Until dearth do us part


It is a condition that many married Japanese know all too well.

The wedding bells fell silent years ago and the lovingly framed photo — she in her gown, he in his tux — has long since been put away in a drawer.

The couple has settled into a routine of comfortable domesticity. Real closeness, though, has become as distant a memory as the exact date they first held hands. Or what floor their honeymoon suite was on.

Or the last time they made love.

No matter the country or culture, sexual passions are prone to cool after a man and woman exchange vows. But in recent months, a torrent of magazine reports have been detailing how many marriages in Japan not only chill but plunge into sexual deep freeze, and looking at why they do so, and the suffering it causes.

Headlines like “Women’s Tales of Sexless Hell” and “Take Me! Take Me! Take Me!” may lure readers — but they are a barometer of a nationwide malaise as well. Though Japan may to some extent simply be facing up to problems that existed all along, experts believe the number of cases really is on the up and up.

In a reflection of the trend, respected psychiatrist Teruo Abe, a pioneer in the field of Japanese sexuality, reports visits from 165 sexless patients this year to his Tokyo clinic, nearly nine times the 19 he saw in 1993. For her part, Keiko Watanabe, a sex counselor and researcher across town at the Japan Society of Sexual Science, says that of her 100 or so new cases a year, the percentage involving sexlessness in marriage has grown “astonishingly.”

Even though it takes a lot to shock Myongan Kim — who is an outspoken authority on Japanese sexuality, a sexual anthropologist and counselor to hundreds of women in sexless marriages — he admits to being taken aback by the spread of the phenomenon.

“I can’t tell you how many of my clients have never — not once — had sex while married,” Kim said at his office, also in Tokyo. “Their marriages shouldn’t even be called unions between man and woman.”

In the early 1990s, Abe helped lay the foundation for researching the problem when he created the country’s now widely accepted definition of a sexless marriage. This is one in which, “in the absence of any reason of which they are aware, a couple forgoes consensual sexual intercourse or sexual contact for a month or more, with no change expected in the foreseeable future.”

By that standard, a survey of more than 1,600 married women across Japan conducted by Mayumi Futamatsu — author of “Tonari no Shinshitsu (The Bedroom Next Door),” a book on marital sex published this year — found that 45.1 percent were sexless.

Futamatsu’s findings are in line with data appearing in the mass-circulation magazines Aera, The Yomiuri Weekly and the women’s tabloid Josei Seven.

By way of international comparison, it also dwarfs the 15 percent of married couples in the United States believed by researchers there to have extremely low sexual activity, or the 20 percent rate among married people under 24 in Britain reported in the mid-1990s. Such data is difficult enough to establish even from countries like these, and unfortunately it appears to be non-existent from countries with more rigid and traditional views on marriage.

Back in Japan, though — a land rife with risque fashions and explicit comics for both genders — it is surprising to learn of such a widespread lack of libido.

Yet if some find it easy to be skeptical of surveys on such sensitive subjects, it is harder to ignore the results of an international study of sexually active adults by UK-based condom-maker Durex published in October. That survey, of 350,000 respondents, ranked Japanese as the least active lovers in the world, with an average of only 46 encounters a year compared with the chart-topping French on 137 and an average across all 41 countries surveyed of 103.

A few sexless weeks may do no more than put a husband or wife on edge, but when months, then years go by, bad things can happen.

Kim blamed sexual deprivation for a long list of nervous-related ailments among his patients, including chronic sleeplessness, skin inflammation, eating disorders, alcoholism and depression accompanied by sudden bouts of weeping.

In the case of mothers, such anguish can take an even greater toll. “Most end up subjecting their children to verbal violence,” Kim said, adding that their violence also sometimes turns physical. “The cause of all the problems that children have today has to lie in bad relations between parents,” he added.

Men’s response to sexlessness is no less worrying.

According to a survey of 1,000 middle-aged males published in September by the magazine Shukan Gendai, more than a fifth of respondents who made love to their wives twice a month or less said they visited sex clubs — far more than the 12 percent who had sex with their wives at least once a week.

That suggests that those men diverted their energies into the sex industry, in turn feeding organized crime and other social ills. (The Shukan Gendai survey, like those in other Japanese magazines, did not cite any margin of error.)

Meanwhile, Japan’s divorce rate has more than doubled since 1975, with almost four people divorcing annually for every 10 who marry. Yet in a survey of 609 married women in the Nov. 8 and Nov. 15 issues of Aera, 53 percent said sexlessness was not enough of a reason to leave their husband.

However, without radical changes in sexual relations, Kim said he believes that sexlessness-related divorce will “rise and rise.”

“Many of the women haven’t worked and they have no money,” he said. “And their husbands have showered them with insults over a long period of time, so they have no confidence as women, and think to themselves, ‘If I divorce, who will have me?’ ”

So just why are so many Japanese marriages going cold?

Some factors have been around for ever, such as power-draining overtime for salaryman Dad, the hardship of childrearing for stay-at-home Mom and the custom of young children and their parents sleeping together. And it isn’t easy getting it on when you share a home with your parents or in-laws — as many married Japanese do — and your bedroom’s privacy is only protected by paper-thin walls.

