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Discussion Paper 5 in 2006
First published in ejcjs on 3 July 2006

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Unable or Unwilling to Leave the Nest?

An Analysis and Evaluation of Japanese Parasite Single Theories


Mariko Tran

Research Intern
Tokyo Field Office

International Labour Organization

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In Japan today, there are more than 13 million so-called parasite singles, full-fledged adults who live under the same roof as their parents, contributing little to the household account and doing virtually no housework. Their parental dependency, as well as choice in lifestyle and the implications they pose for Japanese society has attracted much attention in Japan. Being an easy target, they are often criticized and blamed for Japan's current woes, leaving the true causes behind the increasing number of parasite singles inadequately investigated. This paper explores the parasite singles phenomenon and analyzes the prevailing Japanese parasite singles theories.


Already facing a rapidly aging society plagued by a declining birth-rate, Japan has been forced to contend with yet another troubling social phenomenon in recent years: parasite singles. This term, first used by sociologist Masahiro Yamada of Tokyo Gakugei University in 1997 (The Nikkei Weekly 2000), describes the large group of young people who live at home with their parents well into their adult lives, often paying no living costs and, in extreme cases, never venturing out of the parental home to start an independent life. With their 'unique' way of living life, parasite singles have frequently been a topic of choice for the mass media, and as a result, have found themselves branded with a rather negative public image. They are often blamed for Japan's current social woes, including the increasingly problematic declining birth-rate.

Simply attributing some of Japan's problems to parasite singles is quite an easy task. However, given the impact that they have had and will continue to have on Japan and its future prosperity and existence, it is necessary to go beyond mere finger pointing and fully recognize and understand the various factors that have contributed to their growing presence. Only if this is done can an effective mechanism to address their needs and concerns, and ultimately rid Japan of parasite singles, be developed.

This paper will begin by giving a background description of Japanese parasite singles and then proceed to explain the socio-economic implications they pose for Japan. Next, the prevailing Japanese parasite singles theories will be described, followed by an analysis and evaluation of the theories. Justification will then be given for why a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional perspective of parasite singles is necessary. Lastly, ending remarks will be given.

Japanese Parasite Singles: 13 million Strong and Counting

The parasite singles phenomenon first began garnering the attention of the Japanese in the late 1990s. Public interest in this newly labeled group of young people was mostly spurred by sociologist Masahiro Yamada's best-selling book, Parasaito Shinguru no Jidai [The era of parasite singles]. Yamada defines parasite singles as 'young men and women who continue living with their parents even after they become adults, enjoying a carefree and well-to-do life as singles' (Yamada 2000).

In 1999, parasite singles numbered 10 million and, since then, have grown to a population of about 13.8 million (Mainichi Daily News 2006). They currently account for approximately 35 per cent of the Japanese population between the ages of 20 and 30 (Murakami 2004). Estimates suggest that as many as 60 per cent of single young men and 80 per cent of single young women are living with their parents (Anon 2002). International comparisons indicate that these figures show Japan as having the highest ratio in the world of single young adults living at home with their parents (Genda 2000a).

Because of their way of life, parasite singles, in general, are not economically impoverished. They depend on their parents, both physically and financially, for housing, as well as daily necessities, such as laundry, cooking and groceries. Despite having some form of income, the majority (nearly 85 per cent of parasite singles, according to some statistics (Takahashi and Voss 2000)) do not help with household chores or expenses and consider their entire earnings to be disposable. For instance, the average office lady, or 'OL,' 70 per cent of whom are said to be parasite singles (Mainichi Daily News 2001), earns an average of USD27,000 per year (Orenstein 2001) and according to a survey by Recruit Co. magazine, almost 20 per cent of parasite single OLs do not pay for any household expenses, while approximately 30 per cent contribute around 30,000 yen per month (Mainichi Daily News 2001). This form of economic parasitism leaves countless Japanese young adults with bountiful amounts of money to spend, which may explain how today, parasite singles account for nearly 40 per cent of the luxury goods sales in Japan's luxury goods market, the world's largest (Chandler and Kano 2003).

