Saturday, October 26, 2013

When Sex is Too Much Bother: Japan's Troubling Celibacy Syndrome

"45% of Japanese women aged 16-24 are 'not interested in or despise sexual contact'. More than a quarter of men feel the same way," reports a recent article in The Guardian. In addition, 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 are not in any kind of romantic relationship, and a third of people under 30 have never dated at all. The Japanese government has labeled this phenomenon the celibacy syndrome. Combined with an already-falling birthrate and a rising number of elderly, the celibacy syndrome adds further fuel to the fire of Japan's oncoming demographic collapse.

Why does this celibacy syndrome exist in Japan? The number one reason given by the Japanese singles interviewed for the Guardian article was mendokusai, which translates roughly to "too troublesome" or "I can't be bothered." Such a negative attitude towards sex is almost incomprehensible to us here in the United States, where we readily believe the false rumor that men think about sex every 7 seconds. (It's actually more like once an hour).

Permissiveness and Porn

What makes the celibacy syndrome even harder to understand is that Japan doesn't exactly give off the vibe of a sexless nation. Porn in Japan is a $20 billion industry, producing $6 billion more in annual revenues than the U.S. porn industry despite the country having less than half the population of the U.S.. Pornographic comic books in anime style are widely available, and businesses exist to cater to just about every kink imaginable.

Perhaps Japan's very permissiveness is what has led to a rebound of sexlessness. One commentator has asserted:
Pornography in Japan has been legal for centuries. Yes, I said centuries.  Back in the days of woodblock prints, the Japanese were making 'floating world' prints often depicting sexual activity along with other dramatized depictions of hedonistic conduct. ... Children are now openly featured in Japan's pornography industry as it struggles to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for more over-the-top materials as viewers gradually become 'tolerant' of the 'old-fashioned' straight, heterosexual porn.  ...What is happening in Japan is that excess has led to the opposite extreme of repression. Normal sexual desires for another person have been replaced by porn, and in turn this allows people to avoid normal sexual relationships.

Economic Pressures on Women

The author of the Guardian article places the blame instead on the economics of marriage and childbirth. Japanese corporations no longer offer men permanent job security, and the tough economic climate has made children seem unaffordable unless both spouses work. The catch-22 is that married women are frowned upon in the workplace, as explained by one of the women being interviewed:
Tomita says a woman's chances of promotion in Japan stop dead as soon as she marries. "The bosses assume you will get pregnant." Once a woman does have a child, she adds, the long, inflexible hours become unmanageable. "You have to resign. You end up being a housewife with no independent income. It's not an option for women like me."
Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world's worst nations for gender equality at work. 
This description of a nearly impossible work-life balance for women in Japan matches my personal experience. I worked as an in-house lawyer for Mitsubishi Electric's Tokyo headquarters in the late 1990s. Only two women in the department were married. None of the female lawyers I knew who worked outside the big corporations were married, and they didn't seem unhappy about it, at least not on the surface. The position of bengoshi, or lawyer, in Japan commands so much respect that marriage and family might not hold much of a candle to it.

In America, the same types of economic and professional pressures on women have instead led to widespread contraceptive use. Educated women are getting married later or not at all, and the number of childless marriages is on the rise. But our nation hasn't succumbed to a widespread distaste for sex. Japan may rely less on contracepted sex because it was historically less available. The birth control pill, in particular, was not legalized there until 1999. But more than ten years later, the Japanese culture does not seem to be going the way of the American one.

Buddhist Views on Sex

Japanese traditional religious beliefs about the value of sex and marriage may point the way towards an explanation of the celibacy syndrome. Birth records identify the vast majority of Japanese people as adhering to Shintoism, Buddhism, or both, even though 70%-85% of Japanese people regularly claim in polls to have no religion at all. Only 1% profess to be Christian. (See more here.)

