October 24, 2005


Study assesses cause of Japanese marriage slump

A news release issued today by the University of Wisconsin says that it seems obvious to assume that marriage rates are waning in the industrialized world because women are more educated and financially independent than ever before. But sociologists at the University of Wisconsin say the connection is hardly so black or white.

Rather, several studies of Western nations have shown that while more women postpone marriage in favor of higher education, they are as likely to marry after graduation as women who don't pursue advanced schooling.

In a country such as Japan, however, similar studies have painted a different picture. There, scientists have found that the growing economic independence of women is indeed intertwined with Japan's ongoing marriage slump. Japanese men participate very little in domestic chores, researchers have reasoned, so women are likely to have a much tougher time balancing work and family. As a result, more and more highly educated Japanese women are choosing to postpone the family part or sidestep it entirely.

But that conclusion is only part of the picture, argues James Raymo, a social demographer at UW-Madison. Writing in the journal American Sociological Review, Raymo contends that another important factor is the shrinking pool of "suitable" husbands for growing numbers of women with college degrees.

Highly educated women generally seek out equally educated spouses, says Raymo, but in Japan, husbands don't necessarily share a similar preference. Due to the extreme difficulty of tending to family and having a job simultaneously, Japanese wives are more likely than their American counterparts to stay home and financially depend on their husbands. Consequently, the researcher notes, Japanese men have less incentive to choose partners of the same educational background.

"Most highly educated Japanese women still want to marry, but can't do that as easily as they could in the past," says Raymo. "Women's increasing educational attainment, combined with lack of change in family roles, has created a potential 'marriage market mismatch' in Japan."

Raymo and co-author Miho Iwasawa of Tokyo's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research analyzed data from Japan's largest fertility and marriage survey, which has collected information on up to 10,000 married women and a similar number of unmarried men and women since 1952. The researchers' analysis revealed that approximately one-fourth of the decline in marriages among university-educated Japanese women can be explained by the dearth of available mates.

The researchers plan to continue exploring the emergence of new family patterns in Japan such as escalating divorce rates and unmarried cohabitation - trends that resonate with the social fabric of the West. The Japanese findings, Raymo says, could help to interpret comparable emerging patterns in Asia and Latin America.