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July 18, 2013

No Sex and the City

They're young, single, and totally available, but Japan's 20-and 30-somethings are choosing celibacy over hookups and dating. Why is this generation so turned off?


Photo Credit: Takashi Homa

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Ri Asada, 22, sips iced tea in a Tokyo café, oblivious to a man at the next table who is ogling her bare thighs. She's dressed in a perennially popular Japanese style: high heels, over-the-knee socks, and a lacy minidress, with doll-like makeup and colored contact lenses. It is a provocative look, yet Asada, an economics graduate who still lives with her parents, insists it's "just fashion." She is not interested in attracting the opposite sex. She is not interested in sex, period.

"The thought of sleeping with someone never crosses my mind," she says. "I don't even like holding hands."

Apparently, Asada's lackluster libido is not unusual here. Recent Japanese studies point to a startling trend among the nation's under-40s: a rising aversion to sex and dating. In Japan, where there's a name for every new social twist, the media have dubbed it "Celibacy syndrome," "No-sex sickness," and, ominously, the "death of sex." When combined with the shrinking birthrate and aging population, the decline is so serious that the nation "might eventually perish into extinction," claims Kunio Kitamura, the head of the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA).

Additional research does little to curb such alarmism. A JFPA survey released in January 2013 found that 45 percent of women ages 16 to 24 "were not interested in or disliked sexual contact." More than 25 percent of men in the same age group— supposedly in their turbocharged hormonal prime—felt the same way. Things don't improve with age: A 2011 government survey reported that 49 percent of Japanese women ages 18 to 34 don't have a boyfriend or husband, while 61 percent of heterosexual men are also single. (There are no available figures for same-sex relationships.)

Further, more than 40 percent of Japanese marriages are classed as "sexless," meaning couples of child-bearing age who rarely or never have sex. Japan also ranked lowest in condom-maker Durex's sexual Wellbeing Global Sex Survey of 26 countries: A question on sexual frequency found that, while around 53 percent of adult Americans and 82 percent of Brazilians had sex at least once a week, only 34 percent of Japanese did.

What is going on? The core of it, it seems, is that men's and women's lives are moving in opposite directions. In the past two decades, Japanese women have become more independent and career-focused. At the same time, the economy has stagnated, and the traditional "salaryman" corporate culture has waned. No longer in the guaranteed role of breadwinner, many men have become less ambitious at work and more passive in love, experts say. "Men and women have fewer shared goals, so it's become harder for them to connect romantically and sexually," says Kitamura. "Also, their expectations of each other have not adjusted. Many men still want women to be submissive, while women are turned off by unambitious men. To put it bluntly, many people feel that relationships between men and women are just a pain in the neck."

Tokyo-born Asada swore off sex and dating three years ago, after a one-year relationship in college with a fellow student. "When we broke up, I realized I'd spent the whole time thinking about only his needs. That's what he expected," she says. "I'm much happier now that I'm single."

Asada works as a student adviser at a "cram school" that provides private academic tutoring for college applicants. Tall and attractive, she often gets asked out on dates by colleagues. She always refuses. "My weekends are too precious." Her favorite pastimes are shopping for clothes and makeup and playing games on her smartphone. Asada says she doesn't miss sex, and casual hookups are not for her. "In theory you should be able to have sex just for fun, but in reality it's too much trouble." In fact, casual sex is problematic for most young women in Japan. While the country is known for its liberal attitudes toward erotic pleasure, double standards apply to women. "Girls can't have casual flings without being judged," says Asada. 

Interestingly, such double standards have intensified in recent years as mass-market pop culture has exploded. The fantasy ideal for women under 25 reflected in anime cartoon characters and all-girl "idol" bands is impossibly cute and virginal: Women are not supposed to show any signs of sexual experience or desire. Not everyone buys into this chaste ideal, but its influence is profound. In February, singer Minami Minegishi, 20, a member of the hugely popular all-girl pop 
group AKB48, received more than 3 million hits on YouTube when she posted a video of herself apologizing in tears to her fans. Shockingly, she had shaved off all her hair as an act of penance. Her crime? She had been caught on camera sneaking home after spending the night with her boyfriend.

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