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Is Japan Having Sex?

In late February 2016, Japan's census bureau announced that the country's population has experienced a net decline, with more people dying than being born, for the first time since the state started keeping these records in 1920.

The news of comes amidst regular news reports in Western media that Japanese people are having less sex than ever before. Some Western writers are even asking why young people in Japan stopped having sex.

How much sex are Japanese people having, anyway, and could having more sex help Japan improve its declining birth rate?

Japan's Population Is Officially in Decline

First, let's consider Japan's population decline. Over the past five years (Japan conducts full census surveys once a decade, with a partial count after five years), Japan's population shrank by nearly 950,000 people (by 0.7 percent) to 127.1 million people. Nearly a third of all Japanese were over 65 years old in 2015. By 2050, almost 40 percent will be older than 65.

To make matters worse for the future of Japan's population, the country's fertility rate has been about 1.41 births per woman, putting it well below the “population replacement rate” of about 2.1 (the average number of children born per woman to replace the population for nearly forty years since the 1970s).

The census bureau's announcement this month of a net decline in Japan's population, then, has been foreseen for quite a while.

Japan is not the only country in the world experiencing this phenomenon. In Germany, fertility has remained below 1.5 children per woman since 1975, while the World Bank notes that the East Asia and Pacific region is aging faster than any other region. In other words, the nation's “graying” is a global challenge that's not unique to Japan.

The Abe government aims to “stabilize” Japan's population at 100 million by encouraging women (somehow) to have more children and improve Japan's population rate.

The main problem (says conventional wisdom, at any rate) is that Japanese people are no longer interested in having sex.

Japan's “Celibacy Syndrome”: Real or Imagined by the Foreign Media?

Rather than comparing it with its peers like Germany, Japan's population is often connected to the perception that Japanese people just aren't having sex. There apparently seems to be a name for this phenomenon in Japan: the “celibacy syndrome” (セックスしない症候群). Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for this phrase quotes a 2013 Guardian article as the primary source for the term.

A Japanese-language article about “celibacy syndrome” begins by referencing a 2013 BBC documentary called “No Sex, Please, We're Japanese.” Most of the search results for “セックスしない症候群” seem to have appeared around 2013, and articles by foreign-owned media properties such as Huffington Post and China's People's Daily Online are at the top of the Japanese-language results.

2006/07 Durex Survey Still Influential

The idea may have originated with the gold-standard for sex research, the Sexual Wellbeing Global Survey. Conducted by condom-maker Durex in 2006 and 2007, this poll from nearly a decade ago interviewed 26,000 people, aged 16 and older, across 26 countries about their sexual habits.

Despite being almost 10 years old, the results of the Durex survey continue to be recycled year after year by both Western and Japanese media.

For example, in a 2014 article in the online edition of magazine Toyo Kezai, Sechiyama Kaku, a professor at University of Tokyo, cites the 2006/07 Durex study to argue that “Japan has the lowest sexual frequency in the world.” (In the Durex study, Japanese respondents reported having sexual intercourse 45 times a year, the lowest number among all the 41 countries surveyed.)

That said, a little-known, more recent Japanese report seems to confirm Durex's conclusions about Japan's national libido. As a matter of fact, Sagami, a leading condom company in Japan, conducted its own survey on sex in Japan in 2013. Blogger Yuta Aoki summarized the results of the Sagami survey here in English. Aoki notes that the more recent Sagami survey seems to confirm Durex's conclusion: Japanese people report not having a lot of sex.

Japan's “Sexless Marriages”

Aoki notes that Sagami's survey indicates that people in relationships in Japan (Durex surveyed anyone sexually active) may be having sex far less than 45 times per year. A 2006 survey by Bayer found that Japanese married couples had sex just 17 a year, on average.

On top of that, the Sagami study found that 55.2 percent of married couples consider themselves to be sexless. “Sexless marriage” has become a hot topic in Japan in recent years.

In a survey of its own, the Japan Family Planning Association found that most married men were too busy or tired from work to have sex. Japanese women reported that sex was “too bothersome.”

However, the interesting thing about Sagami's study, Aoki reports, is that, generally speaking, people in Japan have no aversion to sex: 83 percent of single men and 58 percent of single women in their 20s and 30s say they want to have sex.

While there may be a variety of reasons why some people in Japan are going without sex, an aversion to intercourse doesn't appear to be one of them.

Japanese Men May Be Having Sex, Just Not Always With Their Partners

It's important to note that, in the context of the Sagami survey, people in couples who reported being part of a “sexless marriage” were simply reporting on whether or not they were having sex with their partners.

