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The lust beneath Japan’s sex drought

by William Pesek

An occupational hazard for foreign journalists is traipsing into “exotic Japan” and getting lost in a forest of stereotypes, fuzzy data and tarted-up headlines.

Such is the case with the media’s renewed obsession with reports that the Japanese have given up on sex. This canard emerges every couple of years, but it’s snowballing anew thanks to an Oct. 19 Guardian headline screaming: “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” The references to dominatrixes-turned-sex counselors, men who get excited by robots, virtual-reality girlfriends and the demise of the Japanese people proved too much for Internet jockeys to resist.

Editors, too. The Guardian’s piece was followed by the Huffington Post quoting a documentary filmmaker who asserted, dubiously, that “it’s a strange thing that can only happen in Japan.” The Japanese are really, really weird, you know, and this celibacy bubble that imperils the future must reflect their peculiar culture. Follow-ups are rolling in from the Washington Post, Slate, Time and all over the Twittersphere.

Let me offer my own two yen. The root of Japan’s supposed sex drought isn’t culture, but economics. This distinction is important because it feeds into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to end Japan’s 20-year bout with deflation.

I, too, have been swayed at times by such data sets. As far back as December 2001, I explored waning sex drives in Japan, citing findings that Japanese are the world’s least prolific lovers. Such conclusions are quite paradoxical. How else to explain a country whose cities are teeming with red-light districts; a porn industry that’s burgeoning; hard-core manga — a type of comic book — that’s read openly on the subways; and love hotels that can’t turn over rooms fast enough.

But I’ve come to doubt sensationalist surveys suggesting young Japanese don’t have sex. The real issue is that many avoid traditional, committed relationships out of doubts about the future that based on economics rather than culture. If low libido were strictly societal, why do the Czech Republic, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan have fertility rates as low as Japan’s? I don’t see the global media characterizing those countries as sexless freak shows spiraling toward extinction.

“This is the typical weird and wacky Japan story that overseas editors seem to gobble up and encourage,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “Of course Japanese have sex and if the number of love hotels is any barometer it seems like many are getting plenty of it.

How do all those places stay in business if nobody is doing it?”

To Kingston, the basic premise is flawed. “Japan has a low birthrate and thus it must be a lack of sex,” he says. “That’s not exactly compelling logic that overlooks all the main factors behind couples’ decisions not to have more children.”

Part of the problem is cherry-picked data. Take the 2011 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research on which sex-drought stories are often based. Its finding that 61 percent of unmarried men and 49 percent of single women between 18 and 24 of age weren’t in any kind of romantic relationship is mentioned up high. Rarely cited is this fact on Page 2 of the report: almost 90 percent of respondents intend to marry someday. And what about international comparisons? A recent Pew study found that 71 percent of unmarried Americans aren’t in committed relationships. Also, there can be big cultural and generational differences in the meaning of “single,” “dating” and “having sex.”

Japan’s low birthrate (are you listening Mr. Prime Minister?) is a result of exorbitant living costs, elevated stress and diminished confidence. Even after two decades of deflation, prices in Japan for everything from rent to food to entertainment remain among the highest in the world. Economic stagnation and changes in labor laws have restrained wage growth and enabled companies to swap employees into low-paying part-time jobs with few benefits.

This means the exclusion of more and more Japanese from the lifetime employment system that’s long been the cornerstone of Japan Inc., forcing many to work extra jobs. If you leave for work at 6 a.m. and get home near midnight, including weekends, where’s the time for dating?

Young Japanese, especially men, don’t feel financially secure enough to enter into long-term relationships, never mind getting married or starting families. At the same time, little has been done to blunt the institutionalized sexism that exacerbates Japan’s low birthrate. Hardships women face in balancing careers and family encourages many to delay marriage and motherhood. If Japanese felt better about the future, they wouldn’t be so reluctant to start building their own.

