Youth Trends in Japan: Part One -
"Parasite Singles" in the International Context
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Who are the 'Parasite Singles?'
The term 'parasite single' is the rather unkind label given to a young Japanese person who continues to live with their parents for a longer period of time than was customary in previous generations. Some commentators claim that this phenomenon is unique to Japan. However, various European studies help to put this trend in a better perspective and provide some excellent comparative material which challenges the validity of the uniqueness claim attributed to the 'parasite singles' phenomenon. For example, a July 2001 British study (Complicated Lives II) showed a very similar youth trend in Britain and a 2002 European research project (Berthoud & Lacavou, 2002) showed similar trends across the continent. In both cases, the researchers refrained from adopting any kind of unflattering term like 'parasite single' to describe this new youth trend. European research also complements many of the counterarguments made against the 'parasite single' theory by Japanese scholars.
The Parasite Singles Theory
In October 1999, Masahiro Yamada published a book entitled "Parasaito shinguru no jidai" (The Age of "Parasite" Singles). According to Yamada 'parasite singles' are young men and women who continue living with their parents and who because of this enjoy a carefree and well-to-do life style as singles. He believes that the so called 'parasite singles' phenomenon is the most striking feature of the young generation of Japanese. Yamada points out that as many as 60% of single men and 80% of single women between the ages of 20 and 34 live with their parents. Using figures from the 1995 national census, he calculates that about five million men and five million women belong to this group. Yamada predicts that given the steady rise in the proportion of people not marrying, parasite singles will likely account for 10% of the Japanese population in 2000. He thinks these so called parasite singles will have "a major impact on Japanese society and the economy and also cast a shadow on the health of society in the future." Yamada blames these young people for the long economic slump and the declining birthrate, concluding that they will have a long-term negative impact on Japanese society.
British ‘Parasite Singles'
A 2001 British research report entitled "Complicated Lives II - The Price of Complexity" adds a valuable comparative perspective to the Japanese debate. At present, children in the UK are staying at home with their parents longer than ever before and continuing to rely on them financially. The survey found that four decades ago, only one in five young British adults received cash handouts of up to 100 UK pounds from parents after leaving home. However, by 2001 half of them got this financial help. The bankrolling of young British adults does not stop with token sums of money as more than a third of 18 to 24-year-olds received parental help in paying their rent or mortgage (housing loan). This compares with only 6% having the same help when they needed it 40 years ago. Today, British young people start working later, are more likely to interrupt their working career to travel and there are more career transitions than ever before. There is also a significant delay in marriage compared to previous generations and a subsequent rise in shared households. These kinds of findings have been recorded across Europe by other research projects and are particularly prominent in many southern European countries such as Italy (Social Trends Series #19). Thus, it is clear that the trend of leaving the family home later than in previous generations is not confined simply to Japan. This seriously questions the validity of the uniqueness claim about so called Japanese parasite singles notion. Some academics have even concluded that there is very little substance to Yamada's ideas apart from a catchy name and a lucrative publishing deal.
Japanese Counterarguments to the Parasite Single Notion
In Japan, Yamada's controversial views do not go unchallenged and Yuji Genda gives an excellent point by point analysis of the flaws in Yamada's thesis in an article entitled "Don't Blame the Unmarried Breed" which appeared in the June 2000 issue of the Japan Echo (Vol. 27, No. 3). Amongst other things, Genda points out that the employment situation for young people has become extremely serious with unemployment for people in their twenties exceeding US levels. Unemployment is forcing many young people to remain at home, not a desire for a luxurious lifestyle. Since Genda wrote his article, the youth unemployment situation has deteriorated still further. By the end of December 2002, 33% of Japanese high school graduates had failed to find job, indicating that 2003 is the toughest job market ever faced by graduating students. In the light of these kinds of arguments, the whole concept of 'parasite singles' appears highly questionable. The UK research certainly adds an international perspective to Genda's counterarguments.
Blaming Young People for the Japan's Woes
Despite Genda's excellent analysis of the weaknesses in Yamada's ideas and ample European research showing similar trends, the Japanese media now regularly use the term 'parasite singles' to describe today's youth. Yamada has made a series of lucrative lectures to publicize his ideas and promote his book. He has also developed a new concept called 'parasite couples' to describe married Japanese couples who live off their parents. However, this idea has not caught on as well as his original theory, which is still popular. Even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, blaming Japanese youth for the nation's woes has sadly become a staple for some elements of the media.
Other articles in the Youth Trends in Japan Series
Youth Trends in Japan: Part Two – "Parasite Singles" in Europe and Japan
Social Trends: Series #39, GLOCOM Platform, 26 May 2003
The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Three – Italy-Japan Comparisons
J. Sean Curtin, Richard J. Samuels and William T. Stonehill, Social Trends: Series #19, GLOCOM Platform, 11 December 2002
Richard Berthoud & Maria Lacavou, Diverse Europe, University of Essex and Economic Social Research Council, November 2002:
Future Foundation (commissioned by Abbey National) Complicated Lives II - The Price of Complexity, July 2001 (Summary of findings at following link):
Yuji Genda, "Don't Blame the Unmarried Breed," Japan Echo, June 2002, Vol. 27, No. 3:
Masahiro Yamada, Parasaito shinguru no jidai (The Age of "Parasite" Singles) [Japanese]:
Masahiro Yamada, The Growing Crop of Spoiled Singles (a presentation of Yamada's views in English) Japan Echo, June 2000, Vol. 27, No. 3:
Other Related Articles
J. Sean Curtin, Contemporary Japan in Historical Perspective: Parasite Singles, Cleveland State University, 7 August 2001
[This article is a much earlier draft of the above article, but contains extra links as well as some additional comments by other authors not included in the updated version]
Yuji Genda, Japan Labor Bulletin, 1 March 2000, Vol.39-No.3
Hiroyuki Takahashi and Jeanette Voss, "Parasite Singles" - A Uniquely Japanese Phenomenon?, Japan Economic Institute (JEI), 11 August 2000, No. 31