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Can Japanese really be such cold sushi in the sack?

by Jake Adelstein

Sex in Japan is a knotty issue — even if you’re not a fan of tying up your lover with rope, also known as shibari. No matter how you write about it, it raises ire. If you point out that Japan has a vibrant sex industry in which every sexual act other than vaginal penetration can be legally bought and advertised, you’re accused of promoting prostitution.

Incidentally, prostitution in Japan is de facto defined as a woman selling herself to a man — gigolos are free to sell themselves. Sexual discrimination at work again. And while prostitution is illegal, neither the customer or the prostitute are punished — only the pimp, brothel or facilitator.

But my point is that talking about sex in Japan is a troublesome thing. Ask Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto (see Dark Sides passim).

However, talking about “sexless” in Japan is an even thornier issue, because it’s not the same as “sexless” in the West.

Last month, The Guardian ran a long, provocative and anecdotal piece about sexual estrangement, celibacy and alienation among Japan’s youth. Though it made some valid points, regrettably it sported a rather bombastic title: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”

Judging from the online activity that followed, many people noticed the headline but didn’t really read the article. Nonetheless, it did generate a surprising backlash from people who said it unfairly portrayed Japan as a nation of neutered nuts. This is often the problem with headlines: they grab attention but don’t do nuance very well.

Are all Japan’s youth sexless? Clearly not, and the article doesn’t say that either — although one recent large-scale survey did find that 40 percent of Japanese men in their 20s were still virgins.

But to get back to being “sexless” (セックレス) in the Japanese sense, a state that’s narrowly defined. Daijirin, a popular dictionary, says the word describes “a situation in which a couple has little or no sexual intercourse or sexual activity.” There, it clearly refers primarily to a couple and to their lack of sexual activity — and it’s clearly assumed it takes two to tango.

“Sexless” in English can mean lacking sexual desire, not having sex, being asexual or, in the vernacular, being unable to find anyone to have sex with.

Let’s put the fertility rate stats aside as well. The “sexless” issue in Japan isn’t about fertility; it’s about frequency. Think about it: Sexual frequency and the number of kids born don’t have very much to do with each other if one or both parties are practicing birth control.

In Japan, the main form of birth control is still the condom. And that’s why the findings published in June of a national survey of 14,000 people by condom-maker Sagami carry some serious clout, being one of the largest-ever polls of its type in this country.

Here’s the shocking conclusion: It is half-true to say the Japanese are sexless — or more so for married people, 55 percent of whom classify themselves that way (compared with 15 to 20 percent of their U.S. counterparts). On the other hand, among unmarried couples in Japan, only 29 percent consider themselves sexless.

The most common reasons given for not having sex were that people were tired, with men most often blaming that on their jobs — while women cited “bothersome” as well as “being tired from work and household duties.”

Unsurprisingly, men didn’t finger housework as the cause, because in this country they generally don’t do any. Instead, they might use the excuse that they spend more than 2,000 hours a year at the office — and those are the official numbers, not including unpaid overtime.

Of course many women are working the same hours for usually worse pay. Indeed, as my fellow columnist, Jeff Kingston, notes in his Counterpoint column today, a recent report from the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 105th out of 136 countries in terms of sexual equality — though the independent, Swiss-based organization abstained from delving into sexual frequency.

Another study, conducted between 2006-07 by condom-maker Durex, titled “Global Sexual Well-Being,” rated sexual satisfaction in Japan at 15 percent — the lowest among countries surveyed.

That survey by Sagami also perhaps cast light on the satisfaction issue, as it found that couples in their 20s have sex an average of four times a month, while those in their 30s manage it a mere 2.68 times and those in their 40s indulge on only 1.77 occasions. Sure, that’s not sexless, but it’s not a lot either — and then there’s that 40 percent of male virgins in their 20s.

So what does it all mean? Well, there are a lot of people in Japan not having sex. And this is probably not good for anyone.

