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Young and Sexless in Japan

By Taylor Marvin

Two years ago I wrote a piece asking whether heterosexual dating norms would change as women’s educational achievements and incomes increased. In American society men have traditionally paid for dates, and more broadly been expected to ask women out rather than the other way around. This norm grew from a patriarchal culture where men were assumed to be the head of the household, and women typically did not work outside the home. Women practically had less money to spend, and men were expected to impress potential wives with their earning potential, important in an era when single-income households were the norm. But as women’s education attainment and incomes have increased, this norm seems to be growing less prevalent. Among many young people in my age range splitting the bill between heterosexual dating couples is more common than the man simply paying himself, and today women are more likely to ask men out or propose sex than decades before — especially given the proliferation and normalization of online dating sites. While it is unclear if American dating norms will continue to shift as women grow on average higher educated and better remunerated, it does appear that some degree of norm shifting is occurring in American dating behavior.

In the Observer* Abigail Haworth has a fascinating piece reporting on Japanese young people’s growing disinterest in sex and relationships. Termed sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome”, in the Japanese media, Japan’s already low birth rate and aging population appears further threatened by a trend away from sex and permanent relationships among millions of young people. A recent survey reports that 45 percent of women and more than a quarter of men ages 16 to 24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact” and according to a relationship counsellor interviewed by Haworth, Japan’s young men and women are on divergent paths that no longer intersect in long-term relationships and marriage. While it is unclear if this trend away from sex and marriage will last or is just a passing social phenomenon, it does give increasingly-geriatric Japanese society reason to worry.

The immediate causes of “celibacy syndrome” differ between men and women, though they are both rooted in Japanese patriarchal society. Japanese women are increasingly highly educated, ambitious, and career-driven, but this ambition is punished rather than rewarded by Japanese society. Married women who work outside the home are disparaged and the gender gap and female economic participation in Japan is far worse than in western countries. Japanese business culture also places higher value on long hours and extreme corporate loyalty — as the famous term karōshi, or “death from overwork” exemplifies — making it extremely difficult for ambitious women to have both a career and family, and many women find that promotions cease with marriage anyway. This makes marriage and motherhood an impossible burden for many ambitious women, and creates an incentive towards long-term singleness. As Haworth writes:

“But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country’s procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it’s especially true for women. ‘Marriage is a woman’s grave,’ goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers.”

Haworth additionally relays the “astonishing” statistic that 90 percent of young women “believe that staying single is ‘preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like’.” Casual sex is also stigmatized, and altogether Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

For their part men face the opposite pressures. Japanese society still stresses that a man’s role is a breadwinner, and prizes single-income homes. But three decades into Japan’s economic slump the jobs that would allow young men to fulfill these expectations are rare, and many men have retreated from the workforce entirely, living with aging parents and embracing social isolation or all-consuming hobbies. Insecure about their inability to meet expectations of paying for expensive dates or supporting a stay-at-home wife, many men withdraw from romantic or sexual relationships.

Additionally, it’s not difficult to imagine that this “celibacy syndrome” dynamic is self-reinforcing. As heterosexual young people pass though youth without gaining romantic and sexual experience with the opposite gender, and surrounded by peers who are similarly uninterested in long-term marriages, it stands to reason that these lifestyle habits will become more difficult to break with age — recalling The 40-Year-Old Virgin, if people “can’t be bothered” with sex in their twenties and thirties, it is unclear if this lifestyle will change later in life. And while individual Japanese young people may be happy choosing a celibate lifestyle, it’s difficult to not see the trend as something of a loss. “The ebbing of human intimacy seems to come from a place of disenchantment and frustration,” writes Slate’s Katy Waldman in a summary of Haworth’s report. “I can’t make this historical husband-wife arrangement thing work, so I’m giving up altogether.

Haworth closes her report by asking if Japan’s apparent future of the unmarried and childless is “providing a glimpse of all our futures,” citing falling birth rates and delayed marriages across the Western world. While there are many cultural reasons suggesting that Japan is a special case, many of the same trends are affecting the United States. In recent decades the American middle class has worked increasing hours, while working wages, especially for middle class men, have stagnated. It’s not impossible that if the American middle class finds itself working hard and harder for less that marriage could become an inconvenience.

But I suspect that for American society Japan’s celibacy syndrome is less of a portent than a warning of what happens when patriarchal societies fail to adapt to changing economic conditions and social norms. American women still, of course, face a persistent wage gap and gender discrimination. But these gender barriers pale in comparison to Japan’s, and working mothers have become normalized in America society. Indeed, discrimination in Western society often flows the other way, with stay-at-home mothers “increasingly facing a damaging but unspoken prejudice that assumes they are stupid, lazy and unattractive.” This shift towards two-income households and female remuneration approaching mens’, especially among the highly educated, has provided American society with some degree of a buffer against stagnating middle class wages, manufacturing flight, the end of jobs that allowed high school-educated men to solely support their families.

Returning to the norms governing heterosexual courtship, relationships, and marriage, unlike in the United States Japan’s appear to have not changed with the times, and remain suited to a patriarchal and hierarchical society that forced men to be wage-slave absent fathers and women marginalized stay-at-home mothers. As women’s liberation, a changing culture, and economic stagnation made this social model untenable, Japanese relationship norms broke instead of bending. In America and western Europe, this seems not to be the case (Europe’s low birth rates are not related to the same social roots as Japan’s). Instead of a harbinger, Japan’s low birth rate** could be seen as an endorsement of the value of feminism and flexible social norms unbound by rigid tradition.

Update: At Kotaku Brian Ashcraft has a piece doubting Haworth’s reporting, citing data complaints by Inoue Eido and others.

* I originally credited the piece to the Guardian, which shares a website with the Observer. **This originally read “celibacy syndrome”; altered to the wider notion of low birth rate.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. What an interesting article. I’d never heard of this and am going to share it. Thank you for all the research you had to do for this very informative piece.

    October 23, 2013

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