This is the fourth in a five-part series on Japan’s population woes caused by its graying society and low birthrate.
Nakamura, an 18-year-old university student, winces whenever he imagines himself dating a girl.
“I mean, I would have to pay attention to what I wear and rack my brains to figure out where I should take her for a date. . . . It’s just too much of a hassle,” he says.
Nakamura, who asked to be identified only by his surname, is happy to remain single. He says it’s much more fun playing video games and chatting via texts all night with his male friends than going on a date.
The economics major at a school in Tokyo has never had sex, but he says he is OK with that. A part of him does fantasize about getting married by the age of 30, but he hastens to add: “I don’t think that’s possible.”
Nakamura is among the young people in Japan that studies show have become increasingly pessimistic toward, or even averse to, romance, sex and marriage — a demographic that, if left unattended, could further accelerate Japan’s population slide.
Experts point to a variety of factors contributing to this mindset, from the advent of the Internet to financial insecurity to improving career opportunities for women.
A survey released last January by O-net, a marriage counseling firm, found that 74.3 percent of the nation’s 20-year-olds were not in a relationship, compared with 50.0 percent in 1996, when the company launched the annual poll. A separate 2015 survey by the Cabinet Office covering 7,000 people in their 20s and 30s found that about 40 percent of singles in their 20s were “not looking for a relationship” to begin with, thinking “romance is a hassle” or that “they would rather prioritize enjoying their hobbies.”
Going without sex seems to be on the rise as well, especially among men.
A biennial study by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) Inc. shows that the percentage of men in their late 20s who “have no interest in” or “despise” sex stood at 8.3 percent in 2008 before climbing steadily to reach 21.6 percent in 2014. To top it off, a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry revealed that the percentage of unmarried 20-somethings who do not wish to have children surged to 15.8 percent in 2012 from 8.6 percent in 2002 for men, and to 11.6 percent from 7.2 percent for women.
Unlike a few decades ago, youths today have grown “disenchanted” with the idea of romance, experts say, due largely to what they see as the not-so-successful wedlock of their parents.
“It’s not that their parents are overtly at loggerheads with each other and their marriage is disintegrating. But they don’t look super happy being together, either,” says marketing writer Megumi Ushikubo, author of “Renai Shinai Wakamonotachi” (“Youths Who Aren’t Into Relationships”). The JFPA survey in 2014 found 44.6 percent of married couples in Japan were not engaging in sex for an extended period.
Their parents’ lackluster marriages, coupled with the phaseout of what were called “trendy” TV dramas that inspired many youths into romance during the economic boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have resulted in today’s youngsters having no “role model” in relationships, according to Ushikubo.
What little interest they have in relationships, then, finds its outlet in digital communities, where they fall in love with anime and manga characters, and become addicted to an array of dating simulation games, says Masahiro Yamada, a professor of sociology at Chuo University.
In addition, Yamada says, Japan’s birds-and-bees education has overly emphasized on “negative” aspects of sex, such as the risks related to rape and teenage abortion. That has helped students develop an almost instinctive aversion to real-life physical relations, he says.
Nakamura, the university student, knows all about infatuation with the unreal.
“In anime, everything is perfect. Girls are all cute and guys are handsome and strong. I wish my real life were like that,” Nakamura says, adding his gaze has grown so accustomed to the otherworldly prettiness of anime characters that he sometimes feels disappointed by the appearance of the female students at his university.
In those rare moments when his libido gets the better of him, Nakamura turns to his smartphone in search of an online porn video for quick masturbation.
“I’m not interested in real-life sex. Just watching those videos is enough,” he says.
Another reason for young people’s avoidance of romance and sex has to do with Japan’s prolonged economic downturn and insecure financial prospects, says Dr. Kunio Kitamura, chairman of the JFPA. The lack of financial security makes the young, particularly men, balk at approaching members of the opposite sex, he says.
Yosuke Hiwatashi, a 23-year-old Kagoshima resident, is a case in point.
Hiwatashi, single and living with his parents, makes money as a dispatch worker to run optical fiber lines to households.
His monthly take-home salary averages ¥150,000, which shrinks to between ¥20,000 and ¥50,000 after buying necessities and paying off the debt to his parents for his university days. If he wants to go out for a drink or two with his friends, Hiwatashi must ask his parents for permission.
But the uncertain nature of his job, such as erratic days off and unusual working hours, makes it difficult for him to hang out with friends in the first place. As such, he says, he winds up spending most of his days off surfing the Internet and watching anime on TV.
“With the kind of money I earn, I can barely scrape by,” Hiwatashi says. “I’m far from fit because I’ve stopped working out after taking up this job. But I can’t afford to buy myself nice clothes, either. Why would women feel attracted to a guy like me?”
Meanwhile, women have their own reasons of not being married, writer Ushikubo says.
Although still far from being satisfactory, Japan’s corporate culture has made significant headway over the years in embracing the female workforce, she says.
In traditional Japanese companies, “it used to be that, as a female employee, you were pressured by your boss to get married and quit by the age of 30. But such treatment would be recognized as harassment in today’s society, and at least women are not forced to quit their jobs,” Ushikubo says.
But this freedom to pursue a career has resulted in women delaying getting married. Some, she adds, postpone it until they meet what they believe to be the most perfect bachelor possible, blissfully unaware such an opportunity rarely arises.
Rika, a 21-year-old university student, says she isn’t into relationships. Hanging out with friends and hunting for a job are far more important priorities for her at the moment.
An aspiring TV anchorwoman, she is also adamant that she will live her life as a dedicated businesswoman.
“Who decided I should be a wife or mother in (the) future just because I was born a girl?” asks Rika, who declined to give her family name.
Now that the Supreme Court has recently upheld the constitutionality of a Civil Code provision forcing married couples to adopt a single surname, Rika says that even if she did find the right partner, she might choose not to register her marriage to avoid complicating her career development. She doesn’t want to have a child, either.
Not all youths, however, are as pessimistic toward, or indifferent to, romance and marriage as Nakamura, Hiwatashi and Rika. Some youngsters are merely too shy to approach the opposite sex, despite their inner desire to start a relationship.
Akira, who plays guitar in a band at his university, says he hopes to get married by the time he turns 40, but marriage is low on his wish list. Waiting for his friends one November evening in front of Shibuya Station, he says he wants to pursue his music activities as much as possible while he’s still young and “just try whatever catches my interest.”
That is not to say, though, that he is uninterested in romance. Akira says he wants to have a girlfriend — it’s just he is not desperate to get one.
“I don’t think I would go out of my way to approach girls. I would just wait until the right girl shows up.”