To all this, add upbringing.

“In this country, we don’t hug, kiss or touch. Sexual and bodily senses are not well developed,” quipped one Japanese woman, a media professional who has lived overseas almost 20 years. “As a result, we cannot really express love in an affectionate manner. This applies to Japanese women as well.”

In a book published this year, “Sekkusuresu no Seishin Igaku (The Psychiatry of Sexlessness),” psychiatrist Abe cites a sharp recent rise in sexual aversion among Japanese males, a condition he says was once limited mostly to women.

Japan’s most prevalent forms of male sexual aversion, Abe believes, result from quirky shifts in the roles played by the woman and man after marriage. In the most common case, the wife assumes a caring, yet dominant, role as “mother,” while her husband becomes the “son.” Though this may be the result of increased familiarity and affection, it can also make sexual relations feel too close for comfort.

These are the most human of foibles. And yet, the ways in which many men handle the inevitable consequences can appear very inhuman indeed.

Women tell of husbands who neglect to tell them they’re beautiful (you don’t flirt with “Mom”); some men insist on using omae (a coarse way of saying “you”) rather than addressing their spouses by name; and Kim says that one in 10 of his female clients are victims of domestic violence.

In the sexual arena, there are men who insist on having intercourse while peering over wives’ shoulders at porno videos or covering their faces with a pillow — ways of disassociating from the real-life woman that Kim calls “nothing more than masturbation, or domestic rape.” There are also men who lash out at wives who initiate intimacy themselves. “Such women are often called whores,” said author Futamatsu, who also heads a nationwide organization of 10,000 housewives. “I get so much e-mail from people saying they’ve broken down in tears after being told that.”

It is little wonder, then, that the Aera survey of married women found they almost never initiated sex, and that half only rarely experienced orgasm, or never did or didn’t know one way or the other.

Faced with such facts, it’s easy to forget that not all husbands are bad.

For them, in fact, survey results suggest that their wives could do a whole lot more to up the temperature in bed. Aera, for instance, found that 42 percent of women who said they were sexless also acknowledged being habitually not in the mood. And Josei Seven’s survey of 200 married women found 67.8 percent saying they didn’t want to have sex with their husbands. Reasons cited included “We are both tired,” “I have no sexual desire,” “After the second child it’s too much” and “It’s a nuisance to do it.”

Moreover, for firm proponents of the institution of marriage, one of the most disturbing patterns also emerging from such data is of accompanying infidelity — and anybody who thinks Japanese men hold a monopoly on cheating is in for a surprise.

No fewer than 17 percent of the women in the Aera survey said they had had extramarital sex, often with different boyfriends — a figure little different from their spouses, whom some 21 percent of the women knew or believed had cheated, with a higher percentage in sexless marriages.

Also, a survey of 500 married men and women in the Sept. 12 issue of the Yomiuri Weekly showed that while a third of female respondents and half of males had fallen in love outside their marriages, women who did so were more likely to develop a relationship.

Husbands who won’t touch their wives, wives who turn to other men — it’s enough to make traditionalists throw up their hands in despair.

Or is it?

The Japanese of old actually appear to have been less befuddled than their descendents by the realities of human sexual desire.

During the Heian Period (794-1185), marriages were not so much one-on-one affairs as arrangements in which men could divorce a spouse at will, and were commonly allowed several wives, each of whom would have their own living quarters that the man would visit.

The “Manyoshu,” the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, and whose final entry is dated 759, describes an ancient custom called utagaki or kagai, in which groups of men and women, married and unmarried, feasted and danced at a sacred site and — when the fun reached boiling point — joined in group sex. Similar practices are said to have continued well into the Edo Period (1603-1867).

“Falling head over heels for a variety of people wasn’t necessarily thought a bad thing, but rather just the way the human heart worked,” said Mizue Mori, a university lecturer on Japanese religion.

Seen through this perspective, then, today’s troubled marital times could almost be interpreted as a yearning for a return to ancient attitudes toward conjugal relations.

Or, perhaps, for a new model altogether — one that embraces even sexlessness.

Yuko Ishizaki, a sociology researcher at Nihon Joshi Daigaku (Japan Women’s University), questions the very framework of the modern Japanese marriage. With its emphasis on sex involving penetration, she believes this reduces the universe of human sexuality to just one kind of event, with anything else deemed an irrelevance or aberration.

And even slightly older Japanese who end up getting married are redefining the terms of that contract. Not only are more men helping out with housework in a way not common in past generations, but a steadily growing number are opting for the role of househusband to take care of children while their wives work.

Taken together, such factors point to married couples making choices that may profoundly influence social mores down the line.

In a similar way, said Ishizaki, if society came to a better understanding of how real people think about sensuality, all the hand-wringing over sexlessness may cease.

“If society were a bit more receptive to a new set of values about sex, maybe these problems wouldn’t arise,” she said. “It might be easier to find a solution if this society accepted homosexuality alongside heterosexuality, and a gradation of all kinds of unions.”

That, she said, would include those not having sex at all.

“Having sex,” she noted, “is not the only way to have an intimate relationship.”