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November 4, 2013

In Japan, what's sex got to do with it?

WASHINGTON — A bizarre demographic chill has stolen over the Land of the Rising Sun. According to a fascinating and bewildering investigation in the Guardian by Abigail Haworth, Japanese young people are losing interest not just in marriage, but in romantic relationships. Some have even given up on sex. The national press is calling it sekkusu shinai shokogun, or celibacy syndrome.

The evidence: Japan's population is declining, and is projected to dive a further third by 2060, with fewer babies born in 2012 than in any year on record (and a corollary: adult diapers outselling baby diapers). Haworth cites a survey that found that "61 percent of unmarried men and 49 percent of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship," and a study showing that 30 percent of people under 30 have never dated. Women in their 20s have a 1 in 4 chance of never marrying, according to the Japanese Population Institute, and a 40 percent chance of remaining childfree. Another study indicates that 45 percent of women and more than 25 percent of men "were not interested in or despised sexual contact."

The non-statistical details are in a way even more suggestive. A panicked government official warns that Japan "might eventually perish into extinction." Meanwhile, a 32-year-old career woman declares relationships "too troublesome" and a 31-year-old "herbivore" (slang for a straight man who isn't looking for sex or a girlfriend) explains that "emotional entanglements are too complicated." Behind these examples are evocative bits of scenery: stand-up noodle bars for one, convenience stores selling "individually wrapped rice balls and disposable underwear," an entire culture geared toward singles who want to focus on their friends and careers.

The trend seems to rise out of a complex brew of physical estrangement and disassociation (perhaps related to technology?), unattractive prospects for married women, economic malaise and the collapse of institutions — like organized religion — that might encourage coupling up. (Also, it's possible that a scourge of 29-foot tapeworms in glass jars is killing the national mood.)

A sex and relationship counselor — her dominatrix name translates to "Queen Love" — tells Haworth that Japan is experiencing "a flight from human intimacy" as "the sexes spiral away from each other." She works with clients who cannot relate to other people: "recovering hikikomori ('shut-ins' or recluses)" who "flinch" when she touches them, 30-year-old virgins who live with their parents, men who can only get aroused by watching "female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers." For them and for others in their generation, the "usual technological suspects" step forward as sexual alternatives: virtual-reality girlfriends, online porn, anime cartoons. (No doubt Japan's incredibly advanced and imaginative online play-worlds deserve some credit here.) But what is lost, the sex therapist says, is a sense of "skin-to-skin, heart-to-heart" connection.

How do people get so alienated from their bodies and the bodies of others? It's easier to see how young people in Japan might come to shrug off traditional marriage and courtship. Haworth writes convincingly about the factors dissuading young women from seeking out romantic partners. "Japan's punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work," she says. Women hardly ever get promoted once they marry: Bosses just assume they will become pregnant and leave. Indeed, almost 70 percent of Japanese women quit their jobs after their first child, forced out by inflexible hours and a disapproving corporate culture. The survivors, ladies who insist on balancing marriage and a career, sometimes get tarred as oniyome, or devil wives. For aspiring professional women, Haworth suggests, it is simpler just to stay single.

Men, too, resent the expectation that they will provide for a family in a time of thin pocketbooks and scarce jobs. "I don't earn a huge salary to go on dates and I don't want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage," explains one. But rather than merely rebelling against traditional gender roles — the breadwinning husband, the stay-at-home wife — people like him are choosing to reject love and relationships as a whole. They "don't see the point," reports Haworth. Intimacy "has become too hard."

The article tries to put Japan in a larger context: "Across urban Asia, Europe and America," Haworth writes, "people are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling, single-occupant households are on the rise." But the sense of romantic futility and disillusionment in Japan feels distinct. Trapped by outdated gender roles and crunched for both time and money, the young people in the story seem to be throwing up their hands in surrender. It would be one thing — new, but not tragic — if all the virtual wonderlands and stimulating careers and electric urban pastimes were diverting attention away from couplehood and even sex. But, at least in this article, the ebbing of human intimacy seems to come from a place of disenchantment and frustration. I can't make this historical husband-wife arrangement thing work, so I'm giving up altogether.

But perhaps that's just how we are predisposed to see it and write about it? Maybe Japanese young people are pioneering a deeply satisfying lifestyle in which love and sex have receded into the background — and the tradeoff makes them perfectly happy. (Also, as Doug Barry at Jezebel points out, the minute sex grows so rare that having it becomes a statement, it will inevitably turn cool again.) Rates of psychological illness in Japan and the United States are comparable: 24 percent of Japanese adults and 25 percent of American adults have suffered some sort of mental health problem. So could a collective bias against singlehood be warping the way we see celibacy syndrome? Is it really a syndrome, or just an alternate (convenient, culturally exigent) mode of being? I find the notion of an intimacy-starved society as depressing as anyone, but maybe those are my reactionary, Jane Austen-informed values talking. At the very least, Japan's new status quo might remove some of the stigma from living alone.

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