Japan Research and Analysis
through Internet Information

by Yasuharu Dando

How the Internet Is Saving Japan from Becoming a Nation of Lifetime Singles
(December 2001)(Japanese edition:2001/7/26)

The 2000 Population Census of Japan has just been released. Previously I had predicted that one in four Japanese men would choose to remain single their whole lives, or else never be able to marry, bringing about an unprecedented "age of lifetime singles" in Japan. At a glance, the preliminary statistics show results close to my prediction, with the "never married" rate among men between 35-39 at 25.7%. But within the statistics is concealed evidence of an extraordinary phenomenon that has begun to stem the rising trend toward remaining unmarried for life in Japan, where the prolonging or foregoing of marriage has given rise to a declining birth rate and an aging society. My whole point in writing this column is to give form to those elements of our lives that we can't always see, so let's have some fun with these statistics to see if we can find the genesis of this phenomenon.

Men in Their 40s and 50s Have Not Given Up on Finding a Wife

The census offers the following choices for marital status: never married, married, widowed, and divorced. We'll just look at "never married," since the other designations all mean "married at some time." As soon as the census came out, I used the preliminary statistical totals to plug in the "never married" numbers for 2000 to compare the changes in five year increments since 1980.

 Percentage of Never Married Men/Women by Age Group 

   [Men]    1980  1985  1990  1995  2000   
   20-24    91.5  92.1  92.2  92.6  93.0    
   25-29    55.1  60.4  64.4  66.9  69.5    
   30-34    21.5  28.1  32.6  37.3  42.9    
   35-39     8.5  14.2  19.0  22.6  25.7    
   40-44     4.7   7.4  11.7  16.4  18.4    
   45-49     3.1   4.7   6.7  11.2  14.5    
   50-54     2.1   3.1   4.3   6.7  10.0    
   55-59     1.5   2.1   2.9   4.3   5.9   
   60-64     1.2   1.6   2.0   2.9   4.0   

   [Women]  1980  1985  1990  1995  2000 
   20-24    77.7  81.4  85.0  86.4  88.1  
   25-29    24.0  30.6  40.2  48.0  54.0  
   30-34     9.1  10.4  13.9  19.7  26.4  
   35-39     5.5   6.6   7.5  10.0  13.9  
   40-44     4.4   4.9   5.8   6.7   8.6  
   45-49     4.4   4.3   4.6   5.6   6.3  
   50-54     4.4   4.4   4.1   4.5   5.2     
   55-59     3.5   4.4   4.2   4.1   4.2  
   60-64     2.4   3.5   4.2   4.1   3.9

The percentage of "never marrieds" among both men and women between the ages of 30-34 crossed the benchmarks of 40% and 20% respectively, reaching 42.9% for men and 26.4% for women, seeming to prove the advance of the trend toward getting married later, which has led to the present phenomenon of a declining birth rate, and the extension of that trend, which is never getting married at all. But, when I noted that the "never married" rate among men in the next age group of 35-39 was just 25.7%, something seemed too low about that number. Learning from my experience in similarly scrutinizing incongruent statistics in the 1995 census, I took a closer look at some of the other numbers to see why this percentage wasn't higher, and that's when I noticed something quite extraordinary.

In order to better understand the situation that is occurring, I used the statistics to calculate the decline in percentage points of "never marrieds" for each age group at five-year increments. For example, if 12% of a certain age group was "never married" in a certain year, and then five years later the percentage for the same group was down to 9%, that means a decline of 3%, so that 3% of that age group became married at some point during that five-year interval. So I charted the drop in "never marrieds" by percentage point for each male/female age group during the five year intervals used by the census. The vertical columns show the changes over the years for each age group. The age group headings define the age that each group was in 2000. Now we can better see the process at work for each age group.

    Five-year Decline in "Never Marrieds" by Age Group (%)

  [Men]  60-64  55-59  50-54  45-49  40-44  35-39  30-34  25-29  
          0.0    1.1    7.3   27.0   31.1
          0.4    0.7    2.5    9.1   27.8   27.7
          0.0    0.0    0.5    2.6   10.0   27.1   25.3
          0.3    0.8    1.2    1.9    4.2   10.6   24.0   23.1

  [Women]60-64  55-59  50-54  45-49  40-44  35-39  30-34  25-29  
          0.1    0.1    2.5   13.6   37.1
          0.2    0.2    0.8    2.9   16.7   41.2
          0.0    0.1    0.2    0.8    3.9   20.5   37.0
          0.2    0.3    0.4    0.4    1.4    5.8   21.6   32.4

The most dramatic movement is seen in the group of men that were between the ages of 50-54 at the time of the 2000 census. Between 1985 and 1990, when this group went from ages 35-39 to ages 40-44, the percentage of "never marrieds" went down by 2.5 points. But in the next five years, "never marrieds" among this group went down by just 0.5 points, so one might assume that this age group had passed its last chance for marriage. But, in the next five years from 1995 to 2000, when this group aged from late 40s to early 50s, the percentage of "never marrieds" went down by 1.2 points. That's 2.4 times as many of these men got married in their early 50s as did in their late 40s. Since there are 5.27 million men in this age group, that means that 1.2% or 63,000 men that were between the ages of 50-54 in the year 2000 had gotten married in the last five years.