Within the broadly defined group of parasite singles, there are many unique subsets, some of which are quite worrisome. One of particular concern is the hikikomori. These adolescents and young adults are socially withdrawn and often lock themselves in their rooms and refuse to have contact with others (Murakami 2000). They tend to sleep all day and wake up at night only to play video games or to watch television. Currently, there are an estimated 1 million individuals suffering from this condition (Murakami 2000). Because of their mental state, hikikomori are unable to find jobs and earn a steady income, making them completely reliant upon their parents to provide for them. The hikikomori represent one unique subgroup of parasite singles and their presence suggests that parasite singles are diverse in nature and should not be defined and categorized solely by the fact that they live at home with their parents. Each subgroup has traits unique to them and must be considered on a group-by-group basis.

In defense of parasite singles, it is necessary to note that their present way of life is not entirely new to Japanese culture. Traditionally, Japanese parents have looked after their children, both men and women, until they married. This was considered both normal and appropriate parental behavior. For young women, living at home with their parents was particularly important and even influenced their ability to obtain a job. Many companies would only hire women who lived with their parents and felt justified in doing so (Japan Information Network 2000). Japanese society has also tended to promote the dependency of their youth. Mothers and their children, especially boys, have an especially strong bond, with a sort of 'symbiotic, co-dependent relationship' (Rees 2002). In general, Japanese mothers have long been known to be willing participants in the daily care of their fully grown children and Japanese society, for the most part, has not frowned upon such behavior. It is against this backdrop, and not in isolation of the socio-cultural circumstances that influence their life choices, that today's Japanese parasite singles must be viewed.

Socio-Economic Implications of Parasite Singles

One of the predominant reasons behind a continued interest in parasite singles is the socio-economic implications they pose for Japanese society. Japan is currently plagued by an extremely low birth-rate, which fell to 1.25 children per woman in 2005 (Mizoguchi 2006). As a result, not only is its population shrinking in number, but also is aging at an unprecedented pace. According to government statistics, as of March 2006, more than 20 per cent of its inhabitants are 65 years of age or older (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication Statistics Bureau 2006). These demographic changes are putting enormous strain on Japan's social insurance system and are also putting at risk Japan's future financial health. In addition to having to wrestle with these troubling population issues, economically, Japan is still on shaky ground since recently emerging from a decade-long recession. It is within this socio-economic context that parasite singles serve as a source of pressing concern.

Social Implications

Recent statistics indicate that Japanese women are, in general, less likely to get married than in the past, and if and when they do choose to get married, they do so at a much older age. The increase in the number of parasite single women is said to be a major contributing factor to this trend. Currently, more than half of Japanese women are single at age 30 (compared with about 37 per cent of American women) (Orenstein 2001) and the average age of first marriage for women in Japan has risen to 27.8 in 2004 from 23.0 in 1950 (Statistical Handbook of Japan 2005).

In Japan, the rising age of first marriage and drop in the absolute number of marriages pose several implications. First, it negatively influences the birth-rate. Japanese society continues to place great importance on the principle of legitimate birth, so much so that in 2003, the percentage of children born out of wedlock was a mere 1.9 per cent (Nagai 2005). Most pregnancies that occur outside of marriage are terminated, as indicated by Japan's high rate of abortion. In 2003, 319,831 documented abortions were performed, while there were only 1,123,610 live births (Sato and Iwasawa 2006). Thus, with fewer women choosing to get married and many more delaying marriage, the number of babies born has consequently dropped significantly. Government statistics indicate that in the first 11 months of 2005, the total number of births were 971, 291, down by 43,331 births or 4.3 per cent from the year prior (Associated Press 2006).

The second implication that recent marriage trends pose is related to the population as a whole. With the declining birth-rate, the Japanese population is shrinking. Over the 2004-2005 period, the total Japanese population declined by almost 10,000 people (Mainichi Daily News 2006). This was the first time that a drop in population was seen since Japan began keeping population records in 1899 (Mainichi Daily News 2006). If Japan is to continue on this path, its population, presently 127 million, is projected to dwindle to 100 million by 2050, and 60 million by 2100 (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research 2000). Although these figures present quite a dramatic drop in population, in actuality, the population will almost certainly fall at an even faster rate because, in making these projections, an overly optimistic predicted birth-rate was used and the current actual birth-rate is far lower than that figure.

