No Sex Please, We’re Japanese

The good folks at The Guardian wonder, "Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?"

Japan-Manga-Sex

The good folks at The Guardian wonder, “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?

Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million, which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by 2060. Aoyama believes the country is experiencing “a flight from human intimacy” – and it’s partly the government’s fault.

[…]

The number of single people has reached a record high. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact”. More than a quarter of men felt the same way.

I’m hesitant to reject data out of hand simply because it doesn’t comport with my life experience but will make an exception here. There simply has to be a problem with the survey instrument here; it’s just inconceivable that a quarter of Japanese males in their sexual prime are uninterested, much less despise, sexual contact. But I’d wager a hell of a lot that 95-plus percent of young Japanese men want to get laid.

Dating and marriage—much less giving birth to children—are different matters. These all require a substantial amount of effort and self-sacrifice and it’s plausible that social changes, technology, and other factors are changing human behavior in those endeavors.

Many people who seek her out, says Aoyama, are deeply confused. “Some want a partner, some prefer being single, but few relate to normal love and marriage.” However, the pressure to conform to Japan’s anachronistic family model of salaryman husband and stay-at-home wife remains. “People don’t know where to turn. They’re coming to me because they think that, by wanting something different, there’s something wrong with them.”

Official alarmism doesn’t help. Fewer babies were born here in 2012 than any year on record. (This was also the year, as the number of elderly people shoots up, that adult incontinence pants outsold baby nappies in Japan for the first time.) Kunio Kitamura, head of the JFPA, claims the demographic crisis is so serious that Japan “might eventually perish into extinction”.

Japan’s under-40s won’t go forth and multiply out of duty, as postwar generations did. The country is undergoing major social transition after 20 years of economic stagnation. It is also battling against the effects on its already nuclear-destruction-scarred psyche of 2011’s earthquake, tsunami and radioactive meltdown. There is no going back. “Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love. They don’t believe it can lead anywhere,” says Aoyama. “Relationships have become too hard.”

Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by bureaucratic disapproval.

Aoyama says the sexes, especially in Japan’s giant cities, are “spiralling away from each other”. Lacking long-term shared goals, many are turning to what she terms “Pot Noodle love” – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality “girlfriends”, anime cartoons. Or else they’re opting out altogether and replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes.

The report devolves into the weird, with discussion of particular “urban pastimes,” after that but you get the idea.

Color me skeptical. The Guardian report relies way too heavily on a sex counselor who specializes in people struggling with sex aversion; pretty much by definition, her clients are atypical. The survey data are collected by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, which is specifically trying to figure out why Japanese aren’t making more babies, and the Japan Family Planning Association, whose site is in Japanese other than the name and a banner proclaiming “Every Child a Wanted Child,” a local branched of Planned Parenthood; it’s not unreasonable to suspect that their agendas are contaminating the results.

The notion that the easy availability of online porn has made so-called “digital natives” less interested in IRL sex is neither new nor unique to Japan. I addressed the topic in these pixels almost exactly a decade ago in response to claims by Naomi Wolf:

Erotic imagery in the two-dimensional realm, much like drugs, is itself desensitizing. Watching beautiful movie stars with silicon-enhanced breasts romping around naked is interesting. For a while. And then it becomes, while not exactly boring, at least mundane. Seeing a good looking but famous woman nude in a movie or on a computer screen is, for those of us past adolescence, interesting in the way that the Blog Chicks Pix is: it’s a curiousity. And, frankly, “More, more, you big stud!” isn’t exactly the height of stimulation.

Real women, unlike those on a screen, are, to use a techological term, interactive. They have personalities. Plus, they’re, well, corporeal. They’re warm. They smell good. They taste good. They laugh at your jokes. And that’s not to mention emotional attachment, the ability to share our lives, have babies, and all those other reasons why heterosexual men are drawn to women. Until fantasy gains those qualities, real women have no competition.

I don’t think much has changed in that regard since 2003.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Gender Issues,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Xenos says:

    Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work.

    Like some other places, if you can’t have children and still maintain a middle-class status, then you will hold onto the status and let the children go. I think the young Japanese look at their parents, exhausted by long year of work and estranged by strict gender roles, and are basically going on strike. No mas.