Japan’s demographics are worthy of study. How it balances a fast-aging population, a gigantic debt burden and a negligible birthrate — if that’s even possible — will offer insights to officials in China, German and the United States in the years ahead. But portraying Japanese as libido-less oddballs and looking for clues in their culture only dehumanizes a nation. It misses Japan’s pioneering role in one of the biggest economic challenges of this century as developed nations mature.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

  • japancritical

    This article is spot on IMO.

  • Franz Pichler

    When “talking Japan” most people here seem to be THE experts… I think Mr Pesek is spot on and as for “more humanity” what does that mean? Now our self professed Japan experts even have to racially slur on their sex life! Because racism that is! Singling out a race and trace back everything possible to it even their sex life. Come on, no one in this country is “trained to numb” it’s a very free society when talking sex and that’s why they don’t have “long lasting relationships”

    • Mark

      he means less ultra competition and allow kids to be kids

  • Christopher Pokarier

    William Pesek makes some interesting points but with the resources of Bloomberg at hand I hope that he would pull up on some stats of relative cost of living, and compare them with birthrates. I suspect that the correlation is not so straight forward; though there are significant distributional/inequality issues entailed. For those stuck in low paid casual work the cost of living seems high, but for many others that is not the case. Countries such as Israel have a clearly higher cost of living relative to average earnings and yet a high birthrate. Indeed the poorest in Israeli society – Haredi communities – have the highest birthrates, reflecting their religious and community values; simply put, children are celebrated. The difference, with the likes of Australia too, offers several clues re Japan’s problems. in Japan, doubts about access to childcare, a society that is not actually kid-friendly, strong middle competitive aspirational values that create expectations of a big private spend on shadow education, ‘naraigoto’, and the like, and, as Mr Pesek points out rightly, a working culture that just makes it very difficult to balance employment and child raising. Similar dynamics are evident in South Korea. If people let kids be kids, and enjoyed seeing kids being kids, I think there would be many more of them brought into the world.

  • Max Erimo

    The Japanese are having plenty of sex. They are just not having babies.
    There is a very big difference.

    • Hanten

      Lots of research actually contradicts both of your statements. Japanese people have very little sex compared to the rest of the world and the rate at which they’re having babies is actually at its highest point for 16 years.
      Japanese people are on average marrying late if they’re marrying at all. The statistics on both men and women choosing to stay single are scarily high. Those that do tie the knot are having more children per couple compared to ten years ago. This polarization is going to create a curious society in decades to come.

      • Steve Novosel

        There’s one highly unscientific survey that says Japanese people are having far less sex. That’s it.

      • Hanten

        If you look for even a brief amount of time you will find quite a few surveys which show very similar results. The Japanese government, in fact commissions regular sex surveys and has done for decades. The reason for which is the once declining birth rate. The numbers clearly show a steadily decreasing amount of sex between married couples over the past two decades. There were also falls in the amount of sex single people were having. There are also numerous global research projects which peg Japan at or near the bottom in the lusty league tables.
        The good news for some is that last year, the Japanese fertility rate hit its highest point for 16 years which isn’t really saying much as it was pretty low back then, anyway.
        I suspect that while Japan maintains it’s present inequitable gender balance, there’ll be less sex for the Japanese than other countries and less babies than they need to replace their aging workforce.

  • Hanten

    Sadly, even with google translate I can’t work out what you’re trying to say.
    Mr Pesek’s comments point to Japan’s sex industry and love hotels as proof that lots of Japanese people are having sex but he refuses to see that they are actually evidence of dysfunctionality. Japanese men, and it is overwhelmingly men, in alarmingly high numbers are paying to have sex. The flourishing and diverse sex industry shows that sex is seen by many as a commodity to be bought and sold. Even established couples are paying to have sex in love hotels instead of their own homes. Have you thought to ask why?