In addition to population decline, Japan is also facing an aging problem. Japan's population is aging more rapidly than any other on the planet. It is assumed that by 2015, one in four Japanese will be elderly (Orenstein 2001). With the proportion of the elderly increasing, the shrinking working population (those aged 15-64) will have to support many more aged citizens. There are currently 4.8 workers supporting each senior citizen. However, by 2025, it is projected that there will only be 2.1 workers to support each senior citizen (Nakamura and Wada 2001). These population changes have significantly impacted Japan's social insurance scheme, including the public pension system, which many retired workers rely upon as their main source of income.

As can be seen, the consequences of Japan's population shifts go far beyond just a drop in numbers and pose long term issues for Japan to deal with. Although certainly not the sole source of Japan's demographic problems, parasite singles clearly contribute to them with their choices concerning marriage and childbearing. It is necessary to recognize that the individual choices made by the growing number of parasite singles create a very strong ripple effect that impacts Japanese society as a whole, and hence must be dealt with swiftly and precisely.

Economic Implications

Unlike the social implications of parasite singles, the economic implications they are said to pose are far less straightforward. According to some academics, parasite singles are a positive factor for the Japanese economy (Murakami 2004). They spend the majority of their income on goods and services, particularly at high-end restaurants and shops and thus are seen as important consumers fueling the consumer market. With 40 per cent of their sales coming from parasite singles, companies doing business in the Japanese luxury market are sure to see parasite singles in a positive light. Since the 1990s, sales of Louis Vuitton in Japan have grown 20-fold and now represent one-third of the company's entire sales (McNeill 2003). Other luxury brands, such as Gucci and Bulgari, are also benefiting. Gucci has opened seven stores in Japan since 1998 and Bulgari was able to attract hundreds of customers to its renewal opening (McNeill 2003).

Other analysts think otherwise. Because parasite singles live with their parents at home, they do not spend money on basic goods, such as washing machines and refrigerators. UBS Warburg analyst Masahiro Matsuoka states that if the parasites were to live on their own, 30 per cent of their expenditures would go to such purchases (Simkin 2001). Official consumption data does indicate sluggishness in household goods sales, with 2001 figures showing sales at large retail stores declining 5 per cent from the previous year (Simkin 2001). By procuring these types of household goods, it is believed that not only would parasite singles be contributing to the company's sales, but they would also allow companies to spur their investment and technological innovation (Simkin 2001). Additionally, because they do not live in apartments or own places of their own, parasite singles are also said to be hurting the housing market. Masahiro Yamada notes that if a mere 10 per cent of Japan's singles moved out of the parental home, that alone would increase demand for apartments by 1 million units (Simkin 2001). Lastly, by living with their parents, parasite singles are also said to influence the purchases of their parents. Because parents must continue to financially support their parasite single children, they are prevented from purchasing big-ticket items, thus affecting consumer demand (Anon 2002).

Taking into consideration both the positive and negative effects that parasite singles appear to have on the Japanese economy, Matsuoka, in the end, suggests that the overall economic impact of the parasite singles is perhaps neutral. He says that, 'While the singles are hurting the traditional stores, they're helping the up-market retailers.' Other researchers appear to agree with this conclusion. Yuji Fukada, senior research director at the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, states that even if parasite singles were to move out, there would be no significant benefit for the economy. He believes that, 'The only change would be what they spend their money on' (Watanabe 2000).

Although there is some debate surrounding the present-day economic implications of parasite singles, in terms of their future impact, there is no disagreement among experts. Analysts universally agree that the parasite single lifestyle will have enormous economic effects on Japan, none being positive, in the coming years. Parasite singles, by remaining single and without children, will cause the labor force to dramatically shrink and consumer demand to fall (Simkin 2001), harmfully influencing both Japan's productivity and international competitiveness.

