Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex? An article with that headline appeared in the UK's Guardian newspaper on October 20, 2013 and soon went viral, with over 70,000 Facebook shares. The article was quickly aggregated by TIME magazine, the Washington Post and Slate, in pieces bearing the alarmist titles Japan's Sexual Apathy Is Endangering the Global Economy, Japan's Hottest New Sex Trend is Not Having Sex and Young People in Japan Have Given Up on Sex.
The article begins with an anecdote about Ai Aoyama, a dominatrix turned sex counselor, and explores the allegedly widespread phenomenon of “celibacy syndrome” among Japan's young people. It leans heavily on quotes from Aoyama, evidently one of the author’s key informants, as well as interviews with young Japanese men and women and statistics gleaned from surveys and studies.
The article does highlight some genuine trends in Japan, such as the decline in the country's birthrate, and it was favourably received by users of the online bulletin board 2ch, who confirmed that they too, were not having sex.
But others, skeptical of the framing of the topic, the sweeping generalizations and the conclusions drawn, thought the article misrepresented and sensationalized the complexity of Japanese society.
This Guardian article is a version of a piece by the same author, Abigail Haworth, that appeared in the July 2013 online edition of the fashion magazine Marie Claire under the less sensational title “No Sex In the City”. Before it was mentioned on Al-Jazeera’s The Stream, the piece seems to have attracted little attention, with only 10 “shares” on Facebook.
In a series of tweets posted on October 24, Tomomi Yamaguchi, an anthropologist and feminist quoted in both the Marie Claire and Guardian articles, said that a journalist contacted her last spring requesting a telephone interview. They talked for 30 minutes. “I understood it as a story for Marie Claire,” said Yamaguchi, who explained that a fact-checker from the magazine followed up with her in June, and she was able to review the quotes to be used in the article.
“I thought that was it,” Yamaguchi said. On October 20, however, she began receiving emails from members of the press asking about an article in the Guardian. “At first I thought it was going to be a re-publication of the piece that appeared in Marie Claire. But after I read it I discovered my quote was not exactly what I said.”
In the days following its appearance online, the Guardian article was picked apart by Japanese and Japan-based Twitter users, who questioned the author’s interpretation of the data, her understanding of Japanese society and her grasp of its cultural norms.
Brian Ashcraft, the Osaka-based editor of the gaming and entertainment blog Kotaku.com, wrote a post dismantling some of the article’s arguments.
“Some of the data is surprising! Some of it is totally misinterpreted or misconstrued,” Ashcraft said. “[The article] claims that “another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all.” So…two-thirds have, then? Last I checked, “dating” and “having one-night stands” or simply “having sex” were different. And according to that same study, one in ten couples got married after getting pregnant. But I thought young Japanese people weren't having sex?”
“@guardian #fail,” tweeted “American, Japanese” @eidoinoue. He pointed out that a study cited in the article as reporting that “an astonishing” 90% of young Japanese women believed that “staying single” was preferable, actually reports that nearly 90% of the women respondents said they planned on getting married. “Call me a snob,” he said to another Twitter user, “but I think people that report on Japan should understand Japanese language and use pure untranslated sources.”
@eidoinoue disputed the existence of the “old Japanese saying” quoted in the article (“Marriage is a woman’s grave”), and criticised numerous other aspects of the piece, including the author’s heavy reliance on the testimony of “sex counsellor” Ai Aoyama.
@hunyoki felt the author was mixing matters: “‘marriage’, ‘sex’, and ‘decline in birth rate’ are correlated, yet these are completely different issues to be addressed separately.”
This sentiment was echoed by Tomomi Yamaguchi, who tweeted that the Guardian “seems to be confused which issue they intended to cover: lack of sex, or marriage, or decline in birthrate.” Another concern of Yamaguchi’s was that the author likely focused on urban areas, failing to address “the problem in the countryside where the decrease in number of children has quite a serious impact.”
@Ucaty suggested that social desirability bias might have come into play: “I think Japanese people state less than the actual amount they study or their level of interest in sex. Just like when we used to say to our classmate right before the exam, “I didn't study at all last night”.”
“Come on British papers, can't you write a piece without using words like “sex” and “drugs”?” tweeted a cheeky @mogura, referring both the British media’s famous prurience and this apparent use of the lowest form of link bait.
Queer theory researcher Akiko Shimizu, however, thought the furore about the article may have been an overreaction: “…this rebuttal—”Yes, they are having sex”—is necessary in order to set the record straight. But it’s starting to look like a straight-up defense of sex itself. Does sex really need defending in the first place?”
Keiko Tanaka is a Japanese civic media enthusiast interested in digital engagement, radio and youth culture.