Miércoles 1 de Marzo de 2006, Ip nº 142

Where Solo Is Sociable
I totally forgot about Valentine's Day this year, until I went into a post office here in Osaka and was given a little gift by the official behind the counter: a small red replica postbox.

This scene -- a corporate Cupid raining down arrows into the hearts of customers -- was repeated when I went to a convenience store and was asked to make a lucky dip selection from a box of candies. I left cheered by the tenderness of it all, amused that these declarations of love were coming to me from public bodies and businesses, not individuals.

I didn't really need to be cheered, and I didn't really need to do anything special on St. Valentine's Day. As someone in a relationship, I like to think I salute St. Valentine every day. Looking back at my blog entry for February 14th, I see that what I was thinking about that day wasn't love, but Japanese collectivism and the spirit of wa. The emphasis on harmony, politeness, obligation and mutual dependency is a marked feature of Asian societies, in contrast to the Western emphasis on individualism.

Poking around on the internet, though, I began to notice that St. Valentine's day was making some single people in the West very unhappy by reminding them of their singledom. For instance, I read an internet thread (it would be a bit insensitive to link to it) in which a computer programmer threatened to jump off a bridge unless he'd found a partner within three months. And I read an article in the travel section of British newspaper The Observer in which writer Will Hide compared the experience of being single in London and New York:

"If you're alone but hoping not to be," writes Hide, "Americans are much more approachable than we British, be it at the food store, the pub or the gym. You can chat to complete strangers without feeling like a total psycho.... If you're simply on your own and happy that way, New York is a great place just to hang out because everyone does it. Going to the cinema alone in Britain? Sad git. Going to the cinema alone in New York? Hey, cool, a chance for some quality 'me' time. Lunch for one in Blighty? Obviously Billy No-mates. Lunch for one in Manhattan? Alluring. A bit mysterious even."

Now, personally, I dislike going to the cinema, restaurants and even cafes on my own. But, just as Will Hide notices that it's easier to be a unit of one in New York than it is in London, I've noticed that it's easier here in Japan than it is in the West. It's built into the infrastructure.

For instance, in the West you often feel like you're inconveniencing any restaurant you turn up to alone, because an unoccupied seat (a seat containing the ghost of your absent dyadic partner) sits facing you, a seat the restaurant could otherwise be making money from. Japanese sushi and ramen restaurants, in contrast, tend to have a horseshoe-shaped counter bar facing the chef where single people can sit without wasting space or facing any ghosts.

A single person with a free evening in a Japanese city could go to one of these restaurants, a pachinko arcade, a public bath-house, a manga cafe, a cosplay maid cafe, a karaoke bar and other (shadier) places and feel like they were participating socially without being in a couple.

In the West, it seems to me, that isn't as easy. And that seems counter-intuitive: Shouldn't individualist societies cater better to the needs of individuals, and collectivist societies cater worse to them? How come it seems to be the other way around?

Of course, there are movements in the West to define singledom more positively, and even to formulate a kind of single-person activism around the issue.

In 2004, Sasha Cagen published the book Quirkyalone, which tries to give a positive spin on Western solitude. A quirkyalone, says Cagen, is "a person who enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than dating for the sake of being in a couple." In her first formulation of the idea back in 2000, Cagen calculated that 5 percent of the U.S. population are quirkyalones.

Cagen's thesis that "it's not strange to be single; rather, single is the new norm" is lent some credence by new research released in February by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which reports that 43 percent of American adults (87 million people) say they are single. Twenty six percent of these are single people in a committed relationship. Of those not in a committed relationship, 55 percent are not looking for a partner.

I'm still not quite sure why collectivist cultures should cater better to the needs of individuals than individualistic societies do. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that in a collectivist culture like Japan, you're never truly alone, even when you're alone. Or perhaps it's because Japan is such a group society that you need a break now and again, a place out in public where you can be alone for a few minutes between the group at the office and the group at home.

But I'm pretty sure of one thing. Given current U.S. trends toward living, working and playing alone, the infrastructure of American cities could benefit from resembling a little more the monad-welcoming floating world of the Japanese city, animated, apparently, by the spirit of a corporate and collectivist Cupid who loves anyone with the yen.

Sushi and karaoke already have their place in the neonscape of Western cities, but it can't be too long before someone with a free evening in L.A. will be able to do as many things alone -- and feel as connected with strangers -- as you can in Osaka today.

In a truly individualistic culture, you shouldn't have to feel "quirky" when you're out and about alone, should you?


  28/02/2006. Wired Magazine.


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