Why is Japan not having sex?

In a culture saturated with sexual content, the Japanese are increasingly choosing abstinence. Can the rapidly ageing society encourage millennials to start having sex again?

Zofia A. Reych

A recent survey conducted among unmarried Japanese found that 42% per cent of men and 44.2% of women aged between 18 and 35 have never had sex. The poll, conducted every five years by The National Institute of Population and Social Security (NIPSSR), also revealed that among those aged 18-35, nearly 70% of males and 60% of females were single. Most of them expressed a expressed a vague wish to get married ‘some time in the future’ but 1 in 3 are not looking for a partner.

The numbers are alarming, especially in relation to the 2010 results of the same survey when only 36.2% of men and 38.7% of women said they were virgins.

Head of NIPSSR, Futoshi Ishii, explains this shift in terms of a disparity between young people’s expectations and actual lives. “They want to tie the knot eventually. But they tend to put it off as they have gaps between their ideals and the reality.”

A hyper-aged society

Low fertility rates, combined with the longest life expectancy on the planet, have resulted in the world’s highest number of elderly citizens. At present, 1 in 4 Japanese is over 65 and the population continues to decline at an unprecedented rate. It is believed that in less than a century, some 40% of the citizens will be 65 or older.

In a terrifying prediction for Japan’s dystopian future, researchers from the Tohoku University estimate that there will be but one child left by the year 3776.

As the shrinking workforce threatens the county’s growth, the impacts of society’s ageing can be seen in every step. Every year hundreds of schools close down to become care centres for the elderly, and abandoned houses are a common and depressing sight.  

At present, 41% of Japanese seniors live with their children, but it’s a far cry from 80% in the sixties. As family ties erode, the hyper-modern society becomes increasingly individualistic. In a phenomenon known as ‘parasite singles’, millennials often choose to stay in their family homes – not to care for the elderly parents, but out of convenience.

No sex in the city

Dedicated to work, or consumed by entertainment, young adults have little or no interest in sex. The so-called “herbivore men” remain abstinent out of choice or timidity. Their lack of sexual drive, as well as no interest in marriage, are believed to be linked to the economic downturn, as well as a crisis of male identity.

In Japan, masculinity still hinges on a man’s economic status and his ability to provide for a family. On top of the sluggish economy, increasingly independent women make it even harder for men to fit in the role of “carnivores”. Feeling inadequate, Japanese males turn to falling in love with fictional characters, fall prey to depression, or simply put their love lives on hold.

According to Professor Keisuke Nakashima from Kobe City University of Foreign Studies,  Japan’s extreme working culture is also a major factor.

The gender gap trap

One positive finding of the recent NIPSSR survey is that for the first time in Japan’s history, more than 50% of women return to work after having their first child. However, the drop off is still much more pronounced than in other developed countries.

In the past, marrying within the same company was a standard practice and many women entered the workforce with the sole purpose of finding a spouse and then resigning.

Now, ambitious Japanese women see marriage as a real threat to their careers. “The bosses assume you will get pregnant,” explains 32-year old Eri Tomita. Filing a resignation is often expected, but as for many it’s “not an option”, and they refrain from relationships altogether. This is known as matahara, a neologism derived from the English words “mother-harassment”.

Even if women were encouraged to combine work with child rearing, their chances at succeeding would remain slim, as the average Japanese husband contributes only an hour of his time to household duties.

Young Japanese singles may live individualistic lifestyles and value career over marriage, but societal norms are still rigid. Many fear entering an informal relationship and, without marriage, there can be no children. While in the US over 40% of babies are born out of wedlock, in Japan it’s only 2%.

The real solution  

When it comes to the ageing of society, as well as the nation’s low sex drive, Japan is definitely at the forefront internationally, but these traits are not exclusive to Japan. The hype over the recent survey is part of a government strategy for raising awareness of the issue, which, in fact, is a disease of affluence affecting many countries. For example, a recent survey in Britain revealed almost comparable levels of sexual abstinence.

However, in a country where an electronic body suit can replace human intercourse, and a bride can throw a wedding without groom, there’s more than one reason behind the nation’s falling libido.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is implementing policies targeting the elderly, as well as providing government incentives to young parents. However, without a profound change in the working culture which discriminates against women, he will fail to raise the fertility rates from 1.4 to 1.8 by 2025.

A change in corporate tradition has to be implemented from top down, but it is no priority for older, male executives who can’t see the long term benefits of diversifying their workforce. Women will have to wait for regulatory action from the government, and PM Abe is unlikely to oppose the powerful business lobby anytime soon.