In a country where the birthrate is dropping at an alarming pace, and adult incontinence garments outsell baby diapers, much of the population under 30 simply can’t be bothered with sex or relationships. In fact, many Japanese haven’t even dated by the time they ring in their third decade. To top it all off, nearly half of women between 16 and 24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact” and more than a quarter of men felt similarly, according to a study conducted by the Japan Family Planning Association. What on earth is going on? According to The Guardian:
Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million, which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by 2060. [Sex and relationship counsellor Ai Aoyama] believes the country is experiencing “a flight from human intimacy” – and it’s partly the government’s fault….
Kunio Kitamura, head of the JFPA, claims the demographic crisis is so serious that Japan “might eventually perish into extinction”.
Japan’s under-40s won’t go forth and multiply out of duty, as postwar generations did. The country is undergoing major social transition after 20 years of economic stagnation. It is also battling against the effects on its already nuclear-destruction-scarred psyche of 2011’s earthquake, tsunami and radioactive meltdown. There is no going back. “Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love. They don’t believe it can lead anywhere,” says Aoyama. “Relationships have become too hard.”
Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. 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. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by bureaucratic disapproval.
Aoyama says the sexes, especially in Japan’s giant cities, are “spiralling away from each other”. Lacking long-term shared goals, many are turning to what she terms “Pot Noodle love” – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality “girlfriends”, anime cartoons. Or else they’re opting out altogether and replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes….
Aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Nor is growing preoccupation with digital technology. But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country’s procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it’s especially true for women. “Marriage is a woman’s grave,” goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers….
Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world’s worst nations for gender equality at work. Social attitudes don’t help. Married working women are sometimes demonised as oniyome, or “devil wives”. In a telling Japanese ballet production of Bizet’s Carmen a few years ago, Carmen was portrayed as a career woman who stole company secrets to get ahead and then framed her lowly security-guard lover José. Her end was not pretty….
Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like”.
So, the article asks, is this the way the rest of the world will eventually go? Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has written that this overwhelming preference for being single is “accelerated” in Japan due to a lack of religious authority and the high occurrence of earthquakes increasing people’s sense of futility combined with the prohibitive costs of raising a family. But Roland Kelts, a Japanese-American author, believes the Japanese are simply pioneering a world in which relationships are mostly “technology driven” and other countries will soon follow suit.
Will sex and intimacy really become things of the past? It seems only time will tell, but if we have any future worthwhile in this consistently depersonalized, selfish world, let’s hope it’s not true.