I did a double take when I saw the change in "never marrieds" for the 55-59 age group as well, moving from 0 points between 1990 and 1995 to 0.8 points once they were all right into their 50s. If you look at the figures diagonally from upper left to lower right, you can track the differences for people who were the same age five years previously, and see this trend clearly. Broadly, the percentage of men getting married in their early 50s went from 0 ten years ago to 1.2% five years ago.

And as for the women? Though there are only about one-third as many "never married" women in their 50s as men in the same age group, the trends are similar. Though the charts don't show statistics for people in their 60s, the trend toward late in life marriages continues right on into the upper age groups. This may be basically a reflection of the wish to have a partner for one's old age, as our lifespan grows longer and longer.

So, what is happening in Japan is this: Over the last five years we have seen men in their 40s and 50s who had perhaps given up on marriage actually getting married, probably most of them with younger women of child-bearing age. The rise in women in their 30s getting married may be partly due to this phenomenon.

If people continue to get married even well into their middle and advanced years, then the rate of "never marrieds" among 30-34 year olds should eventually drop from its high level of 42.9% today to something closer to 20%. "Lifetime single rate" is a demographic term that is used when referring to the percentage of "never marrieds" at the 50 year old level. The term is used because marriages after that age have always been supposed to have no effect on a population's increase or decrease, since women over 50 very rarely give birth, but current trends make it wrong to take the term "lifetime single" at face value, at least in the case of the male population.

Let's Verify Exactly What's Happening

What has happened over the past five years to bring about this situation?

In short, we have to attribute this phenomenon to the increased number of people using the Internet, which began to show exponential growth in use from about 1996, and took another explosive leap with the wide use of cell phones for Internet access starting in the year 2000.

There are other possibilities, of course. The most likely is the increase in the number of international marriages, mainly of Japanese men to foreign brides. There are no figures available for the year 2000, so I used numbers from the 1999 Vital Statistics complied by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

  Number of Marriages by Natinaonality  
       Husband-Wife  Husband     Wife
         Japanese    Japanese    Japanese  
  1980   767,441      4,386      2,875
  1985   723,669      7,738      4,443
  1990   696,512     20,026      5,600
  1995   764,161     20,787      6,940
  1999   730,128     24,272      7,628

From 1990 on the number of Japanese men taking wives from the Philippines or China hit the 20,000 mark, and this number was up slightly in 1999. But the total increase in the number of marriages is way beyond this, and international marriages cannot account for the growth over the last five years.

I know personally of a number of couples married now who met each other via computer communication networks, even before the advent of the Internet. On the Internet can be found a multitude of "places" and chances to meet members of the opposite sex.

A recent hot topic in the media has been just such "places," namely Internet dating services or website devoted to personal ads, known as "deai-kei sites." Cell phones rather than PCs are the typical way to access this type of site. It is easy to talk about these types of sites in connection with crimes like the recent serial killings in Kyoto linked to e-mail dating, but obviously if enough people are meeting each other for these types of isolated crimes to occur, then certainly enough opportunities for honest and forthright relationships between men and women are also being provided by these sites.

The largest user groups among both men and women are "just looking for a good time." But I'm also told that among women users "about 20% are looking for a longer term relationship or potential marriage partner," and among the men are "a large number of engineers." The largest age group for both men and women is "over 30 and under 40," next is "men over 40 and women over 20 and under 30."

There is no way to directly ascertain whether deai-kei dating sites are helping to boost the number of marriages in Japan, but we can examine the phenomenon from the point of view of existing statistics.

It was expected that the number of marriages would go up in the year 2000 "because I want to have a millennium baby," but published data shows that 798,000 couples were married in 2001, which is 36,000 more couples than were married in the year 2000. The marriage rate in 2001 was 6.4 per thousand population, more than the 6.1 recorded in the year 2000.

Keeping in mind that the number of cell phones in use exceeded the 10 million mark in May 2000, let's look at the change in the marriage rate by month for the past year. There were 48% more marriages in January 2000 than in the same period in 1999. If someone really wanted to have a "millennium baby" then they would have to have gotten married in January or February of that year.

We do see a drop in March and April, but the numbers go up again in May. December 2000 compared to December 1999 shows 44% more marriages taking place. Again, in January 2001, one would expect to see a decline against the same month in the prior year since there was such a huge jump in 2000 (48%), but numbers were down just 0.04%. This cannot be explained by the "millennium baby" theory.

The National Survey of Fertility and Marriage (1997) offers the following analysis: "On the whole, people that have never been married are thinking less and less about marriage." The survey also states that behind this phenomenon is the paucity of opportunity for men and women to meet in the course of their daily lives: "Opportunities for exchange with the opposite sex among the younger age groups remain at unusually low levels," and "About half of all men and women claim that they have to remain single because they have not found a suitable marriage partner."

I think that the explosion of the Internet including the appearance of these deai-kei dating sites will turn this analysis upon its head. The census only gives us the numbers as they exist through October of last year, so that the impact of Internet dating has not begun to be reflected. Any effect on the number of births will also not be apparent for some time. It will be very interesting to see how many more babies will be born in Japan, thanks to the Internet.

(special thanks to translation by PHP Institute Inc.
"JAPAN CLOSE-UP" December 2001)

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