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July 18, 2013

No Sex and the City

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Photo Credit: Takashi Homa

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The phenomenon of groups of single, financially solvent women meeting up socially has become so common in Japan that it has a name: joshi-kai, or "ladies parties." Restaurants and resorts offer joshi-kai special menus and discount travel packages to attract the lucrative all-female customers. On Valentine's Day this year, one restaurant even offered a special joshi-kai deal so women could still celebrate the occasion without men. The girls' get-togethers are similar to those in HBO's Sex and the City—the show was a huge hit when it aired in Japan—except for one crucial difference: "We never talk about sex," says Tomita. "We talk about our jobs, about shopping and makeup, about movies. Sex is not a priority." Tomita explains that, as for younger women like Asada, casual sex is loaded with too many negatives. "I often get asked out by older married men who want an affair. They assume I must be desperate because I'm still single," she sighs. "Men my own age are intimidated." Tomita says she would like to marry around the age of 40 if she can meet a man who supports her desire to work. But, worryingly, the decliningbirthrate has caused a backlash against career women. In a 2012 government survey, 51 percent of the population said they believed women should stay at home while men go out to work — up 10 percent from a similar survey in 2009.

Japan, it seems, just can't get it right. Men, too, feel burdened by such old-fashioned attitudes about gender roles. Amid the ongoing economic recession, many men feel that the pressure on them to be the main family provider is unrealistic. At the same time, the glaringly obvious answer— settling down with career women like Tomita and sharing the burden—is not feasible because the corporate world is too rigid to allow both parents to work. This apparently insoluble situation has created a new breed of romantically apathetic single men. naturally, they have a name: soushoku danshi, or "herbivore men" (literally "grass eater" in Japanese).

Satoru Kishino, 31, is a self-confessed herbivore man who says he doesn't mind the label because it has become so commonplace. He defines it as a "straight man for whom sex and relationships are not a priority." "I'm not interested in having a girlfriend or getting married," says Kishino, who works at a fashion accessories company as a designer and quality control manager. "I enjoy my life the way it is —going to work, relaxing with friends and family."

Like Asada and Tomita, Kishino says he never lacks entertainment. "I like cooking and cycling and going to see Japanese comedy theater." Well groomed with gelled spiky hair and a friendly face, Kishino says he has many female friends. "I do find some of them attractive, but dating is too troublesome. I don't want to have the responsibility of being someone's boyfriend, or have to worry that they hope it will lead to marriage."

Moreover, Kishino says, dating has become so overcommercialized in Japan, with constant pressure to spend money on expensive gifts, dinners, and "romantic getaways," that he can't afford it. He has learned to live without sex. "I don't dislike sex, but you have to jump through hoops just to get a girl into bed. I can't be bothered, and I'm fine being alone."

Still, not everyone in Japan has given up on sex and romance. On a sunny afternoon in the upscale Tokyo district of Aoyama, around 300 singletons are attending a private matchmaking event in the basement of a restaurant. Matchmaking has a long history in Japan — until around 1970 many marriages were still arranged through intermediaries. Today, both the government and private companies are trying to reverse the apparent incompatibility of the sexes by playing cupid with organized get-togethers.

Masumi Sasaki, 34, a pharmacist, has come along with a female friend "to see what it's like." The basement is dark and packed with bodies brandishing smartphones. They are playing a speed-dating game that involves getting as many phone numbers from the opposite sex as possible. Sasaki quickly decides the event is not for her. "I just came here to talk to people in a normal fashion," she says.

Retreating to a coffee shop, Sasaki explains that she is used to being single and celibate and is not desperate to find a partner. "I panicked around the age of 30 and tried hard to find someone to marry. But when it didn't happen, I stopped thinking about it." In fact, it doesn't take long for Sasaki to reveal that the true love of her life at the moment is not a person but her 8-year-old female pet rabbit, Nichi. Sasaki lives alone in a small apartment just outside Tokyo with ginger-hued Nichi and spends much of her free time with her. "On weekends I often take Nichi to special 'rabbit cafés' where she can play with other rabbits," says Sasaki.


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