As has been shown, the social and economic consequences of parasite singles are far-reaching and diverse. In order to prevent a further increase in the number of parasite singles and thus, the magnitude of their impact on Japanese society, the causes that led them to their present way of life must be investigated. The following section describes three theories that attempt to identify the roots of the parasite singles phenomenon.

Japanese Parasite Single Theories

There are three major parasite singles theories, two that address them generally and one that is specific to female parasite singles. The first theory is posited by sociologist Masahiro Yamada, the second, considered to be a rebuttal to Yamada's theory, by labour economist Yuji Genda, and the third theory is a feminist approach applicable to only women.

Yamada's Theory

In this theory, Yamada pinpoints the underlying cause of parasite singles as the parents who eagerly and willingly support their grown children (Yamada 2000). He notes that parents nowadays want to give their children a life of affluence that they did not have and would rather spare them the hardships that come with living alone (Yamada 2000). Hence, it is his thought that the parents are greatly to blame because they do not encourage their children to move out and start lives of their own. Yamada believes that it is this parental attitude that laid down the groundwork for Japan's parasite singles.

With parents willing and able to ensure that their basic material needs are met, today's Japanese adult singles are able to lead a life filled with dreams and search for contentment. Yamada believes that because parasite singles do not necessarily have to work to survive, they can choose to work when they wish and only take the jobs that they find most interesting and fulfilling (Yamada 2000). Data from an international comparison, cited by Yamada (2000) indicate that this sort of carefree attitude towards work may truly exist among Japanese young adults. The survey found that, in the West, between 75 per cent and 90 per cent cited 'to earn money' as the goal of working. However, in Japan, only 60 per cent gave a similar answer (Yamada 2000). Also, a greater proportion of Japanese cited 'to fulfil own potential' as the purpose of working (Yamada 2000). Indeed, it would seem that only if one did not have to concern themselves with making ends meet could such answers be given.

In terms of finding work, Yamada admits that in the present labor market, permanent jobs are scarce and that starting salaries for new university graduates are low. However, he states that 'temporary employment paying 100,000 yen a month is still plentiful' (Yamada 2000). Thus, from Yamada's perspective, it is not because adult singles cannot find jobs and hence, it is out of necessity that they live with their parents. Rather, he believes that adult singles actively choose to live with their parents because of the convenience and low cost of living, which leaves adult singles with plenty of spending money with which to enjoy life. According to a survey of single working men and women living and working in the Tokyo area, monthly spending money averaged 70,000 yen for men and 80,000 yen for women (Yamada 2000). Given the average wages of young Japanese adult singles, this type of widespread 'casual affluence' can only be possible if they are to be living at home and being supported, at least partially, by their parents.

In addition to influencing the work patterns of adult singles, Yamada suggests that overly generous parental support also impacts the probability of marriage. According to his theory, when adult singles live at home, they are able to experience a high standard of living courtesy of their parents, which would be dramatically lowered upon marriage since they would no longer be relying upon parental income to support them (Yamada 2000). For the most part (even in Japan), once married, adults are expected to begin living within the means of their own pay-checks. Yamada believes that it is because young people are not willing to suffer a drop in living standards and give up their sufficiently comfortable single lives that they do not get married, move out, and have children (Yamada 2000).

Yamada suggests two possible ways of tackling parasite singles. The first approach involves providing support to young people who wish to become self-sufficient (Yamada 2000). As possible measures, he proposes giving young people living on their own tax breaks, making housing available to young couples on a preferential basis, and providing assistance to young adults who move away from home for specialized schooling (Yamada 2000). His second approach is aimed at changing the attitudes of parents. Although admitting the infeasibility of this option, in 1998, he suggested taxing households in which unmarried adult children live together with their parents (Yamada 2000). As an alternative and more viable means of providing a financial incentive to having one's children move out, he proposes providing support to those young adults living independently, while excluding those living with their parents (Yamada 2000).

