It appears that the Japanese society passed a turning point of some kind immediately prior or around 2005. Lots of sex- and marriage-related statistics bear this out. The freshest item is the 7th Nationwide survey of young people’s sexual behavior by the Japanese Association for Sex Education, an organization sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The data is not yet released for public, but Asahi Shimbun carried the interesting graph reproduced to the right (hover over this and the other graphs for English legend etc.) Most of the article is behind a paywall, but the chair of the JASE reportedly interpreted this result as “herbivorization” of the girls, i.e. as loss of interest in sex; undoubtedly this is true to some extent. This article generated more than a thousand responses on 2channel, the Japanese anonymous forum. One of the common opinions there was that the younger girls, seeing how hard it is for their older and looser sisters to get married, have started to moderate their own behavior. There is more realism and common sense in a single 2channel comment thread than in a dozen liberal English-speaking blogs. The Korea-haters 2channel is notorious for are obnoxious but stupid and easy to ignore.
This survey relies on self-reported behavior and as such is open to various criticisms. However, data on abortions in minors (younger than 20 in Japan) from the very useful Japanese statistics site Honkawa, which collects interesting data from various official sources, Japanese and international, show the same picture. Honkawa points out the decline, but notes that no explanation for this phenomenon is currently accepted. Of course if minors have really cut down on sex as the JASE survey suggests, this will be a perfect explanation.
Although Japan’s crude birth rate has continued to decrease for demographic reasons, its total fertility rate has been increasing since a low of 1.26 in 2005 and now stands at 1.41, something of an achievement considering that no mass immigration by high-TFR peoples has taken place. On the contrary, importation of foreign wives, especially Filipinos, has been decreasing sharply since 2006 (third graph from the top: Chinese in orange, Filipino in green, Korean in blue). It is interesting that the importation of foreign husbands (second graph from the top: wives in yellow, husbands in green, in units of 10,000) has not been affected nearly as much either way. International marriages were 4.3% of the total in 2010, a little more than half of the foreign spouses being from China, Taiwan and the Koreas.
Update III: apparently recent changes in TFR are dominated or at least strongly influenced by the proportion of childless women, because according to Ministry of Labor’s statistics (see page 14) the average number of children per household has not changed much between 1975 and 2010, decreasing more-or-less smoothly from 1.81 to 1.7. In that same time interval, TFR swung from 2.0 to 1.26 and back up to 1.41, while the proportion of childless 40yo women (table 4) has increased from 10.2% to 27%.
Looking at marriage generally, the raw marriage rate has been declining since the 70’s (top graph, blue), recently largely for demographic reasons. The raw divorce rate (top graph, red), on the other hand, more than doubled from 1960 to 2002, but has since declined a little faster than the raw marriage rate. The bottom graph shows the raw ratio between these two rates. The decline was due to a decline in breakdown of marriages lasting less than 20 years (on the right), while the gleeful predictions of a divorce spike after Japanese wives obtained legal right to half their husband’s pension after a divorce in 2007 have not materialized. Before 2002, divorce rose and fell as economic conditions worsened and improved, or rather the reverse — changes in divorce preceded changes in GDP (on the right). But after 2002, this correlation broke down. In 2006-2007 this was explained by the above-mentioned law change, but subsequent divorce figures have not borne out this explanation either.
About a third of marriages in Japan end in divorce. Japan does not have no-fault divorce and most divorces happen by mutual consent. The marriage law has not changed much since 1898, and recognizes a very limited set of reasons for one-sided divorce in court: infidelity, malicious abandonment, death in absentia, mental incapacity with no hope of recovery and ‘other grave reasons which make the continuation of the marriage impossible’. The judge even has discretion to set aside the first four reasons if he considers that the marriage should continue. According to Arudou Debito, the family arbitration “courts”, which handle 95% of cases without going to a real court, consider both refusal of conjugal rights by wives and refusal of support by husbands as grounds for divorce. Debito is a hostile witness on the matter, so I am inclined to believe him in this instance. All of this makes for a rather old-fashioned legal environment for marriage.
The cultural environment appears to be rather old-fashioned as well. Only 2% of Japanese couples cohabit. Percentage of unmarried young men (left) in the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups has been rising since the 70’s, but flatlined in 2005. The growth in the percentage of unmarried young women (right) has slowed a lot, too. This is most visible in graphs of five-year percentage changes in the unmarried rate (on the right). There is a sizeable and growing fraction of shotgun marriages (top graph, broken down by age). Japan boasts an impressively low rate of out-of-wedlock births (on the right), and its 10% rate of single-parent households is the result of divorce and bereavement rather than illegitimacy.
Finally and most importantly, opinions of the Japanese people on marriage and divorce have turned around 2000 as well. According to the most recent opinion survey conducted by the Cabinet’s information arm in relation to plans for gender-equal society, the percentage of those who think that being unhappy with your spouse is grounds for divorce has declined from a peak of 54.2% in 1998 to 46.5% in 2008, although some ground was lost in 2010 (50.1%), no doubt because of the above-mentioned ‘plans’ (on an unrelated note, opposition to the death penalty has been steadily decreasing for decades despite leftist agitation). A 2010 international Cabinet survey shows that the twenty-something generation disapproves more strongly of out-of-wedlock births (56.2%) than the 30- (48.8%) and 40-somethings (51.2%). This phenomenon was observed in the other countries covered by the survey — Korea, USA, Sweden and France — although it was much less pronounced. Moreover, Japan’s disapproval percentage in 20- and 30-somethings was the highest of all five countries, somewhat higher even than in Korea. USA sits in the middle, and in France and Sweden the percentage does not differ appreciably from the percentage of immigrant population, about 10%.
Update II: 2012 government poll has uncovered that the support for the statement “Husband’s role is outside the home, while the wife defends the home” has grown for the first time since the early nineties, and by quite a large amount. The 20-somethings exhibited the fastest growth: support shot up from 30% to 50% in just three years.
To round up with a bit of data on immigration, the graph on the right presents results of a J-CAST internet poll of attitudes to immigration attached to an article on the same subject peddling mass immigration as a cure for falling working-age population. J-CAST is not noted for its reactionary views. It is if anything neoliberal (or neoconservative?); for instance, one of its associate experts has studied with Bernanke. I daresay they were disappointed by the poll results, but still more by the excellent comments to the article. The commenters made short work of the neoliberal arguments in favor of mass immigration (‘cheap labor will pay for our social security’ etc.), pointed out the problems (especially the decline of public order) that the Western countries who tried mass immigration have saddled themselves with, or rather that Western elites have saddled their populations with, doubted whether any immigrants worthy of letting in would even come now that the economy is faltering, and laid blame on the article’s author’s generation for the low numbers of the present 20-somethings. Many said “OK, let’s become poor, but at least we’ll stay Japan and we won’t have immigrants to deal with as well” — a very Japanese sentiment. May it never weaken.