No Sex, Please

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Sex is slipping in Japan. A recent poll by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that over 40 percent of adult millennials say they are virgins, while nearly two-thirds of the same cohort is not in a relationship. Marriage, traditionally a guarantee of easily available sex, seems no cure-all. Earlier this year, the Japan Family Planning Association found that almost half of all married couples were “sexless,” engaging in the activity less than once a month.  

None of this would matter much if it weren’t for the shrinking population. The island nation peaked around 2009 at 128 million and since then has lost over 1 million people. New births fail to keep up with deaths and immigration is discouraged. Even recent increase in fertility, now up to 1.46 percent from a low of 1.26 percent in the mid-2000s, isn’t enough to stem the downward trend. Women might be having more babies than a decade ago, but population decline has meant that there are there are fewer of them in their fertile years to do so. The result, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, will be a net loss of almost 40 million people over the next fifty years. The government’s own goal is to keep it from sliding below 100 million.   

Of course, Japan isn’t the only country to face a demographic decline of this sort.  Fertility in Sweden during the 1930s slipped quickly too, reaching a low of 1.7, exceptional for the time and worrying in an economy driven by agriculture. Analyzing the alarming trend, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal set off a national debate with their book, Crisis in the Population Question. The solution they offered combined Gunnar’s socialist leanings with Alva’s feminism to call for increased support for the laboring classes. The welfare system, they argued, should enable both parents to work outside the home while providing professional childcare for the next generation. Fix this, and you fix the birth dearth.  What was needed was a more gender-equal distribution of duties within the family, along with free medical care, free school lunches, child benefits, childcare, and housing subsidies.  

Crisis became a bestseller, sparking a national debate. The Prime Minister responded with a population commission and put Gunnar on it. Within three years, the country was on its way to the modern Swedish welfare state: financial support for family housing, prenatal care and childcare, subsidized loans for parents, and generous maternity provisions. For their work, both Myrdals eventually won Nobel Prizes.

Yet today, about half of all Swedish households are composed of childless adults, a rate that surpasses even that of Japan where it hovers around 35 percent. Still, the Nordic country isn’t facing the demographic crunch of its East Asian counterpart; the generous, if eroding, social welfare system has made for a bifurcated spread: people chose to have either no children or large families of two or more kids. The in-for-a-penny logic sustains an average fertility rate of almost 1.9 percent despite the prevalence of childlessness. 

But Sweden, with its government-based rather than employer-based welfare system, might be an odd paring with Japan.  Indeed, in some ways, the island nation looks more like the US.  In 1960, about 70 percent of Americans were married and 15 percent had never been.  Now about 50 percent of Americans are married while 30 percent never venture down the aisle.  These “singletons” tend to aggregate in cities where, according to Eric Kleinenberg, they create spaces for restorative solitude in an over-connected, over-virtual world. Being alone does not mean being in complete isolation. Online, the social media revolution has made these loners more social than ever. And offline, singletons go out more, attend more cultural events, and eat in restaurants more frequently than their family-bound counterparts. The result is a revitalized urban area. Compared to married people, singletons are happier, volunteer more, and leave a smaller ecological footprint. Perhaps these childless are the positive future Japan should embrace. 

Instead, Japan has “parasite singles,” a term coined by Masahiro Yamada to describe the cohort of youth who live with – and off – their parents into their 30s and beyond, failing to settle down and establish a family. According to the Statistical Research and Training Institute, around 4.5 million Japanese between 35 and 54 years old remain unmarried and living with their parents. On this score, Japan looks rather more like Southern Europe.  Of Italian adults between 30 and 44 years old, nearly a quarter live with their mothers, a proportion that rises to nearly two-thirds of those in their 20s. Rates are also high for Greece and Spain where depressed economic conditions and the difficulty of finding a good job have kept many adult children at home. In Japan, where unemployment is a rock-bottom 2.7 percent, it is the parasite singles who get the blame for shirking responsibility. In Southern Europe, by contrast, the picture that emerges is not of a breakdown in family and marriage, but a return to more traditional stem family structures to protect members, whether younger ones without work or job security or older ones without affordable nursing care. 

Perhaps the putative crisis in Japan is best situated within its regional context. The country’s fertility rate of 1.46 is a figure that South Korea at 1.24 and Taiwan at 1.12 would be thrilled to reach. Neither yet is aging as rapidly as Japan, but the numbers are catching up, bringing with them pressure on pensions, health care, and economic growth. Across the region, analysts argue that the fault for the low birthrates lies with increasing women’s education and employment combined with inflexible work practices, a highly unequal housework division, high social demands on mothers. In Japan, there is even a term, “mata-hara” – maternity harassment – for the pressure women face to resign from their jobs upon becoming pregnant. And around 70 percent do so, transforming motherhood into a career tradeoff.  Indeed Japan ranks 111th in the World Economic Forum’s gender quality list. This comes, of course, with a cost to economic productivity, which not lost upon the government. To harness the foregone potential and create “a society where women can shine,” Shinzo Abe rolled out “womeneomics” five years ago. The fulsome calls to support women in both work and childrearing set wishful but toothless targets.  The result has been about as successful as its economic counterpart. 

But why all the worry about sex and reproduction in the first place? Rather than fearing a no-growth society, why not embrace it? Japan might supply the most propitious environment to try out Herman Daly’s proposals for a steady-state economy, one that ceases to grow, yet like an adolescent approaching adulthood, continues to develop. In Japan, the stocks of people and to some extent resources have begun to flatline – the country posts only 1.5 percent economic growth as it is – yet innovation encouraged through market limits might sustain, even improve, the lives within it. Producing such an arrangement would require new institutional configurations, including minimum and maximum limits on income and wealth and limits on the flow of throughputs that feed into final products to increase efficiency. (And in a place like Japan, Daly’s more controversial proposal for transferable birth licenses is already moot.) If demographic and economic growth are out, why not stop worrying and embrace a steady-state economy with a modestly falling population to go with it? Perhaps the decline in anxiety would have a positive effect on the sex scene as well.

Kristin Surak is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London who specializes in international migration, nationalism, culture, and political sociology.