  2. grumpy realist says:

    Oh….I can talk a lot about this based on my ten years living in Japan. On the whole, Japanese women have moved away from the “meek little housewife” role while the Japanese males remain stuck in a traditional mindset and are pretty clueless about the opposite sex. I had a rather interesting lunch with a casual acquaintance at a conference. (We were both working at the same research lab.) Talk about stiff poker-up-the-ass! I ignored it, continued chatting (in Japanese), he would gradually relax, and then suddenly remember he was having lunch with (GASP!) a foreign female and poker up again.

    When I got back to Tokyo, I ranted to one of my colleagues about how why was it so difficult for a Japanese guy to relax being with a gaizin. He grinned and said: “It’s not the fact that you’re foreign–it’s the fact that you’re female.”

  3. C. Clavin says:

    I’m turning Japanese
    I think I’m turning Japanese
    I really think so

  4. DrDaveT says:

    The low birth rate by itself wouldn’t be lethal if Japan weren’t also radically xenophobic. Other first-world nations with fewer than 2 children per couple are nevertheless holding their populations steady (or even growing) through immigration and (ideally) assimilation. Japan doesn’t like foreigners, doesn’t want immigrants, and would rather die than assimilate them. So it probably will.

    It’s something for opponents of mass migration to the US to keep in mind: the alternative is almost certainly worse, in the long run.

  5. Pharoah Narim says:

    …Im going in. (pun intended).

  6. Hal 10000 says:

    There’s been a huge amount of skepticism about this article, viz: http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/2013/10/23/yes-japanese-people-still-have-sex/

    I call baloney on the Guardian article. It’s the flip side of the BS “hook-up culture” articles that are frequently run by gullible American media outlets. Only instead of thinking that this is the first generation to discover sex, the Guardian thinks it’s the last one.

  7. James Pearce says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I’m turning Japanese

    You’re becoming a sexless prude?

    Seriously, though…

    I have to think that some of this has to do with the fact that they’re on an island. Consciously or not, maybe they realized there is a limit to how far their population can actually expand.

  8. Pinky says:

    This is the land of the dating sim and the body pillow. They’re interested in sex, all right, just 2D.

  9. al-Ameda says:

    All I can say is, this study tells me that, when it comes to sex in Japan, there’s a whole lot of lying going on.

  10. Franklin says:

    @grumpy realist: I, for one, would like to hear more about your experiences in Japan.

    I happen to live in a neighborhood in SE Michigan with a lot of Japanese workers and their families here for a 3- or 5-year stint at automotive-related businesses. Whenever our young kids are playing together and I ask if they are planning on having any more, they seem to be very concerned with the cost of having children, and I mean far more concerned than even we Americans are. Almost all the families have the ‘requisite’ two.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Even though the Guardian article was over the top (no, it’s not that the Japanese aren’t having sex, it’s that they’re not having babies) Japan has a fertility “problem” and isn’t going to solve it as long as their idea of a fix is getting geezer Japanese politicians to stand on their hind legs and rant about how immoral Japanese women are for not being housewives and mothers.

    Japanese women undergo the same educational system as the guys do. A Japanese woman graduates from college, looks around for an interesting career, and discovers the following:
    1) if she goes to work at a Japanese corporation she will be shunted into the no-career track, will be grudgingly allowed to stay on if she gets married, and kicked out as soon as she has a kid.
    2) daycare in Japan is almost non-existent
    3) if she turns into a housewife/mom, she gets immediately shut off from modern Japanese society and the urban culture. The only people she will ever run into are other housewives. This goes on for years, until her child gets into university. And let’s not forget the financial burden all the cram schools are going to present.
    4) if her husband is on a good career track, he will be staying away at work until 10 at night or later and will quite often be stationed for months or more away from the family. He can come see them on the weekends….maybe.

    Given all this, is it any surprise that Japanese women are voting with their feet and saying: “nooo….I don’t think I want that lifestyle.”

  12. al-Ameda says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Given all this, is it any surprise that Japanese women are voting with their feet and saying: “nooo….I don’t think I want that lifestyle.”

    You’re exactly right, and your experience is probably more modern and up-to-date than mine.

