“Have you heard that young Japanese have stopped having sex? Have you read the recent BBC article? Young men are having virtual girlfriends on smart phones. How weird! Not really good news for Japan’s shrinking population, is it?”
These are the kinds of comments I have been hearing ever since the Guardian published an article last month on sexless young Japanese as the reason behind the nation’s low birth rate. As these reports went viral on social media, several people asked me for my thoughts on sexless Japan.
The gist of the currently trending discourse is this: The world’s third biggest economy’s population is shrinking and aging rapidly. By 2060, Japan’s current population of 126 million is predicted to drop by one-third because fewer and fewer babies are being born each year. These articles claim that the reason behind Japan’s declining birth rate is that many young Japanese are not having sex while others are in paid-for relationships with virtual anime girlfriends.
In her Guardian article, Abigail Haworth begins with an interview with sex and relationship therapist Ai Aoyama, aka Queen Love, who is photographed in her red kinky outfit, standing next to a middle-aged male client cuddling a small dog. Queen Love is quoted as saying “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.”
Citing recent official statistics on young people preferring to stay single and losing interest in sex, Haworth goes on to report on the views of career-oriented women who claim that a marriage would only jeopardize their professional and private lives, as well as those of so-called soshoku danshi (“grass-eating men”) who have little sexual appetite and regard relationships as ‘troublesome’. Both groups are presented as having little to no interest in sex and, consequently, their generation is single-handedly leading their nation to the brink of extinction.
Anita Rani, the presenter of the BBC documentary series “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese” has a different group in the same generation of young adult Japanese to blame, namely Japan’s ultra geeks, known as otaku. In her article Japanese men who prefer virtual girlfriends to sex, Rani explains that otaku find real relationships troublesome and are instead enjoying virtual relationships with Nintendo-computer game characters. The reporter also cites ‘several surveys’ that show that even when men and women are in relationships, they barely have sex, and only 27% claim to have sex every week.
Then Rani claims that Japan’s shrinking birth-rate is a time-bomb and the country’s reluctance to accept migrants is another serious, contributing factor. This leads Rani to ponder: “Japan has managed to preserve its unique culture in an increasingly globalised world but could that very sense of identity stand in the way of solving its population problems?”
So, what do I make of all this?
Orientalist discourses of exotic Japan and its weird inhabitants are centuries- old. Unfortunately, they continue to be disguised as scientific facts and are increasingly commodified for media outlets’ profits in today’s digital age. In the global media, sex sells, weird Japan sells, and combining these two discourses sells big time. Journalists such as Haworth and Rani may well have been physically in Japan, but their analysis was obviously done through a stereotypical way of seeing and with the stereotypes of their Western audiences – and the dollar sign – in mind.
Have sex or not have sex, Japanese are never normal from the perspective of ill-informed journalists and researchers. Their sex life has become a commodified concern, and this ‘concern’ is deeply patronizing and racist as Beckie Smith argues in her recent article in The Independent:
We have a kind of voyeuristic fascination with Japan’s strangeness, spurred on by irresponsible journalism and sensationalised headlines. These stories gain traction because they support a simplistic view of East Asia which is at best patronising and at worst overtly racist. Lazy journalism supports these prejudices; every poorly written puff piece and ill-researched documentary serves, as one viewer charmingly put it, as “confirmation of Japanese weirdness”.
But if it is not heartless, materialist Japanese women, grass-eating Japanese men without any sex drive and creepy otaku that are behind the nation’s falling birth rate, what is? Well, Japan has slipped to 105th place among 136 countries in the gender equality list; 25% of pregnant women have experience in being harassed in their workplace; 22,000 children are on waiting lists for day-care centres; and all five awardees of the Order of Culture and all 15 Persons of Cultural Merit selected by the Japanese government this year are male. Unfortunately, for women having children is largely incompatible with holding a job and the stay-at-home mum is an increasingly unattractive and economically unfeasible option.
A series of ethnographic research conducted by Ingrid Piller and myself with single Japanese women of this generation fleshes out this perspective further.
The women we interviewed in Australia mentioned sexism and gender inequality in the workplace as the main reasons why they had left Japan in the first place. Although all of them were seeking love and romance, most of our participants continue to remain unmarried and childless. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are all hard-nosed career women – they are not – and everything to do with the fact that ‘flexible’ mobile jobs such as those in the hospitality industry are incompatible with raising a family.
For instance, the bilingual Japanese flight attendants in their 20s and 30s we spoke to for research that has just been published in Language, migration and social Inequalities: A Critical Sociolinguistic Perspective on Institutions and Work (Duchêne, Moyer and Roberts, 2013) had limited opportunities to pursue romantic goals due to their irregular shift work and frequent absence from their social networks. Their long-term goal was to marry, have children and quit their job. However, as their jobs did not enable them to save and the job was incompatible with that goal, the only scenario that made this a likely outcome was to find a bread-winner husband and revert to traditional gender roles.
In a neoliberal employment regime – of which low-cost airlines provide a prototypical example – there is less and less opportunity and time to enjoy intimacy, to care for children and to nurture family relationships. The women we spoke to were under continuous pressure to compete and to be ever more productive. They were well aware that their jobs were perpetually on the line in Japan’s ageist, sexist and cut-throat job market where the tradition of life-long employment has long gone.
Young adult Japanese women may have sex but they don’t want to procreate. Does that make them so different from their globally mobile but economically insecure peers in other countries? I don’t think so. It is not only this generation of Japanese that is opting out of starting families; the same is true internationally: Generation On-the-Move is trapped in perpetual insecurity and competition (aka ‘flexibility’), and the stability necessary to raise a family becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.
In addition to gender inequality and socio-economic insecurity, there is another way of looking at the issue of the shrinking Japanese population. Put in the bigger picture, a smaller population is more sustainable on a planet with limited resources. Ultimately, a sustainable approach needs to undergird the engagement with the root cause of perpetual gender inequality; it also needs to involve rethinking the issue of the shrinking national population itself in light of the world’s overpopulation and the promotion of multicultural Japan.
Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2006). A Passion for English: Desire and the Language Market. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression and Representation (pp. 59-83). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2010). At the intersection of gender, language and transnationalism. In N. Coupland (Ed.), The Handbook of Language and Globalization (pp. 540-554): Blackwell.
Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2012). Japanese on the Move: Life Stories of Transmigration. Retrieved from http://www.languageonthemove.com/japanese-on-the-move
Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2013). Language work aboard the low-cost airline. In A. Duchêne, M. Moyer & C. Robers (Eds.), Language, Migration and Social (In)equality. A Critical Sociolinguistic Perspective on Institutions and Work. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Takahashi, K. (2012). Multilingualism and Gender. In M. Martin-Jones, A. Blackledge & A. Creese (Eds.), Handbook of Multilingualism (pp. 419 – 435). London: Routledge.
Takahashi, K. (2013). Language Learning, Gender and Desire: Japanese Women on the Move. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.