Genda's Theory

In contrast to Yamada's theory, which emphasizes the element of choice in the lifestyles of Japanese adult singles, Genda's theory suggests that Japanese adult singles are continuing to cohabit with their parents out of necessity. Genda believes that the present-day labor market is not conducive to the employment of young adult workers and thus, they are left with no choice but to rely on their parents for financial assistance.

According to Genda, since the late 1990s, the unemployment rate of young people has sharply increased, and since the spring of 1999, the proportion of men under the age of 25 without a job has consistently hovered near 10 per cent (Genda 2000a). Rather than attribute these employment changes to the unwillingness of young adults to find secure jobs, he believes that they are caused by a decrease in opportunities for young people to find permanent employment (Genda 2000a). Genda states that young people are being denied employment to allow older workers to keep their jobs (Genda 2000a).

Referring to the loss of employment opportunities by young people for the sake of older workers as the 'displacement effect,' Genda suggests that, although unfair to young workers, the hiring policies of companies, in actuality, reflect what is in their best corporate interest (Genda 2000b). Older workers have accumulated valuable human capital while on the job, and if they were to be dismissed, their skills would be sorely missed. In addition, if corporations were to make their employees redundant, they would then face confusing legal ramifications that are both time-consuming and costly (Genda 2000a). Genda believes that, in general, Japan's labor market is one that encourages middle-aged people to continue in their jobs and keeps their wages high. Given these circumstances, Genda states that the only option left for corporations to keep their labor costs at bay is to limit new hirings, leaving young new workers with few possibilities for permanent employment (Genda 2000a).

Hence, from Genda's perspective, parasite singles are an unfortunate consequence of a youth-unfriendly labor market. To improve the labor market situation for young adult workers, he suggests that corporations review wage structures and staff organizations to 'fundamentally alter their relationships with individual workers' (Genda 2000a). He also believes that formulating objective and consistent standards to clarify job content, degrees of responsibility and remuneration will help to create a more open labor market.

Feminist Theory

The feminist theory attempts to describe the causes that are specific to female parasite singles. The fundamental thought behind this theory is that Japanese women are rebelling against a still very masculine Japanese society. It suggests that women in Japan are no longer willing to accept the traditional gender roles that are associated with marriage and hence are postponing or completely foregoing marriage.

Indeed, for many Japanese women, marriage today still means doing the majority of housework and childcare. This is often the case even when the wife has a paying job. According to the results of a Japanese survey, married women with jobs spent an average of two hours and 26 minutes daily on household chores, while their husbands contributed a meagre 48 minutes (Asahi Shimbun 2005). It is this sort of imbalance within the household that the feminist theory cites as being a cause for women choosing to stay single and continue living at home with her parents.

Perhaps influencing their life choices even more than the above is the fact that, according to the feminist theory, Japanese women have 'discovered that they can stay single, spend money more freely, and have fun without having to take on the traditional responsibility of taking care of a man' (Faiola 2004). With these new possibilities and less societal pressure to get married, many single women appear to be asking themselves, 'Why get married?' Or 'why get a job?'

In the past, Japanese women frequently had practical reasons for marriage. Because they were often unable to financially support themselves, they had to rely on their spouses for financial stability. However, nowadays, more and more women are achieving financial security on their own. An increasing proportion of women are working and in 2003, the percentage of women in the workforce hit an all-time high of 40.8 per cent (Faiola 2004). The feminist theory suggests that with this growing financial independence, Japanese women are feeling less of a need to marry and be reliant upon a spouse.

Analysis and Evaluation of Theories

Each of the theories discussed in the previous section identifies unique aspects of the parasite singles phenomenon and does suggest valid points. However, none fully explains the causes behind the emergence and proliferation of parasite singles. The following is an analysis and evaluation of each theory.