What goes almost universally unreported is extramarital sex, and sex for money.

According to various surveys, between 10 and 20 percent of Japanese men admit to extramarital sex (不倫, furin) with women at about half that number. So, even if many Japanese people are in sexless marriages, it's not always accurate to say they're having no sex.

On top of that, many married men in Japan also avail themselves of the country's US$5 billion (5兆6,884億 円) sex trade. Indeed, a significant minority of married heterosexual men in Japan are choosing to pay for sex.

A Significant Minority of Japanese Men May Be Paying for Sex

According to Japan's National Police Agency (NPA), as of 2011 there were more than 29,000 businesses connected to the sex industry (性風俗関連特殊営業, seifuzokukanrentokushueigyo)—10,000 more businesses than four years earlier in 2007.

Japan's sex trade consists of a variety of establishments and enterprises, including brothels (“soaplands”), massage parlors, escort agencies, and “paid” dating services.

In one poll conducted by MiW (a community devoted to providing support and advice to those whose spouses had engaged in extramarital sex), 23 percent of married men surveyed in Tokyo said they had paid for sex.

Another survey by the National Women's Education Center of Japan found that 40 percent of Japanese men pay for sex.

So, while Japan's “celibacy syndrome” may exist, it may only be between heterosexual couples in long-term relationships.

Where Does This Leave Japan's Declining Birth Rate?

Thanks to a new policy by the Abe government, women in Japan are being put in a double—or even triple—bind: Japanese women are being encouraged to have more children in order to increase the country's fertility rate and slow population decline. At the same time, Japanese women are being encouraged to “lean in” and participate more in the workforce. However, women will still be expected to be responsible for childcare, while looking after ageing relatives.

So, even if more sex means a higher birth rate, for Japanese women it could mean just more work, and even less free time than they have now.

With research by Masae Okabayashi.

  • Adam

    Excellent article as usual Mr. Thompson! When my wife (who is Japanese) gets together with her friends this is one of their usual topics of conversation. It can get pretty depressing to hear about parents in “sexless marriages” who are basically staying together until their kids are 18. But sometimes I wonder if that really is a bad thing considering the toll divorce can take on kids . . .

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Sex surveys are notoriously unreliable. Internet surveys are notoriously unreliable. Internet sex surveys are doubly unreliable. I’ve looked up the major surveys cited for the claim that the Japanese have a low rate of marital intercourse. None have used methodologies that would be considered reliable for any subject let alone sex including those that were not Internet-based.

    Further, the whole assertion about fertility and the frequency of sex is idiocy from the git go at least for Japan and other economically advanced countries. Japan has abortion on demand in fact if not in law. All major forms of contraception are readily available in Japan. The whole point of contraceptive devices and “the pill” is to decouple intercourse from conception.

    In 1983 the fertility rate of Denmark was 1.38, lower than that of Japan today, but no one was claiming that the Danish fertility rate was low because the Danes had stopped having sex, possibly because Denmark is the home country of Color Climax, a major producer of hard core pornography. Perhaps writers should take note of the fact that Japan has its own hard core porn industry of substantial size and the “performers” are with very rare exceptions all Japanese.

    In my view the whole coupling of claims about alleged lack of sexual activity and the low fertility rate is basically racist. As this article states, Japan has essentially the same fertility rate as Germany and Italy. The Japanese fertility rate is higher than a score of other countries but only in the case of Japan is the sexless argument trotted out.

    In other words, only in Japan is the fertility rate low because Japanese are sexually inadequate. The factors that explain low fertility in other countries do not apply to Japan.

    This line of assertion is fundamentally racist.

    • Nevin Thompson

      Thanks as always for your comments, Earl. You were able to get at what I was trying to say, although in this format I can’t really editorialize like that.

      I did think the various surveys were pretty loopy. The 国立女性教育会館 was the best of the bunch, with a sample size of 2,000.

    • Evolutionary1

      I agree with your assertion about contraception. It seems to be conveniently glossed over in articles covering this topic in Japan.

  • nodomino

    Japanese passion is perhaps redirected towards the maintenance and survival of their unique culture. With eyes wide open and aware of the possibility of unseen consequences the Japanese are expressing a sovereignty of collectivism over individualist preoccupations that have come to define the global race to out-populate economic competitors. It is a kind of war with the dominant theory of all things. One thing seems certain, 21st Century multi-culturalism is a universal disaster. I wish the Japanese people success.

