Pragmatic Singles: Being An Unmarried Woman in Contemporary Japan

Tamiko Ortega Noll

PhD Thesis 2004

The concept of an unmarried Japanese woman carries a variety of changing meanings for both men and women. In the past Japanese women were viewed as a conceptual anomaly vis-a-vis the dominant rhetoric of universal marriage. In contemporary Japan women are marrying later or even choosing not to marry at all. Demographers view the personal actions by unmarried as cumulatively accounting for a large component of the declining birthrate. Such analysis of vial records has instilled panic among government officials already fearful of the rapidly aging population and its effect on Japan's future as a nation. In this dissertation I explore how unmarried Japanese women create and sustain their identities despite a public rhetoric that marginalizes, degrades, or even denies their existence as a social category. I argue that unmarried Japanese women are not "parasite singles," the homogenous entity that the Japanese government and media have portrayed them to be. Nor are they are part of an explicit, organized feminist revolution.

Drawing upon social theories that examine the tensions between practice and ideology, agency and structure I argue that unmarried Japanese are responding to a specific set of economic, political, and social conditions in which they find themselves. The cultural dialogue associated with "being unmarried" exposes how the government naturalizes and rationalizes the marital union to support its interests in maintaining productivity of the core (male) workforce, and the reproduction of future Japanese citizens. Based on ethnographic date collected in a city in rural Japan, I discuss how linguistic expressions and metaphors create image of "being married," how normative rhetoric about productivity in relation to women's life course appropriate employment and leisure activities, and how unmarried women's bodies are a site of state control through contraceptive regulations and other government policies. A focus on the discourse surrounding unmarried women exposes how they are positioned as key players in the maintenance of latent cultural logics regarding the family, work, nation, and reproduction. Even so, through their everyday enactments of "being unmarried," through resistance and compromise, unmarried women in this local city force and enforce change in social landscape of contemporary Japan.