A Sociological Look at Japan and Taiwan

Families: Comparing Modern-Day Japan and Taiwan

Society Family

Japan and Taiwan are both experiencing low birthrates and increasingly aging populations. What are the structural issues faced by each society? Yamada Masahiro and Lan Pei-Chia, leading sociologists from Japan and Taiwan respectively, in a series of online discussions looked at families, a core component in society.

Yamada Masahiro

Professor at Chūō University since April 2008. Born in Tokyo in 1957. Completed his doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Tokyo in 1986. Specializes in family sociology, the sociology of emotions, and gender issues. His works include Parasaito shinguru no jidai (The Age of Parasite Singles), Shōshi shakai Nihon—Mō hitotsu no kakusa no yukue (One More Gap in a Japan with Few Children), and Kazoku nanmin (Stranded Singles).

Lan Pei-Chia

Distinguished professor of sociology and director of the Global Asia Research Center at National Taiwan University. Completed a PhD in sociology at Northwestern University, in the United States. Worked as visiting professor at Harvard University, New York University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Fields of expertise include international marriage, labor issues, education, and child raising. Writings include Raising Global Families: Parenting, Immigration, and Class in Taiwan and the US (2018).

25 Years Since the Birth of the Parasite Single

MODERATOR  First, let me introduce our two speakers, Yamada Masahiro and Lan Pei-Chia. Yamada has been one of Japan’s most renowned sociologists for many years, known for his many aphorisms relating to Japanese society. He coined Japanese terms such as “parasite single,” the kibō kakusa shakai, or “expectation-gap society,” and konkatsu, or “spouse-hunting activities,” which have all made their mark on society. Lan is a talented sociologist currently active in Taiwan whose 2008 paper “Global Cinderellas: Sexuality, Power and Situational Practices across Borders,” investigating foreign laborers in Taiwan, received great acclaim. She has also written about education.

Dr. Yamada, you first described the phenomenon of young people who do not move out of the family home as “parasite singles” in 1997. The concept touched a raw nerve not only in Japan, but also in Taiwan. That was a quarter century years ago. Could you update us on the current situation, including changes since that time?

YAMADA MASAHIRO  I developed the notion of the “parasite single” based on a survey conducted in around 1990 that revealed that most Japanese unmarried youth were living with their parents. At that time, they were in permanent or regular employment. The twenty-five years that have passed since then have seen two significant changes. “Parasite singles” who could not marry even if they wanted to stay with their parents into their forties and fifties, as their parents reach their seventies and eighties. By 2015, there were some three million unmarried persons aged thirty-five to forty-four still living with their parents. This is the first change.

In the 1990s, those living with their parents refused to become independent even though they had the means to. But now, there are a growing number of youths who have little choice but to live with their parents due to their low income. This is the second change.

LAN PEI-CHIA  There are some differences between family structures in Japan and Taiwan. In Taiwan, it’s normal for single youth to live with their parents. People consider it preferable to do so unless they must move away due to studies or work. The ideal is to continue living with one’s parents even after marriage and childbirth. Over the past twenty to thirty years, the length of time that single people stay living with their parents has steadily increased.

The background to this is the growing tendency to marry later in life. With the spread of higher education, a majority of people now study at university, which delays the age when it’s suitable to marry. There are also differences between the sexes. Rates of unmarried university graduates are equally high for men and women aged from thirty to forty. But past forty, men with higher education tend to marry, while many women remain single. In fact, one in four female graduates aged over forty are still single.

Another group that tends not to marry are men who have not studied past high school. They seem unable to find suitable partners. A large proportion of them remain single even past forty, and resort to seeking partners from China, Vietnam or other Southeast Asian countries.

In any case, in Taiwan people typically stay with their parents even after marriage. It’s more common to live with the husband’s parents, but there is a rise in couples living with the wife’s family. Traditionally, living with one’s parents was the ideal family structure, but now people do it out of necessity, being unable to achieve independence due to economic factors. They have low incomes, or can’t buy a home due to the high cost of real estate. Another factor is that, by living with their parents, they can continue to go to work while the parents take care of their children.

MODERATOR  In Japan, the tendency is to consider “parasite singledom” as a shameful situation. Is this not the case in Taiwanese society?

LAN  In Taiwan, singles have always lived with their parents. But in Japan, children were expected to leave home and become independent. That’s not the case in Taiwan.

YAMADA  The idea that it’s embarrassing to live with one’s parents is Western. In Japan, it was also traditionally normal to stay at home, and women in particular were not supposed to live alone. Since I coined the expression “parasite single,” there has been a growing tendency to consider it inappropriate to live with one’s parents indefinitely.

The number of adults who remained in their parents’ homes reached its lowest point around fifty years ago, during the Japanese high-economic growth phase, even though 50 percent of men were unmarried. Some 60 percent of women still lived at home. Presently, 70 to 80 percent of unmarried people live with their parents. In fact, the number of people who stay living at home is growing. Comparing things globally, my theory is that countries where adults move out of home, such as the United States, Britain, Sweden, and Holland, have high birthrates, whereas affluent countries where adults live with their parents are experiencing far lower birthrates, such as in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, and Spain.

