Single and Sexless: Celibacy Syndrome in Japan

By Jade Adia Harvey

“So I’m writing an article about Japanese sex culture,” I begin telling Yuki Hayashi a Yale freshman from Tokyo. She interrupts my introduction with laughter. “Sex culture?” she says, smiling at my notebook. “Don’t you mean the lack thereof?”

Most Westerners are aware of Japan’s declining birthrate, but many are oblivious of another looming national disaster for the Asian powerhouse: sekkusu shinai shokogun, or celibacy syndrome.

Celibacy syndrome is the term invented by Japanese media to describe the national trend of young people retreating from interpersonal relationships and sex. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 61 percent of unmarried men and 49 percent of unmarried women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship at all. A related survey by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45 percent of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact [with others]”.

A modern Japanese couple (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
A modern Japanese couple (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

So why then are more and more of Japan’s 20-and-30-somethings putting away the roses and picking up the anime porn? What is the source of this “hatred” towards sexual contact? Tokyo-based clinical sexologist and sex therapist Dariusz Skowronski explains that though there are many theories on what exactly sparked the surprising trend, the recent Japanese youth rebellion movement to “completely disassociate” from the older generation has played a heavy role.

Prior to the mid-20th century, Japan was relatively closed to the Western world. Yet after World War II, Japan experienced a sudden influx of American popular culture brought into the country by American soldiers. Western influence in Japan grew steadily in the following decades through the rise of television and the Internet boom, which skyrocketed cultural exchange between the two nations to unprecedented levels. Suddenly, Japanese youth could access American romantic comedies as easily as young New Yorkers could buy a Toyota. The effects of the American-Japanese cultural wave in the East were undeniable: Japanese youth saw the effects of the on-going feminist movement in America, where single mothers could have successful careers and men were no longer expected to be the sole providers for their families, and began to rebel against traditional family and relationship structures that hold marriage as sacrosanct in what Skowronski describes as “an extreme, uniform, and distinctly Japanese way”.

Skowronski, who helps young adults in Tokyo deal with marital, intimacy and sexual issues, describes traditional gender roles in Japan as “very distinct–inflexible and clearly defined”. For centuries, the expectation for Japanese women has been to become a wife, bear children, and serve the family. The legacy of such beliefs can still be seen today in the minimal maternity leave policies of many major Japanese corporations. According to Kathy Mtasui’s concept of “Womenomics,” roughly 70 percent of Japanese women exit the workforce permanently after having their first child. Japan is consistently ranked by the World Economic Forum as one of the world’s worst nations for gender equality in the workplace. Women with careers are commonly pressured to either quit their jobs and start a family, or continue working under the label of oniyome, or “devil wife.”

A woodblock print depicting a couple in a scene from the Tale of Genji (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
A woodblock print depicting a couple in a scene from the Tale of Genji (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Ambitious women don’t want to quit their jobs and spend their lives taking care of both their children and their aging in-laws (at 83 years and counting, Japan’s life expectancy is the world’s second-highest) while her husband leaves her home alone for most of the week. Japanese white-collar jobs are so draining that many businessmen choose to sleep at their offices during the week to avoid long daily commutes. According to Skowronski, the average Japanese married couple spends a mere 17 minutes a week on conversation. And young men are increasingly dissuaded from marriage not only due to the plethora of other sexual outlets available, but also because of the economic costs that come with marital unions in modern Japan (Tokyo, according to CNN, is the world’s most expensive city).

While young people do not want to be bothered with sex in relationships, older married couples have not been spared from celibacy syndrome. The JFPA reports that 40 percent of married couples on Japan are “sexless,” or having sex fewer than 12 times a year. Further studies suggest that within this subset, the majority of the couples are not sexually active at all. Skowronski speculates that this sexless phenomenon amongst married couples could have its roots in the Japanese tradition of separating sexual objects and life partners. Once a partner has a child, Skowronski explains, she moves from “sexual partner” to “mother,” with mothers being seen as asexual. This tradition may have been exacerbated in recent years by an increase in the average number of work hours per week for Japanese men, keeping them in the office and away from the bed.

In contrast to the previous generations’ preoccupation with marriage and adherence to traditional gender roles, today’s Japanese youth have nurtured extreme gender stereotypes of their own: “herbivore men” and “carnivore women”. The average “Herbivore Man” is a 20-something, heterosexual male who refuses relationships and consumes huge amounts of anime and manga. The “Carnivore Woman”, on the other hand, is a 20-something heterosexual female university graduate who is career-driven, uninterested in marriage, and apathetic towards sex. The Herbivore Man lifestyle has gradually evolved from a popular trend to a new norm, leaving “aggressive, masculine men” in the minority.

