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Heartache for Japan’s real-life 40-year-old virgins

AFP-JIJI

Takashi Sakai is a healthy 41-year-old heterosexual man with a good job and a charming smile. But he’s never had sex, one of a growing number of middle-aged Japanese men who are still virgins.

Sakai has never even had any kind of relationship with a woman, and says he has no idea how he might get to know one.

“I’ve never had a girlfriend. It’s never happened,” he said. “It’s not like I’m not interested. I admire women. But I just cannot get on the right track.”

It might sound like the subject for a Hollywood comedy, but far from being the social misfit portrayed by Steve Carell in 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Sakai is one of a crowd.

A 2010 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that around a quarter of unmarried Japanese men in their 30s were still virgins — even leading to the coining of a specific term, yaramiso, to describe them.

The figure was up around 3 percentage points from a similar survey in 1992.

The period corresponds with Japan’s prolonged economic slowdown, after a stock and asset bubble burst and the one-time financial powerhouse suffered years of lackluster growth.

Matchmaking expert Yoko Itamoto says the economic emasculation has taken its toll on Japan’s men, as more of them struggle to find secure, full-time jobs.

“Many men seem to have lost confidence as they’ve lost their economic muscle,” she said.

“In the past two decades, the situation for Japanese men has been very tough and competitive.”

The pain caused by an inability to form emotional and physical relationships with women is something that one 49-year-old architect, who did not wish to be named, knows too well.

Only twice in his life has he had romantic and sexual feelings for a woman — the first time in his mid-twenties and then again two decades later.

Both rebuffed him.

“It was devastating,” he said. “It seemed to invalidate my life and take away my reason to live.”

On both occasions he suffered rapid weight-loss, and now fears he might live life as a singleton and a virgin.

Directly comparable international statistics are difficult to come by, but Japanese people across the board appear to have less sex than those in other developed countries.

In the 2010 survey quoted above, 68 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds in Japan said they were virgins. A study carried out that year in Europe by condom maker Durex found virginity rates among those aged 15 to 20 were much lower.

For example, fewer than 20 percent of young Germans had not had sex by the time they hit 20, while even in socially conservative Turkey, the figure was only 37 percent.

For Shingo Sakatsume, there is something of a conundrum about modern Japan: a country where images of sex are everywhere — on television, in comic books and on many city streets — yet serious conversations about it are few and far between.

“In today’s Japan, we have no place to learn about sex or how to form a romantic relationship,” he said.

Sakatsume runs a nonprofit group called White Hands, which helps people with severe disabilities find an outlet for their sexual needs, based on the credo: “Sexual maturity means social maturity.”

“Even if the person has disabilities, one who recognizes and accepts his own sexuality tends to be able to build balanced relations with others,” he said.

“People who are not sexually mature tend to get timid socially.”

He now also caters to able-bodied people whose attitudes to sex can prove something of a barrier to their finding fulfillment. This includes offering lectures in a program dubbed Virgin Academia on how to find a partner and how to establish a constructive relationship.

Decades ago, rigid social mores helped shepherd growing adults through the key stages of life, Sakatsume said.

But nowadays, “it is now all up to each individual to find a potential partner and negotiate for sex.”

Sakai, 41, has enrolled in the Virgin Academia program and goes to life drawing classes, where he sketches naked women as part of a scheme to help participants understand the female body.

“The first time I did this, in autumn last year, oh . . . I was so amazed. Their bodies are incredibly beautiful,” he said.

“One thing I learned is that there are many different shapes of breasts and even genitals,” he said.

Sakai feels his time at the Virgin Academia has been useful. He doesn’t know if he will ever pass that particular milestone, but the course has helped him to see his lack of sexual experience as less of a life or death crisis.

“There is no need to be so pessimistic,” he said. “After all, being a virgin isn’t fatal.”