Despite the secularization of Japanese culture, Buddhism still exerts a pervasive influence. In Buddhism, sexual desire seems to be somewhere between a neutral force and an active deterrent from reaching Enlightenment. One Western Buddhist writer, M. O'C. Walshe, explained that "Sex is a powerful force in us all. In itself it is neither good nor bad." But attachment to sexual pleasure is problematic, since it represents an inner craving. And "as long as there remains even a latent craving (including that for sex), according to the Buddhist teaching rebirth will inevitably continue to take place." These cravings for sex would then keep the individual from reaching Nirvana. Buddha's First Sermon calls the pursuit of sensual desire "low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble and unbeneficial." It will likely lead to "suffering, vexation, despair and fever, and it is the wrong way." In this context, for a Japanese person to express no craving for sex would in fact make them appear further along the path to Enlightenment.

Marriage also holds no special place in Buddhist thought. Marriage is seen as a secular rather than religious act. According to Walshe,
In Buddhism, marriage is not a "sacrament," as such a concept does not exist. And it is not any part of the functions of Buddhist monks to join lay people together in holy wedlock (or deadlock). If it is occasionally done today in Japan, this is just a modern idea in conformity with a general tendency among Japanese Buddhists to imitate (often perhaps unwisely) Christian institutions. 
Procreation similarly lacks a strong religious component. "Buddhism has no analogy to the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply." Therefore, while most lay Buddhists do get married and have families, renunciation is still seen as the ideal. Japan's current celibacy syndrome seems to fall right into line with Buddhist thought, particularly if sex, marriage, and procreation are seen to cause economic hardship or suffering.

This Buddhist perspective is of course completely different from Catholic thought, which imbues sex, marriage, and procreation with deep religious meaning. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church --

Sex: "The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable .... Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure." (no. 2362)
Marriage:  "Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: 'It is not good that the man should be alone.' The woman, 'flesh of his flesh,' his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a 'helpmate'; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." (no. 1605)
Procreation: "Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: 'And God blessed them, and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply.'" (no. 1604) 
Or, as popular Catholic theologian Chris West puts it in his recent book Fill These Hearts, we should aim our desire (for sex) according to God's design (for marriage and procreation) to reach our destiny (heaven). If these principles caught on in Japan, perhaps the current celibacy syndrome would become a thing of the past.

Photo Credit: pjan vandaele via Compfight cc


  1. We were in Japan at the same time! I bet we passed each other in Shinjuku Station a couple of times and didn't know it. :-)

    This is surprising, and then again almost not surprising, considering the porn use in Japan. I think it underscores the hidden effect Christian culture has on a society that is not acknowledged or even understood by most people in it. Most Japanese I knew didn't seem to be so Buddhist that they'd go so far as renunciation of sex for the spiritual benefits of enlightenment. More likely the Shin-Buddhist/atheist understructure to Japanese society makes it easier to reject sex and marriage for economic reasons. I bet the economic factors drive this more than anything.

    Also, I bet the male population is not without thoughts of sex and lust. I bet the culture makes it easier for men to satisfy that through porn and other ways, and the women just don't care. Although, I'd find it hard to believe that there isn't a lot of casual/hookup sex going on. There aren't a lot of sexual restrictions in that society. Think maybe they were talking about relationships involving sex or they're just not talking about it?

    Anyway, interesting post!

    1. I traveled through Takadanobaba more than Shinjuku!

      You said, "More likely the Shin-Buddhist/atheist understructure to Japanese society makes it easier to reject sex and marriage for economic reasons." Agreed!

      The original Guardian article mentioned that Japanese culture is trending somewhat more toward hookup sex. And dishonesty is a problem in any survey results. In the US, people might be more willing to exaggerate how much they have sex. In Japan, people might be more willing to hide it.

  2. Karee, that's a great point. I think dishonesty in surveys definitely masks the true results. It's very possible that more people in Japan are willing to downplay how often they have sex. This actually brings up another related post I just read at that kind of talks about the same thing. It's a nice complimenting viewpoint.

    1. Jamie, thanks for the link. I agree with what the article said about Japan not having a "touchy-feely" culture -- they bow rather than shake hands and hug. More acceptance of casual and non-sexual touch might actually lead to a healthier pattern of relationships, in my opinion.

  3. I find sex very important within a marriage. However, Japan has a very unique culture which is very different than the others.

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