Comment: A Fuller Understanding of "Parasite Singles"
Daniel P. Dolan (Principal, Communication Japan)
In a two-part series on "parasite singles" in Japan, J. Sean Curtin (and Michael Kavanagh and J. Sean Curtin) argues that the term popularly used in Japan to refer to young single adults living in their parents' homes is "unkind" and "unflattering." More importantly, according to Curtin, "parasite singles" is not a uniquely Japanese social phenomenon as some scholars and journalists have claimed. He points to studies that show similar youth lifestyle trends in some European countries, and emphasizes the impact of unemployment rates in Japan as one critical aspect of the explanation for dependent single adults. In Curtin's view, "use of the term 'parasite singles' to describe this trend in Japan is unfair to Japanese young people." Such youths are, Curtin claims, "merely responding to socio-economic changes"...
Curtin's argument is persuasive and important, but an excellent earlier study of "parasite singles" by the Japan Economic Institute discusses another factor—not addressed by Curtin—that seems significant for a better understanding of the trend. The authors argue that the parents of young Japanese adults still living in the family home have certain "motivations" for facilitating or at least not discouraging this arrangement. These are:
(a) "Economic reasons": if a child is working but living with the parents, the additional financial burden on the parents is not significant.
(b) "Altruistic motives": parents receive emotional satisfaction from seeing their children happy and enjoying financial and educational opportunities that the parents did not have.
(c) "Exchange of services": parents are willing to support their adult children in return for "companionship and attention."
(d) "Investment": Parents provide for their adult children with the expectation that their children will return the favor in later years. This explanation seems particularly persuasive, and is supported by research on dependent adult children and their parents in the United States.
So it may be that the "parasite singles" phenomenon in Japan is both less uniquely Japanese and more complex than many social observers commonly believe. Perhaps we also have "host families" that carry and nurture the "parasites."