Why Young People in Japan Have Stopped Having Sex: An Exploration


They’re calling it “celibacy syndrome,” a condition in which a large proportion of young Japanese, both men and women, have lost interest in both sex and dating. The numbers are astounding – 45% of Japanese women between 16 and 24 report either disliking or having no interest in sexual contact, with more than a quarter of men in the same demographic agreeing with them.

Hypotheses abound as to why this may be so, primary among which are currently poor economic conditions in Japan as well as lingering outdated conceptions of male and female roles in society. But this can’t be the whole story. Take a country like Afghanistan, which has a terrible economy, but one of the highest birth rates in the world. Look at the United States – we, too, once expected women to fulfill “traditional” roles while men worked to support the family. But society’s opinions change as people do, and there’s no reason to believe that Japan should be an exception.

The mistake, I think, lies in treating this as a social issue. You can’t “fix” this kind of situation with large-scale therapy because it probably isn’t psychological at all. Instead, it’s far more likely that the Japanese are exhibiting a very natural biological response to long-standing conditions in their national environment.

There is one very noteworthy example of a similar and well-documented phenomenon – the panda. For decades scientists have been trying to rescue the panda from extinction, but it’s not only habitat loss that’s endangering the pandas; they have an extremely low birth rate. Even in captivity it’s difficult to persuade pandas to reproduce. Why? Because they refuse to mate.

Pandas are likely unhampered by clinging to traditional conceptions of gender roles. They’re not still living with their parents when they’re thirty-five, and they don’t see being in a relationship as getting in the way of their careers. Yet their mating behavior is extremely reminiscent of what seems to be transpiring among the young Japanese. Maybe the problem is not the double-edged sword it seems to be; maybe it’s not that they’re experiencing habitat loss and that they also have a low birth rate; maybe the habitat loss is instead the cause of the low birth rate.

I read somewhere a long time ago that women who are overweight have a better chance of giving birth to girls. I’ve thought a lot about that. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? A high amount of body fat suggests living conditions in which food is abundant; a situation ideal for creating new baby-makers. But then it also stands to reason that people should be less likely to make more people when they live in an environment that is unable to support them. It’s an old story. Think about cacti, patiently waiting for rain to come to the desert so that they may burst forth in their annual bloom. Or about animals with well-defined mating seasons; these creatures are hard-wired to give birth when food sources will be adequate. Are people any different?

In industrialized nations, birth rates have been declining world-wide over the last century. Indeed, certain countries (like Japan) have declining populations because they no longer produce enough new children to offset the number of its citizens who die. The typical culprits presumed to be associated with this international trend are shifting social values, women joining the workforce, and broad access to contraception. But what if those factors are not causes, but effects?

Among other species, the self-limiting nature of a particular population is often obvious. An overabundance of deer will trigger an increase in the number of wolves available to prey upon them until the increased number of wolves can no longer be supported by the reduced number of deer. Humans, of course, have few predators (besides other humans) and some of our deadliest known diseases have largely been controlled by advances in medicine. And in developed countries at least, hunger is comparatively rare. Yet the industrialized nations are huge consumers of natural resources; far more rapacious than their poorer counterparts. Is it possible that on the most basic, chemical level, human bodies, too, recognize when population growth needs to stop?

Japan has the lowest birth rate of any country in the world. It also has the longest average life expectancy. Similarly, nations at the highest end of the birth rate scale (particularly the so-called Third World countries of Africa) have the lowest life expectancies – as low as 47 years in a nation like Sierra Leone, versus 83 years in Japan. Few would argue that Africa has such a high birth rate because its economy is so strong and the prospects for young families so glowing. It seems clear, rather, that with the comparatively high death rate, there is simply more room in that environment for humans to be born. And in nations which are both physically and economically overcrowded, like Japan, perhaps in spite of our technological advances and know-how, there really is only so much space for a species to expand.

Children are the customary result of people coupling up, and maybe this reported lack of interest in sex and relationships is not a consequence of psychological factors like doubtful economic prospects or changing social mores, but a biological response to an environment which, like any other, has limits on the population it is able to support. Japan may be only the beginning; perhaps the other developed and people-packed nations of the world will gradually also become subject to Japan’s changing perception of sex and relationships as their citizens’ needs begin to exceed their available resources. It doesn’t mean that humanity is doomed. On the contrary, this may be the start of a worldwide leveling off of the human population; a hint that we’re approaching that natural balance that most long-lived species eventually achieve.

One might even suspect that a century from now, “celibacy syndrome” may no longer be isolated to particular countries, but will be planetary in scope. Indeed, as our beloved Earth becomes less and less fit for human occupation, as certainly seems likely, perhaps sex itself will become a relic of some distant, dirty past, confined to vast digital volumes of internet pornography from the twenty-first century that no one will even want to look at anymore.

But I don’t think we need to worry that. Humans will always have some interest in and desire for sex; it’s natural, after all, practically a prerequisite to belonging to the animal kingdom. Of course, human sex may eventually end up just like other animal sex; one day it may be reduced to a minimum of foreplay and an eye towards the quick finish – getting the job done, if you will. Then we’ll find ourselves faced with different kinds of questions. Such as whether we still want to live in that kind of world.

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