Thoughts on life after the PhD
So that Guardian article that wondered why young people in Japan have stopped having sex got shared a lot, and a lot of people put in their two cents, and the general consensus seemed to be “Japan is weird, go figure, pillow girlfriends, robots, anime.”
As William Pesek and plenty of other people who’ve spent lots of time in Japan pointed out, though, the data was pretty flawed. For one thing, there was that National Institute of Population and Social Security research study that the article cited, which found that 49% of single women and 61% of single men between the ages of 18 and 24 weren’t in any kind of romantic relationship. But a key point was left out–of those surveyed, almost 90% said they intended to marry someday. And the “not currently in a romantic relationship” numbers really weren’t so different from numbers elsewhere in the world.
Foreign media outlets love to portray Japan as alternately sex-obsessed and sexually awkward. As with many portrayals of foreign countries, news articles will often seize on a random activity and portray it as a “trend.” I’ve been sent articles about “air sex” (like air guitar, but with sex), people wearing clothes with genitals drawn on them, and people sleeping in coffins–all presented as “this new thing that the Japanese are doing.” Never mind that it’s maybe two or three people doing said strange thing in a country of 120 million +.
So anyway. Back to the not-having-sex thing. Japan has been in a tizzy for quite some time about the fact that people aren’t getting married and having babies as early and as often as they used to (again, this isn’t unique to Japan–there’s been plenty of hand-wringing in the U.S. about high divorce rates and the preference for living together over marriage, or opting out of having children). And in Japan, it seems like there’s always a new group to blame for the problem. In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was the “parasite singles,” twenty-somethings who were continuing to live with their parents well past the usual marriage age. Then it was working women who were at fault for not giving up their jobs and staying home to have more kids (never mind that Japan’s high cost of living makes it very hard to support a family on a single income). Then it was “herbivore” men who weren’t pursuing sex and money aggressively enough, who had the gall to prefer their hobbies and friendships to the pursuit of wealth and women, and who thus weren’t attractive as potential mates.
Now it seems we’ve achieved full equality, because the blame is falling squarely on BOTH young men and young women for not having sex, and for not being interested in committed romantic relationships.
First of all, I agree with what Katy Waldman and plenty of other people have pointed out, which is that there’s nothing wrong with not having sex, or not being in relationships, or not getting married and having kids. We definitely need to stop pathologizing singlehood and thinking of a lack of interest in sex and relationships as some kind of “syndrome.”
But Japan can’t seem to stop worrying about this “problem,” so let’s assume for a moment that it actually is a problem that needs a solution. What to do? If we accept for a moment that it’s a good idea for people to have more sex, get married, and have kids, what’s the best way to move young people in that direction?
Glad you asked. Here’s my unsolicited gaijin advice, Japanese government and Concerned People for More Sex and Marriage:
1. Stop shaming people. It doesn’t work. Stop calling women selfish, stop calling men weak, stop calling young people shallow. It’s just plain mean, for one, and it’s not going to get anyone to have more sex or more babies.
2. Redefine what it means to be in a romantic relationship. The current model of a romantic relationship in Japan is incredibly narrow and doesn’t work for a ton of people. When I hear my Japanese friends complain about dating in Japan, they’re complaining a specific KIND of dating. Women don’t want to have to “play cute,” men don’t want to have to pay for everything. Women complain that men aren’t masculine enough, men complain that women aren’t feminine enough. Both parties complain that there’s too much pressure to meet a certain ideal. If everybody could just relax their notions of what it means to be a couple, and of the very strict rules that men and women have to follow in the dating world, I think everyone would have a lot more fun. And maybe end up having more sex.
3. Make workplaces more humane. Holy shit, have you ever worked for a Japanese company? If you’re commuting two or more hours a day and working eight to ten hours in a job that you probably don’t like, how can you possibly have any energy for dating or sex? Ever wonder why you see so many people sleeping on trains in Tokyo? It’s because they’re FUCKING EXHAUSTED. And it does NOT have to be this way. Many people who work insane amounts of overtime only do it because they feel pressure to stay until their boss leaves–they’re not actually being productive. Death from overwork is an actual problem in Japan. If you want people to even consider relationships and marriage, you’ve got to stop working them until they keel over.
4. Make it easier for both men and women to balance work and family life. Along the same lines–stop treating your employees as if they have no lives outside of their jobs. Let them take time off work when their kids are sick. Let them leave work before 7 pm on the occasional weeknight and go out. Let them occasionally telecommute. Don’t pressure women to quit their jobs after they marry, and make it easier for women to return to work after they have a child so that they don’t feel forced to choose between marriage and a career (because these days more and more of them are choosing the latter, and I don’t blame them at all).
5. Reduce the overall cost of living and raising children. Marriage and kids are DAMNED expensive, especially in Tokyo. When young people delay marriage and kids because they know they can’t afford them, they’re actually being quite responsible. Make it easier to rent a human-sized apartment or buy a house. It’s kind of hard to think about relationships when you can’t even afford to live on your own.
There you go, Japanese government. I suggest you get started on those solutions soon–this country isn’t getting any younger.
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