Why have the Japanese stopped having sex?

Japanese workers at a Tokyo subway station

Japanese workers at a Tokyo subway station

A recent story in the Guardian rocketed around the internet recently. It’s not surprising how quickly the story was picked up given the provocative headline: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”

Now, obviously, a whole country didn’t completely literally stop having sex, but birth rates have been dropping and interest in sex and relationships have been measured at record lows.

The number of single people has reached a record high. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. 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 is going on here?

The article lists all the usual excuses: too busy, too tired, technological substitutes, you know the story. But there are other reasons, too. Businesses feel women will quit their jobs once they have a baby. And they feel babies are likely after marriage. Thus women put off marriage to avoid triggering career suicide. But overall, those interviewed for the article make it sound like it’s just a big bother. There’s work to be done and the reward doesn’t match the effort.

One must be careful not to stereotype an entire culture when reading these type of stories. We also must avoid projecting our own biases onto these people. But perhaps we can learn something about ourselves by viewing this phenomenon from the safe perspective of our own culture.

To me, the interesting aspect is the disconnect from what is real and what is important in life. And this is where I see North Americans heading down the same road, although the exact manifestation looks different.

Capitalism is an awesome power. I love the power of money to motivate people. I love how it makes us push ourselves to do better. An unleashed marketplace is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. But it makes a better servant than a master.

The Japanese obsession with career mirrors our own in many ways.  But like many things exported from America, they’ve taken our ideas and made them more efficient. I was in Japan a few years ago and riding the subway during the evening was a stereotype come to life. The train cars are totally silent. Each and every person (except for we tourists) was glazed over and typing frantically on their cell phone. They were tired, you could tell. The kind of tired you only get from being in an office all day. Their bodies swayed gently as the train rolled along. They glanced up only occasionally to see if it was their stop. On the sidewalks, people rush quickly to and from their jobs, barely looking from side-to-side as they scurry (violent crime is almost unheard of so there is little need to glance around for personal protection the way we do here in the U.S.)

I think what Japan has created here is the perfect worker drone, or something close to it. Could this help explain the Japanese fascination with robots?

(Quick side note: I don’t mean to imply everyone we met everywhere has turned into a worker drone. It was also one of the most peaceful and calm places I’ve been. People largely were very happy, open and friendly. They believe in nature, beauty and well-designed cities. It’s just in the business districts and subways where you could really see the strain on the working class.) 

In modern times, the Japanese have an unwritten understanding of lifetime (or close to it) job security. In recent years, this is reportedly slipping with more contract workers and less security overall. However, incidences of losing one’s job involuntarily are still quite rare. This security comes with a price, however, in many unpaid hours and institutional and peer pressure to work many hours. On a societal level this obviously impacts relationships and family stability. On an individual level, the price is even higher as many lead empty, unfulfilling lives of drudgery and exhaustion. Who benefits? Well, the employers, of course, pocketing free labor and a stable workforce. What does it matter if people drop dead from overwork? Yes, it happens. It’s a phenomenon common enough there is actually a word for it: karoshi.

Are we heading this direction? Are we already there? We already have a massive labor theft problem here. We already have families falling apart under financial strain. We spend hours glazed over sitting in idling cars trying to get home where we glaze over a few hours more watching TV before stumbling to bed to do it all over again. Japan may have a low marriage rate, but we have an abysmal divorce rate. While it’s still expected that the mother stays home to raise the child in Japan, we ship our little ones off to be raised by others in large groups of other kids. Maybe we’re all just the same.


Naturopathic doctors often look at the skin to determine your overall health. Blemishes, rashes, pimples, etc. are all indicators of various medical issues, frequently related to diet. More fundamentally, however, clear, glowing skin indicates vibrant health. Just look up “health” in any stock image site to see what I mean.

A person’s sex life is the same way. It can be an indicator of overall health and life balance. While not as outwardly visible as your skin, it’s still acts as the same type of viewing window into your overall life — even if you’re the only one who can see it.

When something as fundamental as normal sexual interactions between people begins to break down, we know the problems run deep and have been building for years, possibly generations.

The Japanese are panicking because they are concerned about a shrinking economy (and their obsession with racial purity precludes them leaning on immigration the way other countries have done.) We don’t yet know what other problems these breakdowns in normal human interactions will have. We know pretending we can force ourselves into something beyond human causes major dysfunction — just ask any altar boy. We also well understand the strain modern life can take on us, most clearly seen when the vulnerable finally snap — all too often with weaponry in-hand.

