If it is an illness, the Japanese have a name for it: sekkusu shinai shokogun, the ‘celibacy syndrome’. For reasons that both the country and its Government would very much like to understand, studies show that 45% of young Japanese women in the vital reproductive demographic between the ages of 16 and 24 are either “not interested in or despise sexual contact.”
The research, performed last year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA), found that about a quarter of the nation’s young men feel the same way. This is much more than a simple social curiosity, the latest odd Asian factoid. With immigration near zero and a crashing birth rate, Japan’s working-age population is falling sharply and has now reached the lowest level in thirty years. And the decline seems to be accelerating.
The outcome is that late last year the percentage of the country’s population above age 65 shot past 25% for the first time in history. The equivalent American value, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is about 14%. Japan already has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million has been falling for the past decade and according to official projections is expected to drop a further one-third by 2060. The immediate cause is fairly simple.
The number of single men and women has reached a record high. A survey conducted by the Japanese Government in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18- 34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study – by a Japanese insurance company, Meiji Yasuda Life – found that almost a third of single men under 30 had never dated a woman.
The obvious consideration is that young people who do not frequent one another have no occasion to reproduce. Why this should be the case though is much less clear.
Sexual indifference in Japan is increasingly seen as a national catastrophe, but there is no precise diagnosis of the cause. All the usual suspects have been called to the bar. Japanese media have made much of young ‘herbivore’ men – ‘grass-eaters’, neither gay nor straight, but simply uninterested in sex. Others point to the effects of online pornography, anime cartoons and virtual online ‘girlfriends’. Another important factor is certainly that the country’s economic stagnation over the last twenty years has kept increasing numbers of young – and not so young – people from striking out on their own.
Of the estimated 13 million unmarried adults still living at home with their parents, something like three million are over 35 years of age. The Japanese call them parasaito shingurus, ‘parasite singles’. Still, though comments tends to blame young men for the phenomenon, it is obvious from the data that young women are even less inclined to physical intimacy. This makes the feminist critique of particular interest. According to the British weekly The Observer, maintaining a stable sexual relationship in Japan has simply become too much trouble. “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.”
Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports that a crushing 90% of young women now believe that the life of a single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.” According to the Institute, Japanese women in their early 20s have a one-in-four chance of never marrying. The probability of their remaining childless is much higher: nearly 40%. Many of the changes visible in Japan are also taking place in other advanced nations. In the more developed parts of Asia, in Europe and America, people are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling and single-occupant households are increasingly common. But the economist Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, thinks that special factors may be acting to accelerate these trends in Japan. These range from the lack of a religious imperative to marry and raise a family to the sensation of futility arising from the country’s frequent earthquakes and the high cost of living and raising children.
“Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction,” Eberstadt wrote in an essay for the Wilson Quarterly in 2012. The Japanese, he thinks, may become a ‘pioneer people’ where individuals who do not marry exist in large numbers.
According to Eberstadt: “Japan is on the cusp of an even more radical demographic makeover than the one now under way in Germany and other countries that are in a similar situation, including Italy, Hungary, and Croatia. (The United States is also aging, but its population is still growing.) Within barely a generation, demographic trends promise to turn Japan into a dramatically different place from the country we know today.”
The last word though belongs to 31 year-old Satoru Kishino, a professional designer who told The Observer: “I find some of my female friends attractive but I’ve learned to live without sex. Emotional entanglements – he judges – are too complicated. I can’t be bothered.” Sometimes all of that sex stuff just isn’t worth the trouble.
Sometime copulating is just too much trouble.
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