The title of a recent Guardian article about the technological/cultural atomism and alienation keeping many 20-something Japanese men and women from engaging in intimate, romantic relationships is suitably provocative: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” Well, reader? Were you even aware that young people in Japan have either fortified themselves behind a rampart of computer monitors, or are too career-focused, or just can’t stomach the idea of procreating to even bother with sex anymore? That Japan is quickly becoming a place where people wander around in their own private cocoons of isolation, eat out alone, and express themselves with little neon thought bubbles that flare up over their heads? Well, thanks to the Guardian, you are now intimately acquainted with the lack of intimacy among young Japanese people that has government officials compulsively gnawing on their cuticles.
Abigail Haworth’s sprawling, startlingly not-so-startling exploration of why Japanese youths seem to have “given up” on sex (or, at the very least, intimacy) can be read, from different angles, as a warning against cultural decay, a prophecy of a socially unencumbered future, a sociological overview of an anomalous industrial country, and a narrative about the ways that technology has both enhanced human interaction and, in some cases, displaced humanity. Japan’s apparently increasing trend of sexlessness (and, more acutely, its younger generations’ aversion to the seemingly outdated marital institution), is real, but it also isn’t that strange. In a lot of ways, Japan may provide a vision of the future of all industrialized, advanced nations, which become, in the vacuum left by the disappearance of certain religious and social anchors like bingo night in a church basement or marriage, alienated from the things that made them discrete nations in the first place. What’s the point of being a “people” or “nationality” if people just collectively outgrow the cultures they emerged from? Maybe fucking and child-rearing are all just jingoistic expressions of one’s affiliation with the Italian/Spanish/American/Indian/Australian/Chinese “club” of people.
Quoting demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, Haworth wonders whether the increasing aversion to intimacy in Japan’s young people is the fate of all advanced countries:
Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures? Many of the shifts there are occurring in other advanced nations, too. Across urban Asia, Europe and America, people are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling, single-occupant households are on the rise and, in countries where economic recession is worst, young people are living at home. But demographer Nicholas Eberstadt argues that a distinctive set of factors is accelerating these trends in Japan. These factors include the lack of a religious authority that ordains marriage and family, the country's precarious earthquake-prone ecology that engenders feelings of futility, and the high cost of living and raising children.
"Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction," Eberstadt wrote last year. With a vast army of older people and an ever-dwindling younger generation, Japan may become a "pioneer people" where individuals who never marry exist in significant numbers, he said.
The article is full of lonesome little slices of Japanese people resisting person-to-person interaction. A sex counselor and former dominatrix tries to cure Japan’s sekkusu shinai shokogun ("celibacy syndrome") by coaxing lonely, introverted men out of their shells so they can be comfortable touching another person. A man, too busy and poorly-compensated to bother with dating, forgoes romantic entanglements because they’re too much hassle. A career woman avoids marriage because, in workforce marked by some of the world’s most entrenched forms of gender inequality, getting married and having kids can severely limit a woman’s options. A man can only get aroused by watching Power Ranger-esque robots, etc.
Statistically, Japan’s birthrate is among the lowest in the world, and its population has been shrinking for a decade. Single men and women are taking up larger swaths of the population, with a 2011 survey revealing that 61 percent of unmarried men and 49 percent of unmarried women ages 18-34 weren’t in any kind of romantic relationship. Single men are living at home longer and opting out of the workforce almost entirely. Perhaps the most alarming statistic (if you’re keeping cross-cultural score with population growth, anyway) is the general apathy of Japan’s younger generations: 45 percent of women and about 25 percent of men responded to a survey from the Japan Family Planning Association saying they “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.”
To some officials in the Japanese government, “celibacy syndrome” is a national catastrophe, with people like Kunio Kitamura, head of the Family Planning Association, giving the grim warning that if the country’s birthrate doesn’t improve, Japan “might eventually perish into extinction.” To fret over the demographical fate of a single, industrialized country, though, seems silly. None of the young people Haworth interviews seem at all troubled by their country’s plummeting birth rate, nor do they seem to care that much about sexual intimacy. So what if Japan and, eventually, all the industrialized countries around the world are doomed to stop fucking? Deciding to have children or not have children, marry or not marry, fuck or not fuck should be personal decisions, not obligations to the state (I mean, unless you’re a fascist, in which case, 1932 called, and it wants its fuzzy Mussolini hat back (it’s vintage)).
It’s no government/demagogue/insidious bio-engineering corporation’s business to preserve certain kinds of humans, because people aren’t butterflies to be collected, curated, and bred so posterity has something familiar to look at. “Declining” or “decadent” civilizations are the exclusive preoccupation of panicked moralists terrified that lion-tailed macaques might be better Earth-stewards than humans. Besides, people will never just stop having sex because once we swing really far in the no-sex direction real sex will be retro and cool, like listening to vinyl or something.
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