Yamada's Theory

In his theory, Yamada correctly identifies parents as a cause of parasite singles. Without them to serve as 'hosts,' it is unlikely that parasite singles would be able to survive and proliferate. Many researchers and academics appear to agree with Yamada on this point. For instance, voicing similar concerns regarding the parents' role, The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training recently reported that 'modern parents respect their children's decisions too much, which prevents the children from seeing the difference between their dreams and reality' (The Daily Yomiuri 2005). Critic Tetsuro Murobushi also provides support by suggesting that it is the parents who are unwilling to let go of their children and allow them to become independent, and hence, assist in breeding perpetual parasite singles (Kojima 2000).

Parents are indisputably one cause of the parasite singles phenomenon. However, by limiting the cause to only the parents, Yamada opens his theory up to criticism. First, Yamada does not take into account the existence of various subgroups of parasite singles, such as the previously discussed hikikomori. Although parents may play a role in their children becoming hikikomori, it would be difficult to argue that the parents are the sole cause. Seeing that hikikomori is considered rather to be a mental illness, there are surely more factors at play than just overly generous parenting. Hence, by attributing one blanket cause to the parasite singles phenomenon, not only does Yamada not recognize the many unique subsets of parasite singles, but he also does not address any other causes that may exist, leading him to an incomplete explanation.

Also, in his theory, Yamada suggests that it is by choice that parasite singles live as they do. He mentions that, through temporary employment, adult singles could easily earn 100,000 yen per month and thus have the potential to earn enough money to live on their own. However, when taking into consideration the living costs in most urban areas, such as Tokyo or Osaka, where jobs are most plentiful, it becomes apparent that merely surviving on 100,000 yen per month is nearly impossible. Rent for a one-room apartment alone costs anywhere from 60,000 yen to 100,000 yen, with one time up front costs being upwards of 500,000 yen, much of this non-returnable. Thus, even though Yamada states that temporary employment could serve as a means for independent life, realistically, part-time jobs are often not enough to make ends meet if living in metropolitan areas. For some parasite singles, living at home may not be a choice they would like to make, but one that they have to make because, given their financial circumstances, that is their only option for survival.

Yamada suggests several possible means of addressing the parasite singles problem, such as using financial incentives to lure adult children out of their parents' homes and to encourage parents to make their children become independent. Yamada's potential solutions appear to have problems of their own. First, the parents are not likely to be swayed by financial incentives. With most having accumulated a small fortune during their many years of work, they are not suffering financially and hence, do not feel that much of a monetary burden in supporting their children. Also, their reasons for allowing their grown children to reside with them are varied, but are predominantly emotional. Whether it is because they do not want their children to suffer the hardships associated with living on one's own or because they simply are unable to let go of their children, money is probably not powerful enough to sever those emotional ties. On the children's part, tax breaks or other measures too are probably too weak of an incentive to move out. Even Yamada admits that parasite singles have an 'idyllic lifestyle' (The Australian 2002). From a logical perspective, the probability of single adults giving up their current lives because of a financial incentive appears to be very low. They would be losing much more than they would be gaining.

Yamada's theory begins very well by pointing out the parents' role in the parasite singles phenomenon. However, because he does not delve into the specifics of parasite singles and the many forms they can take, his theory is limited in applicability and ultimately ends as only a superficial proposition that does not get to the heart of the problem.

Genda's Theory

Although Genda suggests a different cause for the parasite singles phenomenon, his theory is very similar to Yamada's in structure. Genda, like Yamada, chooses to limit the cause behind parasite singles to one specific reason: the youth-unfriendly labor market. Indeed, Genda is correct in suggesting that the labor market today is more constricted than in the past and thus, finding employment is not an easy task. However, by only looking at and blaming labor market conditions, Genda ignores the attitude and behavior of parasite singles that would suggest that they too must share the blame for their employment and resulting employment situation.

Many of today's young adult singles reject the '70-hour workweeks that were the emblem of their parents' generation and [are] unwilling to offer big companies the selfless loyalty of their fathers' (Brooke 2001). Rather than work as salarymen and women, they are choosing to live life as 'freeters.' 'Freeter', a hybrid neologism that combines the English word, 'free,' and the German 'arbeiter,' or worker, describes people aged 15-34 who work in part-time or other non-permanent jobs (Kondo 2000). The majority of the estimated 3.4 million freeters are said to be parasite singles who live at home, earn approximately USD1,000 a month and stay in a job for about nine months (Brooke 2001). Information such as this suggests that a large proportion of Japan's adult singles are making a conscious choice not to seek permanent employment and thus, allows for the conclusion that the labor market is not the sole reason behind their inability to secure permanent jobs to be made.

