The Truth About Sex in Japan

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Ah, sex in Japan, always a hot topic in online forums.

If you’re a man, and you post: I’m having lots of sex in Japan!

then someone will surely reply: The women you’re seeing are all hoes.

Or, if you’re a woman and you post the same thing, then: You yourself are a ho.

Okay, so the internet’s never been famous for politeness.

On the other hand, if you post: Japan sucks and I’m not having any sex.

then someone will reply: You’re such a loser, since there are so many hoes.

Or, if you’re a woman, then: You’re still a ho.

Well, you can’t argue with logic.

This rather banal discussion recently took a turn for the interesting, however, after the Japan Family Planning Association reported that 45% of young Japanese women, and over 25% of men, “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” The Guardian followed this with a piece entitled Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?

So why have they?

Why Japanese People Aren’t Having Sex

After living in Japan for a few years, this actually makes sense to me. Okay, I’m not like a sociologist or anything. I’m just some dude in Japan who tries to find a clean pair of socks so he can put one on and run to the station to cram onto the train with ten thousand of the unhappiest Japanese people you’ve ever seen. I don’t pretend to have discovered the Unified Field Theory of Japanese sexuality, but I’ll give you four factors that I think are contributing.

Thing One: Work in Japan

People in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, work a ridiculous amount, in a way that’s hard to comprehend if you live in, say, sunny California. Take a former student of mine, Naoko, who worked as a programmer. She worked—wrap your head around this—twenty hours a day.

“Every day at 4 a.m.,” she said, “they’d turn off the lights and we’d sleep at our desks for four hours.

“Did you have locker rooms?” I asked. “What about clothes?

“I just wore the same clothes, but on Sunday I’d go home for half a day, to shower. The men only went home once a month.

“That must have smelled pretty nice. How long’d you do that for?

“Five years and three months,” she said.

Okay, so maybe that’s an extreme example. A more typical case is probably my former student Masahiro, who’s an executive at a famous beverage manufacturer. He works from 9 a.m. until to midnight, six days a week, with a 15-minute lunch break at his desk. He has Sunday off, which is when he studies English.

“I have it easy,” he said, “since I work at an international company. Japanese places are a lot worse.”

“Do you ever see your wife?” I asked.

“I see her on Sunday,” he said.

“But Sunday’s when you come here to study English,” I pointed out.

“Ah, good point,” he said.

For most people, it comes down to two choices: work like mad as a single person and have a tiny apartment full of dirty clothes and half-eaten Cup Ramen containers, or get married. That way, the man goes off to work, and when he comes home after midnight, his dinner is sitting on the table covered in Saran Wrap, and there’s hot water in the tub. His wife and daughter are already asleep. Shopping, ironing, cleaning, paying the bills, everything’s taken care of for him. All he has to do is bring home a paycheck. The woman gets to do all the fun, fulfilling things like taking care of baby, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking meals. Sometimes I’ll ask my adult students how often they see their spouses, or ask the kids when they see their fathers. The answer is roughly on par with how often I’ve seen the Easter Bunny. I am, however, a big fan of marshmallow Peeps, so maybe it’s not as infrequent as you think.

The young Japanese people of today grew up watching their parents live this life, and it’s understandable if they’re not thrilled about this option. Marriage isn’t a great choice; it’s just the second-worst option. For a man, it means he’s working to pay for his wife. For a woman, it means a life of indentured servitude. A lot of people are apparently “just saying no” to the whole thing.

Thing Two: Prostitution in Japan

Again, this is a hard thing to reconcile if you don’t live in Japan, but being in a relationship and having sex have precious little to do with one another. For a Japanese male, it’s possible to get sex almost anywhere, at any time, for little more than the price of a decent lunch. Anyone who’s been in Japan for even a short while has seen the rows of shops offering all the usual services. (As an aside, I’ll add that “foreigners” aren’t allowed in. You can be that crazy dude who lives under a bridge and rides a bicycle with garbage bags full of tin cans hanging off the back, but as long as you’re “Japanese,” you’re good to go. But Japanese racism is a whole other subject.)

Now, I’m in no way saying that the majority of men and women participate in this, but the fact that the institution exists changes the social dynamic. All Japanese people innately recognize that:

If you’re a man with just a little bit of money, you can have sex with as many attractive women as you want.


If you’re an attractive woman, well . . . Look, I teach English for a living. Every week, people pay me to sit in Starbucks and simply talk with them. Afterwards, I go to a bar, and every week, sure as hell, someone will approach me and say, “Wow, let’s speak English together!” Now, I may even want to, but really, who gives away what they can sell? It’s my job, not my hobby.

So prostitution has turned sex in Japan into a commodity. It’s something that’s available for purchase, like movie tickets or a head of cabbage or something. Sex isn’t an expression of love between two people; it’s something that can be bought or sold when necessary.

Now don’t get me wrong—again, I don’t mean to imply that there are a lot of men going to these places, or a lot of women working there. It sure seems that way, but I don’t actually know. What I mean to say is that the fact that it exists changes the way people view relationships. As in, I once dated a girl who told me, “You know, a lot of men would pay good money to be dating me like you are.” Which I really couldn’t argue with because, well, she was right. They would.


