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An occupational hazard for foreign journalists is traipsing into “exotic Japan” and getting lost in a forest of stereotypes, fuzzy data and tarted-up newspaper headlines.
Such is the case with the media’s renewed obsession with reports that the Japanese have given up on sex. This canard emerges every couple of years, but it is snowballing anew thanks to an October 19 Guardian headline screaming: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”
The references to dominatrixes-turned-sex counsellors, men who get excited by robots, virtual-reality girlfriends and the demise of the Japanese people proved too much for internet jockeys to resist.
Editors, too. The Guardian’s piece was followed by the Huffington Post quoting a documentary film maker who asserted, dubiously, that “it’s a strange thing that can only happen in Japan”.
The Japanese are really, really weird, you know, and this celibacy bubble that imperils the future must reflect their peculiar culture. Follow-ups are rolling in from the Washington Post, Slate, Time and all over the Twittersphere.
Let me offer my own two yen. The root of Japan’s supposed sex drought isn’t culture, but economics. This distinction is important because it feeds into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to end Japan’s 20-year bout with deflation.
I, too, have been swayed at times by such data sets. As far back as December 2001, I explored waning sex drives in Japan, citing findings that Japanese are the world’s least prolific lovers.
Such conclusions are quite paradoxical. How else to explain a country whose cities are teeming with red-light districts; a porn industry that’s burgeoning; hard-core manga – a type of comic book – that’s read openly on the subways; and love hotels that can’t turn over rooms fast enough?
But I’ve come to doubt sensationalist surveys suggesting young Japanese don’t have sex. The real issue is that many avoid traditional, committed relationships out of doubts about the future that are based on economics rather than culture.
If low libido were strictly societal, why do the Czech Republic, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan have fertility rates as low as Japan’s? I don’t see the global media characterising those countries as sexless freak shows spiralling towards extinction.
“This is the typical weird and wacky Japan story that overseas editors seem to gobble up and encourage,” says Jeff Kingston, the head of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
“Of course Japanese have sex and if the number of love hotels is any barometer it seems like many are getting plenty of it. How do all those places stay in business if nobody is doing it?”
Japan’s low birth rate is a result of exorbitant living costs, elevated stress and reduced confidence. Even after two decades of deflation, prices in Japan for everything from rent to food to entertainment remain among the highest in the world.
Economic stagnation and changes in labour laws have restrained wage growth and enabled firms to swap employees into low-paying part-time jobs with few benefits. This excludes more Japanese from the lifetime employment system that has long been the cornerstone of Japan Inc, forcing many to work additional jobs.
If you leave for work at 6am and get home close to midnight, including weekends, where is there time for dating?
* William Pesek is a Bloomberg columnist.