    I lived in Japan, in Tokyo for 3 years back in the mid-1980s, and I can’t tell you how many young adult women I met who, basically, wanted out – out of the traditional role that Japanese women were hemmed in by. It reminded me somewhat of early-feminist America, probably in the 1960s. I suspect that there is a new generation of Japanese young women who are forging ahead and breaking out, although I suspect it will be in a distinctly Japanese manner.

  13. Nightrider says:

    Yawn. Human overpopulation is one of our greatest problems, not this.

  14. Rottenham says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Your comment reads like a feminist manifesto. I wonder if your point of view isn’t a tad (or a boatload) biased.

    I suspect the same thing is happening in Japan as is happening in the US, except that a few cultural differences make it seem “inscrutable” to westerners. We have more in common with Japan than we have differences.

    As far as I can see, the majority of women never liked sex all that much to begin with. In the west we are either blind to this or mum about it, but when we look at another culture, it jumps out at us.

    Men in general comprehend that traditional relationship options have been removed and replaced by nothing, and are coping by creating new options, as men have always done.

    The one mystery to me is, why so many women suddenly want to live for their jobs. Working for a living sucks, and the Corporation has the morals of a crack whore. I can only guess it will take them a few generations to realize this.

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @Rottenham:

    Men in general comprehend that traditional relationship options have been removed and replaced by nothing, and are coping by creating new options, as men have always done.

    By nothing? It’s generally been replaced by a two-wage earner income model, with women (either by necessity, or because of career development and opportunities) no longer narrowly restricted in terms of participation in our economy. It’s been replaced by more equality in decision-making in marriage or partner relationships – that, is not “nothing.”

    It certainly has created or layered in more complexity – in having and raising children, which employment situation is overriding in terms of decisions about relocation, and so forth. Some men have trouble with the new non-traditional mode, most people adapt or their partnerships and marriages fail.

  16. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Rottenham: As far as I can see, the majority of women never liked sex all that much to begin with having sex with men who ignore their need for intimacy and “mind” sex. In the west we are either blind to this or mum about it, but when we look at another culture, it jumps out at us have realized this and have adapted–resulting in lots of dirty, energetic shagging for the modern young american male.

    You’re welcome.

  17. george says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Given all this, is it any surprise that Japanese women are voting with their feet and saying: “nooo….I don’t think I want that lifestyle.”

    I agree, sounds like its a good reason for young women to give up on sex.

    However its interesting that apparently a significant portion (more than quarter according to the above) of Japanese men are also saying sex isn’t worth it – ie they’re voting with their feet too. Presumably for different reasons than the ones you listed.

    The stats are hard to believe (a quarter of young men figure sex isn’t worth it – that’s got to be a first), but if true, there’s something strange going on there, more than just a change in gender expectations (that happened here in the past and is still going on, and I don’t think there’s been anything close to that percentage of young men giving up on sex).

  18. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Rottenham:

    Your comment reads like a feminist manifesto.

    Only if your understanding of feminism stopped evolving after 1963. And you’ve never heard of Abraham Maslow.

  19. rudderpedals says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: And you’ve never heard of Abraham Maslow.

    Pity it didn’t keep him from falling off Maslow’s pyramid.

  20. John D'Geek says:

    We had a discussion about this almost two years ago at the Buddhist temple I attend. Sensei talked about the “Carnivores and Vegetarians”. Young women are staying at home with their parents, have a descent job, and very much love sex (they are the “carnivores”) and partying. The young men go to work, come home, and plop down in front of the video game console (“vegetarian”) and for the most part go sexless. “Not interested’ is the phrase, but “too freakin’ tired” is probably a better description. (The job security may be gone, but at least the stress has doubled!)

    It’s a problem, but in a traditional society like Japan there are no easy answers.

  21. Joel says:

    “The notion that the easy availability of online porn has made so-called “digital natives” less interested in IRL sex is neither new nor unique to Japan. I addressed the topic in these pixels almost exactly a decade ago in response to claims by Naomi Wolf”

    I think you’re missing the point here, James. No one is claiming that porn is the same experience as actual sex. The point is that porn requires zero effort, while an actual relationship or marriage takes hard work and sacrifice (even casual sex takes a little work to get). It’s not that a lot of the men who watch porn don’t want actual sex, but many of them don’t consider a relationship worth the effort. So they are willing to settle for porn’s imitation while taking the casual sex they can get without having to try too hard. (I’m not defending this viewpoint, but it is how some people think).

