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We have freedom, but what has happened to personal relationships?

Mitsunori Ishida
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Have human relationships become weak?

Ever since the NHK Special documentary on “society without connections” aired in 2010, many people have examined solitude and isolation as it pertains to present day society. However, proving that human relationships are becoming weak or that we are growing more isolated is no easy task. The results of social surveys asking people how many close friends they have, or whether or not they have someone to talk to in times of need, have not demonstrated consistent patterns, and do not provide convincing evidence of increased isolation or weakened relationships.

On the other hand, familial relationships, which we used to depend on the most, are in obvious decline. Figure 1 shows the changes in the percentage of people who have never been married in their lifetime and the proportion of single-person households calculated from national census data. This shows that the latter has been growing steadily since 1955 and the former rapidly since 1985. It is no longer a given that people will get married, start a family and live a communal life.

Figure 1: Changes in the percentage of people who have never been married, and the percentage of single-person households
Note 1: Numbers are based on the national census data.
Note 2: The percentage of people who have never been married is on the left-hand axis, and the percentage of single-person households on the right-hand axis.

Although we cannot clearly identify the weakening and isolationism of personal relationships, we can use the information we have on familial relationships to say the following about relationships in today’s society: there is a growing concern regarding isolation, loneliness, and the way we choose our relationships. Let us take a closer look below.

Freedom to choose relationships, and forming new connections

To put it in very rough terms, we have been aiming, as a society, “to expand the scope of personal choice.” This “scope” applies to many walks of life, from what you wear to what lifestyle you pursue. Human relationships are no exception and the past village community model of human relationships has been regarded as insular and restrictive, and a model to be improved upon. Human relationships are becoming something that people can maintain and shape to suit their own tastes and purposes.

If this becomes a consistent trend, then it will be difficult to uphold the family as a standard given for all adults. The decision to start a family, and if so what kind of family, becomes a personal choice made among the parties involved. If starting a family becomes a type of personal luxury, then it is safe to assume there will be an increase of people who do not want to form families and people who want to but cannot.

On the other hand, it is now possible to form “connections” that were previously unseen. Social tolerance towards homosexuality has improved significantly in recent years. There are also forms of communal living, such as “share houses” and “collective houses,” where people live without forming families. Furthermore, the spread of ICT devices is facilitating connections between people who share a specific purpose. To sum it up, modern society is one that compensates for the decline in traditional relationships, such as families, local communities and companies, with relationships formed out of personal choice.

Increased anxiety concerning relationships

The types of relationships mentioned above are appealing in that they present the possibility of being able to find an “ideal match” that perfectly suits one’s own preferences. However, this increased element of choice, of course, also has disadvantages, one of which is increased anxiety concerning relationships.

Relationships you can change and replace according to your preferences are appealing in that they offer a high degree of freedom. However, have you considered that the same conditions are true for the other person as well? It would be troubling to know that there is a chance the other person might remove the relationship you have built with them from their life. The increased element of choice in relationships brings with it the “worry of not being chosen by the other person,” precisely because of the selectivity.

I stated earlier that it is difficult to prove that human relationships have become weaker or more isolated; however, it is possible to prove that our society is becoming more sensitive about isolation and solitude. I refer you to Figure 2, which uses two newspaper databases (Yomiuri Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun) to show the number of articles that featured the words ‘isolation’ and ‘solitude,’ based on the two companies’ database.

Figure 2: Numbers of reports on isolation or solitude in Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun (1984-2014)
Note: The Asahi reports were searched on Kikuzo II Visual, and Yomiuri reports on Yomidas Bunshokan.

We see from Figure 2 that articles reporting about solitude or isolation have been consistently increasing since 1984, albeit with some fluctuations. This reveals how our society is becoming more sensitive regarding the topic of solitude and isolation. It is anxiety about the selectivity of relationships that is being reflected in the middle-aged people who eagerly “marriage-hunt” so as not to miss the marriage boat, and in the younger generation that is excessively conscious of “being by oneself,” coining terms such as bocchi (loner).

Moreover, advances in telecommunication devices have visualized, with telephone books and features such as “Likes,” everything including your number of friends, your acknowledgments from others, and the speed of responses from other people. Amidst the growing anxiety concerning relationships, the visualization of popularity and acceptance, which used to be a gray area of understanding, adds fuel to our anxiety, and urges us to occupy ourselves with mobile phones and smartphones. In exchange for “the right to choose whom we want,” we have brought “the fear of not being chosen” into our relationships.

Mitsunori Ishida
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Mitsunori Ishida was born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1973. He received his Ph.D. in sociology after studying at the Tokyo Metropolitan University’s Graduate School of Social Sciences. After working as an assistant professor, then associate professor, at Otsuma Women’s University, he was appointed to his current post in 2014. His works include The Bottleneck in Connection-Building (Keiso Shobo), The Sociology of Isolation (Keiso Shobo) and others.