward fewer children, when asked whether they would prefer a boy or girl as an only child, fully three-quarters of couples opted for a daughter. This preference for girls shows a marked increase from 15 years ago, when the numbers were more or less equal. Previously the common consensus was that a daughter would be lost to marriage; but the recent conventional wisdom sees strong ties as continuing between parents and a daughter even after the latter gets married. A son, on the other hand, is now seen as facing the prospect of transfer to a distant work location. It may well be that as Japan approaches its silver years, the aging generations are looking to their daughters for their senior care needs, rather than to their sons--who are likely to leave the nursing duties up to their wives anyway.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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