    Also, there are plenty of stories about women whose boyfriends want them to do weird things because the girls in pornos do it or whose husbands’ interest in sex gradually declines while they watch porn. Anecdotal stuff yes (I don’t know if there’s statistical data or not), but there’s a lot of it.

  22. Jack Foobar says:

    If one parent working can’t feed the family, then your society is doomed. Top to bottom- no matter what Country. It may take 4 generations, but in the end you’ll be so weakened that you’ll collapse from within leaving you vulnerable to external threats.

    If Mother’s can’t raise their own children, then WHAT IN THE F IS THE POINT OF A SOCIETY AT ALL? You might as well live in the Wilderness of Asscrackistan BFE Nowhere.

  23. dazedandconfused says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I got a different angle on about the same story from a Japanese employee of mine. He said it’s difficult for men because they are still totally expected to “wear the pants” in Japan. To demonstrate, he told me he was going to take a 3 hour lunch next Monday for his kids doctor appointment, as his wife, a young attorney, had an impossible to get out of court-day at that time.

    The insinuation there was no way, as in no way whatsoever, a Japanese man could proclaim his wife’s working schedule had trumped his. When they decided to marry, they decided to stay here instead of returning to Japan, as they both had intended.

  24. KM says:

    On a side note, I find it hilarious that the image for this article is a mostly likely a yoai manga. James, did you deliberately chose one that has two males or was that a subtle conversation starter? 🙂

    All the Japanese individuals I know want nothing to do with the traditional social structure. Having been in America, they are wary of returning home and being forced into a traditional model they aren’t sure works anymore. There was an article recently about the Faroese and their difficulties with fertility. My friend commented on the article noting she understood why the women left – there was nothing for them there and the freedom the cities offered was too good to pass up. She saw life back in Kasai (?) as confining and needed a career that wouldn’t vaporize the minute she decided to bring life into this world. That she could have children was complementary to her scientific mind and aptitude, not mutually exclusive.

    Society needs to change in order to live – adjustments to ways of life can be subtle to preserve essence but alter form. Japanese society isn’t making the changes needed to cope and their youth is not about to play. There’s always been an social expectation that one will fall in line after having their fun. Not such much anymore.

  25. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Jack Foobar: You got a lot of down votes but I agree with one concept: Society would be better off if one working parent could, on average, pull down enough money to supply a middle class lifestyle for there familys. Then, the other parent has options. As it is, its taking two working adults to supply a barely lower middle class living— this is counterproductive to providing the amount of time required to mentor children in their formative years.

  26. Pharoah Narim says:

    Sounds as if Japan has overly shifted towards the Yin in the Yin/Yang paradigm. Nature corrects extremes. It may take 2 generations to die off–but society will change to a more balanced focus and self-selections of gender roles instead of the rigid circle/square structure they have now.

  27. KM says:

    @Pharoah Narim:Society would be better off if one working parent could, on average, pull down enough money to supply a middle class lifestyle for there familys.

    I would agree with this in principle as the word “parent” is applied to child-care. When the words “mother” and “always” get thrown into the mix, that’s when the problem starts. We must first acknowledge two premises in order to rationally discuss this: (1) Male=/= breadwinner (or even ability to be one) and (2) women =/= the naturally nurturing one and men =/= temperamentally unsuited. Plenty of totally masculine men are primary caretakers. Plenty of women out earn their men and their careers have a more stable and financially rewarding path. In a truly capitalistic and rationale sense, you allow the better earner to work to maximize your gains.

    The old-fashioned sensibilities that feel women=homemaker cheat themselves, their spouse and their children out of a better life simply because they can’t evolve to fit their real life needs. If its not true, its not true. What stays stagnant dies. Japan seems not to be getting the gist of this…

  28. mark says:

    @Rottenham: Majority of women don’t like sex? You are taking the piss love. You’ve never had an orgasm.

  29. mark says:

    @KM: I have 4 Jap mates and they said the same thing except for one who became a teacher (and I think is dating his ‘colleague freind’ lol) in Kyushu.