    The Observer article refers to a Japan Family Planning Association study that found a very large proportion of Japanese women don’t want to have sex. Amongst women 16-24 years old they found 45% were “not interested or despised sexual contact”. Apparently for men the same age over 25% share the same disinterest or revulsion. These are disturbing figures and show that there are some serious problems here of which low libidos may only be a symptom.
    Surely a healthy society would have lots of people of all ages freely having sex because they enjoy it and being able to do so at home?

    • kyushuphil

      Yes, low libidos signal larger problem(s).

      Please remember that, in consumerism, marketers promise all humanity easily through what they’ve packaged. Just watch the ads. See the human values subliminally in all. And go buy it. That’s consumerism. It eats us all.

      Worse, it eats teachers in schools. Everything there gets divvied up in depersonalized info consumerism. And everyone busies oneself with acquiring the neutered habits necessary to cram the neutered stuff.

      Humanity? Writing to make broader contacts? To inhabit wider contexts? These are all as possible as reading was for the few in Bradbury’s book Truffaut’s film, “Fahrenheit 451.” But for most of us, the dysfunctional future is here. And in this, sex and sexuality are just other products amid multiple others in all our multiply-divvied up consumer demographics.

    • Christopher-trier

      Japanese residences tend to be quite small and have thin walls. If parents have a child it will difficult to have sex without a child hearing it as most Japanese have at least 1 child. That is one reason why many established couples have sex in love hotels.

      • Hanten

        As recently as fifty years ago, the average Japanese family had many more children and yet often fewer bedrooms to share between the whole family. Many families slept together in the same room every night but babies kept arriving. Where were these couples having sex? Most likely in the same room as their kids who were sleeping, according to the social history books.
        Love hotels in different forms have existed in Japan for a long time if wikipedia is to be believed. They were generally used by couples who weren’t married, at least to each other. It is only in more recent times that married couples – couples married to each other – started visiting love hotels.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    “Young Japanese, especially men, don’t feel financially secure enough to enter into long-term relationships, never mind getting married or starting families. ”

    Why “especially men”? It couldn’t because men are under the social expectation to pay a woman’s way. B-b-b-b-but Miss Mori says we’re all equal!

    A dakimakura is much less expensive than a woman, it doesn’t talk back, won’t feel entitled your paycheck, can’t get pregnant, and has just about the same amount of maturity and life experience as most of the women under the age of 30 here.

    Fantasies are cheaper and less troublesome, and man is the rational animal, right?

    Incidentally, this is also the reason for the growing trend of young Japanese men marrying women 5 to 10 years older than them. These women actually have more substance to offer than, “ne, ne!!!”. It’s too bad it took them 35 years to develop a personality. Their looks have entered a 下げ相場, their hips have about 200,000km on the odometer, and the car itself carries the heavy baggage of past relationships in the trunk; which is why they hadn’t yet gotten married (or in some cases, why they previously divorced).

    These kinds of women are best a man who wants to have children and a stable relationship can find in Japan. So that should tell you a lot more about why more and more men simply opt-out.

    Anyway, these men who heavily “marry down” should be awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the prime minister for “great sacrifice for the social good of the nation.”. Surely Abe will get around to reinstating these kinds of medals once the constitution is amended. Then he can just make a law that all unmarried men over the age of 25 get drafted.

    Birthrate problem solved.

    (At that time, don’t hold your breath waiting for Mori to rail against the inequality of women being excluded from conscription).

    • Hanten

      Getironic, you may not be the rational animal that you think you are.

  • Christopher-trier

    A bit more pleasant now, don’t you think?

    • Hanten

      Actually no. I think that the new fangled prudery is a backwards step. Sex isn’t a sin and doesn’t need to be hidden from the sight and hearing of your family. Having separate rooms or waiting until they’re asleep is enough.
      Outside the bedroom, showing physical affection is a sign of a healthy relationship and I think if there was more of that in Japan, that’d be an improvement. I love living in Japan, although the repression of emotions is my least faourite part.