Japan’s rather tepid sex life of late has drawn considerable attention, not so much prurient as anxious. What does it mean when young people in their sexual prime are bored by sex or can’t be bothered with it? The implications are various: psychological (has life grown too virtual to be real?), economic (can a sexless nation muster the energy for global competition?) and demographic (no question mark here — the aging, declining population in which childhood and youth are increasingly under-represented is apparent to everyone).

Last November the health ministry’s National Institute of Population and Social Research (NIPSR) released a report, much cited since, compressing the situation into a statistical nutshell: 61 percent of unmarried males and 49 percent of unmarried females aged 18-34 have no sexual partner. Nor, by and large, do they feel the need for one. True, 86 percent of men and 89 percent of women say they want to marry “sometime,” but sometime can be anytime and suggests the distant rather than the near future.

One standard explanation has been that in this precarious economy, secure and remunerative employment is hard to find and young people, doubting their ability to support a family, hesitate to start one. That’s valid as far as it goes, but as the weekly magazine Aera pointed out last month, history is full of times far more pinched than these, and people lived through them without retreating in despair or weariness from sex and reproduction.

More particular to our own time is the fact that there’s so much else to do these days, especially for newly empowered women who can earn their own living, pursue careers, travel the world and so on without male backing.

Aera adds some research of its own to NIPSR’s. It surveyed the attitudes of 600 women aged 25 to 39 — 300 of them in a settled relationship and 300 who have had no partner for a year or more. (Among the latter, 45 percent of those aged 25-29 have never had a sexual experience.)

What general picture emerges? For one thing, attachment seems more attractive than non-attachment, though not overwhelmingly so. Among unattached women, 39 percent say unequivocally they want a partner, as against 21 percent who unequivocally do not. Factor in the “not-sures” on both sides and it’s about 60-40 in favor of attachment. But from a journalist fresh from interviewing marriage-agency staffers, Aera hears, “Many women seem to reject potential partners on such grounds as, ‘He’s not much of a conversationalist.’ It’s as if they were assessing a subordinate or colleague at work. The thing is, almost all single women work, and even when they’re sizing up a possible lover, their brains are in ‘office mode.’ “

Aera asks the 600 what qualities among 20 specific ones they most value in a spouse or lover. Then it asks the 300 attached respondents which of those qualities apply to their mates. This is interesting as much for what’s missing as for what’s there. “Passion” is conspicuously absent from the 20 choices, as is “romance.” The closest we come to them is “sexual compatibility,” a rather clinical-sounding substitute which seems to weigh relatively lightly on both the attached (16 percent of whom value it highly) and the unattached (7 percent). Those claiming it in their own relationships number 37 percent (aged 25-29), 29 percent (30-34) and 33 percent (35-39). The unspoken corollary: More than 60 percent are in sexually noncompatible relationships.

What, then, do women want? To that time-honored question the latest answer seems to be: a man with a stable job. That’s the most appealing quality of them all for attached (37 percent) and unattached (35 percent) alike. No aiming for the stars here, just a modest bulwark against dimly perceived impending ruin. Among the attached, 36 percent (age 25-29), 40 percent (30-34) and 41 percent (35-39) claim that advantage — as against, again, upward of 60 percent who do not.

Perhaps Aera’s most surprising discovery is that so many attached women — 70 percent plus — find their men yasashii, a word variously translated as kind, good, nice, tender. That’s not a traditional Japanese masculine quality. As recently as a decade ago, husbands tended to be on the brusque side at home. No longer, apparently. Yasashisa (the noun form) is attractive to only 29 percent of women, so evidently they get more of it than they want. That can be dangerous.

A headline in Shukan Bunshun tells the dark side of the story: “Chinese exchange students getting all the Japanese college girls!” The Chinese, it seems, are yasashii too, but in a different way, an old-fashioned way — passionate, aggressive. Passion is a quality Japan once had but lost, and its yasashisa has grown timid as a result. “He’s a thorough ‘ladies first’ man,” the magazine hears from a Chuo University coed about her new Chinese boyfriend. “He opens the door for me. When we eat together he serves me. He never fails to pick up the tab — does it as a matter of course. I’ve never met a Japanese man like that.”

“We started going together two years ago; he had marriage in mind all along,” says a Waseda University student about her Chinese fiancé. “He’s attentive to my parents, cooks them dinners, gives my mom presents — until my mom started saying, ‘Don’t let him get away!’ “

She didn’t. Does Chinese eroticism spring from confidence as a rising economic superpower, or is it the other way around? Either way, economically and erotically, Japan is falling glumly behind.

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