In addition, among Japanese young adults, it seems to be fairly common nowadays for them to either quit or want to quit their jobs. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, nearly 70 per cent of junior high school graduates, 50 per cent of high school graduates and 30 per cent of college graduates leave their jobs within three years (Brooke 2001). Also, four in five of those currently unemployed aged 15 to 24 left their last job voluntarily (The Economist 2001). Clearly, the days of seeking secure lifetime employment appear to be something of the distant past.

Given the attitudes of today's Japanese adult singles towards employment, it would appear that even if companies were to review their wage structures and formulate objective standards clarifying various aspects of their jobs, there would not be much change in the employment of adult singles. The adult singles themselves appear, to a great extent, to be avoiding serious and secure jobs. Thus, even if the permanent employment job market were to extend a welcoming hand, it is doubtful that many of the adult singles, especially the freeters, would greet them in kind. Hence, Genda's proposed solution to the parasite single problem does not seem to have much merit to it.

In Genda's theory, the beliefs regarding work and employment choices made by adult singles are left unaddressed and hence, they are not made to shoulder any of the blame for their parasite single status. However, as has been shown, parasite singles are actively making decisions that affect their financial livelihood and thus, their actions must be made a consideration when attempting to determine the causes of parasite singles. By suggesting that all of the issues behind the proliferation of parasite singles lie in the labor market, Genda creates a distorted and incorrect picture of the parasite singles phenomenon.

Feminist Theory

The feminist theory suggests that Japanese women have undergone a change and no longer desire to marry and, as a result, they are choosing to remain single and to continue living with their parents. However, statistics indicate that this may not be an accurate portrayal of today's Japanese women and their beliefs regarding marriage. For one, a survey completed by Meijiseimei FinanSurance Institute Inc. in 2003 found that 82.7 per cent of single Japanese women would like to get married (Jiji Press Ticker Service 2003). In addition, according to a 2004 poll taken by Mainichi Daily News, nearly 50 per cent of female respondents indicted that they felt that 'living one's life as a single is not a desirable way of living' (Mainichi Daily News 2004). As these survey results indicate, there still remains a strong desire among Japanese women to marry and it would be incorrect to suggest otherwise.

It is not surprising that surveys and polls found Japanese women continuing to place great importance on marriage. Socially, women in Japan are often still defined by their husbands and the types of careers or social positions they hold. It is presumably from this background that the terms kachigumi and makegumi have emerged. Kachigumi, meaning 'winners,' describes women who are housewives and are married to men with good jobs and have had children. The makegumi, on the other hand, points to the 'losers,' women who are near 40 with insecure jobs and no marriage prospects in sight (Brasor 2004). The creation of this type of winner-loser classification system based on marriage indicates the weighty role played by marriage in Japanese society in general and it is only normal for Japanese women to also consider it a significant aspect of their lives.

The feminist theory also suggests that one of the reasons why Japanese women are choosing to remain single is because they do not want to be stifled by traditional gender role expectations that come attached with marriage. According to statistics, this is also not true. Sociologist Masahiro Yamada notes that 'about 70 to 80 per cent of women feel that men should be the family breadwinner,' and that most women believe that, upon childbirth, they should quit their jobs. With nearly 70 per cent of working women giving up their full-time jobs upon childbirth (Nakamura 2005), there is indeed truth to this statement. These figures indicate that many Japanese women are still very much tied to tradition and are willing to take on the expected housewife role.

