Monthly Archives: January 2015

Sex—they’re doing it less


An American friend recently expressed her shock about a Japanese social oddity. She’d read an article in The Guardian asking, “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” After that October headliner, a similar Washington Post title followed. It warned, “Japan’s sexual apathy is endangering the global economy,” and reported a survey regarding this modern Japanese phenomenon – a lack of interest in marriage, childbearing and even sex.

The population decline itself is not news. During the six-year stint we lived in Japan, a neighbor and university professor told us of his academic research into the lessening birth rate and what to do about it. That was my first to hear of the problem, a surprise to me back in 2003. My husband and I came to Japan in 1999 (living first in Tokyo, then Kobe), and in both cities most of the adults we knew in our immediate surroundings were married. We socialized with parents of our children’s friends, engineers and a secretary in my husband’s workplace and both couples and singles from our International church. Singles from both workplace and church dated and married during our stay.

This survey reporting Japanese sexual apathy was taken a short six years after we departed. The 2011 report comesfrom Japan’s population center. It found, among adults, that more than half remianed single. Why were our experiences so different?

Did we not see the rise of singledom because we lived in upper income settings? First a large apartment in Tokyo and later a suburban setting in New Town, Kobe. In Tokyo, when Japanese friends visited our 1500 square feet, they often remarked, “Ooki!” How large were our quarters, how amazing that only our family of four occupied such spaciousness. Families of professionals whom we met lived in homes a 1/3 of the space or had grandparents living with them. Still our neighborhoods were such that only well-off married professionals could afford to live there.

The survey indicates less interest in sex or producing children—quarter of Japanese do not want a romantic relationship (23% of women and 27% of men). And, “since 2006, Japanese women have given a name to their complaint of men who aren’t interested in sex, “herbivore men.” What is it about the perspective and system in Japan that has produced this dismal situation?

I got an inside look when my feet were grounded in Japan, particularly through “Maya,” a Japanese friend and mother. Our six-year old children enjoyed play together. Maya confided that her husband “Taro” no longer desired intimacy. Their two children—now of grade school age—no longer impeded the couple from sleeping in the same bed. (Japanese mothers sleep with their infant and with other children nearby, while the father sleeps in another room. An arrange dictated by custom, parenting practices and space constraints.)

A professor of mine once said, while interpreting a student’s short story, “If a husband is not interested in sex with his wife, their marriage is virtually over.” The group of writers gathered nodded their heads in agreement. Like that group, I took Maya’s words to mean that her marriage was doomed and Maya’s husband must have a lover she knew nothing of.

But after my initial shock at Maya’s story, I heard it repeated—in plural—via an American leader in an ESL discussion group in Tokyo. The Japanese wives, as a group, told her that they no longer had sex with their husbands. Each woman parented a few children. Sex was no longer necessary.

Such an admission is all the more remarkable considering how a typical Japanese shrinks from telling of a personal failure, or talking about sex in any form. I suspect these Tokyo women were not embarrassed to say, “We don’t have sex,” because it was “normal” in their milieu.

When Maya had divulged her husband’s sexual aloofness to me, her eyes pulled together in sadness. I asked, “Why do you think he’s not interested?” She’d never asked him outright—that would be confrontational or trigger embarrassment and shame. Her explanation was intuited or gathered from women’s magazines.

“Perhaps because he is too tired.” Understand that this is a man who slaves away at the office six days a week. The seventy or eighty hours of work he racks up weekly is not just for emergency deadlines, but continues month after month. Year after year. This taxing work schedule is typical for high-income earners, those in the corporate structure.

But does that differ any from the Silicon Valley engineer working in a start-up? I’ll consider this further in part two. Look for it in a few days.

When Her Father Died in Alaska’s Wildlands

68b_3I’ve cruised and hiked in Alaska, and marveled at its land and people. but until recently my knowledge of this amazing state was quite limited–gleaning from Michener’s ALASKA: A Novel and musings of store keepers or guides on “shore visits.”

In NORTH OF HOPE, A Daughter’s Arctic Journey Shannon Huffman Polson opens up Alaska’s geography, lore as she literally navigates its wild lands as well as her father’s death by grizzly. A journey of finding healing and faith in the midst of profound loss. It’s a book of adventure and hope, a memoir rich with research and knowledge gained from years of Alaska-life.

Cultures fascinate me. Every land and people group has its own, and Alaska–vast state that it is–is also rich in cultures. I read this true account with an eye to how Polson poignantly, with gorgeous turns of phrase, reveals much of the ferocity and ethos behind the beauty of this great land and otherness of its peoples.

Alaska is not contiguous to fifty states–like its comparable partner and near opposite, Hawaii–and neither is its ways of life and thought. On my visit there a decade ago, a guide on a mountainous hike told how she and her partner “lived off the land” as many do, foraging for berries, catching fish and supplementing this with occasional work. They’d built their small abode from trees they’d felled, walked to an outhouse they’d made for toileting, and in their kitchen used water they’d carried in from the river nearby. My guide was an educated, articulate professional. Someone I’d expect to be teaching, researching or staffing a park. Someone comfortably living with running water and a toilet. Instead, what she valued was independence, a rugged life intertwined with nature, and a commitment to gather what they needed directly from nature–far removed the stores and glam of dense urban areas.

The sharp spice of such distinct values also comes through in Polson’s story. One particular incident she tells of stayed with me. As she and her brother and his girlfriend paddle a river in the back country, his girlfriend loses an oar. Polson is irritated by this carelessness, and–worse yet–the culprit’s unapologetic attitude. But Polson says nothing. They pull out their one spare. Later, the girlfriend drops yet another oar and it swirls away in the river, unattainable. Now they are in real trouble since steering this strong and wild river with only two oars will prove yet more difficult. Still cordial relations are key, and must be maintained, as they depend on each other in this environment so far from stores, phones, autos, and help. Polson struggles with her anger and how to direct both her emotion and this ignorant woman. Read yourself to see what Polson decides needs to be said what is best to leave unsaid.

In story, we city-dwellers can start to comprehend the culture of Alaska where everyone is responsible to take care of him or herself, a mistake can mean a death, and one must not rely or take from others carelessly.

The memoir explores another geography as well: Polson’s journey from fierce mourning (at the loss of her parents to a grizzly bear attack) to a misty resolution. It’s clearly and subtly articulated through jumps in time and location. This probing look into her relationship with her dad, other family members, Nature and God made sense of her proud independence and risk-taking ventures. Polson is an unusual and brave high-achiever. How many young women want to become a helicopter pilot for the armed forces?!! I loved as well the way the author describes her involvement with music – both its great comfort but the limits of what it could do for her inner well-being as she mourned her shocking loss.

I marveled too at the portrayal of Polson’s father navigating his relationship to his bright and adoring daughter before and after divorce and remarriage. It’s rare read for me that takes me so far under the surface in a real-life situation father-daughter connection. I wondered how many of the surprises were due to the one-of-a-kindness of Alaska and how much to the uniqueness of this family–a question probably no one can answer.

Read this for a rare, in-depth look at a different mental and physical geography as well as a precious and complex daughter-father relationship.

Note: the photo above does not depict exactly where Polson ventured. It was found on