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Empire of the Sunset

USA Today ran a curious piece last week: Apparently the Japanese aren't having enough sex. The article is worth a few comments, though first I feel obliged to precede it with a disclaimer the size of a brick:

Any article written by a mainstream U.S. news source that is about a social trend in another country needs to be read with deep skepticism. Basically, our country doesn't give a shit about the other countries that we grudgingly share the planet with, so reporting like this gets it wrong, a lot. For many of us, the only interesting questions about other countries are questions like "Are their girls easy?" and "Do we have a lot of menu items named after them, causing awkwardness when they inevitably criticize our plans for pre-emptive war?" We certainly don't know anything about Japanese society, except for the fact that they make cool videogames and wacked-out porn. Hell, last year Sofia Coppola directed a movie in which she cast the entire island nation as a bunch of jibber-jabber-talking window-dressing, and then some fat white guys in Hollywood gave her an award for it.

(Now, in spite of the fact that both gaijin and Japanese expats in New York routinely mistake me for a son of Japan, I don't know much more about Japanese society than Ms. Coppola does. Though I hope that if I were to direct a movie about it I'd have the sense to, I don't know, read a book or something.)

Anyway. The USA Today story has enough numbers to make me think there's more than a little truth to the trend in question:

  • Births have declined for three straight years: At this rate the population will peak in 2006.
  • Weddings are dropping and divorce rates are rising. The rate of single Japanese women in their late 20s is up from 30.6% in 1985 to 54% today, and about half of single Japanese women aged 35-to-54 have no intention to marry.
  • Both condom sales and business at rent-by-the-hour "love hotels" are dropping. In 2001, Condom maker Durex found that, among 28 countries surveyed, Japan ranked dead last in frequency of sex. (Americans ranked No. 1, which seems hard to believe unless the survey excluded all of western Europe. But I'm not complaining: These days my patriotism needs all the help it can get.)

One possible cause provided by the article is a change in gender expectations. Traditionally, Japanese wives were expected to be more home-bound and subservient, but as Japanese women become more financially independent, they're less willing to put up with such a role. Male expectations stay the same, meaning you have two genders whose expectations are out of sync with one another, resulting in less unsatisfied people on both sides of the hetero gender fence.

I'd guess that this is a common phenomenon in any society where women gain financial independence: From the stories I've heard, it appears to be happening in South Korea as well. And I have faint memories of growing up in the U.S. in the '80s and hearing about similar complaints among the adults around me. (Through op-ed cartoons, I suppose, and maybe Saturday Night Live or Bloom County or something.) The complaints usually were from men saying they didn't know what women wanted anymore, which was probably code for women not wanting a husband who sits around in his undershirt and demands that she cook him a chicken pot pie.

The U.S. isn't exactly a paradise of gender equity, but today people of widely varying political leanings do seem to accept the notion of independent women in the workforce, and many of the changes in gender roles brought about by those economic opportunities. Which makes me wonder about when Japan and South Korea will adjust as well.

Now, if the USA Today article had focused more on economics or politics, it might have discussed the way that Japan's immigration policies place more pressure on the issue of sex in the first place. The biggest social concern is that Japan could become demographically top-heavy, forcing fewer Japanese of working age to have to support more retirees.

Seen against the backdrop of Japan's urbanization, efforts to get the Japanese to breed more might be a bit quixotic. In most big cities, the native populations naturally shrink, because it's jus too expensive to have children when you're paying $1200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. (In New York many young adults compensate with pets; in Tokyo many children can't even have pets, which had reportedly contributed to the success of Tamagotchis.)

In most cities, this shrinking is offset by immigration, as migrants continuously stream into the city. These immigrants are younger, and they're likely to take low-wage jobs.

But not in Japan, which is one of the most urban countries in the world. Japan has legendarily strict immigration laws, which are reportedly motivated by a desire to not have the country overrun by immigrants who would threaten the cultural cohesion of Japanese society. (Also, I suppose, it's already pretty damned crowded there.) The resulting lack of cheap labor seems to be one of the driving forces behind the country's astounding technological innovation, but even then the World Economic Forum recently told Japan it needs to multiply its current immigration rates by 11 times to keep up with aging.

Of course, the World Economic Forum has certain biases of its own, and there are those who predict that Japan can continue to innovate its way out of a growing labor shortage. I don't have any opinion on that, but I do think Japan's desire to hold so tightly onto its culture is more than a little quaint. But of course I would think that, being that I'm a dirty immigrant myself.

Perhaps it's fitting that policies enacted to preserve a society from change might also end up making that society disproportionately ld. After all, there's no bigger threat to a culture's stability than young people--which is why cultures always change throughout history, at varying rates, with or without the influence of foreign workers or occupying armies or the Internet. Who's to say? Maybe in 50 years, Japan will seem more like a museum than a country: filled with old, beautiful things locked safely behind glass, but oddly hushed and devoid of life.

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