Japan has somehow earned a reputation as a “sexless” country — a place where men and women have lost their libidos. The reasons given are various but mainly have to do with increased introversion and general loss of sociability among young people.

This theme is catnip to editors at overseas newspapers, where stories about “weird Japan” — regardless of their veracity — are always good for a laugh because they’re strange and harmless. Within Japan, this sexless reputation is an embarrassment, especially to older men who like to think of themselves as having been actively virile in their youths.

The theme was revisited anew last week when the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research released the results of its latest study, conducted every five years, on the state of intersexual affairs, especially as it pertains to the very real issue of sinking birthrates. The statistics that attracted the most scrutiny in the press were those related to single people aged 18-34, which revealed that young folks just aren’t getting it on, as everyone feared.

The results of the survey, which was conducted in June of last year, say that 69 percent of male respondents and 59 percent of women respondents do not have an opposite-sex kōsai aite, a term that translates directly as “interaction partner.” And of these respondents in total, 30 percent say they have no “hope” for such a relationship. Moreover, 42 percent of both sexes remain virgins.

In its coverage of the study on Sept. 15, Sankei Shimbun related these numbers with cold fatalism, and didn’t state any of the reasons for the national whoopee withdrawal until the end of the article when it claimed that the main culprit was “financial security.”

The Mainichi Shimbun covered the same report but in addition to sexual lassitude it also focused on feelings about having children from both singles and married people, which is the real purpose of the study. The number of children people expect to have in the future is less than it was the last time the study was done in 2010. More to the point, the number of children that people “want” to have is also smaller, which reveals more about the reason why young Japanese don’t aggressively seek sexual partners: lack of money.

Based on these two newspapers’ reports, the study has different meanings depending on which statistics the editors focus on. Obviously, Sankei thinks the sexless angle is more interesting if not more relevant, while Mainichi takes the longer view as it relates to the falling birthrate.

In both cases, the results are presented sensationally, an aspect of reporting that writer and critic Maki Fukasawa finds disingenuous. Fukasawa is the person who coined the phrase “sōshoku danshi” (“herbivore males“) 10 years ago. The media enthusiastically adopted the phrase to describe what they saw as an increasing trend among certain young men who, supposedly, weren’t interested in sex.

But that meaning was not what Fukasawa had in mind when she came up with the term. To her, herbivorous men were just as interested in sex as any Japanese males. They just weren’t aggressive about it. From her standpoint as a woman, the description was indicative of a welcome change from previous generations of men who only looked upon women in terms of sexual availability and desirability.

Now, Fukasawa is saying that the media is also misconstruing the meaning of the government study, perhaps on purpose. During a recent discussion on Bunka Hoso’s “Golden Radio” talk show, she pointed out that the survey summary is 56 pages long but reporters only read the one-page press release, which boils everything down to statistics. From there, each reporter picked the numbers he found the most useful and built his article around them.

The first problem Fukasawa has with the coverage is the term “kōsai aite.” It’s obvious reporters and respondents think it means sexual intercourse, which could cause confusion with regard to the types of “aite” listed for investigation: “fiancee,” “lover” and “friend.” The first two types are normally considered sexual partners, but for men at least the meaning of “female friend” has changed over time. Thirty years ago when the survey was conducted for the first time, 24 percent of male respondents said they had “kōsai” with “female friends,” while now the number is only 6 percent. This is one of the findings that perplexed Sankei. Fukasawa thinks that young men in 1987, even if they weren’t sleeping with female acquaintances, checked the box for “friend” because they tended to think of all relationships with women as being potentially sexual. Today’s young men don’t, and so didn’t check that box. Fukasawa tried to explain this discrepancy to reporters after the last study in 2010 and was told her interpretation “was boring.”

“This time, no one (in the media) called and asked for my opinion,” she said on the “Bunka Hoso” program, much to the amusement of her female interlocutors in the studio. “They think I’m wrong because I say they’re wrong.”

She concedes that questions about partners are open to interpretation, but she’s baffled about the way the questions about sexual experience were reported. The media expressed shock that 42 percent of young men and 44 percent of young women are virgins, an increase from 2010 but pretty much the same percentages reported in the 1987 survey. In other words, sexual impulses haven’t changed all that much in 30 years, but sexual attitudes have — and she thinks that’s a good thing.

The real value of the study is in showing the effect of the economy. The numbers of young people dating or getting married increased steadily until 2000, at which point they leveled off. Since the recession of 2008, the numbers have been dropping. When people feel secure, they’re more likely to seek romantic commitments. It’s not rocket science, but, as those reporters told Fukasawa, it’s not news either.

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