  • Frido

    I wonder whether a “Virgin Academia” program leads to a higher success rate in finding the significant other or if it is just another business of the sex branch. I doubt that sketching naked women will help overcome deficits in making contact to the other gender. At least men with similar problems get together in a kind of self-help group and can share their despair. From a psychological point of view such an approach surely helps to increase the self-esteem and may enhance the overall satisfaction. However, the deprivation of female companionship would not be brought to a termination by those measures.
    The economic argument may come first into mind but there are countries in far worse conditions which do not show this kind of problem at all. The pressure of economic success may be higher in developed countries but people should learn that the size of the wallet is not all what life has to offer. If we follow the economic argument then it would be consequent to blame the women of being greedy for money. But I think that this is an invalid oversimplification. Women may suffer from the pressure to find an economically potent match because otherwise their social environment would look down on them of being too careless. This conduct where a heterosexual relationship (a.k.a. marriage) is treated like a kind of business relationship is seen in all countries, but
    the mix of cultural peculiarities and the socio-economic development of Japan have obviously taken this to the extremes.
    To find a solution for this lack of inter-gender cohesion one must dig a bit deeper, I guess. One idea would be to promote a normalization of the social relationship among boys and girls. They should learn from young ages on to treat each other primarily as humans with equal roots, equal rights and equal needs. Sexuality will come automatically with puberty but should not be left to one’s own devices. Instead, young men and women should be guided in a way where they learn to rule their gender-determined drive under consideration and respect of the personality of others. Perhaps then men will learn not to see women as mere objects for satisfaction of their sexual needs, and women will learn not to see men as primary grounds of economic welfare – well, at least not exclusively.

  • GBR48

    Women are scarey when you are a virgin, so the life classes, and getting together with others in a similar position, alongside a bit of counselling should help.

    The problem here is not just sex, although that gets the headlines. Sex, love and marriage don’t always go together, and none are easy.

    Sex is a technical skill like throwing a pot on a wheel or curling a free kick into the back of the net. The better you get at it, the more self-confidence you develop. Everyone is rubbish at it first time. Teachers need to be telling their students these things in sex education classes.

    Japanese law bans intercourse from the sex trade in Japan, although it does of course happen. I’d encourage maturing virgins to learn a little more about women at an hourly rate in a love hotel, boosting their self-confidence in an environment in a safe environment, where they won’t get rejected or laughed at. The rules of such establishments are there to prevent unpleasant people behaving badly. If all you want is thirty minutes of gentle intimacy, then that is fine.

    Relationships also require practice. When one ends or fails, you take from it valuable personal knowledge about yourself and about sharing life with another person that may make your next one go more smoothly and last longer. The skill set you build up from multiple relationships will increase the chances of your marriage being a happy one.

    Japan has changed very quickly from a rigid social structure to the modern world, but some parts of the equation have not been included. It’s as if the invention of the modern teenager has been missed, or implemented in a ‘lite’ way in Japan. On the plus side, that reduces the STDs, unwanted pregnancies and juvenile crime. The down-side is a culture that tends to segregate people on gender lines, making it harder for many to begin to form relationships across the divide.

    Maybe in part this is about the fear of failure. Nobody needs to fall on their sword just because they are turned down when asking someone out, or are dumped by a partner. Mutual love may seem a regular occurence in Jdramas, but in real life, mutual affection is far rarer. Lots of people are going to turn you down, either when you ask them out, or when they have test-driven you across a few dates and decided that it isn’t going to work. Don’t be so risk averse (and over-sensitive). It happens to everyone.

    The formality of ‘old’ Japan remains, and appears to be locking an unusually large percentage of the more nervous and insecure people out of relationships, to the point of changing the national demographic.

    If Japan is going to procreate its way out of population decline, then parents and teachers are going to have to encourage teenagers to be a bit more like teenagers, before they are left to their own devices as adults, and have no idea what to do. Perhaps it is time to reduce the high levels of gender segregation at school level in Japan. Mix a bit. Get to know each other. That’s the only way to develop the social skills that are used to begin relationships.

