Tying the knot is unraveling in Japan

So ancient a subject calls for a classical allusion. The 14th-century “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”), random musings of a monk named Yoshida no Kenko (1283-1350), is a perennially delightful source. “A man should never marry,” wrote Kenko. “I am charmed when I hear a man say, ‘I am still living alone.’”

But Kenko also said, “A man may excel at everything else, but if he has no taste for lovemaking, one feels something terribly inadequate about him.” Then again, “Nothing leads a man astray so easily as sexual desire.”

What is one to do then? Love, or not love? Marry, or not marry?

Marriage as an institution, and love as a sentiment, are in crisis. Economic constraints, weakening libido, the expanding range of socially acceptable alternatives — solitary sex (via adult videos, adult toys and the like), virtual sex (human lover courting virtual-anime-character beloved), asexuality — have led to a situation where 1 in 5 marriage-age Japanese considers himself or herself, triumphantly or disconsolately, a “lifetime single.” Within 20 years it is projected to be 1 in 4.

Against this background the biweekly magazine Pen takes up the theme of marriage — past, present and (maybe) future.

All civilizations ritualize reproduction. So awesome a thing can hardly go uninstitutionalized. Hence the universality of marriage, in one form or another. The modern mainstream view of it as one man and one woman united for life would have seemed as peculiar to many people of the past as evolving future variations seem to many today.

Sociologist Masahiro Yamada is the authority Pen turns to for a thumbnail history of Japanese marriage. If time confers respectability, polygamy has a much weightier claim to it in Japan than monogamy, which has roots going no further back than the feverish imitation of Western ways that characterized the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Imitation has limits, however. “Broadly speaking,” says Yamada, ” the West prioritizes love; Japan and China, money.”

That’s speaking very broadly indeed, but it is probably largely true that Japanese women set financial standards for future husbands more openly than Western women. The standards are high. Love is good, but an income of ¥10 million a year is better. But how many men aged 20-30 earn ¥10 million a year? Roughly 0.7 percent. Unwillingness to settle for less despite massively negative odds helps keep people single.

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