A few weeks ago, BBC News ran a report on how love hotels were one of the few business sectors in Japan doing well in the current recession. The report stressed the unique trappings of these hotels and actually raised more questions than it answered about their socioeconomic significance.

For one thing, how does increased love-hotel activity jibe with all the recent statistical evidence saying that Japanese couples are having much less sex than they used to?

Maybe the whole “sexless” issue has to do more with perception than with reality. By shining a light on matters previously unscrutinized, surveys and their attendant analyses make them into “problems.”

Thirty years ago, when it was still difficult to discuss sex openly in the media, any sexual activity might sound like a lot of activity. Now that sex is discussed anywhere and everywhere, the fact that people may not be doing it as much as they could be doing it strikes some as abnormal.

But isn’t it quality, not quantity? That’s always been the leitmotif of fashion magazine an-an’s yearly sex issue. In the 1990s, the advice offered by an-an took on the rubric “Sex Makes You Beautiful,” which was literally intended. A good sex life, the magazine insisted, made you more attractive physically, an implication that was used to advance its main agenda, which is to provide tie-ins to advertised products. The photo spreads of attractive, naked young men and women clinging provocatively to each other were accompanied by captions that told you where the bed linen could be purchased and for how much. Sex made you beautiful, but so did the cosmetics, depilatories, dieting aids and plastic surgery advertised throughout the magazine.

The tie-ins in this year’s sex issue, currently on sale, are still paramount, but the advice seems more practical than it was in the past, reflecting the general anxiety about sexlessness, especially among younger women, the magazine’s main demographic. So while the weekly magazines fret about young men losing interest in sex, an-an actually does something about it, by teaching its readers how to get their lovers into bed. The target “boyfriend” is depicted right there on the cover. Actor Osamu Mukai is shown lying on top of an anonymous Western model, looking at the camera.

In the accompanying photo spread, which shows Mukai and the model in various stages of “lovemaking,” it’s explained that the actor is “overturning” his “sensitive” image. Mukai previously represented the new class of “vegetarian” (soshokukei) young men who are characterized as being less aggressive than previous generations in every aspect, including sex.

This should be an expected development given the evolution of pop culture in Japan for the past 30 years. Turned off by the hairy, smelly, libidinal appetites of the males of their father’s generation, teenage girls demanded nonthreatening male idols and fictional characters. Now that they’re actually available as boyfriends, young women can mold them into ideal sexual partners; or, at least, that’s what an-an’s issue, titled “Happy Sex,” implies. Though Mukai is 27 years old, he looks 15, and thus eminently malleable.

In one article, sex therapists Helen Fisher and Adam Tokunaga say that the increase in the number of young men who are “passive” about sex can be seen as an opportunity. Women, traditionally the passive partner in a sexual relationship, have to take charge.

They advise against gaining insight from pornography, which is not realistic and tends to be one-sided anyway. The important thing is “mutual” satisfaction, which is hardly a new idea. What seems new is the notion that women can “train” their partners to satisfy their own sexual needs in ways that are pleasurable for the guys, too. Longer and more involved foreplay is the main means to this end, but also something more general: An attitude toward sex that is so casual it can be discussed in everyday conversation.

This casual attitude is the theme of the instructional DVD that comes with the issue: Open communication is a prerequisite to satisfying sex, though a certain element of subterfuge seems to be as indispensable as ever. The main point is that the female partner should not “appeal directly” for sex. “Don’t put a burden on him,” says one of the two women who provide voiceover narration for the video.

The video goes through all the steps in detail, from the initial touching of hands to the removal of garments (“let him take off your clothes”) and even a precoital bath.

Certain stereotypes are reinforced (“men like it when women ask them to do things”) and some tips seem common-sensical, while other advice is refreshingly frank. The two commentators say you should never squeal the way Japanese porn actresses tend to do because “it sounds too much like acting.”

Probably the most valuable information offered is that it isn’t necessary for both partners to achieve orgasm together. “Mutual satisfaction,” they say, does not mean simultaneous satisfaction.

They also talk about condoms (“I like to watch a man put on a condom, but I also like to watch him put on a tie”), an aspect of lovemaking that the “Sex Makes You Beautiful” issues avoided as being too utilitarian.

Like all depictions of the ideal, the DVD can’t help but represent an impossibility. The two actors who go through the simulated motions are way too young to afford such a gorgeous residence. Japanese people their age more likely live in six-mat rooms without beds and satin sheets or Western-style bathtubs you can stretch out in.

Also, the lovemaking is so protracted and polite as to approach Zen. The content makes the most out of the belief that only young people — in this case the couple is said to have been together less than a year — have the time and inclination to spend so much time on sex. Reality is messier, but it doesn’t sell bed linen.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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