Whether you call it solo katsu, the super-solo life or ohitorisama (“doing things on your own”), living single is big in Japan. I’m not talking only about so-called parasite singles, either—I mean fully independent individuals who are putting a mostly positive face on the “forever alone” meme.
You may have seen the population predictions for Japan stating that by 2035 half of its citizens aged fifteen and up will be flying solo in life. A quarter of Japan’s households already have just a single occupant, from never-marrieds to divorced, widowed and separated individuals. Lifetime singles clock in at 20 percent of the population.
Why the Japanese prefer flying solo
Two factors are keys in this trend. One is that the social stigma of being alone is fading. The other is that the burdens of social interaction, peer pressure and social obligation in Japan can be onerous. Together, they are making the social freedom of being out and about on your own, no schedule but what you want to do, highly addictive to Japan’s men and women. Even people in relationships are looking for more me time.
You can mark down one more driver here: social media. While some crave the attention, many people are just plain exhausted by having to track everything going on.
No roommate or companion needed, thanks
Unlike much of the rest of the world, where economic circumstances often force people to find roommates to share the rent and other living expenses, living with strangers is a foreign and even off-putting proposition in Japan. That, of course, has given rise to the “share house” concept, which is basically a bunch of singles living in a communal situation in private housing. They interact when they want and are ghosts when they don’t.
And marriage—once an unspoken prerequisite for men to move up in business, and the end goal of the vast majority of women—has lost its diamond cachet. Up until the economic bubble burst in the eighties, says Kazuhisa Arakawa, author of Super-Solo Society: The Shock of the Unmarried Nation, Japan, says: “almost everybody got hitched. But then salaries fell, and many men no longer had the cash to lure a spouse. They also decided to spend what they did make on themselves and their hobbies. Their reticence to engage (so to speak) gained them the nickname “herbivore men.”
Herbivore men and independent women
Meanwhile, working women were and are enjoying their own newfound economic independence by living, traveling and dining alone. Like the male of the species, they are also avoiding commitment unless they see cold, hard evidence that a potential partner can offer an equivalent or better lifestyle and social status. Biological clocks ticking also influence the decision, but not as much as they used to do.
According to Miyuki Uekusa, who runs a Tokyo matchmaking agency called Marry Me, the two sexes may tie the knot because of health issues, the burden of caring for elderly parents, and emotional support.
Japanese businesses are catering to the lone wolf
Karaoke boxes and capsule hotels have been around for a while, but the former—once places to bond with colleagues and hang with friends—are more and more sporting spaces for solo singers. Capsule hotels designed for solo men on the road and are popping up everywhere, with no baths or showers, just a communal onsen.
Restaurants are beginning to pick up on solo diners and serve them accordingly. Gusto, a family restaurant chain that’s part of the Skylark Group that has 1300 outlets, is adding single-person dining boxes. They offer privacy, free Wi-Fi, and multiple power outlets for electronic gear. No eye contact necessary here, and diners can select their food and drink from pictures on the menu. Similarly, the nationwide Ichiran ramen chain offers partitioned booths that require next to no human interaction.
Meanwhile, at a bookstore in Roppongi called Bunkitsu, book lovers can read any of its collection of thirty thousand books from opening to closing for just 1500 yen, and get free refills of coffee and green tea besides. Granted, reading has always been a solo activity, but with few dedicated places to do it.
Solo camping might seem like a perfectly natural thing to most outside of Japan, but here it’s generally a family or group activity. Up in Karuizawa a place called Kitakaruizawa Sweetgrass caters to solo campers with one-person sites as well as kitchens and sanitary facilities. They’ll even rent you a set of gear for the purpose. Many theme and amusement parks no longer sigh when you show up by yourself, either, offering a single-rider service.
The safety factor in Japan, by the way, is a major plus for solo travelers and the recreational activities they pursue.
Solo wedding: I’ll take holy matrimony for one, please
The Japanese live rich fantasy lives, and appearance is often paramount. After all, this is the land of fake families and bosses that you can rent for special occasions. But aside from the guy who married virtual singing idol Hatsune Miku last year, virtually every man who becomes a groom has a real human companion.
Not necessarily so on the female side of the marital equation. Single women who have fantasized about their wedding day since childhood but never found the right guy can opt for a solo wedding package and look every bit the bride. Started by a travel agency called Cerca Travel and then picked up by other businesses such as photo studios, the main facet of the deal is an elaborate photo shoot with the bride in full professional makeup, Western dress or Japanese kimono, and fully accessorized. The ceremony and a stand-in companion are optional, as is a location shoot. The prime motivation seems to be boosting self-esteem and a beautiful memory (and photo album).
The downside and the upside of solo society
The downsides for the country and the people are many—fewer babies, weakened community and family bonds, greater isolation (despite all that juicy social media) and dying alone with no one noticing you’re gone. Rural areas in Japan are already at risk for this, and elderly single households are legion here. As families with children shrink in number, that will further weaken Japan’s infrastructure.
On the business side, things are more positive because of the opportunities that arise. Japan’s consumers are already very particular, and the soloists—largely ignored until now as a dedicated target market—are demanding goods and services geared for the solo life. Companies offering bespoke travel and activity options should find them of supreme interest. So should restaurant chains, real estate firms, remote/online education, food delivery services, firms supplying “on-the-fly” office space, home healthcare providers and renters and sellers of hobby-related products and services. And since even lone wolves don’t always want to run alone, services for meeting others of their kind will remain indispensable.