LAN  A significant shift recently in Taiwan is a change in the state of economic dependence, regardless of whether living at home or apart. In the past, children were expected to provide financial support to their parents once they started to work, but now the situation is totally reversed. Even once young people begin working, their incomes are low, and they can’t afford to buy a house. Consequently, even after they marry, they require financial support from their parents.

Pets as Family Members

YAMADA  In Japan, it’s widely considered that you are not family if you don’t live together. Currently, I’m conducting questionnaires and interviews of singles in their fifties, and over half of them believe they might eventually die alone. When asked who they could turn to for financial or other support if the need arose, those living at home generally said their parents, while most of those living alone responded “no one.” With the growing trend toward nuclear families in Japan, there are many people who can’t rely on uncles, aunts, or siblings. How is it in Taiwan?

LAN  In Taiwan, ties between blood relatives on the father’s side were originally stronger than those in Japan, but as those in their forties and fifties, our “baby boomers,” grow older, we’re likely to see an increase in elderly people living alone. But there’s probably no need to view such people negatively. For some people, family relations can offer support, but also lead to pressure.

Recently, more people are forming support networks among close friends, or are living together. Many are happy to have intimate relations even if they don’t get married. In Taiwan, the term “diversified families” refers to a diversity of family structures. With the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2019, we’re increasingly seeing the formation of diverse families.

Aside from same-sex marriage, pet family members are becoming more popular. The latest catchphrase in Taiwan is maonu, or “cat slave”—a playful expression of the owners’ subservience to their feline friends. While the downturn in childbirth is accelerating, there has been a rapid rise in the number of people keeping dogs or cats, to the point where they now outnumber people raising children. Pets are referred to by some as their “fluffy children.” Taiwan is shifting toward increasingly diversified forms of family.

MODERATOR  Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen herself is single and has pet cats, one of which is called Tsai Think Think, and she cherishes them as if they are her family.

YAMADA  I wrote a book entitled Kazoku petto [Pets as Family] in 2004. Since around twenty years ago, more Japanese people have been keeping pets as surrogate boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, or children, and this increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have even begun to survey the incorporation of pets into the family. A major concern of pet owners is that they won’t be able to have a pet after they hit seventy. It’s considered fine for people in their fifties or sixties, but, after they reach seventy, people worry about what will happen if their pet outlives them. This has led to the emergence of new businesses in Japan, similar to aged-care facilities, that take care of pets after their owner dies.

COVID-19 Made Education Gaps More Apparent

MODERATOR  Social disparity also causes issues in educational equality. Oyagacha is a new buzzword in Japan, used to describe the luck of the draw where children’s future is determined by the family they’re born into. It’s a reference to gacha capsule toy machines that spit out a random trinket. When such disparity exists in society, children bear the brunt of its impact, and due to structural circumstances, they can never escape it.

YAMADA  The term oyagacha symbolizes resignation to fate by youth. During Japan’s period of high economic growth, there was disparity, but young people believed they could catch up if they made an effort. Once that hope disappeared, the economic clout of parents came to be seen as lucky or unlucky, and awareness that children of unlucky parents couldn’t catch up even if they tried gave rise to the term oyagacha. I sense that more youth have given up on striving to improve their lot.

The greater amount of time spent at home during the COVID-19 pandemic also made it clearer that a child’s future will vary significantly depending on the education level of their parents. In technical terms, we refer to unconscious competence, for example, when parents regularly use English at home, their children pick it up naturally. But in homes where there are no books and the parents don’t understand English, children are laden with a handicap. The disadvantages of the parents are thus passed on to their children.

MODERATOR  Dr. Lan, with your knowledge of educational issues, could you describe the situation in Taiwan?

LAN  I believe such circumstances are becoming widespread globally. The impact of home life on children stems from more than just monetary wealth. In sociological terms, this is an issue of transmission cultural capital. In Taiwan, we refer to it as cultural grounding. This grounding is something vague that is unconsciously passed on in daily life. Middle-class families have more free time, and consequently, they are able to provide a greater cultural grounding to children.

MODERATOR  Today’s discussion has revealed various similarities and differences between families in Japan and Taiwan. It has also shown that, in the current environment of social disparity and low birthrates, we must think about the forms that families should take in the future, while also nurturing values appropriate to the new social environment.

(Continued in “Part 2: Love in Japan and Taiwan: Youth Perspectives on Marriage”and Part 3: Japan’s Lifetime Employment vs. Taiwan’s Labor Mobility.)

(Originally written in Japanese based on a March 3, 2022, discussion moderated by Nippon.com editor Nojima Tsuyoshi. Banner photo © Pixta.)

marriage aging Taiwan family birthrate Parasite singles parasite