  • Fascinating article, glad you found my vintage CC pic for the header ;)

    When I was in Japan the sense I got from people was that the popularity and simplicity of porn was a huge factor. The story went that young women were getting more and more “feminist” (within the Japanese context, so not super-extreme by western standards) while young men were refusing to keep up and still had patriarchal expectations that the women didn’t want to tolerate. The result was men choosing porn because they got what they wanted without complaint, while many women were just skipping dating all together. The whole “otaku” phenomenon was mixed into this narrative, as in there was some subculture of otaku who had given up on real women and decided porn+robots was all they’d need to be happy.

    It’s very possible this was a biased sense as I didn’t go over this idea with a lot of local Japanese men, but it was fascinating and compelling to me, especially since I think it’s happening all over the world, just unevenly depending on local internet access and culture.

    Was this a question you came across while doing all this great research? Seems really important but also I wouldn’t be surprised if no serious analysis had been done on such an awkward, touchy subject.

    To me it seems like (if real) this idea fills an important gap in all the logic above. Especially this part:

    > However, the interesting thing about Sagami’s study, Aoki reports, is that, generally speaking, people in Japan have no aversion to sex: 83 percent of single men and 58 percent of single women in their 20s and 30s say they want to have sex.

    It’s funny but I read this in a very different way from Aoki. To me 83% of men and 58% of women “wanting sex” isn’t a sign that Japan has a healthy libido, it’s a sign that there is a crisis in Japanese women wanting sex (as well as an also-low number of men). 58% is not a high number for that age group (all of whom are “in their sexual peak” as women) and the delta between men and women is scary. I wish there was matching data for Canada so I could compare directly (maybe I’d be shocked about our delta in a similar way).

    Either way great article, thanks for sharing!

    • Nevin Thompson

      As Earl says up-thread, it’s pretty difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from self-reporting on internet surveys. Sexless marriage, on the other hand, does seem to be a real thing. But from my point of view I would just say there’s a tendency for married men to pay for sex. Of all the surveys and studies I found, the National Women’s Education Center’s survey seemed to be the best, with a sample size of 2,000 in the Tokyo region. 40% of respondents reported paying for sex.

      It’s almost impossible to determine how attitudes towards sex have changed over time, but the only constant you can look at is Japan’s pop. replacement rate, which has stayed the same for 40 years now.

      I have no authority whatsoever to comment on whether or not Japanese women are “becoming more feminist”, but my perception is they are not. Japan never had a “sexual revolution” as did Western countries.

      I would also say that porn is as much a part of the culture in the West as it is in Japan, it’s just that it’s more open in Japan.

  • Bart_at_EB

    Interesting report. However, the framing is that a fall in population is a tragedy. The writer must not have been reading about climate change and sustainability. For those critical problems, a growing population (especially in high consuming nations like Japan and the US) is a major cause. Dealing with an aging population is MUCH easier – so hooray for the Japanese in leading the way towards population contraction.

    • Nevin Thompson

      I am the writer and yes I am, like you, familiar with the implications of consumption on climate change. First of all, the human toll of population decline is immense. Much of rural Japan — I lived on the Noto Peninsula, and I always lived in “Ura-Nihon” — is becoming depopulated. This is a tremendous loss in cultural diversity.

      It’s also more difficult to pay for an ageing society, and this causes tremendous social stress.

      As well, ageing societies are consuming less. I don’t have the stats for Japan, but in the UK, per capita consumption of biomass, metals has fallen by about 20% since 2000.

      Finally, Japan itself had a per capita carbon footprint 50% of that of the US, which consumes 20% of the world’s resources.

      It’s a complicated phenomenon, and it’s too simplistic to say that population decline is the solution to the world’s problems.

      For one thing population decline is going to happen in Japan anyway (the 100 million target will never happen) while population increase is inevitable in other parts of the world. We have to work with existing realities and not succumb to wishful thinking.

      • Bart_at_EB

        Much of what you say is true, Nevin…. what I am pointing out is the framing of population decline as a bad thing which must be fought. Yes, there are problems but they pale in comparison to climate change, loss of species and ecological damage.

        Personally, I’m more concerned with ways for us to reduce our consumption, but I recognize that population is a key driver. The *worst* thing we an do is try to increase the population in developed countries, as various European countries have tried to do. The *best* thing we can do is to welcome a decrease when it comes, and to handle it gracefully. Perhaps the Japanese will be able to show us the way.

        I think the depopulation of rural areas is a separate problem. That’s happening everywhere because of political/economic trends.

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