You may have heard that Japan is obsessed with youth, which is ironic for a country with an ageing population , this is ironic. In fact, Japan is purported to have the highest proportion of elderly citizens compared to all other countries. With so many older folks making up a vast percentage of the population, why is Japan’s society still often casually ageist, particularly towards women?

A recent poll asked “at what age does a woman become middle-aged?” and the results are extremely telling.

In Japan, it’s common to refer to someone using their most defining characteristic. Saying “you” is often considered way too direct and impolite, so a good way to circumvent this is to address someone according to their position in society. Thus, a taxi driver will be “Mr. Driver” and a postman will be “Mr. Postman”.

▼ Hello, Mr. Policeman (Omawari-san).

FlickrIgnat Gorazd

Similarly, if you don’t know someone’s name or status, you can refer to them using their age as a base guideline. A young girl may be “ojousan” (young miss), a young woman may be “oneesan” (big sister) and a middle-aged woman becomes “obasan” (aunt). Similarly, a young man might be “oniisan” (big brother) and a middle-aged man “ojisan” (uncle).

But at what age does this naming shift occur, for women in particular?

A poll by MyNavi News asked 300 single men and women “At what age does a woman shift from “big sister” to “aunt”? The results are as follows:

Men said:

During her twenties 8%

During her thirties 9%

During her forties 63%

During her fifties: 20%

From this, we can clearly see that most men think women switch from “big sister” to “aunt” during her forties.” However, women’s answers were vastly different.

Women said:

During her twenties 6%

During her thirties 55%

During her forties 29%

During her fifties: 10%

Over half of the women polled answered that a woman switches from “big sister” to “aunt” in society during her thirties. This speaks volumes about women in Japan’s anxiety over ageing. Indeed, in Japan a woman’s primary social value is still tied up in marriage and child-bearing. As fertility begins to decline from the age of 32, it seems many believe that women become “old” at a much younger age than do men.

What’s heartening, however, is that the men polled seemed to allow an extra decade for women before considering them “middle-aged.” This hints that women are much harsher on themselves than they perhaps have any need to be.

▼ Come and give your aunty a big hug!


Here’s a few of the comments provided by the participants:

In her twenties:

“From the age of 25, a woman’s skin begins losing its luster.” – Male, 30

“A woman’s skin begins turning a corner after 25.” – Female, 25

“A woman starts to sound ridiculous using modern slang from around 26.” – Male, 26

In her thirties:

“I think it has more to do with whether she’s married and has kids or not.” – Male, 30

“In her thirties, her siblings will probably have kids, making her a genuine aunty.” – Female, 32

“You can tell when she starts getting wrinkles at 35.” – Male, 28

“It’s gross to even call a woman in her later thirties “big sister.” – Female, 27

In her forties:

“In her forties, she becomes a mature beauty. ” – Male, 39

“Her kids will be in middle school by this time.” – Male, 37

“45 is how old my parents are, so I’d say around this age.” – Female, 24

In her fifties:

“Being referred to as ‘big sister’ is highly improbable at this age.” – Female, 25

At what age do you think women start to be considered “middle-aged” in your country? Do you think that perception is harsh or fair?

Source: Nicovideo News, Wikipedia – Ageing of Japan, ACOG
Main Image: Flickr –  Maitreyoda