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Why Aren’t the Japanese Fucking?

Half the people surveyed by the Japanese Family Planning Association said they hadn't gone to the bone zone in the past month. Some guys claimed that they didn't even masturbate anymore. What's going on?

Photo of Tokyo businessmen not having sex via WikiCommons

According to a recent report by the Japan Family Planning Association, shockingly few people in the Land of the Rising Sun are doin' it. The new data, which contributes to the controversial narrative of an increasingly asexual Japan, may be cause for worry for the nation's bureaucrats, who have spent much of the past few years trying to find the right incentives to get more of their countrymen pregnant to reverse the nation's declining population.

Of the survey's respondents, 49 percent said they had not had sex in the past month, up 5 five percent over numbers from 2013. Most blamed fatigue, a loss of spark, or the sense that sex was just too much of a hassle. But 18 percent of men (20 percent among those aged 25 to 29) just said they have no interest in or actively dislike trips to pound town, suggesting a deeper social change beyond a collective dry spell.

These numbers come amidst ongoing concerns about Japan's declining fertility and its potential economic impacts. With the world's highest life expectancy (80 for men, 87 for women, and 83 on average) and one of its 20 lowest birth rates (1.4 children per woman, below replacement levels), many fear that by 2020 old-age incontinence underpants will outsell diapers, by 2040 over-80s will outnumber under-15s, and by 2060 the nation's population will shrink from its current 128 million to 87 million with up to 40 percent over 65 years old. Given the nation's resistance to bringing in migrant labor, this could tank Japan's viable workforce and relegate the nation to what increasingly seems like an inevitable spiral into economic decline—not to mention leave many elderly abandoned, save for (in the best case scenario) the care of robot companions.

While low sexual activity is far from the sole or even the most significant factor fueling the nation's low fertility—sex doesn't always result in babies and babies aren't always the result of a couple's sex—any trend that might lead to fewer pregnancies piques national and global attention in such a baby-hungry country.

Yet some reject the narrative that Japan is developing a unique and widespread "celibacy syndrome," arguing that although a fair number of citizens have no interest in sex, their ranks are not truly jaw-dropping. Those numbers, argue people who believe in a sexed up Japan, have been blown out of proportion by the spurious use of statistics on dating, marriage, and childbirth to prop up the notion of endemic abstinence.

Many took special issue with a 2013 Guardian article, anchored around the notion that Japanese youths have stopped having sex. The piece makes its argument based upon a litany of statistics on the nation's singles scene and quotes women bemoaning the gender norms a wife is pressured to conform to and the difficulties of maintaining a career while raising a child. As critics have pointed out, a lack of marriage, relationships, or sexual experience does not equate to a lack of sexual desire across the board or sexual activity for those experienced but unattached.

Some critics of the celibacy narrative argue that eye-popping numbers about those without sexual desire mask the reality of an increasingly horny nation. Since 1990, they point out, the number of unmarried individuals going without sex has dropped from 65 to 50 percent of women and from 45 to 40 percent of men. (The studies are mum on how decreasing marriage rates affect these stats.) A 2013 sexual activity study by Japan's Sagami Gomu, a condom company, also shows that 59 percent of men and 75 percent of women in their 20s had had sex, while 83 percent of men and 57 percent of women who had not had sex expressed their interest in trying intercourse.

Yet these statistics cannot fully dispel numbers like those coming out of the latest Japan Family Planning Association Survey. Much as being single doesn't necessarily mean one isn't having sex, people who have had sex in the past aren't necessarily having sex today. Even ongoing sexual activity doesn't indicate sexual interest in some cases. So really the only way to get an accurate gauge on whether or not people in Japan want to mash meats anymore is to ask them directly about their sexual interest, separate from their relationship or virginity statuses.

When you do that, the numbers seem to show a steady decline in sex drive over time. As of 2012, 36 percent of teenage men and 59 percent of teenage women (a supposedly universally hormone addled population) expressed no interest or were actively turned off by sex—a 19 and 12 percent increase over 2008 numbers, respectively. (A later 2013 survey appears to show lower levels of sexual disinterest, but the numbers examine a different age bracket and therefore aren't really comparable, especially since part of the celibacy narrative is that it's more marked in the younger generations.) The same year, another survey by the Japanese Association for Sex Education found that sexual activity in university girls had gone down to 47 percent, a 60 percent drop since 2005. One statistician has created a series of graphs, looking for the origins of this trend, which show just how much lower the nation's collective sex drive is than other nations'.

Cultural commentators attempt to blame this downward sexual trend either on Japan's "grass-eating men," or "herbivores," a supposedly large demographic of sexually timid and sensitive males. But those who study this subculture (which seems to be a rejection of standard Japanese masculinity) find no real evidence of sexual disinterest—some are even seen as quite suave.

Others blame shut-ins, unemployed and socially awkward young men living with little social contact. But they number less than a million—far too few to explain these numbers.

Singling out these groups as the main cause of Japan's sexual disengagement also feels a bit trivializing-to-demeaning, insomuch as it asks us to believe that bashfulness in men can explain the self-reported lack of sexual interest in young women across the nation.

The most convincing explanation for the trend offered thus far may be one of widespread cultural pressures and changing life desires amongst Japan's youth. Commentators make the point that still-extant social norms about modesty and purity make it difficult to navigate flings or casual sex, leading some to see it as a fraught hassle. The Guardian article quotes a local sex and relationship counselor, Ai Aoyama, talking about how many young people do not want to get involved in traditional relationship structures or the charged experience of sex.

"They're coming to me because they think that, by wanting something different, there's something wrong with them," Aoyama told the Guardian. "Both men and women say to me they don't see the point of love. They don't believe it can lead anywhere. Relationships have become too hard."

The Japanese government, in its attempts to reinvigorate the nation's fertility rates, has focused broadly on programs to incentivize having children, rather than focusing in on sex. For years, they've hosted speed-dating sessions and singles mixers and poured millionsinto tax breaks and cash payments for new parents and policies, like extended daycare coverage, to make it easier for women to work while being mothers. The most sexual venture they've undertaken is trying to get businesses to shoo their employees out of the office by 6 PM in the hope that they'll knock boots and pop a few more babies into future census numbers.

Given that a lack of sexual interest is a deep, personal, and apparently growing issue in Japan that isn't likely to be solved by any of the above measures, it remains unclear what the government should do to help heat up the nation.

There are a few examples of programs in other nations aimed at fostering a sexual spark—from Singapore's 2012 "National Night" advertising sex as patriotism to Russia's 2007 Day of Contraception giving prizes to those who give birth on a certain day—the effectiveness of these projects remains questionable at best and are not necessarily models should or would want to follow.

But much as the best way to get a grasp on the trend of sexual disengagement was to ask people year-after-year whether they were interested in hiding the salami, perhaps the best way for the government to find solutions would be to ask those respondents why they feel the way they do. If the participants say it's the result of societal pressures, maybe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can do something about that. If they say it's just who they are and how they feel, maybe the Japanese government should consider nutting up and working on its migrant labor policies to save its workforce and its nation rather than fixating on isolationism and its people's libidos.

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