Humans are animals as much as we like to we pretend we’re not. Allowing ourselves to be turned into machines for the sake of money is damaging to ourselves and society. Yes, we need food, clothing, shelter, rest, sex, love and emotional support to survive. And that’s just for survival. Is survival the goal? Or should the goal be to live as full and vibrant a life as possible? Society should be geared to harvest the maximum value from each individual, but that value shouldn’t be measured in money.

The important thing is that men should have a purpose in life. It should be something useful, something good.
-Dalai Lama

No one wants to give up the advancements of the modern world. In many important ways, things are better now than they have ever been. But we cannot lose who we are. Stories like this one out of Japan should be the canaries in the coal mine warning us we’re veering off-course. It’s not too late to change and individuals must lead the way by valuing their humanity more than money. Choose how much and when you’ll work. Buy your freedom as soon as possible and devote your life to what you think is important. Your society (and your spouse) will thank you.

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31 Thoughts on “Why have the Japanese stopped having sex?

  1. I think we would be in that situation already if we didn’t have such a steady stream of immigration in this country. They help offset the fact that most of us aren’t having as many babies as we used to. I wonder if Japan will lighten up on their views on immigration in light of their predicament.
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    • Pretired Nick on November 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm said:

      I doubt it. They are pretty obsessed with keeping their gene pool pure. Personally I think there are alternatives to an endlessly growing economy, but that’s a post for another day.

      • I think they should open up the country for more immigration too. They’re just heading down a dead end.
        Once you get out of the city, people are much more relaxed. Most young folks want to be in the city though so it’s tough. We really like Japan and would love to visit it again. Pretty expensive though.
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        • Pretired Nick on November 13, 2013 at 10:16 am said:

          I somehow doubt that will happen, but it’d be a smart move in some ways (although the country already seems really crowded so maybe there’s more going on there than meets the eye).
          We loved it, too. Definitely a different mentality outside the big cities. Very peaceful and pleasant. But it was a lot harder to find people that spoke English there so that made things tough.

  2. That’s weird. This post came up on my google alerts under “Japanese Sex Robots”.

    On a more serious note, that sounds like a pretty serious societal issue in Japan. I have heard about their negative population growth rate and the resultant top-heavy population distribution (lots of old people, not many youngsters). They better start paying people to make babies! Or secretly pipe the Japanese equivalent of Barry Manilow into those crowded subway cars. By the time those salarymen get home, they’ll be laid back and ready.
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  3. I do believe that work is what interferes with the sex life of people in Japan (and, of course, worldwide). I know that in my case too working too much resulted in skipping some happy nights, and I am talking here about the “no” I indirectly said and not the “I’ve got a headache” from the wifey, which could mean anything :)) And I clearly don’t work as much as the regular Japanese guy…

    As an European though, I find it really strange since Asian ladies were my guilty pleasure ever since I started to be interested in women and I thought that everybody would feel the same, including the Asian dudes. Hopefully this “disease” won’t take over the entire world as it seems it’s going to…

  4. Wow, Nick – scary stuff!! Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if America wasn’t too far behind. The pursuit of money and stuff in this country, like in Japan, is a very dangerous path. 🙁
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  5. Wild stuff, Nick. The world is in a funny state these days. I often wonder how it’ll look when I hit 65. Any ideas?
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    • Pretired Nick on November 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm said:

      I don’t know, man. I see pressure in both directions. We may see a separation where two sets of cultural values exist side-by-side.

  6. Not being a prude, and not saying that I don’t indulge occasionally but the prevalence and easy access of porn on the internet removes some of the need for “some” men to interact with women – who as men know can be very difficult to approach.
    I don’t mean that to sound as though I’m some sort of weirdo – but I think its true.

    • Pretired Nick on November 8, 2013 at 12:42 pm said:

      I think that is true. Not to mention the unrealistic expectation it gives men about how things are supposed to be. I can’t imagine growing up as a teenage boy in this era. Your understanding of sexuality must be so twisted…

  7. Why can’t I write like this, Nick? You have ruined my weekend, with the realization that I cannot produce this kind of thoughtful article. You jerk.

