COLUMN ONE : In Japan, a 'Goat Man' or No Man : Women are gaining more clout in relationships. As they become more independent, they demand a gentle yet strong, supportive and high-achieving spouse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yasuhiro Akimoto, a 27-year computer salesman in Tokyo, makes no bones about the kind of woman he wants to marry: a gentle spirit who will have a hot dinner waiting for him when he gets home, properly greet him at the door and arrange his shoes after he takes them off.

Noriko Suzuki, a 27-year-old editor at a major publishing firm, is equally clear about her ideal mate: a supportive man who will encourage her career and allow her to pursue her own interests. Would she have dinner ready for him when he came home?

"It's impossible," she says. "I work until 10 p.m."

In a country where serving men had been the long-accepted female role, there was a time when Akimoto would have had the pick of the crop for his doting dream woman. But these days, it may be Suzuki who has the upper hand. A simple statistic--single men now outnumber single women by 2 million--has launched Japan from the postwar condition of "a truckload of women for every man" into what the local press labels "the Era of Too Many Men."

Thanks to that statistic, along with women's growing economic independence and an average education level that now outstrips that of men, women are said to be gaining new clout in the realm of romance. They are marrying later, or not at all. They are making their own persnickety demands on potential mates. The best-known demands on their list are called the "three highs": high salary ($35,000 or more), high education (a four-year university degree) and a height of not less than 5 feet, 7 inches.

Women are also insisting on continuing careers and initiating more divorces. And in what one feminist author calls a "silent rebellion," women are balking at having babies. Japan is registering its lowest birthrate in history, a state of affairs bemoaned as the "1.57% shock" that has sent policy-makers scrambling for solutions.

On the job, of course, many women are still consigned to serving tea, making copies and earning half that of their male counterparts. But outside the office, the mini-revolution in personal relationships has forced young Japanese men into the unaccustomed role of learning to accommodate women.

In a whiff of pity and scorn, the popular magazines have avidly chronicled the various roles men are desperately playing to land an elusive lady: "Treat Boy," for instance, takes them to fancy restaurants. "Gift Boy" buys them presents. "Driver Boy" chauffeurs them around town. (At the bottom of the barrel is the all-purpose "Convenient Boy.")

The wooing doesn't come cheap. An October survey by the Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank found that 40% of men spent between $225 and $375 for a single date, while 12% spent more than $750 and a few claimed to have shelled out more than $3,750. Despite such exertions, 40% of men said they were having a tough time finding a wife.

As if all that weren't enough to drive the single guy into fits of insecurity, new models of manhood are constantly being proffered. Nikkei Woman magazine, the bible for working women in Japan, exhorted its readers this year to seize the advantage and settle for nothing less than a "Goat Man."

Like the animal regarded in Japan as gentle but strong, the Goat Man is a mate of intelligence and wide interests who doesn't look to his wife as a substitute mother and who likes household chores and child care.

The brutal climate bewilders men like Akimoto.

"The kind of woman I want in Japan has really decreased--you can even say she's disappeared," he laments. "Basically, women are stronger than men now. They have their own hobbies and interests and jobs. Marriage is no longer their highest happiness. Now men have to spoil them."

Or, as feminist author Kiyoko Yoshihiro puts it, "Japan is at a turning point in the power balance between the sexes."

In the past, Japanese women who were not married by age 25 were scornfully known as "Christmas cake." Like holiday cake, the thinking went, women had a short shelf life.

Between 1975 and 1990, however, the proportion of unmarried women between ages 25 and 29 doubled to 40.2% from 20.9%, according to last year's national census. During that same period, unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 24 increased to 85% from 69.2%.

Overall, the average marriage age for Japanese women is one of the oldest in the world, having crept up to 26 from 24 a decade earlier (it is more than 27 in Tokyo). The U.S. average is 22.

The reasons are simple: economics and education.

"So many women were forced to marry in the past, but we need not marry for economic reasons now or stick to men, as in previous generations," said Mariko Sugahara Bando, a National Archives researcher specializing in issues involving women and the elderly.

Bando said that Japan's 1986 Equal Employment Law, although it did not go nearly far enough, did help secure better working opportunities for women. In 1991, the number of women in the work force hit an all-time high of 18.3 million, or 37.9% of the total.

More women are seeking higher education, surpassing the proportion of men for the first time in 1989. In 1991, 39.2% of Japanese women and 36.3% of men graduated from a four- or two-year institution.

At the same time women were gaining more personal independence, societal pressure to marry early began to diminish. Companies that used to push women to marry by age 25--and then push them to quit in order to hire younger women at lower wages--were suddenly constrained by the Equal Employment Law. And parents who used to fret about marrying off daughters in the cutthroat competitive climate after the war now find themselves able to relax in today's "Era of Too Many Men."

As a result, women today have a greater luxury of choice.

Take, for instance, 32-year-old Kyoko Watanabe. As a technical translator and graduate of the prestigious International Christian University in Tokyo, she has a background that has helped attract several proposals from engineers, bankers and doctors. And her economic independence has given her the freedom to reject candidates for reasons her mother would never have dared express.

One recent prospect, for instance, came qualified with a top-seeded Tokyo University education, a doctorate from Harvard University, where he now teaches, and research experience in Germany. During a trip back to Japan to find a wife, he proposed. But Watanabe turned him down flat.

"He talked to me like a teacher and student--and I'm the student," Watanabe said, shaking her head in disgust. "I asked him what kind of research he was doing, and he said it was too difficult to explain to someone like me."

