That's a reference to the old joke about the British and sex. The reason it's now about the Japanese is a story in the Guardian about how Japanese young people no longer ever plan to have nookie, ever! Both sexual intercourse and marriage are dying in Japan. A story at Slate suggests that this new celibacy could be a viable cultural pattern for societies in general!
Which is hilarious, as the Shakers' experience demonstrates. Unless we mean that it's a viable pattern for some people, not for whole cultures.
You don't really want to be me when reading stories of this type, because my brain is permanently set in the critical mode, and I always, always want better data and more data, and so I go grumpy. Take this statement, from the Guardian article:
A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact". More than a quarter of men felt the same way.
What do those numbers mean? We need to understand what answers the Japanese culture expects from men and women to such questions. For instance, if young women are supposed to be pure and cute and virginal, as the article tells elsewhere, would such young women admit that they are interested in sexual contact? And what were the findings of studies like this in the past, if such studies were carried out? My guess is that in the 1950s close to a hundred percent of Japanese unmarried women might have answered that they are not interested in sexual contact. Because that was expected of them.
In other words, you need proper frameworks to understand what we are talking about. And though interviewing individuals is always delightful, those anecdotes tell us nothing about how common some phenomena are. For example, the women interviewed in the Guardian article are all at least middle class or higher, if I can read the class markers. Would the same things apply to working class women? To working class men?
All this means that I'm not completely convinced of the idea that the young Japanese will mostly never have intercourse or children again. At the same time, something is going on, and part of it certainly has to do with two aspects of the Japanese society.
First, the very patriarchal norms about women and marriage and men and marriage:
Aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Nor is growing preoccupation with digital technology. But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country's procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it's especially true for women. "Marriage is a woman's grave," goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers.
I meet Eri Tomita, 32, over Saturday morning coffee in the smart Tokyo district of Ebisu. Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. "A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realised I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up."
Tomita says a woman's chances of promotion in Japan stop dead as soon as she marries. "The bosses assume you will get pregnant." Once a woman does have a child, she adds, the long, inflexible hours become unmanageable. "You have to resign. You end up being a housewife with no independent income. It's not an option for women like me."
Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world's worst nations for gender equality at work. Social attitudes don't help. Married working women are sometimes demonised as oniyome, or "devil wives". In a telling Japanese ballet production of Bizet's Carmen a few years ago, Carmen was portrayed as a career woman who stole company secrets to get ahead and then framed her lowly security-guard lover José. Her end was not pretty.The point of the article here is an excellent one: Why would women with alternatives get married in a society which requires them to relinquish everything for it except a submissive and maternal role, fully at the mercy of the breadwinner in the family? Even for women who want children, being yelled at by the government about the low birth rate is not much of an incentive. It's the whip, again, and not much carrot.
But men aren't offered such a great deal there, either. The "salaryman," expected to provide for the family all on his own, is also expected to work twenty-hour-days, and the economic realities today,what with high cost of housing etc., means that families need two breadwinners. But then the wife is a "devil wife" and round and round we go.
The second factor, other than the gender roles, has to do with the hi tech substitutes for sex in the Japanese society, such as Internet pron. The incentive to use those (especially for heterosexual men as the markets cater for men's fantasies) is greater when living together and other such forms of heterosexual dating are disapproved of. Nobody knows what you are doing with your computer. And there are some slight hints (of which I might write about later) that a strong focus on technical masturbation makes real human individuals of the desired gender look like racks for genitals, not like human beings.
All these are first thoughts and written from outside the culture. But consider the change in Japan: Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote about the Japanese politicians whose wives had to walk a certain number of steps behind them. Now we discuss Internet pron and gender roles in Japanese families. So my guess is that the slow pace of change in norms and values is what is causing the problems, to the extent they exist, and that it is those norms and values which must change. Add to that the real overpopulation of today's Japan. Perhaps a lower fertility for a while IS the right path to follow?
Finally, the current ecological disaster in Japan would certainly put most people off the idea of a pregnancy in the near future. It is that problem the Japanese should see to first, for all our sakes.