jeansIt is almost unfathomable that such a thing could happen here in the matrimaniacal United States, but in Japan, it is the new normal: Young and youngish single people just are not all that interested in sex, romance, or marriage.

Consider some of these statistics reported in the Guardian:

  • From a 2011 survey: 61% of single men and 49% of single women, ages 18 through 34, were not in any sort of romantic relationship
  • About 33% of Japanese heterosexuals under the age of 30 had never dated
  • Of Japanese adults aged 16 through 24, more than 25% of the men and 45% of the women said they are ‘not interested in or despise sexual contact.’
  • About 90% of young single women believe that living single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.”

The trends have birthed a new collection of derisive nicknames. Men are called “herbivores,” or, in the more literal translation of “soshoku danshi,” “grass-eating men.” They are heterosexual men “for whom relationships and sex are unimportant.”

Remember “parasite singles”? That’s not really a new one – I made fun of it in Singled Out. Typically used to refer only to women, these single people are considered parasites because they continue to live with their parents past the age when they are expected to be married.

There are also “hikikomori,” the recluses, and “otaku,” the geeks. Of course, there’s a new “syndrome” label, to underscore the perceived pathology – “celibacy syndrome.”

No one knows why the new trends are happening, but there is lots of speculation. Abigail Haworth, the Guardian reporter, notes that “Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by bureaucratic disapproval.” Even married women get a demeaning label of their own if they dare to pursue a career and not just tend to their spouse and kids; they are called “oniyome,” or “devil wives.”

Others who find the trends troubling attach them to “the lack of a religious authority that ordains marriage and family.” Another amusingly catastrophic explanation blames “the country’s precarious earthquake-prone ecology that engenders feelings of futility.”

Over at Slate, Katy Waldman considers the many dire possibilities, then suggests something else entirely: “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.”

What I think is significant about the substantial lack of interest in sex, romance, and marriage in Japan is the long, sharp sword that it sticks into the heart of some arguments that just seemed, to so many, to be so obviously true. You know the ones – the assumptions that everyone wants romance and marriage, and just about everyone (but especially men) wants about as much sex as they can possibly get. For the longest time, you could be regarded as an alien or a moron for thinking otherwise.

But the thing is, we just don’t know the answer to those kinds of questions. We can never know what people would truly prefer when culture and customs shove a big, heavy thumb on the scales of our psyches. The closer societies can come to regarding a wide range of attitudes and values and behaviors as valid and valuable, the closer we will get to knowing what humans are really like.

[Note: Thanks to Jessica, Nicole, Grace, and Singlutionary for the heads-up about the various articles on this topic.]

Asian woman image available from Shutterstock.