Only a decade ago, Japanese women who failed to marry by age 25 were warned not to become "Christmas cakes" left unsold on the shelf past their expiration date.
But millions of them are now flouting their elders' advice--and getting away with it. Japan today is a paradise for singles.
Nearly half of Japanese women are still single at age 29. Growing numbers are postponing marriage until 35 or beyond. A country that until recently considered its few "spinsters" to be pathetic or defective, Japan now has a far higher percentage of single women ages 20 to 40 than does the United States--higher than almost anywhere in the world except Scandinavia.
The better-educated and better-paid a Japanese man, the more likely he is to marry. But the better-educated and more successful a Japanese woman, the more likely she is to decide that marriage and child rearing are bad deals.
* 80% to 90% of single Japanese women live with their parents, as do about half of men in their 20s. Most pay little or no rent and do no housework. One sociologist estimates that Japan has 10 million of these "parasite singles"--roughly equal to the entire population of Greece.
* 56% of single women do want to marry--eventually. But marriage is widely seen as a sayonara to personal freedom. A recent Mainichi newspaper survey of single women ages 20 to 40 found fewer than a third wanted to marry "soon."
* 10% of single women ages 35 to 39 told the survey they have resolved never to marry. So did a quarter of single women in their 40s. This marks a revolution in a society where in 1950, only 1.4% of women never married.
For some, marriage just isn't the defining factor in life anymore.
"If, while I'm walking down the road, someone wants to walk along with me, that would be nice," says Hiromi Matsuura, 29, single and content. But if not, she doesn't plan to sweat it.
Japan is facing a sharp drop in its population, and postponed marriages mean fewer babies. Only 1% of Japanese children are born "out of wedlock," a phrase still used here. In the U.S., 32.8% of births are now registered as "non-marital."
An entire industry of sociologists, psychologists and pundits has taken up the question: What's gone wrong between Japanese men and women? Why won't they get married and have babies?
Today's accomplished, independent young women are the first generation ever to have truly equal educational and professional opportunities.
But many of them lack role models for a type of marriage that matches their new status. Their fathers were married to their companies, and many of their mothers devoted themselves to house and children and are now regretting it, sociologist Keiko Funabashi writes.
"When today's young women look at their own parents, they find it hard to dream of marital bliss for themselves," she notes.
For their part, Japanese men are no longer required to marry in order to be respected. Plenty do not want to follow their fathers' example.
But this isn't a war between the sexes of the sort that American feminists fought in the 1970s and '80s.
Most young Japanese women are neither militant nor particularly ideological. "Feminist" is a pejorative word here. In polls, publications and intimate interviews, young Japanese women bemoan the dearth of "good" men. While blaming men themselves, these women are equally likely to fault overindulgent mothers and hyper-demanding employers.
Still, there is a glaring values gap between Japanese men and women.
"Not all Japanese women have changed in the past decade, but the women of marriage and childbearing age have changed dramatically," says Yoko Haruka, a thirtysomething television personality and author of the book "I Shall Not Marry."
Women say that most Japanese men still want a young bride who will defer to them, have dinner and a hot bath waiting when they get home, and do all of the household chores--even if she works.
Men complain that women want the freedom to work in lower-paying jobs that interest them but then expect their mates to earn the big bucks, come home at a reasonable hour and do half the housework--impossible demands when companies are asking more of a downsized work force.
"Young women now have economic power, and they are doubting things they never doubted before," says Haruka. She revolted against marriage after seeing the subservience of her brothers' wives. "They are asking, 'What is happiness?' "
Homemaking it is not. The statistic most often quoted by women is the amount of time the average Japanese man spends on housework and child care per day: 23 minutes. Women spend 4 1/2 hours.
Nor do most men do the dirty work of child care. In a 1998 government survey, 34% of Japanese men said they had never changed a diaper.
Concerned that the housework gap is contributing to the baby bust, the Japanese Ministry of Health put out a subway poster in 1999 featuring the husband of a hot young pop singer cuddling the couple's infant son. "We can't call a man a father who doesn't take care of his children," read the caption. "Japanese fathers spend an average of just 17 minutes a day on child care."
But several conservative male parliamentarians, outraged by what they considered an affront to Japanese manhood, summoned the bureaucrats for an explanation, according to Sumiko Iwao, who chairs the Prime Minister's Council for Gender Equality.