Thing Three: Japanese Social Relations

Recently, a friend of mine got married to a man through an arranged marriage. She used to get drunk and try to kiss me whenever my girlfriend ran to the bathroom. She was awesome like that, actually.

“Do you love him?” I asked.

“He does train maintenance,” she said. “That’s a stable job.

“I’m pretty sure you just answered a different question,” I said.

“Well, I will eventually,” she replied.

I’ll try to put this in the best light possible, but Japanese social relations . . . um, well, they’re terrible. Okay, that didn’t come out so well. Abysmal? No, that’s worse, not better. [*Note to self: insert more nuanced term before posting this.]

The society functions with robot-like efficiency because your boss tells you what do—or your parents, or your teacher—and you do it. There’s a hierarchy. If you work in a ramen shop, you don’t say, “Hey boss, how about if, instead of two pieces of pork in the noodles, we tried three?” Are you insane? That’s not how things work. The fact is, you don’t challenge what you’re told, you don’t offer up original ideas, and you don’t initiate conversation with strangers. Which presents a koan-like riddle: If you don’t talk to people you don’t know, how do you get to know people?

I’ve lived in my current apartment building for, let’s see, about a year and a half now. Man, time flies. Anyway, in that time the number of neighbors I’ve met is . . . zero. I actually rode the elevator down with a guy yesterday. He was about my age and was tying his tie while I was still fumbling into my shoes. Okay, so here’s a little quiz for you, to see how well you know Japanese culture:

I figured I’d break the ice with a non-threatening situational observation, so I said in Japanese:

“Yeah, another busy morning, huh?”

To which he replied (choose one):

A. “Yeah, it sure is.”

B. “Oh jeez, I can’t believe my alarm didn’t go off.”

C. “Do you know how to tie a Double Windsor?”

D. “Holy crap, a white guy in my building!”

E. Absolutely freaking nothing.

If you chose “Absolutely freaking nothing,” then congratulations, you’re about halfway to earning a Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies. The reality is: people don’t have a lot of contact with each other. For Japanese folks, it’s insanely difficult to establish friendships and connections, which is no doubt why so many Host and Hostess Bars exist, so people can at least pay someone to talk to them.

Japanese people excel at social interactions when there are clearly defined roles: Boss and Worker, Clerk and Customer, Drunk Salaryman and Gaijin. There are clear rules and precedents for those situations. But for two Japanese people to strike up a conversation while in line at the grocery store? Well, it’s hypothetically possible, I suppose, like Dark Matter or something.

Thing Four: That Sexy Sexy Atmosphere

People are massively impacted by their environment and the people around them. That’s the Ken Seeroi Theory of Human Behavior. Wikipedia it. That means that if everyone else is having an awesome, sexy time, you’re more likely to as well. That’s why we have New Year’s Eve. When it’s a sunny day, everybody’s happy, and when it rains, everybody’s glum. Life’s funny like that.

So I was talking this over with my colleague Fujimoto-sensei last week, and he said,

“Ah, Ken, you should have seen it in the 90’s. Japan was different then. Everybody was making money, people were positive, it was more fun.

To which I replied, “Uh, it’s ‘Seeroi-sensei,’ remember? But yeah, I’ve heard that from a lot of people.

“Sorry, Ken-sensei,” he said. Then, “You know I used to have a wife and a girlfriend in those days.

“And now all you have is a wife?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I think we’re in a recession.”

So then after work, I went to my usual shokudo, which is basically like a cheap restaurant. It’s a tad dingy and run-down, but the food’s solid. I think of it like an extra living room, which helps since my apartment’s so darn small. The place was packed full of about thirty guys and gals in dark suits all sitting alone in silence, eating and reading manga or staring at their smartphones with glazed eyes. I stayed for about an hour and a half, ate some grilled mackerel and rice and miso soup, drank an Asahi beer, and watched TV. Their grilled fish is really good, I must say. The only person I talked with was the waitress, which is pretty typical. She’s about sixty and doesn’t say stupid things like, “Wow, you can use chopsticks,” so I like her. Then I walked the concrete corridor to the station and silently waited in line for the train.

When it came, it was packed as always, so we put on our faces of resignation and forced ourselves on since we had to, then rode without a word. When I got to my neighborhood it was dark, which was fine since there’s really not much to see anyway, nothing like a river or a tree or anything. Well, there is a little brown canal nearby, so I guess that’s something. I stepped around some rain puddles on the asphalt as I walked past the same gray blocks of condominiums I do every day, and thought, There must be a thousand units, and someone living in each one. Why is it I never see anyone on a balcony or in a window? And suddenly that seemed kind of strange, but then the feeling passed.

Eventually I got to my own dark building and rode the elevator up. Did I simply come to Japan too late? I wondered. Like 20 years too late? Then I opened the door and found my apartment just as I left it, full of dirty laundry and Cup Noodle containers. Nah, Japan’s still wonderful, I thought as I took a can of malt liquor from the fridge. I just need a Japanese wife–that’s the ticket. Someone to clean this place up, cook me some hot meals, and love, eventually.