What America could learn from Japan's sex deficit

Japan's teenagers and younger adults are choosing celibacy, despite a government push. And it's a real problem.

Pep rally
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon))

In the United States, politicians tend to see youth sex and its consequences as a problem to be solved, either through promoting abstinence until marriage or birth control. Japan is so worried about its young people not having sex that it has declared a national emergency about its sekkusu shinai shokogun, or celibacy syndrome.

If U.S. universities have a troublesome (and probably exaggerated) hook-up culture, Japan's seem to have the opposite: "A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45 percent of women aged 16-24 'were not interested in or despised sexual contact,'" says Abigail Haworth at Britain's The Observer. "More than a quarter of men felt the same way."

Haworth trots out a Japanese word, mendokusai, to make her case. Roughly translated as "too troublesome" or "I can't be bothered," many Japanese younger adults used the word to describe to her how relationships and intimacy just aren't worth the bother and sacrifices.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Kunio Kitamura, the JFPA chief, says that Japan's low birth rate is so serious that the country "might eventually perish into extinction." That's not total hyperbole, either.

Japan's birth rate hit a 16-year high last year, but while 1.41 children per woman is better than the 2005 low of 1.26, the number of births also hit an all-time low of 1,037,101. A record post–World War II high of 1,256,254 Japanese people died last year. At this rate, Japan's population of 127 million will shrink to about 87 million in 2060, and 43 million in 2110, according to dire projections from the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

The U.S. fertility rate — 1.88 children per woman in 2012 — is also below the 2.1 children needed to replace the population. But the U.S. is in better shape than Japan and many European countries.

The big question, says Zero Hedge, is this: "Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures?" There are similarities between Japan's situation and those in the U.S. and other developed nations: "People are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling, single-occupant households are on the rise, and, in countries where economic recession is worst, young people are living at home."

There are other parallels, too: Japanese young adults, like their American peers (though to a greater extent), are communicating over computers and smartphones more than in person, choosing pets over children, and fetishizing sexy robots, for example. Haworth cites the example of an early-30s male Japanese virgin "who can't get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers."

But there are Japan-specific reasons for this celibacy epidemic, too. In many ways, Japan is just now going through the sexual revolution that shook up the U.S. and many European societies in the 1960s and '70s.

Younger women are becoming more ambitious about their careers, in a culture where marriage and childbirth are still a huge professional handicap. At the same time, a lack of upward mobility and job security mixed with expensive housing costs is causing an increasing number of men to just drop out of the calcified culture of long-working "salarymen." Marriage rates are declining, divorce is on the rise, and out-of-wedlock birth is heavily frowned upon.

Japan may or may not be "a harbinger of what lies ahead in other aging societies," demographer Nicholas Eberstadt wrote in The Wilson Quarterly in 2012. But "Japan has remained distinctive in important respects — and in the years ahead it may become increasingly unlike other rich countries, as population change accentuates some of its all-but-unique attitudes and proclivities."

At its heart, marriage in traditional Japan was a matter of duty, not just love. Well within living memory, arranged marriages (miai) predominated, while "love matches" (renai kekkon) were anomalies... By 2005, only six percent of all new marriages fit the traditional mold. The collapse of arranged marriage seems to have taken something with it. Remarkably enough, there is a near perfect correlation between the demise of arranged marriage in Japan and the decline in postwar Japanese fertility. Unshackled from the obligations of the old family order, Japan's young men and women have plunged into a previously unknown territory of interpersonal options. [Wilson Quarterly]

The U.S., meanwhile, attracts immigrants, who tend to have more children, while Japan has notoriously insular immigration policies. Religion also plays a bigger role in U.S. society, which — contrary to what you might think — promotes having sex (in marriage) and having children. Single parenthood is harder on parents and children than stable, two-parent households, but it's not entirely clear that it's worse for the nation as a whole than a lack of sex.

Not everyone thinks it's worth fretting over Japan's peculiar problems — or even agree that voluntary celibacy is a problem in the first place. But you'll know the U.S. is facing its own demographic existential crisis when government officials start encouraging young people to have more sex.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us