No matter how independent, fashionable or popular she may be, Japan's unwed woman has long been labeled the eternal loser — lonesome during the holidays, dreaming of the child she never had, dreading the inevitable question at family gatherings: "Aren't you married yet?"
But in unprecedented numbers, Japanese women are defying the stereotype with a firm "No" — and trying to cheer up others like them.
"Women these days aren't going to marry just anybody," says Junko Sakai, whose "Howl of the Loser Dogs" has sold more than 300,000 copies.
Marriage has lost some of its allure for Japanese women, statistics show.
Over the past decade, Japanese government figures say, the portion of Japanese women aged 25 to 29 who never married has surged from 40 percent to 54 percent. The percentage for women aged 30-34 has increased from 14 percent to 27 percent. In the United States, according to census data, 40 percent of women from 25 to 29 are single, and 23 percent of the 30-to-34 bracket.
Men are also delaying marriage these days, but often they cite economic reasons: trouble finding a job that gives them the stability they need for married life, or reluctance to assume the responsibilities of family.
Many Japanese women, however, blame the typical male, who expects the wife to cheerfully surrender her job, or juggle a career with keeping house and raising the kids.
"It's not that we're set on being single. We're thirsting for a good marriage, but we can't find the right guy," Sakai, a single 38-year-old, said in an interview in Tokyo. "Men haven't changed their old mind-set. Women have grown too powerful for them."
It's a dramatic reversal of the Japanese tradition that praises early marriage and criticizes women who delay marriage as unattractive and selfish.
In the 1980s, a woman unmarried by 25 was dismissed as "Christmas cake" — thrown out on Dec. 26. These days the big number is 31, and women unmarried by that age are "New Year's Eve noodles," noodles being a typical New Year's Eve dish.
The change is having a profound impact on public policy, with the government worrying that the plunging birthrate augurs labor shortages and less support for the growing ranks of the elderly.
The birthrate now averages 1.29 per woman — a record low for Japan and far short of the 2.13 average in the United States, according to Japanese and U.S. figures.
Chikako Ogura, professor of gender studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, draws little comfort from government proposals to reverse the trend, such as adding child-care facilities and prodding employers to grant maternity leave.
Some cultural critics say the critical problem is that people aren't getting married at all. Young women have jobs and reject a marriage that won't deliver a more comfortable life, she says. Government studies show men spend on average less than 10 minutes a day on housework while working women put in two hours.
"Women are looking for a marital partner who'll allow them to do whatever they want. They want a marriage that's perfect, economically and mentally. There aren't that many men who can offer that," Ogura said. "And they're all taken."
In the old days, marriages were often arranged by families. Such practices are now generally seen as outdated, but no widely accepted alternative has emerged.
Frances Rosenbluth, professor of political science at Yale University, says the system of lifetime employment at Japanese companies is at fault.
In a society that assumes companies hire workers for life, maternity leave and child-rearing are treated as a costly stigma.
"Women are not satisfied with the old way, but they don't have a new way. They're stuck. The way they cope with that is by at least having some career before getting married. They figure once they get married, it's going to be all over," she said.
The one segment responding to the growing singles trend is the service industry, for example hotels and health spas, which used to shun single women customers as tightwads.
The idea of an independent woman enjoying leisure is so new that traditional Japanese hotels wouldn't even allow females traveling alone to spend the night, fearing they were looking for a place to commit suicide.
That trend is decreasing. "The options for Japanese women have grown more diverse, rather than the old formula of marriage being the only way to happiness," says Kaori Haishi, a 38-year-old food critic who has set up a Web page with other women to recommend restaurants and hotels friendly to solitary females.
Nowadays many single women feel increasingly free to choose, rather than simply cave in to social pressure, said Etsuko Moriyama, 38, who worked on Sakai's book. "Like a child, a marriage is like a blessing," said Moriyama, who is divorced. "Maybe I'll get married, maybe I won't."