    It does of course take two to tango, so it would be good to hear some stats and responses about this from the female population of Japan. Do Japanese women only consider economically secure men to be eligible for marriage, and only date men with marriage in mind? Do they simply not want to have sex, or fear it? Is Japan filling up with maturing female virgins as well? Are they happy like that? What do they really want from men?

    Sex isn’t just about love and marriage. In a world full of bad stuff, it is one of the few perks humanity has left to enjoy. And marriage isn’t just about economics. Love is good.

    Dear Japan, go out and have some fun. Make a move. Ask someone out. These things won’t happen unless you make an effort and initiate them. Life is better with someone to hug.

  • jcbinok

    I’m far from an expert, but I have spoken to Japanese women who say:
    (1) Japanese men work too many hours. What’s the point of being married to a man who spends 14 hours a day away from home?
    (2) Japanese men want a second mother to cook his meals and clean his dirty clothes.

    My suggestions, therefore, would be (1) for Japanese virgin men to reduce their hours at work, especially the after-hours partying, and (2) move out of your parents’ home. Establish yourself as an independent man: cooking and cleaning for yourself, so a woman knows you have those skills. This is probably why foreign men have success with Japanese women: we generally don’t focus our lives on work, and we aren’t looking for another mother.

  • wanderingpippin

    The photo caption says the study found “around a quarter of Japanese men in their 30s were still virgins” while the article says it’s around a quarter of —unmarried— Japanese men in their 30s.

    Which did the report actually say?

  • ElectricStrider1 .

    Bummer.

  • Camille Clarke

    Growing up I was always told that rejection is apart of life and that you will get rejected a lot in relationships before you meet the right person. I guess that is something that needs to be taught in Japan. Not everyone you meet will be the person for you, so keep trying. It hurts, but it makes you more confident. Strangely enough, I have quite a few foreign lady friends living in Japan who would love to meet a man. They should consider looking outside their race as well. Love is love, and it is better to be with someone you love that to be alone and sad.

  • Sarah Morrigan

    In the 1980s a majority of middle-schoolers had sex. Soft pornography was abundant as regular features of so-called “sports newspapers” and “businessmen’s weeklies.” Love hotels were prospering.

    What changed?

  • Mat

    On the one hand I feel really sorry for these guys, since women are the best thing in life of a (straight) man and it seems as some are not keen to accept this great gift;

    but on the other hand I don’t see their point: e.g. the architect – his feelings had been rejected by the women twice (which of course can be cruel), but then you have to keep your head up high and live on. Most probably he could have found another girl if he tried to. I used to lived in Tokyo for a while and my impression was, if you are self confident it’s absolutely easy to get in touch with nice women (and not only the so called “bitches” in the clubs of Roppongi)

    In my mother tongue there is a saying “Other mothers have beautiful daughters as well” – there are plenty of fish in the sea – which is totally true and especially in Japan.

    To sum it up: Guys keep on trying to get in touch with women, every time you are rejected you will learn a lot and some day there will be the right girl, everything is going to be perfect with her, but one can’t find this girl without trying.

    KEEP ON DOING

    A bit off topic: the dude with the white shirt has some awesome drawing skills; I wish I was able to do that….

  • http://www.ronnierocket.com Ronnie Rocket

    Croquis drawing has nothing to do with sex. Bad photo editorial work.

  • Nancy Kolde

    Maybe if Japanese men learned to treat women better they wouldn’t have this problem.

  • codfilet

    I was a clueless, shy 19 year old when I walked into a Hong Kong girlie bar. Problem solved…..

  • David Christopher

    Why do the Japanese work so hard? What are they buying with their money?

  • Law77

    I can understand the plight of middle-aged people, but the teens? Sorry but I am a formal person, I can’t understand why it is unfortunate for a teen to not have sex.