The Well-being Program at the London School of Economics’ Center for Economic Performance rates “making love” as the activity that makes us happiest. So, with Japan scoring low on both frequency and satisfaction, it wouldn’t bode well for its national Happiness Index — if it had one — or for the welfare of the nation as a whole.

In the United States, the outspoken celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz has proclaimed, with firm evidence, not only that sex keeps people young, but also: “Being in a healthy, fulfilling sexual relationship can do wonders for your overall wellness.”

One possible way to “sexy up” Japan would be for the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to live up to its name. The Health division could promote sex as a life-extending activity, while the Labor division could campaign for workers to go home earlier so they’d have time to date and stuff. And all of this would, of course, cheer up the Welfare section in the face of a rapidly aging population and low birth rate.

Otherwise, to address sexlessness in Japan — assuming poll respondents aren’t lying — a halt could be called to the misguided crackdown on dancing after midnight, as we all know that late-night dancing leads to sex. But in my opinion the chief culprit is that work thing, with people spending far too long at the office — where it can be quite hard to make out.

So, though Japan is not sexless in any sense of the word, the available data suggests it’s certainly not in the same mating league as countries such as Greece or Mexico — almost as if Japan has a collective case of the proverbial headache. But one way to get rid of a migraine is … sex, though it has to be a joint effort.

  • Hanten

    This is a great piece of writing and not just because Jake Adelstein makes lots of the same points that I’ve been making.
    Like he said, more sex could help rectify the population problem here in Japan, if the condoms came off. Some safe sex education is definitely needed in that case. The rates of STDs here are already a cause for concern, having more kids shouldn’t happen at the expense of the country’s sexual health.
    Sex’s contribution to making a society happier and healthier is also not be underestimated. Japan has nationalized health care, so if more people had more sex and more often the population would spend less time with the doctor and more time being, well, happy. And more time spent with partners and families is good for everyone.
    Economically, it would help fantastically. Hourly productivity would skyrocket as people rushed through their work so that they could finish then leave to see their partners. Then the lights and aircon could be switched off early, saving electricity while the same amount of work per week is being done.

  • JS

    I personally feel that, even though, long working hours are a problem in Japan, this is not the real cause of sexlessness.

    Correlation between long working hours and less sex does not mean causation.

    What cannot be ruled out, is that perhaps some people are choosing to spend longer hours at work, because they have lost interest in personal relationships, intimacy, sex, family, dating and friendships outside of work.

    I know some people who seem to have lost all interest in things that happen outside of their work lives and who have lost most of their social skills (or, perhaps they never developed these in the first place).

    These people get their identity from their work, their work colleagues and their meishi (business card). They suffer anxiety and low self-esteem when they are taken out of this work-related setting and context. In other words, they have lost their confidence, sense of self and individuality. It is difficult for people to have healthy sex lives in such a situation.

  • japancritical

    Japan is doomed as people are too overworked, stressed out, self-absorbed and materialistic to have sex, raise families etc. Sex is a fundamental drive, and if a society manages to kill the desire for sex, it is a failed society. Obviously, Japanese people have made a collective decision to die off, as their society and lifestyle is too unpleasant.

  • global gestalt

    Maybe “sexless” and sexlesness are not the terms to use here.
    Maybe the sexual restraint practiced by the modern Japanese is due to a very basic human philosophy.
    All humans are good.
    Japanese are human.
    Therefore Japanese are good humans.

    Well educated and very much plugged in-
    information is just a gadget away.
    The Japanese know humans have been misbehaving for over 5 thousand years now.
    Heartache, hardship, poverty, and power mongering prevail.

    Maybe these certain people are the enlightened ones who consciously or subconsciously, wish to put a stop to certain traditions that continue negative gestalt cycles… such as children only knowing their mothers and not their fathers,,, and cheating and abusive partners.
    Maybe today’s Japanese are taking the initiative in reducing earth’s unsustainable overpopulation.
    Maybe they know the distinction between Love and Sex. Love and Desire.
    Maybe they roll their ethics up and keep them in their hearts.
    Maybe they understand that “casual sex” is an oxymoron.