Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Looking to capture practices of intimacy in times of social distancing:
mixed-methods research on singles in Japan

by Laura Dales and Nora Kottmann


Laura Dales (PhD, UWA) is Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her main research interests include agency, friendship and dating across Asia, as well as singlehood and marriage in contemporary Japan. She is currently writing a book examining intimacy beyond the family in contemporary Japan.

Nora Kottmann (PhD, Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf) is Senior Research Fellow at the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) in Tokyo. Her main research interests include personal relationships, intimacy (‘spaces of intimacy’), (not) belonging, mobile and multi-local biographies/relationships and expat communities.


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In Japan, COVID-19-time has been marked by avoidance of “the 3 Cs“: closed spaces, crowds and close-contact situations. The term, selected late last year as the most popular new word of 2020, encapsulates governmental advice, recommended but not legally enforced. The call to avoid the ‘3Cs’ was first formulated by Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko in late March 2020. Soon after (and following the decision to postpone the Olympics), then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzō declared a state of emergency for seven prefectures on April 7, 2020; this was expanded to the entire nation on April 16. A successive lifting of the state of emergency started in mid-May and ended on May 25. While hardly any restrictions were noticeable in everyday life in the months that followed, masks became an obligatory accessory and calls for self-restraint (jishuku) and social distancing (sōsharu disutansu) in everyday life remained strong. At the same time, the government implemented the so-called “Go-To” campaign for citizens and residents of Japan to revitalise the badly damaged tourism industry, although the campaign was put “on hold” at the end of 2020. In the late autumn of 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases increased significantly and finally, on 7 January 2021, a renewed state of emergency was declared in selected prefectures, which is currently ongoing.

As social scientists working on issues related to gender, intimacy and personal relationships beyond marriage, we have been especially interested in the ways that the pandemic and its associated rules and sanctions have shaped non-familial practices of intimacy (Jamieson 2011), recognising that these practices extend beyond the household and beyond the family. Although we both have a background in qualitative methods, we decided to design a quantitative survey that captures these effects, with an eye to sketching a picture of changes that have played out across the country, albeit in different ways.

We began planning a survey that is partly based on our previous qualitative findings in September 2020, firstly collating relevant Japanese and English-language research and scholarly and media articles on COVID and its impact. We particularly focused on the ways that the pandemic affected practices and perceptions of unmarried individuals between 25 and 49 (‘singles’) to redress the gap in scholarly literature on intimate practices among so-called ‘singles’, and also to decouple assumptions of romance and sex from familist or marriage-centric ideals. These tendencies are especially strong in Japan, where the number of unmarried individuals is on the steep rise, but cohabitation (women 7%; men 5,5%; 18 – 34 years) and children born out of wedlock (2,29%; 2016) remain rather uncommon. In the context of a strong focus on heterosexual marriage in public and political discourse, ‘singles’ are a marginalized and often overlooked population in Japan although experts in the Japanese context anticipate the emergence of a ‘hyper solo society’, a ‘society where living alone will be the norm’ (Arakawa & Nakano 2020).

This research therefore aims to better understand the lives and non-familial relationship worlds of unmarried adults, and the practices that flow from COVID-19 related changes. Our nationwide survey (n=4000), implemented with a renowned Japanese research institute (Hommerich & Kottmann 2020) generally focuses on legally unmarried individuals regardless of their relationship status, including those living in a range of housing arrangements: solo-dwellers, those who live with elderly or young dependants, those who cohabit with romantic partners and those who live with strangers or friends. In considering the effect of household composition and wider social networks upon singles during COVID times, we recognise that lives and practices are shaped by factors beyond marital status and romantic attachment and that the way unmarried individuals are embedded in social networks varies significantly (Dales 2017). In so doing we ask the question: how have policies and measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 shaped the experience of being ‘single’, living alone and ‘doing’ solo on the one hand, and ‘being together’, creating ‘new’ communities’ on the other hand?

We decided to conduct a quantitative survey for several reasons. One consideration was expediency: unlike interviews, which can be time-consuming to arrange, conduct and transcribe, an online survey can capture thousands of experiences in a short period of time (in our case, the 4000 results were gathered in less than one week). A second related benefit is speed, which is critical in the context of the daily flux of COVID-19 infections and related policies affecting social practices. Third: the possibility to focus on change through addressing three time frames, namely pre Covid-19; during the first state of emergency (April – May 2020) and finally from June 2020 until the declaration of the second state of emergency in January 2021. 4. The need to re-consider and adapt (especially) qualitative methodological approaches in times of social distancing. Despite challenges, the ‘”socially-distant”-method’ (Lobe et al. 2020: 1; see also Lupton (ed.) 2020) was one way for us to solve this dilemma. Finally, we were fortunate to access COVID-related research funds – one of the few silver-linings of COVID-times – to enable the commissioning of the survey.

After the successful completion of the pre-test in late December, the main survey is currently being conducted; we expect first descriptive findings in mid-February. In our forthcoming analyses we aim to situate the data in the context of contemporary media and public discourse on how individuals are managing COVID-life. From the outset it is clear that the pandemic, and its concomitant uncertainties have produced two diachronic developments: An increase in suicides (especially among women) and public concerns about loneliness on the one hand, and an apparent increase in acceptance of ‘solo-activities’ (soro-katsu) on the other hand: ‘solo-camping’ was chosen as one of the top 10 buzzwords of 2020.

It is already clear that COVID-19 has had significant impacts on the mental as well as physical health of communities around the world, even as we know that these impacts have not been equal. Alongside global studies that reveal class, ethnic and economic differences in COVID-19 effects, we hope our research contributes to an understanding of the ways that singlehood, marital status and extra-familial relationships are shaped, and shape, the experiences of this pandemic.

For further information and updates on news, findings and publications, please see here

For a recently published blog by the same authors, please see Solo-camping and solo-hotpots: Re-thinking practices and perceptions of singlehood in Japan in COVID-time.


Dales, Laura (2017) “Friendships, marriage and happiness in contemporary Japan”, in Manzenreiter, Wolfram & Holthus, Barbara (eds) Happiness and the Good Life in Japan, London: Routledge, pp. 68-86.

Jamieson, Lynn (2011) “Intimacy as a Concept: Explaining Social Change in the Context of Globalisation or Another Form of Ethnocentricism.” Sociological Research Online 16 (4): 1–13.

Hommerich, Carola & Kottmann, Nora (2020) “How to combine methods: Mixed methods designs”, in Kottmann, Nora & Reiher, Cornelia (eds) Studying Japan. Handbook of Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 264–282.