Sexual desire and sexual activity have been declining in Japan for years, and this is a major cause of Japan’s significant decrease in their birth rate. Because Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and its population is on course to shrink dramatically by the middle of the century, every five years the government carries out a detailed survey of attitudes to sex and marriage.

The proportion of never-married men and women without sexual experience is on the rise

The studies and surveys have reported loss of sexual drive across several demographics, from adolescent men and women, to married couples. In 2015, the 15th Japanese National Fertility Survey was conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Singles between the ages of 18-34 who are not involved in a romantic relationship and do not want one accounted 30% for men and 25% for women. It was also found that 26% of men and 33% of women aged 35-39 had no sexual experience.

Sexless married couples are also on increase

In 2010, another survey was published in The Japanese Association for Sex Education Research Journal which found that 40.8% (up from 34.6% in 2006) of marriages in Japan could be classified as “sexless”, which the Japan Society of Sexual Sciences generally defines as “engaging in sex less than once a month, despite not suffering from any health-related conditions”.

Amongst the top reasons married couples cite for not having sex is that during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding sex can decrease markedly or even become nonexistent for a habit-forming period of time. Thus sexual activity decreases long-term.

About 1 in 5 Japanese couples say they simply view sex as a nuisance, a small number cite the lack of private space, because elderly or children often sleep on just the other side of paper-thin wall to couples. Some are too stressed out from work, whilst others have “more fun things to do”.

There is also a tendency among Japanese married couples to feel an aversion to sex with their spouse because they have come to feel that they have more of a relative/sibling relationship, and accordingly cannot see their spouse as a sexual partner anymore.

The situation is complex – people don’t just decide to not have sex anymore. What is comes down is that in a society which is still quite conservative and traditional, women who have children only have one option: to quit their jobs and not return to the workforce.

Young people in Japan are stopping to have sex

Additionally, the 15th Japanese National Fertility Survey in 2015 also found that 36.1% of males and 58.5% of female respondents aged 18 to 19 years described themselves as “indifferent or averse” towards having sex. A near 18% and 12% increase respectively since the survey was previously conducted in 2010. It was also reported that 83.7% of men who turned 20 that year were not having sex with anyone, with 49.4% stating they had never had a girlfriend. 59% of female respondents of the same age group responded similarly, a 12% increase from the 2010 survey.

Some scholars have criticized the media reporting and scholarship on so-called “sexless” Japan since many of these surveys exclude LGBT people, divorcees, widows, single parents or people who have married between the ages of 18-30. This necessarily exaggerates the number of virgins by excluding a huge segment of the sexually active population. There is criticism that the surveys research methodologies are also outdated and based on the faulty assumptions that everyone is heterosexual, has never been divorced or had a child out of wedlock. The motivations behind the studies are also questionable since they are linked to government attempts to justify government funding programs of arranged marriage partners.

Sexual Activity
A 2016 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that the percentage of “sexless” married people, who have not had sexual intercourse for at least a month, reached its highest level, at 47.2%. This is a 2.6-point increase over the previous survey, conducted in 2014, and 15.3 points higher than the first such survey, carried out in 2004.

Why Japanese people aren’t having sex

In a global context, a 2005 Sex Survey of 317,000 people in 41 countries conducted by Durex, the largest condom manufacturer in the world, found that the Japanese had the least sex in the world, at 45 times a year, with the second-to-last country of Singapore averaging 73 times a year, and the world average at 103 times a year. Additionally the survey reported that only 24% of Japanese respondents said they were happy with their sex lives, compared to the global average of 44%.

The reasons for this decline in sexual interest are still conjecture: There are many theories and different contributing factors. A large part of it may be attributed to the fact that in most respects, men and women live very separate lives socially, and there is little relaxed contact with the opposite sex outside of school ties or friends from the office, and in turn, less opportunity to freely mingle without commercial transaction through the sex-industry. This, combined with young men’s growing reliance on pornography, can be thought to have a large impact on the real-world sex interest due to its “overstimulating” effect. Biosphere problems with oestrogen may be having a strong negative impact on sexual desire, though such environmental concerns are still only whispered.

