The World

No, Japanese People Haven’t Given Up on Sex

Customers gaze at colorful sex toys at the Leisure Hotel Fair in Tokyo on July 9, 2007.

Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Abigail Haworth’s Guardian article “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” has been getting heavy Internet attention over the last couple days, and my colleague Katy Waldman responded to it yesterday.

The main premise of the article comes from some recent statistics on what appear to be some alarming trends in Japanese sexual behavior:

The number of single people has reached a record high. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan—a country mostly free of religious morals—sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact”. More than a quarter of men felt the same way.…

According to the government’s population institute, women in their early 20s today have a one-in-four chance of never marrying. Their chances of remaining childless are even higher: almost 40%.

That all sounds pretty dramatic, but I get skeptical of articles that present facts like these without international comparisons. I was curious: How weird are the Japanese really? A bit weird, perhaps, but not as different from the rest of us as you might think.

It’s true that marriage rates have been falling dramatically in Japan, but that’s also true in the United States, where since at least 2010, a plurality of people between 25 and 34 have never been married.

Is it strange that so many unmarried Japanese people aren’t in relationships or interested in being in one? Not really. A Pew survey this year, concerned mainly with online dating, began by asking Americans who are not married or living with a partner whether they are in a “committed romantic relationship.” Seventy-one percent said no. Seventy-five percent of those who are not in a romantic relationship said they are currently not looking for one, numbers that are much higher than in Japan. About half of single Americans said they haven’t been on a date in the last three months. The number of Americans in their late teens and early 20s who have never had sex is also rising: about 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. (That survey of Japanese people under 30 refers to “dating,” not sex.)

Nearly 40 percent of American women have never been married, according to one survey, and nearly 20 percent of American women in their 40s have not had children, according to another. Both those numbers are steadily rising.

The “were not interested in or despised sexual contact” number does seem very high, though the “or” seems to be doing a lot of work in that sentence. A 2008 survey of found that 10 percent of American women between 18 and 44 reported “low sexual desire.” And plenty of people living in any culture who do experience sexual desire don’t actively look to fulfill it with another person for various reasons.    

Yes, I’m cherry-picking numbers to make a point here, but so are these Japan articles. For instance, the Guardian doesn’t note that the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research study it cites also finds that almost 90 percent of unmarried Japanese people intend to marry and that “the proportion of singles who are consciously trying to delay marriage is waning.”

The Japanese singledom trend story isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but I suspect Howarth’s article took off because its descriptions of dominatrixes-turned-sex coaches and the thirtysomething guy who “can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers” fit nicely into the weird-Japan news genre. I suspect some cultural stereotypes are also at work here. A number of Eastern European countries have lower fertility rates than Japan, but we don’t often see articles portraying Czechs and Poles as sexless nerds.

It’s definitely true that Japan, ranked first in life expectancy and 208th in fertility, is facing something of a demographic time bomb. But Japan is a leading indicator of a trend rather than an outlier. Birth rates are falling almost everywhere in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa. This includes the United States, where the vast majority of population growth (82 percent) in coming years will be due to immigration, an option Japan has steadfastly refused to consider.

As Elizabeth Kolbert discusses in the most recent New Yorker, scholars are divided as to whether the fall in fertility in the developed world is a good thing. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people having too many babies was the nightmare scenario in the popular media. Some optimistic economists also believe that societies will be able to adapt and even prosper in low-fertility scenarios.

But in any case, if decreased sexual desire were really the reason for Japan’s falling population, we’d be seeing versions of this trend story (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) in every other developed country on the planet.

Despite the Power Ranger-loving otaku mentioned above, I’m not buying that that what Haworth calls the “usual technological suspects—online porn, virtual-reality girlfriends, anime cartoons—are to blame here. Alexis Madrigal tackled the widespread “Internet is killing intimacy” meme for the Atlantic using American data earlier this year

To be fair, the article does discuss a number of other possible reasons why Japan’s fertility rate is falling particularly fast, including the high cost of raising children, low rates of religious observance, and the high economic costs that the country, which the World Economic Forum ranks as one of the worst in the world for women in the workplace, imposes on working mothers.

Japan’s demographic trends are certainly worthy of study (and the state of its economy worthy of concern), but portraying the place as some kind of sexless freak show, or the “type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction,” as one expert quoted by the Guardian puts it, isn’t really helpful. Japan is simply facing a more acute version of a trend the rest of the world is also experiencing.

Update: And as Dylan Matthews notes, the best evidence for the fact that Japanese people are still having sex is that Japanese people are still having sex.