Japan is well known for many things, and its obsession with sex is one of them. It has one of the most robust pornographic and adult-toy industries in the world and airs TV commercials for items as banal as candy that feature sexually suggestive themes. It even has an annual fertility festival that parades two five-foot-tall penis sculptures down a busy street on a Sunday afternoon.
And yet nearly half of singles in Japan have no interest in dating – a situation that many experts predict will help lead to a population decline of one-third in the next 45 years.
According to a survey of never-married people by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 27.6 percent of single men and 22.6 percent of single women have no interest in engaging in a relationship with the opposite sex. Researchers cite those statistics to argue that a significant portion of Japanese simply has no interest in sex. They might even have an aversion to it.
Says Auumu Ochiai, a researcher based in Tokyo: “41.6 percent of males in their 20s have never dated anyone.”
The number of men with no sexual experience drops with age, but it’s still large at 34: 26.1 percent. For women age 34, it’s somewhat less, but not by much – 23.8 percent.
That’s not to say that all of them wish to remain single. Ochiai says his research indicates that nearly 90 percent of single people would like eventually to marry. The Japanese government gives similar estimates.
Still, it’s easy enough to find Japanese who have little interest in developing a relationship. Yuki Kobari, who’s in his 30s, says he used to date several years ago, but that becoming involved with someone now would be a burden. Now his spare time is pretty much his own.
“I can devote myself to my hobbies and do what I want,” he explained.
He acknowledges that might not always be his preference, though he feels he has time yet before he must worry about making a commitment. His estimate: four or five years. Then, he says, “it’s going to be the time when you have to make a decision.”
Helping to drive the lack of interest in marriage is a change in Japan’s conservative social mores. Thirty-one percent of single Japanese admit that relief from family pressure is one motivation for picking a partner.
But that pressure is decidedly less now than it used to be. Plus, it’s easier to be single now.
“The world is pretty established as single-person-based, so there is not much inconvenience,” said another 30-something Japanese. “I cannot really imagine having people in my life.”
That, he says hesitantly, includes potential sex partners. “To be honest, basically, how can I say? Well, I do not want people in my life, so sex is included here.” Perhaps not surprisingly, he asked that his name not be published.
Large Japanese cities offer every imaginable convenience tailored specifically to singles’ needs – including physical. Even life-like sex dolls are easily found for those who want the human touch without touching a human. For many Japanese singles, apparently, there’s no need for a live partner.
Japan’s long economic malaise might be another factor that weighs against establishing a long-term relationship – especially for women. One 30-something woman, who asked not to be identified because of the personal nature of the topic, said she last had a boyfriend eight years ago and that she currently feels no need for a physical relationship. As for a commitment of other sorts, the economy is the turnoff. “The main reason is after all a financial problem,” she said.
The lack of interest in sex is not limited to singles. According to a survey by the Japan Family Planning Association conducted last year, 44.6 percent of married couples say they are in a sexless marriage. Some of the main reasons include work fatigue and childbirth.
What is surprising, though, is that 10.1 percent of male and 23.8 percent of female respondents say they find sex to be too much work, another 10.1 percent of males and 5.4 percent of females have come to think of their spouse as a blood relative, and 4.5 percent of males and 5.9 percent of females say that they have other activities they find more interesting than sex. A further 16.9 percent of males and 13.0 percent of females listed “other” as their answer.
That augurs poorly for Japan’s birthrate, computed as the number of children the average Japanese woman is expected to have in her lifetime. At 1.4, it’s one of the lowest in the world. In 1985, it was 1.8, the same as the United States’ rate then; now the U.S. rate has inched up to 1.9.
The population decline is no longer considered a passing trend, but rather a looming catastrophe that threatens the future of the nation.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it a key policy goal to tackle the birthrate problem and prevent the nation from slipping further socially and economically. But there’s no clear answer for how he’ll accomplish this. He recently set up a special committee to come up with proposals. But the impact of those proposals, likely to include items like more child care for working moms and tax breaks for couples with children, remains unknown.
Siegel is a McClatchy special correspondent. @AlbertSiegel