  • wind

    I gotta give Japan Times readers credit for commenting on this edgy story with (on the whole) more maturity and sense than the trashy, gutter-dwelling loser-fest over at Japan Today. Checking out the other English-language JT for the first time in a while was a good reminder of why it had been such a while, and also why some of us gaijins are being given a bad name.

  • vincelee76

    Although you are very knowledgable to men and women courtships. You ideas only apply to western countries. I have actually lived in Japan for a year. The cultures there will pubilcally shame these men. The women from these rich countries are COLD, ARROGANT, look down upon these type of men, pubically make fun of them. Japan has a the highest rate of suicide rate in the world. Similarily in the US, 50 percent divorce rates, and women are the ones who initiate 90 per cent of divorces. The US women keep the house, custody of children, alimoney. US women get it all. The airplanes are filled with US men marrying foreign women.

    And as for japan, anywhere you walk in public, people don’t talk or say hi to each other. It is one of the social coldest countries I have ever been to . It is nothing like here in the US.

  • vincelee76

    Although you are very knowledgable to men and women courtships. You
    ideas only apply to western countries. I have actually lived in Japan
    for a year. The cultures there will pubilcally shame these men. The
    women from these rich countries are COLD, ARROGANT, look down upon these
    type of men, pubically make fun of them. Japan has a the highest rate
    of suicide rate in the world. Similarily in the US, 50 percent
    divorce rates, and women are the ones who initiate 90 per cent of
    divorces. The US women keep the house, custody of children, alimoney.
    US women get it all. The airplanes are filled with US men marrying
    foreign women.

    And as for japan, anywhere you walk in public,
    people don’t talk or say hi to each other. It is one of the social
    coldest countries I have ever been to . It is nothing like here in the
    US. I was riding a train to work in Tokyo, A man had heart attack on the train, he was gasping. I ask the japanese person next to me to call ambulance, “He said ,No, sorry I have to go to work.” Japan is socially very cold. Those japanese women will show no mercy to these men.

  • inguam

    I’m a Korean single woman who traveled Japan a lot and my male cousin went to study in Japan for his master’s degree. He told me later how he was surprised that the Japanese female classmates would take it refreshing when he carried their bags or sometimes paid for them for coffee. He said he was shocked to observe when a Japanese married couple was walking like the strangers on the road. If they were a Korean couple in Korea, they would be wearing the similar clothes proudly showing off they are a couple, holding hands and almost hugging each other. Japanese men are so unromantic and dry. If they really desired women, why don’t they do just little nice gestures? As much as being a single and virgin in their 40s is not fatal as one man in the article said, doing a very minimal romantic gesture wouldn’t kill them. Korean men are far from perfection, either. But at least these days they started learning how to cook and participating more on raising a child than before. The natonal TV programs aggressively broadcast the cooking programs by male chefs and childrearing by fathers. For example, my brother made a lunch box of fruits and gave it to a woman he was seeing on Valentine’s day. She of course liked it even though it was not expensive chocolates and jewerly. If Japanese men did this, it wouldn’t break their fingers. To me, it seems Japanese men do not do anything for women and just wait there still expecting the women to do all the housework and childrearing. It’s like an attitude of a white trash in America missing the days of a slavery. Japan really needs to reset the gender roles, promote and educate the equality. A macho is what really needs to extinct in Japan so that Japan itself doesn’t.

  • inguam

    I always find it a little selfish in men that they want to meet always a woman in their 20s whatever age they themselves are. Men in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s all want the women in 20s and maybe in early 30s. If those men in 40s and still virgin opened their minds and broadened the age standard they rigidly put on women, their option would suddenly increase. There are so many women who are divorced with children wanting to remarry but single men are usually not interested in such divorcee with a child. Men are rather stubbornly trapped by their own rigidly high standard on women to meet and marry. Why not consider an older woman than you are? Why not consider a divorced woman with a cute and adorable child? Why do you need to always take advantage of youth of a woman?

  • coolspot

    Doesn’t Japan have an amazing sex industry? I can see being single, but there really is no need to be a virgin in Japan.