California State University, Long Beach
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Prof Studies the Role of Single Japanese Women in Modern Society

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Photo by Victoria Sanchez

Life and research combine to bridge two cultures for Communication Studies’ Eriko Maeda.

As an expert in intercultural communication, she is especially interested in the identity search pursued by many single Japanese women in the 21st century. Where does a single Japanese woman belong in modern society?

The challenge for many women in modern Japan, she believes, is to strike a balance between the conflicting demands of marriage and singlehood. “For the last two decades in Japan, more and more young women are not getting married,” said Maeda, who is single and who joined the university in 2006. “One in four women in their 30s and one in 10 women in their 40s is unmarried. And their numbers are rising.  The social norm has been for women to get married and have kids. But the increase of singlehood tells a different story. It is an issue that is growing in national attention. To remain single in Japan makes it likely that this person will not have kids because to be a single parent or a child of a single parent carries a stigma. The government has predicted that, if this lack of child-bearing continues, the Japanese population will decline by half in 100 years. And Japan is already an aging society.”

Maeda’s life parallels those of many other Japanese women. “I grew up in Japan and I am, for the most part, in the same situation as the participants of my research. But I move back and forth between the United States and Japan,” said Maeda, who travels back to Japan this summer. “There is a balance I unavoidably maintain as a single woman, but also by having lived in the two cultures. Living here helps me to look at Japanese society and women from a different perspective. The same behavior, for example, remaining single, can be viewed differently in different cultures and have different significance on our identities.”

She embodied her research into the identity quests of modern Japanese women in an article now in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Maeda began by interviewing Japanese women living in the U.S. Then for her dissertation at Pennsylvania State University (she received her Ph.D. in 2006), she returned to Japan to interview 30 women. She visited again in 2007 to re-interview many of the participants. “Tracing four years in the lives of women in their 30s and 40s represents big changes in their lives. I wanted to discover how they made sense and felt about their single status,” she said. “By talking to these women after four years, I have seen how some have begun to accept themselves instead of always comparing themselves to the mainstream, traditional image of Japanese women. It was very interesting to see this shift. When many of these women were in their 30s, they felt the need to marry. As they got older, for example, turned 40, that need seemed to diminish.”

Some single Japanese women are learning to accept their social status in the 21st century. “They understand the need to care for their aging parents, but they also understand their own needs too, and that realization helps them to understand that marriage is not for everyone,” she said. “They talked a lot about their relationships with their parents. They also looked at their parents’ relationship and asked themselves if that was the relationship they wanted. Some had a strong bond with their mothers and felt they had to take care of them personally. But they also felt marriage could be a restriction on their lives. Once they married, several women felt compelled to quit their jobs. They expected and were expected to devote their lives to their families.”

When she last interviewed her participants in 2007, she found that some women had moved out of the parents’ homes they had lived in their whole lives. “In Japan, it is customary for women to remain with their parents until they married,” she said. “Even in the 21st century, 70 percent of Japan’s unmarried women remained with their parents. Some felt OK about it and others felt they needed to move on.”

With all the social change in modern Japan, there is an element of nostalgia, too. “I sometimes think that if I had lived in an earlier time, my choices would have been much simpler,” she said. “Or my life might have been easier if I had never left Japan. There are many Japanese women who have never lived abroad and their lives ‘look’ simpler. I guess I am still figuring out my place. Where do I fit in? Am I part of American society or am I part of Japanese society? Or am I not a member of either? Things get really complicated and it is essentially the same for many of the women I interviewed or those who feel marginalized in the society. I talked to women who asked themselves why they were so stubborn. Why did they resist the mainstream lifestyle? Why didn’t they just go out and marry anybody?”

Maeda believes her interview participants were powerfully motivated to take part. “They wanted their stories told,” she said. “But they also wanted to check with me and see how I was doing. I learned from them and they learned from me. I make my own way in the world the same way as my participants. I liked that they responded to me so well and that they were very willing to see me again.”