As can be seen, the feminist theory, in its attempt to describe the causes behind the increasing number of female parasite singles, is unable to identify valid reasons that can withstand analysis. There are a multitude of factors left unconsidered that could be influencing the marriage patterns of today's Japanese women that go beyond simply rejecting traditional gender roles, such as women having rising expectations for potential husbands or the men themselves being a source of the problem. Ultimately, similar to the problems encountered with Yamada and Genda's theories, because the feminist theory limits itself to one narrow cause, it is unable to see the parasite singles phenomenon from a broad perspective and hence, does not provide a thorough explanation.

A Need for a More Comprehensive and Multi-Dimensional Perspective

With the number of parasite singles not-so-slowly but surely climbing, it is imperative that Japan, its academics, and policymakers get a firm grasp of the parasite singles phenomenon. If a true understanding of the parasite singles and the multitude of causes behind their proliferation is not attained soon, combined with the looming problem of an ageing population and workforce, Japan's social structure and economy will soon begin to feel the crushing force of the consequences parasite singles pose. As was discussed previously, the social and economic implications of parasite singles are very real and will begin affecting Japan sooner rather than later.

As the previous section indicated, the existing theories are unfortunately insufficient to fully grasp the nature of the parasite singles phenomenon and do not provide practical and effective mechanisms by which the parasite singles problem can be addressed and remedied. They can serve as a starting point from which further ideas are developed, but should not be the only theories relied upon when attempting to understand and contend with parasite singles. Parasite singles are far more complex than these theories let on and as was shown, many key points of the theories can be countered with reliable evidence. In addition, analysis of the theories indicated that several vital aspects of the phenomenon have been left unaddressed. Upon further and deeper examination, a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon's causes and appropriate methods by which to address them is sure to emerge.

One reason that Japan should feel particularly rushed to better understand parasite singles is that already, evidence exists that their parasitic way of life has begun to take hold of another group of Japanese: married couples. Referred to as parasite couples, these twosomes often choose to live near one set of parents and receive food and cash, among other things, when desired or necessary (Hoffman 2002). The grandparents also serve as an extra pair of hands to take care of grandchildren when the parents wish to have some time alone, or are simply wishing for a break from childcare (Hoffman 2002). Clearly, with parasitism spreading beyond just adult singles and into groups that were once presumed to be self-sufficient, Japan needs to begin to take seriously its parasite problem very soon.

After identifying and examining all of the factors at play, Japanese society as a whole will need to work towards developing itself into a society that is unwilling to tolerate parental dependency in adult life and determine ways in which it can promote independence among its youth and future generations to come. Clearly, changing a culture to such an extent will take a considerable amount of time. However, in order for any substantial and meaningful changes to begin taking place, a more comprehensive and multidimensional parasite singles theory must be developed. If effort is not put into understanding and solving this phenomenon, Japan faces a future that is bleaker than imaginable.


Japanese parasite singles are seen as being particularly troublesome because of Japan's current state as an aging society with a declining birth-rate. However, regardless of these demographic circumstances, on an individual level, the fact that there are 13.8 million adults living at home with their parents should be enough reason for concern (more than 10 per cent of the entire population!). The parasite singles theories discussed and analyzed do, to a certain extent, explain the causes behind parasite singles. However, they are by no means complete and do not allow for a full comprehension of the phenomenon. With the current theories, it remains impossible to conclusively determine whether parasite singles are unable or unwilling to leave the parental nest, and hence, they are inadequate for policymakers and other groups to develop programs and mechanisms by which to successfully target parasite singles and ultimately rid Japan of them. It will be absolutely necessary, in the very near future, to fully grasp parasite singles and develop effective measures aimed at them. Rather than continuing to focus on the superficial and 'interesting' aspects of parasite singles and simply blame them for the country's problems, Japan needs to begin concentrating on solving this very serious predicament before its parasite singles threaten to destroy their host.


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About the author

Mariko Tran graduated from the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, receiving a B.S. in Economics and a B.A. in International Studies. To pursue further study in the fields of Japanese culture, labor and women's issues, she spent 18 months studying at Hitotsubashi University under a Monbukagakusho (Japanese government-sponsored) post-graduate research scholarship. She is currently serving as a research intern at the Tokyo field office of the International Labor Organization.

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Copyright: Mariko Tran
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