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.

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