The Japan Family Planning Association reported 45% of young Japanese women, and over 25% of men, “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” Here are five possible reasons why?

5 reasons why Japanese people aren’t having sex

1) Work in Japan

People in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, work ridiculous amounts. 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 fast asleep.

The young Japanese people of today grew up watching their parents live this life and it’s understandable that they are not thrilled about this option. Marriage isn’t a great choice; it’s just the second-worst option. For a man, it means he is working to pay for his wife. For a woman, it means a life of indentured servitude. A lot of people are apparently “just saying no” to the whole thing.

Sexless young Japanese
Commuters at Shinjuku Station during rush hours in Tokyo

2) Prostitution in Japan

For a Japanese male it is possible to get sex almost anywhere, at any time, for little more than the price of a decent lunch. Anyone who’s been in Japan for even a short while has seen the rows of shops offering all the usual services. (As an aside, I’ll add that “foreigners” aren’t allowed in but as long as you’re “Japanese,” you are good to go. But Japanese racism is a whole other subject).

So prostitution has turned sex in Japan into a commodity. It’s something that’s available for purchase, like movie tickets. Sex isn’t an expression of love between two people, it’s something that can be bought or sold when necessary. The fact is that prostitution is widespread and its availability changes the way people view relationships.

Sexual activities in Japan
Colourful history of former red-light district in Osaka still glows.

3) Japanese social relations

The society functions with robot-like efficiency because bosses tell employees what to do – as do parents or teachers – and one does it! There is a hierarchy. The ramen shop attendant doesn’t say: “Hey boss, how about if, instead of two pieces of pork in the noodles, we try three?” That is not how things work in Japan. One does not challenge instructions or offer up original ideas, and Japanese definitely do not initiate conversation with strangers.

The reality is: people don’t have a lot of contact with each other. For Japanese, it’s insanely difficult to establish friendships and connections, which is no doubt why so many Host and Hostess Bars exist, so people can at least pay someone to talk to them.

Japanese people excel at social interactions when there are clearly defined roles: Boss and Worker, Clerk and Customer, Drunk salaryman and Gaijin. There are clear rules and precedents for those situations. But for two Japanese people to strike up a conversation while in line at the grocery store? Well, it’s hypothetically possible, like Dark Matter or something!

There is the “social” side to sexual relations and the “biological” side. The biological side (i.e. pure gratification) is catered to by the pornography industry, including the hentai manga culture, and by prostitution etc. And it’s true that the Japanese treat the biological side of sex in a much less puritanical manner than the West. It’s very prevalent and very available, and there’s very little shame attached to it.

But then you have the social side of sexual relationships. By “social” it means the cultural and interpersonal baggage that gets attached to two ordinary people who decide to have sex or date or get married. And in Japan, the social weight of sexual relations is infinitely heavier than in the West.

Very few Japanese people date in the semi-casual manner that happens in the West. There’s very little ‘dating for the sake of dating’. And there is practically no cohabitation of young couples outside of wedlock. It seems like people remain nearly completely virginal until it’s time to get married and have kids and as discussed previously marriage like sex is on the decline for similar reasons: long-working hours, a lack of women’s liberation, cramped living conditions, restrained social norms, and maybe a Confucian sense of filial piety that keeps people from living that “Sex in the City” lifestyle.

Sex in the City
In Japan, the social weight of sexual relations is infinitely heavier than in the West.

4) “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered” attitude toward sex and marriage by young Japanese

These are the words used by both sexes most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery, from the exorbitant cost of buying property in Japan to the uncertain expectations of a spouse and in-laws.

A woman’s chances of promotion in Japan stop dead as soon as she marries. “The bosses assume you will get pregnant.” “You have to resign. You will end up being a housewife with no independent income. It’s not an option for women like me” –said a Japanese woman aged 32 working in the human resources department of a French owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work.

Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after their first child. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world’s worse nations for gender equality at work. Social attitudes don’t help. The sense of crushing obligation affects men just as much. Amid the two-decade recession and unsteady wages Japanese men feel that the pressure on them to be breadwinning economic warriors for wife and family is unrealistic. They are rejecting the pursuit of both career and romantic success.

“It’s too troublesome” says a Japanese man aged 31 who works at a fashion accessories company as a designer and manager. Asked why he’s not interested in having a girlfriend. “I don’t earn a huge salary to go on dates and I don’t want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage.” Japan’s media, which has a name for every social kink, refers to men like him as “herbivores” or soshoku danshi (literally “grass-easting men”). He says he doesn’t mind the label because it’s become so commonplace. He defines it as “heterosexual man for whom relationships and sex are unimportant”.

Some experts believe the flight from marriage is not merely a rejection of outdated norms and gender roles. It could be a long-term state of affairs. “Remaining single was once the ultimate personal failure,” says Tomomi Yamaguchi, a Japanese-born female assistant professor of anthropology at Montana State University in America. “But more people are finding they prefer it.” Being single by choice is becoming a new reality”, she believes.

“herbivores” or “soshoku danshi” (literally “grass-eating men”) refers to men who are generally quiet, not very experienced, and somewhat appear to have lost their “aggressive manliness.”

5) A polluted global biosphere

As mentioned above, but as yet very little talked about, plastics, fertilisers and pesticides are having a significant negative impact upon the global biosphere, particularly for developed and now developing countries’ populations. We read about the negative affects that plastics are having in terms of our oceans and on sea life, but what is little known is that plastics, fertilisers and pesticides contain artificial oestrogens which are now found throughout the entire food chain. This female hormone is now being cited as affecting fish populations where males are becoming females. It is highly possible that such outcomes are also affecting human sexuality and sexual drives. Japan is a dominant Western society that has been exposed now for some generations.

Biosphere problems with oestrogen may be having a strong negative impact on sexual desire, though such environmental concerns are still only whispered.

Japanese are inscrutable but its cultures are so unique and irresistible

For Japan the good and bad are two sides of the same coin. In Japan foreigners are always trying to understand what they see around them, and the only way it makes sense is by looking at the entire system, since the individual components don’t make any apparent sense. They are just crazy snapshots. A salaryman passed out drunk in a bush; a children being smacked by his mother in the grocery store; a family enjoying the cherry blossoms in the springtime. It’s tempting to focus on the isolated events, and this makes for an easy portrait. Look how nice Japan is, with everyone enjoying the flowers! Look how horrible Japan is with its strict discipline and sexual inactivity!

But things don’t exist as separate phenomena – they are connected and they impact each other. If one pasted all of these snapshots of Japan onto a giant noticeboard and then drew arrows showing how one element influenced another, one would probably have a tangled mess. To understand these relationships would drive the average foreign researcher insane, but somehow in the Japanese mind it all makes sense.

People rave about how good the service in Japan is, how clean the cities and countryside are, and how everything runs like clockwork. Those are good things. But they’re made possible because people are working hard, endure long hours under incredibly strict bosses. And people praise the orderliness and politeness of Japanese society, rarely understanding that such attitudes are built out of significant respect for personal space.

Personal Space
Even in a crowded street, people are still consciously to keep one subtle personal space between oneself and others.

For a city the size of Tokyo, with 15 million of people living in crowded conditions, the amount of yelling, pushing and horn honking is amazingly low. Such calm is created because most people are keeping their true feelings inside, as they have done their whole lives. Open expression is not an option in this society.

If there was greater personal freedom conversely there would be many social excesses and problems like today in the United States. These differences in personal space make Japan an extremely interesting destination for foreigners to visit, to examine and explore a culture that they cannot find elsewhere. If you are interested in sex tourism then Japan is definitely not for you.

inscrutable Japanese
Japanese people are renowned in the West for being opaque and inscrutable, and even those who have lived and worked among them for a long time still sometimes have trouble understanding their reactions.


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