Friday, November 1, 2013

Media Watch Japan: 'Celibacy Syndrome' And The Spectre of 'Herbivore Men'

An Osamu Tezuka-drawn crowd flees the latest trend.

Every couple of years (or even mere months) the mainstream media cycles a sensationalist Japanese trend piece usually linked to population, sex, food or fashion, highlighting Japan's "bizarre extremes", or, more underhandedly, perceived corruptions of American or Western normalcy.

Top of the recent "trends" were the perennial pop-up Herbivore Men. The rash of grass feeding fellas stole the world's heart-on from about 2006 to 2011, representing, in the words of Slate, the "nexus between two of the biggest challenges facing Japanese society: the declining birth rate and anemic consumption". They shunned corporate life (Reuters), subverted manhood (NPR), and led the way in sexless love (Guardian).

Jezebel was one of the few outlets with a more balanced take on the phenomenon. They considered it "a kind of rebellion" (pointing out that "half the point of a trend piece is to record and perhaps stir up terror at the trend's inevitable destruction of society") and a means to buck stereotype and find another way to be "manly".
Sound[s] a lot like what's happening in America. The recession and dwindling job security have made certain male roles — provider, consumer, progenitor — more difficult to step into. In Japan, men are responding by rejecting those roles. Maybe rather than trying to return to a bygone era of buying and babies, Japan and America should accept a more frugal, perhaps smaller population and new definitions of success.
But the groundwork the boys of ambivalence laid towards sexless love gave them a cameo in Japan's latest "looming national catastrophe": Celibacy Syndrome.

"Young people in Japan stopped having sex," blared the Observer headline a couple of weeks ago. "Japan's under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren't even dating, and increasing numbers can't be bothered with sex."

The 2500+ word exposé leads with commentary from a sex worker-turned-therapist and weaves in testimony from disaffected locals, as well as pretty much every alarmist birthrate/demographic data point and relationship/intimacy study from the last few years.

As usual the media pickup/reuse/recycle came immediately and with gusto. TIME précised the more shocking figures and examples--the only original contribution an East v. West platitude: "with all our millennial whining about casual hookups and online dating, we might not have it so bad". The Washington Post goes so far as to say the trend is "endangering the global economy" (hm, just like hipster beards?) The BBC dredged up Japan's dreaded virtual girlfriends, asking if perhaps the whole lack of shebang is Japan's inimitable way of dealing with global overpopulation, or (there's often an "or" in these stories) "is it just time for Japanese men to grow up, have more sex and make more babies?" In one of the strangest spins, New York magazine posits that Japan's new "national crisis" stems from romantic trips to a parasite museum.

Though spotlighting the "bizarre demographic chill [that] has stolen over the Land of the Rising Sun", Slate's reaction added a little nuance to the story, touching on the inherent singlehood bashing:
Maybe Japanese young people are pioneering a deeply satisfying lifestyle in which love and sex have receded into the background—and the trade-off makes them perfectly happy. … Rates of psychological illness in Japan and the United States are comparable: 24 percent of Japanese adults and 25 percent of American adults have suffered some sort of mental health problem. So could a collective bias against singlehood be warping the way we see celibacy syndrome? Is it really a syndrome, or just an alternate (convenient, culturally exigent) mode of being? I find the notion of an intimacy-starved society as depressing as anyone, but maybe those are my reactionary, Jane Austen–informed values talking. At the very least, Japan’s new status quo might remove some of the stigma from living alone."
In a separate article, Slate was one of the first major outlets to directly say "no, Japanese people haven’t given up on sex", showing the spin tide had turned to balance itself. Bloomberg took the second wave further, noting that much of the data for these types of stories is "cherry picked" and the result of foreign journalists "traipsing into 'exotic Japan' and getting lost in a forest of stereotypes, fuzzy data and tarted-up headlines", but then they recontextualize the population problem as stemming from Japan's "exorbitant living costs, elevated stress and diminished confidence".

Finally, a full week after the Observer article, the UK Independent nailed the bigger issue: "These stories gain traction because they support a view of east Asia which is at best patronising and at worst overtly racist…"
as if to remind us what a disturbingly odd place Japan is, an alarming Japanese news story explodes online. Western media outlets clamber over each other in their haste to cover the story, with every report of bagel heads, snail facials or ritual head shaving [see also elder crime, cat cafés, monkey waiters, 'crazy' foods and flavors (esp. Kit Kats), virtual girlfriend/boyfriends, pillow paramours, odor-eating underpants, etc. --ed.] being used as further evidence of a unique Japanese weirdness. A lack of understanding (and, sometimes, basic fact-checking) means that entire stories are lifted, often without critique, and churned into dubious clickbait. Earlier this year, widespread coverage of a supposed eyeball-licking epidemic among Japanese teens that turned out to be a hoax left more than a few editors red-faced.
More urgent problems in Japan that don't get as robust coverage as sexcapades (or lack thereof): shut-instragically high suicide rates, a nuclear crisis two and a half years ongoing,  flaring tensions in Southeast Asia.

Of course, there are broader (and more real) issues with Japan's population, from sex and fertility rates to demographic disparity. But while trends consistently point downward, a point only briefly touched on in the recent media maelstrom is that there is as much too much population as there is too little space.

Japan and the U.S are among the world's top 10 most populous countries, with some 320 million people in the U.S. and 128 million in Japan. In terms of pure landmass, it's well known that Japan would fit into Montana, or about 90% of California. But when comparing the difference in densities (Japan's 873 people per square mile to America's 90) to understand Japan's situation, the entire U.S. population would need to be squeezed into the states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Or, looked at another way, the U.S. would need grow nearly three hundred times to 900 million.

Given the island nation's land lack, a little population leveling may be natural. But how much, what's the precedence, are there ways to expand without zapping limited resources? These are stories that could be written with some depth (the Indepdent points out that the World Bank lists 15 countries that have fertility rates equal to or below that of Japan, including economic powerhouse Germany). And what about a non-faith based celibacy positive article or a 2500+ word exposé on the thrills and tribulations of choosing to be single?

Until then, the fear of sexlessness sells as much as sex, it seems, and we'll have to wait to see the headline:

Japanese People Have Sex, And If They Don't That's Okay Too

--Shannon Jowett


Tim Carter said...

This is a concerning write up, not just for the effects on reproduction but on the mental and social health of the Japanese youth. I just read another viewpoint about this at that discusses some of these factors in more detail. I only link to it as it seems a good follow up to this article.

Japan Society said...

Interesting: "instead of providing insight on what could have been a potentially fascinating look on how national trauma affects national sex drives, the article serves to muddle the already-fuzzy lines between public and private..."

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