In postwar Japan, a good husband was one who brought his salary home but spent his time working, Iwao says.
During the "bubble" economy of the 1980s, women got choosier but remained more pragmatic than romantic in picking a mate. They still defined a good catch as a man with "three highs": higher education, high income and height.
Now young women who can support themselves have added even tougher criteria for Mr. Right. Chikako Ogura of Aichi Shukutoku University says the new standard is the "three Cs": financially comfortable, emotionally communicative and cooperative in housework and child care.
That is a daunting list for many men. Eiji Handa, 31, a copy machine salesman, didn't pop the question to his girlfriend for eight years because he didn't want to give up deep-sea fishing every weekend--a hobby that cost him $1,500 a month.
"I wanted to spend the money I earned on myself," Handa says unapologetically. "If you get married, you have to hand over your paycheck to your wife and live on an allowance."
They tied the knot in November--but only after she agreed to keep working and split expenses. They never discussed housework or children. Handa hopes his wife doesn't want children, because he doesn't.
"I wonder what we'd do if we had one," Handa muses. "I'd have to go onto an allowance, and if you have a child, your wife can't work. . . ."
Matsuura is equally unenthusiastic about children. She has a great job designing store interiors. She lives with her parents. She's visited Singapore, Thailand and Spain.
She isn't joking when she says her work is so engrossing that she's forgotten about marriage.
"It used to be that women went out to work in order to find husbands," Matsuura says over drinks with her buddies near the fashionable waterfront of Sakuragicho. "I'm not looking for a man at work. I want to test my skills at work."
Matsuura gives her parents $500 per month. Most working singles living at home contribute far less. But it is common for their notoriously indulgent mothers to stash away such contributions for their children. Many mothers urge their adult children--especially daughters--to live at home, and the mothers continue to cook their children's meals, do their laundry and even pack their lunch boxes.
Keiko Higuchi, a specialist on aging society, argues that many Japanese who choose not to marry take loving care of their elderly or infirm parents.
Sociologist Masahiro Yamada of Tokyo Gakugei University, who coined the term "parasite singles," has found that singles ages 20 to 29 are the happiest and biggest-spending segment of society.
Celibacy is no longer required of Japanese singles--even those living at home. The traditional premium placed on female virginity at marriage has quickly eroded, and the Mainichi survey found that two-thirds of unmarried women ages 25 to 29 have had sex.
Sociologists are increasingly dubious about whether the current crop of young men and women will ever "settle" for mates they find wanting--especially while their mothers are still coddling them.
But if anything shows how much Japanese women have changed, it is their lack of regrets.
"The more I worked, the more I wanted to work, and I just didn't meet a man I respected," says Kumiko Takahashi, 40. She has a boyfriend and has risen to head of a department in a publishing company in Sapporo. Now she's moving her parents into a condominium near hers so she can help them. Life is good, she said, adding, "I can't think of a single merit to marrying."
Researchers Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.
For the complete series, "Japan's Demography Shock," go to The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/japan.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Marrying Later, Divorcing More, Having Fewer Babies
Average age of first marriage for women in Japan:
Average age of first childbirth in Japan:
Fertility rate (babies per woman):
Japan, 1950: 3.65
Japan, 2000: 1.35
Tokyo, 1998: 1.06
Women married or cohabitating
by age 29:
Japan: 54% to 55%
Divorce rate, per thousand:
Japan, 1975: 1.07
Japan, 2000: 2.00
U.S., 1998: 4.2
Percentage of Japanese who believe that women should stay at home and look after their families:
Estimated percentage of single Japanese women who live with their parents:
In their 20s: 90%
In their early 30s: 80%
Why Japanese women say they haven't married:
Can't find the right man: 38%
Want to work or study: 36%
Don't want to give up freedom: 29%
Average earnings of male full-time employees in Japan:
$16.99 per hour
Average earnings of female full-time employees in Japan:
$10.98 per hour
Average wage of a part-time Japanese worker:
$7.16 per hour
Percentage of Japanese women hired after age 30 who are hired as part-time workers:
70% to 80%
Sources: Japanese Management and Coordination Agency; Aging Society 2000 Yearbook; Statistics Sweden; Mainichi newspaper; Japanese prime minister's office surveys; Labor Ministry's Basic Survey of the Wage Structure, 1999.