Other prospects flunked her test when they asked questions such as, "Why haven't you gone to cooking school?" Watanabe is searching for a man who regards her as an equal partner. But the Japanese men she has met are looking for a "good cook and wise mother."

Her case isn't unusual. According to those in the business to know--Japanese matchmakers--there is a growing gap between women and men as to what they expect in a marriage partner.

Hatsuko Suzuki, chief researcher for the Altmann Institute, a matchmaking firm in Tokyo, said many women still want men to play the role of traditional breadwinner. Yet they've become disillusioned with the traditional role of subservient wife.

In a survey last year of 500 single women by Bacchus, a business magazine, 53% said they could not be happy as an average homemaker, compared to 26% who said they could.

"In the past, women had to give up all of their own enjoyment after marriage and concentrate on keeping house and supporting the man," Suzuki said. "But now she wants an equal partnership, freedom to continue working and time to enjoy different activities with her husband. If she can't find that kind of partner, it's OK not to marry."

That message is reinforced by the mass media. One popular TV drama this season detailed the love story of a heroine who finds the perfect "Goat Man"--a gentle soul willing to play equal partner--but ultimately decides not to marry.

At the same time, another show, "The 101st Marriage Proposal," dramatized the exploits of a man who wanted to marry but couldn't find a wife until the 101st attempt.

The growing disillusionment with traditional married roles is spilling over into public policy. Following the pattern of Western nations, Japanese women are having fewer babies as their education levels and employment opportunities give them other options. In addition, cramped housing and astronomical education expenses have made child-rearing tougher. And absentee husbands wedded to their companies don't help out much.

Working women in Japan spend an average four hours and 21 minutes a day on housework, child care and shopping. Japanese men spend eight minutes, according to government figures.

But now that the birthrate has plummeted, the Japanese government has begun scrambling for baby-boosting measures, ranging from monetary rewards to child-care leaves to tax breaks for families with children.

Meanwhile, women are now initiating 60% of all contested divorce actions. The most high-profile cases are the "Narita divorces" among newlyweds. Usually the scenario involves a honeymoon abroad, when the wife finds that her new husband can't speak a foreign language, order in restaurants or otherwise show decisive leadership qualities. On landing back at the New Tokyo International Airport in Narita, she dumps him.

Another noticeable trend involves divorces among women between the ages of 50 and 60. Although they constitute just 9.4% of all contested divorces, that rate has doubled in the last decade, said Yoriko Madoka, director of Niko Niko Rikon, a divorce counseling group.

After the wife has raised the children and supported her husband in his career until he retires, she asks for a divorce. Her rationale: To spend another 20 years of her life having to put up with her husband as sodai gomi-- "big garbage" cluttering up the house--is beyond her ability to endure.

Unlike their situation in the past, these women can now easily find part-time jobs and have greater legal access to a share in their husband's pensions. In addition, the changing social environment, in which divorce is no longer taboo, has emboldened them.

Both the Narita and middle-aged divorces are relatively small in number--Bando estimates that they totaled fewer than 1,000 among the total 156,000 divorces in 1989. But they reflect a greater feeling of power in women's attitudes toward relationships and marriage, the National Archives researcher said.

Yet, despite the media hoopla, the changes have not seemed to penetrate the male psyche, those on both sides of the issue say.

Listen to Yoshizo Omura, a board member of the International Community Assn. in Tokyo. His matchmaking firm gets 15 calls a day, from clients as young as 21 and as old as 75. Often, he matches Japanese men with foreign women. Although his clients prefer Japanese women, Omura says what once was known as the gentler sex has become excessively demanding, even snotty.

First they insist that a husband come with a car and without a live-in mother-in-law. Then the demands extended to the "three highs." Now, he laments, women are even insisting that the age spread be no more than three years.

"When you look at it from a Japanese male perspective, Japanese women today are not like women," Omura sighed. "They're too self-assertive. They won't listen to men. They used to be more submissive and weaker.

"Women have changed. But men haven't. So these men who haven't changed can't find women."

One reason, analysts said, is that Japanese mothers still spoil their sons, exhorting them to concentrate on studies while all cooking, cleaning and other domestic chores are done for them.

To be sure, not all Japanese men are looking for substitute mothers to baby them. Takeshi Umemura, 35, a researcher at a pharmaceutical firm, rejects the notion of kanai, the Japanese word for wife that literally means "inside the house." He wants an independent and intelligent career woman "with her own opinions so we can talk about them and grow together." He says he expects to share housekeeping chores and specializes in Chinese cuisine.

But most women he knows are hunting for breadwinners so they can quit work and shop, he said.

So what's a poor guy to do?

One answer is school. A Bridegroom School, the first of its kind, opened two years ago in Tokyo with the goal of teaching men how to be more supportive partners. In the first class, 80 men, ages ranging from 23 to 74, were subjected to a heavy dose of feminist consciousness-raising, including lectures by a single father on how tough it is to rear a child.

More companies, such as the electronics firm Meidansha, are starting up their own in-house matchmaking services.

Still other men turn up at matchmaking parties, such as a recent one held in the Shiba Koen Hotel in Tokyo. Numbers clipped to their breast pocket, the men outnumbered the women 2 to 1 and outdid each other introducing themselves in front of the microphone.

No. 80, identified as Mr. Yasuda, brought a special treat for the ladies. He composed his own self-introductory song and belted it out, karaoke- style, in front of the 40 or so women. "Thank you for listening to my out-of-tune song," he crooned. "If you think I sound interesting, please get together with me."

In the brutal Era of Too Many Men, guts and guile can make the decisive difference. Out of the 80 or so would-be bridegrooms, eight found a match. Yasuda was one of them.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°