    Interesting and unique stuff here, Nick. Well done.
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    • Pretired Nick on November 8, 2013 at 12:43 pm said:

      Ah, come on, DBF! Your stuff is great — what are you talking about?
      I try to keep things interesting so I appreciate the kind words. The only crime in blogging is being boring, I think.

  8. Crazy isn’t it Nick?! Intimacy with Mrs. DD is one of the things I cherish most, so I don’t understand the results of the Japanese study you referenced. It has been repeatedly documented that birthrates fall as a population becomes more wealthy……so that and the lack of immigration in Japan likely are heavy factors. There is just sooo much more to life than work, for me anyway. Thanks for the original article Nick.

    I don’t think it’s very likely the US follows Japan down this road however. We are a much more diverse population than Japan. Also there are a large group, including me and most of your readers, who aren’t willing to sacrifice everything for our jobs. My time, fun, and especially family are just too darn important.

    • Pretired Nick on November 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm said:

      We’re having some of the same breakdowns, but the manifestation is different. Mass shootings, molesters, widespread divorce, depression, serial killers, etc. all seem to be on the upswing here. Hopefully we can all regain our balance over the coming generations.

  9. Nick, such a good read on a Sunday morning, and may I say just before I head off to The New York Times to exhaust my monthly pittance of free articles. Again, an interesting take on our world and the role of money and our life. Keep it up you underage sage. I concur with Done by Forty, nice work Nic, nice work.
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  10. Pretired Nick on November 10, 2013 at 8:39 am said:

    Ah, you’re far too kind, Tommy. Glad you’re enjoying your morning!

  11. Very interesting post. I really did not know what to expect when I saw the title. It was very insightful into the culture of the Japanese. I have heard that they are like worker drones…and that I’m sure with the economic difficulties and the possibility of losing one’s job compared to the old days, it adds to the stress in life. I definitely do think that these issues have to be addressed as demographics/population growth is pretty important to a country’s prosperity.
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    • Pretired Nick on November 12, 2013 at 10:38 am said:

      Thanks, Andrew! I think the government is panicking a little bit because there won’t be enough young people to pay for the older generation’s needs. Crazy times!

  12. Perhaps I’m hijacking the post a bit, but one often reads about how the Japanese economy has been in a rut for decades. Considering how hard they work, why is this?

    Is it lack of innovation? (Bye bye Walkman, hello iPod!)
    Is it competition? (Bye bye Honda, hello Hyundai!)

    I’m not sure, but Japanese culture doesn’t sound like any fun.
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    • Pretired Nick on November 12, 2013 at 10:42 am said:

      It probably has a lot to do with population growth. It’s hard to grow your GDP if your population is flat or shrinking. But to me, that’s just another reason to ditch GDP as the economic goal of a country. Having been there, I don’t think their economy is “bad” the way we think of our economy being bad. You don’t see homeless people there. There’s no violent crime to speak of. Everything is clean and everyone seems like they have somewhere to be. But to be sure they have some of the same issues with their manufacturing industry moving elsewhere for lower costs so there are a lot of similarities as well.

      • Ahhh, very interesting. I’m just looking at things through the wrong lens then. Thanks for the explanation.

        I’ve never been to Asia, but definitely want to go. It will happen in time.

        OK, hijacking again: Your Seahawks are kicking ass. My stupid Bears suck. I’m not a fair weather guy, but if the Bears can’t do it (and they can’t), I’m rooting for Jet City.
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  13. Wow, what a thought provoking post! I see a little bit of the same commuter-stare during subway trips in my own city of Chicago, but it’s not always like that. I think you’re right that it’s a very dangerous sign when an entire country starts worrying only about making money and succeeding instead of what truly makes them happy in life. This is the sort of message we all need to see to remember to live life for fun and not in order to become a machine!

    Also, you’re “Confirm you are a Bears fan” button seems to have a typo on it, just FYI…
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    • Pretired Nick on November 14, 2013 at 6:59 am said:

      Thanks, Reb! We definitely need to keep our eye on the prize and remember who we are as people.

      I checked the code and everything seems correct. I’ll just put you down as a Seahawks fan.

  14. Hmm, I don’t know that a low birth rate is because of lack of sex or more because of a higher awareness of birth control and options. But the other stats are interesting.
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    • Pretired Nick on November 17, 2013 at 6:42 am said:

      Heh, I think their point is that when young people aren’t interested in sex, the likelihood of marriage and children drops off substantially. Thanks for the comment!

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