In my quest to learn ever more about sex the world over, I’ve read about many different cultural customs, sexual mores, and behaviors. And, over the years I’ve read about certain countries having lower birth rates than most other countries.

But I was quite surprised to discover that Japan is experiencing not only a dramatic drop in population but also a major drop in young people’s desire to have sex. In fact they have a name for the phenomenon, sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome”. This trend, if it continues, has great implications for the entire society regarding population levels but also issues related to mental health, local communities and social cohesion.

While most of the world experiences population growth or a somewhat stabilized state, Japan’s population began falling in 2004 and is now ageing faster than any other on the planet. By 2060 the number of Japanese will have fallen from 127m to about 87m, of whom almost 40% will be 65 or older. The famously homogenous Japanese have even considered allowing large numbers of immigrants to come to help stabilize the population. As someone who is concerned about global population growth and limited resources, I welcome any country that plans for the future and limits its population. But Japan is in another kind of situation where it cannot control its birth rate that is on a diminishing spiral downward. This could be a national catastrophe for Japan in the future with so many older citizens who rely upon younger Japanese to support their retirement and the strength of the economy.

So, how has this happened? Well it’s a complex story. But it appears that Japanese society is avoiding the physical act of sex – and real life relationships – more and more. Research stats reflect this trend. The number of single Japanese has reached a record high. A 2011 survey noted that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship. This is a 10% rise from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. And, a survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24, and more than 25% of men “were not interested in or despised sexual contact”.

A fascinating new article in the Guardian explored this topic and interviewed a sex and relationship counselor, Ai Aoyama, who works with many Japanese to increase their comfort with sexual intimacy. Ms. Aoyama believes the country is experiencing “a flight from human intimacy.” She finds that many people who visit her are deeply confused.
“Some want a partner, some prefer being single, but few relate to normal love and marriage.” She also believes that the current structure of their society – and the government’s inability to act, have made it worse. Japanese still feel the pressure to conform to Japan’s family model of salary man husband and stay-at-home wife. But times have changed.

The country’s economy has stagnated for over 20 years and the recent earthquake, nuclear meltdown and related events has scarred the national psyche. Men are less secure in their jobs and have less wealth, while women know that if they become pregnant, their careers are likely to be ended, given the conservative mindset of many businesses. So not only is marriage looking more and more impractical, it is becoming less and less realistic to have a career and a family. Factor in that for many Japanese children are unaffordable unless both parents work and you have a serious motivation to stay single.

But the current trends go way beyond that. Many young Japanese seem to be “spiraling away from each other,” according to Ms. Aoyama. With no long-term shared goals, young people seek distractions in online porn, virtual-reality “girlfriends”, anime cartoons. and occasionally casual sex. Many are opting out of developing close and long-lasting relationships. Many Japanese women fear marriage because they can expect an end to promotions upon marrying. In fact, about 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. Japan is consistently ranked by the World Economic Forum as one of the world’s worst nations for gender equality at work. The result is a faster aging population, communities where isolation and alienation are common, and a society that has difficulty moving forward together.

Japan’s social history and gender roles have combined to create a situation where being single and avoiding intimacy is preferable to the crushing expectations of the traditional roles of hard-working husband and the passive, stay at home mom. This in a society where living alone was once a painful mark of deviation from a communal society.

Apparently, many young people do not feel that the trends are a problem and welcome the chance to have more individual freedom.

My sense is that the Japanese need to transform their gender roles to accommodate more intimacy between the genders and allow for greater gender equality, including in the economic sphere. The government has made some gestures to change with support for day care centers but the society faces a difficult future if they stay on the current track.

In a way, I’m glad so many young people have attempted to break through the traditions of their society, but, because of current economic and social barriers, they are abandoning physical and sexual intimacy at an alarming rate. And many experts worry that Japan may be headed towards a unique society where being single is a typical choice, where escape into digital virtual worlds is a common theme, and the effort to establish intimate relationships is too much effort with too little benefit.

While other countries also experience an aversion to marriage and intimacy, and the growing fascination with digital technology, Japan may be the more exaggerated example of where these trends can lead.

The Guardian article’s Ms. Aoyama noted the ultimate value of “skin-to-skin, heart-to-heart” intimacy. “It’s not healthy that people are becoming so physically disconnected from each other,” she noted. “Sex with another person is a human need that produces feel-good hormones and helps people to function better in their daily lives.”

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