Though studies show that youth who embrace the herbivore/carnivore lifestyles are having less and less sex with their peers, that does not necessarily mean that people are entirely disinterested in sexuality. Some Japanese students still date during school, but relationships rarely persist once young people enter the workforce. Rie Higashi, a University of Tokyo student, explains, “university students want a boyfriend or girlfriend in college, but graduation is the deadline.” Nevertheless, Hayashi recounts that during high school, students would be “genuinely shocked” to hear of their classmates having sex. Homosexual relationships would receive equal surprise. While Hayashi says that homosexuality carries no particular stigma in Japanese society (though homosexuals are commonly depicted in media through exaggerated stereotypes,), real-life, openly homosexual couples are “not even taboo—just non-existent.” For modern Japanese youth, relationships are troublesome, casual sex is scandalous, and homosexuality is not even thought about. However, this group has found alternative outlets in which they can express their sexuality—most notably, new forms of erotic anime, manga, and videogames.

Shelves brimming with books of manga (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
Shelves brimming with books of manga (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Hentai, a catch-all phrase for anime porn, has become one of the most common forms of sexual entertainment in Japan today. From stories of erotic manic-pixie dream girls to the Toshio Maeda’s best-selling “tentacle porn” series, anime and manga have come to dominate the ever-expanding Japanese pornography industry– an empire that now produces twice as many adult videos per year than the United States According to Mariana Ortega, author of the paper “Peek-a-Boo, I See You: Watching Japanese Hard-core Animation,” “if one walks into any specialized store, the brunt of the produce is clearly meant for heterosexual men… [in their 20s, 30s]. That said, there are small, niche genres for ‘consumer minorities’ such as yaoi [representations of homosexual male sex meant for heterosexual female arousal], and bara [representations of homosexual male sex catered to gay men].” As for erotic film, Oretega explains, “The boom in terms of personal, private consumption probably came in the 1980s, as home video dispensed… and the demand for films, of course, grew.” With the rise of new, sophisticated forms of technology, the erotica market expands, attracting more and more consumers who become addicted and in some cases, even begin to substitute online sexual encounters for real-life ones.

The cult-like following of Love Plus (a Nintendo DS dating simulation game) is a good example. In the game, men “meet” beautiful, nymph-like girlfriends who request kisses through the touch screen and even hold conversations through the microphone. Men’s addiction to the game has caused several noted cases of divorce with real-life partners, as well as one legal marriage between a user and his virtual lady. Moe, or the fetishistic love for two-dimensional characters, is a subset of otaku culture. Otaku– young people obsessed with computers and cartoons to the detriment of their social skills –are on the rise as anime pornography not only becomes more accessible, but also more socially acceptable. Walking down the streets in urban Japan, it is not uncommon to see shelves of erotic manga posted in the windows of 24-hour convenience stories with dozens of men openly browsing the selection. According to Hayashi, many young people see pornography as a way to fulfill themselves sexually “without the hassle of real-life relationships.” Though Japanese pornography may “span a vast array of representations of sexual expression,” Ortega explains, “in practice, Japanese society is not as permissive with any given individual as the pages of a porn magazine might be.” Hard-core erotic anime may be popular, but surely not all Japanese youth are tentacle-addicted otaku.

For celibate 20-somethings who reject relationships, but still crave human attention, host and hostess clubs are the perfect solution. These are essentially bars where waiters and waitresses dote upon and flirt with clientele. Staffers’ jobs include anything from showering guests with compliments to giving neck massages to drinking copious amounts of alcohol in their new “friend’s” honor. Sex, however, is not on the menu. Host and hostess clubs are strictly for single individuals to feel loved for the night—the sort of thing a boyfriend or girlfriend might otherwise provide. So popular are host/hostess clubs that in 2009, the Kyabakura Trade Union was formed to protect the interests of the increasing host/hostess club employee community. According to CNN, host and hostess clubs are a “booming industry”—one that serves as yet another alternative outlet to monogamous sexual relationships or marriage.

It is not clear what celibacy syndrome means for the future of Japan. The elderly are living longer and the young adults are not having babies; in 2012, Unicharm, Japan’s largest diaper maker, reported that their line of adult incontinence diapers outsold the baby diapers. So how can a country even tackle such a complicated population problem? Improve sexual education in schools? Campaign for healthy sex? Encourage feminism in the workplace? The options are vague and scattered, but one thing is certain. Before it’s too late, the government will have to find a way to connect with the followers of the nation’s now well-established sexual trend: youth who look at sex and relationships and shudder. “Mendokusai,” they say. “Too troublesome”.

Jade Harvey ’17 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at