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Sunday, May 17, 2009
Oh! To have a married life
Last week, during an NHK discussion about the future prospects of people who are presently 35 years old, an announcer casually dropped a statistic that said 82 percent of all 35-year-olds in Japan make ¥2 million or less a year. These are the people who are now supposed to be the core purchasers of first homes, but if we apply the prevailing if outdated wisdom that says the price you pay for a property should be no more than five times your annual salary, then most of the members of this generation can't afford anything more than ¥10 million, which perhaps would pay for a shack on the side of a mountain in Fukushima Prefecture.
The only thing they can do is marry someone else with a job and combine their incomes (¥20 million will get you a shack a little closer to Tokyo). That, in fact, was the main thrust of the discussion — marriage, and the difficulties this demographic is experiencing to get hitched. The program covered the blurring of traditional gender roles characterized by the buzz word "herbivores" (soshoku-kei), meaning men who are passive about dating and sex, as well as the increasing number of failed marriages, a development that itself has a damping effect on coupling."I don't want to get married because I'm afraid of getting divorced," said one tremulous young man.
Whatever the reason for this anxiety it has produced its own buzz word, konkatsu, which is derived from kekkon katsudo (marriage activities), which refers to the search for a partner in the same way shushoku katsudo (employment activities) refers to the search for a job. The word became popular after the publication of "Konkatsu Jidai" ("The Age of Looking for a Partner") by Masahiro Yamada, the sociologist already famous for popularizing the terms "parasite singles" (meaning, aging kids who still live with their parents) and "kibo kakusa" (gap of hope). As Yamada implied in a recent interview in Aera, he doesn't set out to write best sellers. His books are dry academic studies, which may explain why so many people misunderstand him.
People see what they want to see, and what they want to see is a manual for finding a partner. But Yamada's book is a treatise on the current state of marriage, mainly in economic terms. In the Aera interview, he says that the conventional idea of a marriage as consisting of a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home wife/mother is no longer tenable. Couples must share all aspects of domestic life, from working to raising children, and he found that the most successful marriages are those in which the wives have fulfilling jobs outside the home. In fact, the more fulfilled they are, the more children they have, but there are very few women, married or unmarried, who have those kinds of jobs. The job situation for women hasn't improved much in the past 20 years despite more liberal labor laws.
Yamada told Aera he receives requests from local governments to give lectures and finds that people misinterpret his findings. Men think they have to "work harder" to support their families, and single women who aspire to be full-time homemakers focus on the fact that only 3.5 percent of single men in Tokyo make at least ¥6 million a year, a statistic so infamous it has become a popular gag among TV comedians.
It was only a matter of time before "konkatsu" was picked up as a theme for a TV drama series, and right now there are two.
Fuji TV's "Konkatsu!" (Monday, 9 p.m.) stars SMAP leader Masahiro Nakai as Kuniyuki, a typical 30-something who graduated from a "minor" university during the post-bubble slump and was recently laid off. His family owns a restaurant that serves pork cutlets — "tonkatsu," thus providing the title's pun — but he is loath to follow in his father's footsteps because he hates the smell of cooking oil.
Kuniyuki takes a temporary job in a new section of his ward office that was set up to reverse the ward's falling birth rate. Kuniyuki is hoping to turn the position into a full-time job, but he is told that only married staff will be offered regular employment so he lies and says he's engaged. The plot involves Kuniyuki's and other characters' adventures in the marital marketplace.
NHK's "Konkatsu Rikatsu" (NHK-G, Friday, 10 p.m.) adopts terms and ideas directly from Yamada's book and expands on them to also address rikatsu (divorce activities).
This contrast is represented by two 39-year-old friends, Nanami (Sachiko Sakurai) and Rikako (Misa Shimizu). Nanami has never been married and her mother threatens to kick her out of the house once she turns 40. Rikako is living in Nanami's house after having been kicked out of her own by her salaryman husband, who says he can no longer live up to the standards she has set for their married life. The storyline runs on two tracks: Nanami looking for a suitable partner, and Rikako resisting and then accepting divorce.
Yamada has no involvement with either show, and both lean more toward entertainment than enlightenment. "Konkatsu!" sets up a comic conflict between the desire for financial security and the pull of companionship. "I'm looking for a husband, not a date," says a character whose priorities are clear. "Konkatsu Rikatsu" spreads itself thin dramatically by trying to cover every possible angle, from the myth of the perfect housewife to the "prince on the white horse."
These are not new obsessions, but they are presented as being more desperate. The series pay lip service to romantic love (sex is barely mentioned), but the spouse-hunters don't talk about anything except spouse-hunting. "Finding the right partner is a miracle," Kuniyuki says during an epiphany, reinforcing the idea that love is a matter of rare chemistry. Yamada says it has more to do with communication. The reason many young men and women can't find mates while those who do are increasingly getting divorced is that they don't have anything to say to each other.