At dinner with five British friends, a spark suddenly sizzles through the conversation. Ears prick as the discussion begins. The topic? Sex in Japan.
We wade our way through fact and theory, offering in turn Chinese whispers about the contents of vending machines, the vessels from which businessmen can eat their sushi, and the fake nipples you can insert under your T-shirt to give the appearance of a constant erection. It is an exciting world, this one, so different to our own, where a brief glimpse of underwear seems to entertain the masses for hours.
Two years later, I find myself living here.
And it is in many ways everything I had giggled, exaggerated and hinted at with friends when the words were too shocking to utter.
There are entire shops dedicated to the selling of condoms, regular DVD shops which only retail the one variety of DVD, and seemingly innocent home depots which display plastic phalluses so big I could dress one up in 4-year-old’s clothing and push it around in a pram for a few weeks before anyone would be any the wiser. Only the other day I pulled up alongside a car while waiting at the traffic lights and glanced over, only to discover a guy watching full frontal penetration on his dashboard DVD screen. It was 11am.
Yet this is where I begin to get confused. In such an apparent and blatantly sexual society, why is nobody breeding?
The story of Japan’s declining birthrate is not a new one. Measures are underway to ensure that the country does not evolve into a giant nursing home. But in spite of the fact that the government is offering monetary incentives to young married couples, and that businesses are enforcing compulsory holidays, the percentage of children being born into the new generation is not increasing rapidly enough. With just an average of 1.39 children born per Japanese female, it’s time to take a look at the root causes of why such a randy bunch of Asians can’t get down and do it.
Tokyo exemplifies the coexistence of innovation and tradition. Outside the boundaries of the capital, however, it’s the time honored values which hold a much stronger visible presence. The family home is the most perceptible manifestation of these continuing traditions, with practices arguably proceeding beyond their relevancy date. Here, family members of every generation coexist under one roof, often in the same room. The youngest generation are expected to secure partners in order to maintain this strong family unit and support the elders through their retirement years. Now, more than ever, with the proportion of people above the retirement age reaching astonishing heights, there is an ever pressing need for this.
The pressure to get married is a predominant conversation topic for females as young as 14. The idea of women as “Christmas cakes”—an item which begins to decline after its use-by date of the 25th—still pervades, and the desperation to get married before this “spoiling age” is visibly apparent in Japanese social circles. In the past, young people were subjected to “omiai” (arranged marriage interviews, which to this day are not uncommon). Nowadays, especially in the bigger cities, parties where women pay to attend in order to find a suitably rich and respectable husband, have taken its place.
This pressure and stigma about remaining single pushes people into marriages they are not necessarily happy with. I spoke to one Japanese woman who commented: “I didn’t really like him at first,” with reference to the first few years of her marriage. Instead of looking for a person with whom they’d be entirely satisfied to spend the rest of their lives, people are just glad to be taken off the proverbial shelf. I asked some 24-year-old Japanese males what they consider to be most important when dating the opposite sex. The response came back: “She has to be nice.” Nice? Nice is the word they refuse to let you use after Key Stage 1 primary school education because it’s absolute bollocks. Everyone is “nice”—but using it as the basis for marriage?
Nice is not a spark, and there lays a crucial fault in the Japanese mating system. People are so keen to get coupled up that a spark does not seem to need to exist here. A body just needs to exist, and exhibit some kind of sign that it is “nice,” and then that body is deemed acceptable for marriage. When intelligence, a sense of humor, and similar interests fail to hold any importance, it is no wonder that people are not having sex. Nice isn’t sexy.
But then, what does it really matter, when after the initial 3 or 4 shopping trips made on the designated “couples” day, a few occasions of holding hands, and the subsequent marriage, the relationship will quickly dissolve into the occasional Sunday spent together when the man returns from work. Such is the fate of many matrimonial unions. The working lives of salarymen and OLs at Japanese companies is a phenomenon which has to be seen to be believed. It is not unusual for Japanese workers to leave the office at around 11 p.m. on a weeknight. Holidays, for most, are not even on the agenda. A large proportion of the adults I have come into contact with in Japan have yet to acquire passports. There is simply no need.
With so much time spent at work, there is very little left for play. Here is where the numerous variations of bars offering pleasure for money come into effect. The niche for a quick fix in this work-heavy country is a thriving market. In the same way that the convenience store allows one to pick up a quick bite for dinner with limited expenditure of time, money or effort, the sex industry provides a means for men to enjoy the company of women without having to fork out on the wining and dining required by a future potential spouse. It’s a case of satisfaction in half the time, for half the price.
Just as we see the way sex is cordoned off in the architecture of the cities—Shinjuku’s red-light district Kabukicho a prime example of this—the subject is discernibly curtailed in conversation. Around a table of Japanese citizens of mixed gender, sex does not exist. It is rarely mentioned, and certainly never with reference to oneself. This sense of secrecy extends even to the love hotels, where you cover your license plate, pay through a machine, and leave through a back door onto a quiet street. When sex is required to be kept a secret, it is regarded with connotations of negativity. And when something is viewed negatively, it tends to be considered taboo.
This notion of privacy is part of the persona of humility revered in Japanese society. While this modest and timid character trait flourishes in the business arena, however, it is the ultimate hindrance on the dating scene. For the Japanese, the approach of a stranger is an act of almost biblical transgression. Where big, open rooms in Western bars and pubs are designed with communication in mind, Japanese izakayas are sectioned off into private rooms. Even the “ping pong” buttons with which to hail the bar staff make interaction outside of your own known circle almost unthinkable.
You might think that such a reserved group of people would flock to the online services available, but wherever else in the world this style of dating is flourishing, in Japan it is still restricted to a few sites. Even the Japan Today friends page is an option. It seems that in this hush-hush society of shy males and females, if you don’t meet the love of your life at school or university, there’s a strong chance it might never happen.
So what is the solution? Put all the 30-somethings in a ring and tell them they can only come out if they’ve fornicated without the use of contraception? Or accept that being single isn’t “wrong,” and that neither is sex. We’ve just witnessed a national pop star shave her head for spending a night at a male friend’s home. Rather than focusing on these old, samurai-age techniques, Japan needs to modernize. Not only its dating style, but also its perception of men and women as these separate, shy entities, so that perversions can at least be shared, rather than expressed through a fanaticism for big-breasted cartoons in magazines. Mentally and physically, the Japanese need to let the rest of the world in.