Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

With respect to Peter’s latest Big Think, a warning, and a push-back.

There are a number of hard-to-figure things about the Japanese, and perhaps, building on top of distinctive cultural traits regarding sex and love that go way back, the 21st century Japanese really have become erotically odd, but in a way that foreshadows a world-wide modern democratic individualism, in the Tocquevillian sense, to come.

Perhaps they have become subject to a “Celibacy Syndrome,” as Peter puts it, quoting a phrase the Guardian claims is being widely used by the Japanese media. That Guardian piece has the attention-grabbing but patently hyperbolic headline Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?   Perhaps something really is afoot that merits such hyperbole. Perhaps they have become, as Peter speculates, the “least erotic people in the world.”

But. Be. Very. Skeptical.

For the late wunderkind Japanese-translator blogger Ampontan (Bill Sakovich) utterly debunked one of the three studies the Guardian story relies upon, the one making the particular claim that 45% of women aged 16-24 (and a quarter of the men) “were not interested in or despised sexual contact,” when these claims first surfaced a couple years ago. Here’s the money graf:

In other words, the Internet was agog over a report that 22 males and 38 females aged 16-19 said either that they had no interest in sex or despised it. When the Huffington Post spun this story as “a third of the nation’s youth” disliking sex, they were basing it on the response of 60 self-selected people. The HuffPo also thinks 38 girls is a “whopping” number.

Yes, another survey the Guardian article links to is much better than that, with a sample near 10,000, but as far as I can tell by skimming the report, it deals with fairly different questions, while as a whole it supports the overall trend reported of less effort being put into pursuing love relationships and marriages.

And the dearth-birth findings are undeniable.

But I still think Ampontan was right to use that instance as an opportunity to tear into the usual pattern of English-speaking press coverage of all things Japanese, which has a tendency to focus on the strange, the sexual, and on certain of our futurist fears, and which more importantly, is often built upon very minimal research and translation-work.

So one more bit: I’ve regularly associated with Japanese kids of high school and college age — in the Japanese language — since 1984, and the idea that they have a widespread aversion to sex caused a snort louder than any straw slurp.

We Westerners like the to make the Japanese a symbol of various modern trends we’re worried about, such as when the 90s British rock-band Blur made “Yuko and Hiro” an emblem of our soulless tired-out capitalist future:

This is my workplace,
and these are the people
I work with: Yuko and Hiro.
We work together.

We work for the company
that looks to the future.
We work hard, to please them.
They will protect us.


I never see you . . .
we’re never together . . .
I’ll love you forever.

And now we’re more worried about things sexual than corporate.

The problem is, see, Japan’s a whole nation of persons, and a much bigger one than most. Ampontan did years of very detailed work giving you a sense of how diverse a place it really is, and how warm and unique many of those persons are, underneath certain surface appearances. If you explore what he did on his blog before he passed away about a year ago, you’ll see what I mean.

So let’s be careful before we make the Japanese into future-forecasting archetypes that only some of them may half-fit.   They may indeed be in some ways weird, but I suspect we have too much of a penchant for making them so.

I’m of course open to correction pending more years of similar sociological findings.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles