Monday, 4 November 2013

Sex, Journalism and Wacky Ole Japan

I wrote a masters' thesis a while back. It was about Lolita subculture, as in the fashion not the perversion. In that thesis I compared the English language media and popular press depictions of Lolitas as spoiled teens who are rejecting adulthood, sex-phobic and infantile with ethnographic research that shows a very different reality. I described a lot of the articles newspapers and magazine published on the topic as being from the "what's new in wacky Japan" school of journalism. You know what I mean; inaccurately reporting that a fringe body modification is a trend sweeping the nation or reporting that an artwork is an actual fashion. Everyone just knows Japan is weird, so editors don't fact-check, and once something has gone to print in the NYT everyone else just assumes it's a valid story and jumps on the bandwagon.

 The Guardian has got a lot of rap (and rightly so) for this pretty shoddy article, as has the BBC for this documentary that I haven't watched but sounds even worse. There are some very good articles and blog posts explaining in detail all the problems in these two media reports, so I won't cover the same ground. I recommend Are The Japanese Really Having Less Sex Than Everyone Else?

Is it strange that so many unmarried Japanese people aren’t in relationships or interested in being in one? Not really. A Pew survey this year, concerned mainly with online dating, began by asking Americans who are not married or living with a partner whether they are in a “committed romantic relationship.” Seventy-one percent said no. Seventy-five percent of those who are not in a romantic relationship said they are currently not looking for one, numbers that are much higher than in Japan. About half of single Americans said they haven’t been on a date in the last three months. The number of Americans in their late teens and early 20s who have never had sex is also rising: about 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. (That survey of Japanese people under 30 refers to “dating,” not sex.)
Nearly 40 percent of American women have never been married, according to one survey, and nearly 20 percent of American women in their 40s have not had children, according to another. Both those numbers are steadily rising.
The “were not interested in or despised sexual contact" number does seem very high, though the “or” seems to be doing a lot of work in that sentence. A 2008 survey of found that 10 percent of American women between 18 and 44 reported “low sexual desire.” And plenty of people living in any culture who do experience sexual desire don’t actively look to fulfill it with another person for various reasons.   
Yes, I’m cherry-picking numbers to make a point here, but so are these Japan articles. For instance, the Guardian doesn’t note that the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research study it cites also finds that almost 90 percent of unmarried Japanese people intend to marry and that “the proportion of singles who are consciously trying to delay marriage is waning.”
Japanese Men According to the BBC:

The BBC article is condescending about them, dismissing them with: “It seems they no longer have the ambition of the post-war alpha males who made Japan such an economic powerhouse and no interest in joining a company and becoming a salary man.” Well good god, I wonder why not. Look at the economy. Look at the lack of job security. Look at the suicide rate. Look at the global “happiness” polls. No offense to the hard-working salaryman who enjoys his job, but it’s about time for there to be a societal backlash against the kind of life that is expected for men in Japan. Suited up and out the door by 5:30 AM. Breakfast is a plastic package of white bread from a convenience store and a small can of coffee. An hour-long commute in a packed train, standing the entire time. A 9 to 5 office job that doesn’t end at 5 but continues until the boss decides to leave the office, which means usually working 9 to 9 without overtime. Obligatory drinking with co-workers after work. Usually a lot of social pressure to visit prostitutes after the drinks. Back home late at night, reeking of alcohol and cigarette smoke. Your children are already asleep. Your wife makes you sleep in another room. Set your alarm for 5:00 AM and start the whole thing again the next day. A lot of modern Japanese men see the lives their fathers led as bleak and depressing.

This recent Vice video on sex in Japan made some interesting points about commercialisation and compartmentalisation of relationships, but mostly it just made my skin crawl. The disdainful, entitled superiority of the guy in the video as he pays for services that he says disgust him while belittling the women who provide them really pissed me off. So did the 1950s overtones of his meeting with the yakuza, where he "gains their trust" by participating in their primitive customs (tattooing and drinking turtle blood). He then asks for the weirdest thing they have to offer, and is *shock horror* pretty grossed out by it. As if you can't find kinky "specialist" services anywhere else in the world.
Now, if you want to talk about marriage or birthrates (and no, they aren't the same thing) there is a really interesting story to explore.

Ken Seeroi makes some astute observations regarding sex in this piece, which I encourage you to read:
A more typical case is probably my former student Masahiro, who’s an executive at a famous beverage manufacturer.  He works from 9 a.m. until to midnight, six days a week, with a 15-minute lunch break at his desk.  He has Sunday off, which is when he studies English.
“I have it easy,” he said, “since I work at an international company.  Japanese places are a lot worse.”
“Do you ever see your wife?” I asked.
“I see her on Sunday,” he said.
“But Sunday’s when you come here to study English,” I pointed out.
“Ah, good point,” he said.
For most people, it comes down to two choices:  work like mad as a single person and have a tiny apartment full of dirty clothes and half-eaten Cup Ramen containers, or get married.  That way, the man goes off to work, and when he comes home after midnight, his dinner is sitting on the table covered in Saran Wrap, and there’s hot water in the tub.  His wife and daughter are already asleep.  Shopping, ironing, cleaning, paying the bills, everything’s taken care of for him.  All he has to do is bring home a paycheck.  The woman gets to do all the fun, fulfilling things like taking care of baby, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking meals.  Sometimes I’ll ask my adult students how often they see their spouses, or ask the kids when they see their fathers.  The answer is roughly on par with how often I’ve seen the Easter Bunny.  I am, however, a big fan of marshmallow Peeps, so maybe it’s not as infrequent as you think.

Even if we were just going to talk about birthrates though, you get shoddy misreporting of very basic information. For example, just about every article that discusses Japan's birthrate written since 2011 has claimed that "sales of adult diapers exceed those for babies". While this may be true, the only evidence I have seen cited to support it is the 2011 report by ONE manufacturer, Unicharm, that is had sold more incontinence products than infant diapers. Maybe Unicharm just makes really uncomfortable or overpriced diapers.

So is this just a symptom of the demise of quality journalism generally? I don't think so. I think it's specific to the "weird Japan" preconception, and the infantilisation that goes along with it. The fantasy of the Japanese woman is inherently infantilising (see not only my post but more tellingly the comments on an aspect of this fantasy here), but Japanese men don't fare much better in the international media. If the world were a high school, Japanese men would be the geeks. The world seems to view them as sexually perverted wimps with weird hobbies, glasses and bad teeth. Can we move on from the stereotypes, please?  And some fact-checking would be nice too, while we're at it.

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  1. Very interesting post!!
    I wonder, why Japan and Japanese are considered so weird?
    I mean, yea, they got here people who don't want to have bf/gf, people who don't want to have kids and people with all sorts of desires and sexual "inventions"...but so does the rest of the world.
    I sometimes read thru those popular foreign magazines (Cosmopolitan,Glamor, etc) and every time you can find there something along the lines of "Why doesn't he marry?", "My experience with BDSM", "Career VS Childcare" and the list just goes on ;)

    1. For realsies. I would be surprised if no one had researched it and I would be very interested in how media representations have changed over time. My guess is that the "weird Japan" thing stems from the bubble era when the western world had trouble accepting Japan's economic boom and felt better at the thought that the men putting them out of business were buying school girl panties from vending machines. But it may well predate that era, I'm just guessing!

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