No matter how independent, fashionable or popular she may be, Japan's unwed woman has long been 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 answering that question with a firm "No" -- and trying to console other women about how to deal with their plight.
"Women these days aren't going to marry just anybody," declared Junko Sakai, whose recent book Howl of the Loser Dogs sold more than 300,000 copies by telling Japan's single women how to survive the backlash of staying single.
Marriage has certainly lost some of its allure for Japanese women -- and that has meant changes for Japanese society and business.
Over the past decade, 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, according to government statistics.
In the United States, 40 percent of women from 25 to 29 are single, and 23 percent of women from 30 to 34. The trend to stay unmarried is more pronounced in England, at 65 percent in the 25-29 age group, although that sinks to 39 percent for 30-34.
Japanese men are also delaying marriage these days, but often they cite economic reasons: they have trouble finding a job that gives them the stability they need for married life, or they're more hesitant to assume the responsibilities of family.
Many Japanese women, however, see a single major reason for their growing distaste of marriage: men who expect their wives to cheerfully surrender their jobs or juggle a career while single-handedly serving their husbands and caring for 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 a recent interview in Tokyo. "Men haven't changed their old mind-set. Women have grown too powerful for them."
The situation is a dramatic reversal of the strong tradition in Japan that praises early marriage and criticizes women who delay marriage as unattractive and selfish.
In the 1980s, a woman who hadn't found a husband by the time she was 25 was dismissed as "Christmas cake," a reference to the cake Japanese eat on Dec. 25 -- or throw away as worthless on the 26th.
Reflecting the trend toward later marriages these days, attention has focused on single women who hit their 31st birthday without a husband. Such women are now known as "New Year's Eve noodles," referring to the tradition of eating noodles that night.
The fading attraction of marriage is having a profound impact on public policy in Japan, where the government is worried that the plunging birthrate will mean labor shortages in the future and a drop in support for the growing ranks of the elderly.
The number of children a woman now has is at an average of 1.29 -- a record low for Japan and far short of the 2.01 average in the United States, 1.90 in France and 1.63 in England.
Chikako Ogura, professor of gender studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, doesn't see much hope in the proposals the government has been pushing to reverse the trend, such as adding child-care facilities and prodding employers to grant maternity leave.