Still in its infancy, the new year has already spawned a theme: diversity. Is it possible? Is it desirable? Is there any common ground, besides mutual, irreconcilable loathing, between those who declare “I am Charlie” and those who riposte “I am Mohammad”?
The West extols freedom; Muslims rally round the Prophet. Demonstrations worldwide, on both sides of the cultural rift, draw tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. “Insulting the prophet,” said a demonstrator in Amman, “is terrorism.” If that’s true — if offensiveness is an act of terrorism — given the elasticity of the word “offensiveness,” we are all terrorists. Everyone is somebody’s Charlie.
We take the world’s temperature as the year dawns, and find it feverish. The bearers of contagion are those who are not us — whoever “us” is. Writing in Sapio magazine, Jean-Marie Le Pen, godfather of France’s resurgent political right, warned Japan not to make France’s mistake with respect to immigrants. The mistake was to welcome them. The price, in his view, is the choking of the French nation, culture and economy by unassimilable immigrants and their scarcely less unassimilable, so it seems, French-born offspring. “Ultimately,” Le Pen fears, “it will come to Muslim immigrants cooperating with terrorists who carry out massacres.”
Written and published before the new year Paris massacres, dismissible then perhaps as a wearisomely typical right-wing screed, the admonition now seems eerily prophetic. Japan’s declining population and workforce are forcing a debate about immigration. Should Japan invite immigrants? Don’t, says Le Pen; it’s asking for trouble. “Instead, consider policies to raise the birth rate.”
Compared to most other countries, Japan is startlingly homogeneous — racially, culturally, linguistically. Most Japanese prefer to keep it that way. From homogeneity, as they see it, flow harmony, prosperity and security, physical and emotional. They may be right, though there’s a price to be paid for that too: complacency, stagnation, maybe a dulled receptiveness to outside stimulation that is at the national level what inbreeding is in families — comfortable but ultimately unhealthy.
Does homogeneity breed tolerance or intolerance? Tolerance, in that there are fewer objects of intolerance; intolerance, in that the internal discipline tolerance requires doesn’t develop. Japan has its homegrown Le Penists, growing increasingly vocal and menacing, venting their spleen mostly against resident ethnic Koreans. The Japanized neologism “hate speech” might have been incomprehensible three or four years ago. Now it’s as comprehensible as baseball.
There’s always someone to despise, and always some reason for it, real or imagined. If it’s not an ethnic group it’s a religion; if not a religion, a certain kind of behavior; if not a behavior, an attitude, a hairstyle, an odor. Whatever. The monthly Takarajima comes up with an interesting object of suspicion and mistrust: virgins.
Middle-aged male virgins in particular. There have always been some, but never in such numbers as to asexualize society as a whole. Now? Probably not now either, given the 1.4 million couples who (says Wikipedia) daily frequent Japan’s 37,000-odd love hotels.
But they are, as never before, numerically significant. Takarajima’s article was written by Atsuhiko Nakamura, who in his main business as nursing-home entrepreneur claims the opportunity of observing asexuals among his staff. How he positively identifies them as such he leaves vague, and the unpleasant traits he attributes to them — emotional immaturity, social backwardness, defensive arrogance, irresponsibility — are surely not theirs alone, if theirs at all.
Still, his impressions stirred him to do some research, and among his findings are statistics from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research showing that 26 percent of the 8 million unmarried Japanese men over 30 are virgins. That’s 2.1 million people — roughly the population of Nagano Prefecture.
An individual’s sex life, or lack thereof, is the individual’s own business, Nakamura concedes, but, insisting on the right to his opinions, he suggests that past a certain age asexuality is destructive of character and, spread widely enough, of society as a whole. Like Le Pen’s immigrants, overgrown virgins tend to stick together, because they “only feel comfortable with their own kind.” The ones on his staff, he finds, can’t interact normally with women, or even with sexually active men. Weak themselves, they bully people weaker still — rookie colleagues who make beginner mistakes, for example. (Mistreatment of patients is not alleged, but the thought naturally arises in the reader’s mind: Does it happen? If so, would virginity be to blame?) They themselves — the virgins — make mistakes, Nakamura says, but never admit them, preferring to aggressively blame others.
In general he finds them impossible to get along with, and “the older they get the farther they drift from society.” Posting such views on a website popular with asexuals, he found himself assailed by angry accusations of hate speech. So he too, in a sense, is “Charlie.”
Proceeding with his research, seeking out asexuals to interview, he encounters “Mr. Masui,” who at 33 lives in a one-room Tokyo apartment cluttered to bursting with memorabilia of his life’s “companion” — 16-year-old Mio Tomonaga of the pop idol group AKB48 and one of its spinoffs, HKT48. Is it strange to live with someone who doesn’t know you exist? Maybe, maybe not. And if it is strange? Different things make different people happy, and Masui does seem happy. He buys hundreds of copies of CDs Tomonaga appears on, to boost her popularity. He attends her concerts, frequents websites devoted to her. All his free time and all his disposable income are at her disposal.
He’s a college graduate and works in an unspecified capacity for a university. Once he had a girlfriend, but she grew bored with his asexual wooing (“I couldn’t bear to sully her”) and dumped him. That was six years ago. It left a void that only an idol — a virginal teenage idol — could fill, and now, to all appearances, he has no regrets.
Diversity, a theme not only of this infant year but of our time, means acknowledging that, not only are we all — defiantly, defensively or unconsciously — Charlie, we are also, in some sense or other, “Mr. Matsui” (who is also, of course, Charlie).
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com