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Sunday, Jan. 16, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Single thirtysomethings under the spotlight


Last weekend, Nihon TV broadcast a two-hour program based on Junko Sakai's bestselling book "Makeinu no Toboe (The Howl of the Loser Dog)," a piece of nonfiction. The show, however, was a standard trendy drama, meaning long on ritzy real-estate and product placements, short on situations that resemble real life.

Thanks to Sakai, "makeinu" has become an everyday word that the media uses to describe a female thirtysomething who's not married but wishes she were. In the book, however, the definition is narrower: women approaching 40 with insecure jobs and no marriage prospects in sight.

The drama took a predictably neutral view. The three makeinu represented three distinct types: One was a very successful businesswoman who longed for marriage and children but who found fulfillment in her professional responsibilities; another was a divorced, childless woman who didn't see any point in going through marriage again; and the third was a ditzy fashion fatality who wanted to marry but only if the man had lots of money and she didn't have to give up her frivolous lifestyle.

For balance, a kachiinu (winner dog) was written into the story, a housewife who once worked with the businesswoman but now finds satisfaction taking care of her husband and son full-time.

At some point in the drama, each character came to doubt the direction her life had taken, but, in the end, they all learned to appreciate what they had. The forced even-handedness was infuriating, but the show's lukewarm attitude was a welcome corrective to the media's more judgmental interpretation of the terms. As one character put it, "Makeinu and kachiinu are just words," meaning they make it easy to stereotype women.

Stereotypes are easier to work with than complex issues, and makeinu has become a convenient buzz word in the escalating public debate about later marriages and declining birthrates.

The makeinu stereotype implies that responsibility for Japan's birthrate crisis lies with unmarried women in their 30s. The weekly magazine Aera has been instrumental in promoting this view. In a recent issue, there was an article that focused on a 37-year-old man who makes about 7 million yen a year and owns a condominium in Tokyo but can't find a woman who's interested in him. He attends matchmaking parties but finds that single women his age are looking for someone with more money and a higher position.

Sakai, it should be noted, wrote in defense of makeinu and blamed men for the marriage stalemate, saying that single Japanese males in their 30s were immature and uninterested in "real women." But the Aera article says the opposite, and supports its assertion with its own survey. Their most interesting finding is that 80 percent of the single male respondents said they would marry a woman who made more money than they did, while only 10 percent of the single women said they would marry a man who made less money than they did. Similarly, 60 percent of the men said they would gladly become househusbands, while an equal percentage of women said they would never want their spouses to be homemakers.

The upshot is that, contrary to popular belief, it is men who have become more open-minded about the economic aspects of marriage and not women. As one scholar in the Aera article put it, tradition says that in marriage women have the right not to have to make a living, while men have the right not to do housework. But as earning a living has become more difficult, housework has become easier. In the process, most men have decided to give up their privelege but most women haven't.

To feminists and anyone who believes in equality, such a development is depressing, but one has to keep in mind that everything is discussed within the realm of matrimony, which is a limiting concept. Aera implies that makeinu are materially obsessed. They not only do not want to worsen their financial situation when they marry, but look upon a potential husband as less a partner than as something that "confirms" their worth as a human being.

In the new Jun Ichikawa movie, "Tony Takitani," based on a story by Haruki Murakami about people devoid of endearing qualities, a character played by Rie Miyazawa epitomizes this idea when she says that she buys designer clothing because it "fills in the part of me that's missing."

Media pundits complain that such women are undermining Japanese society, but regardless of their implied "irresponsibility," there is no turning back. Makeinu are a natural product of the consumerist ideals that have driven the Japanese economy for the past 40 years. They are blamed for the dropping birthrate because they see husbands as commodities, but maybe it's the institution of marriage as an economic contract that needs to be reconsidered.

Several weeks ago the Mainichi Shimbun published the results of its own survey, which found that even married couples don't want to have children until their lives are not just stable but affluent. It's an understandable desire, but a very recent one. Only since the 1960s have people in the industrialized world had the luxury to put off having a family for whatever reason. Makeinu can't be blamed for a process they have no control over.



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