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Sexual issues in Japanese society : a cultural problem

Written by Maciamo

Sexless couples & extramarital affairs

Japan has a surprisingly high number of sexless married couples by Western standards. There is an explanation for this. Marriages arranged by the family or friends (such as o-miai) are not unusual in Japan. Couples rarely live together before marriage, and the Japanese never have children without getting married first (unless it's an accident), because the Japanese law still does not recognise fathers of children born outside wedlock. Divorce is still very widely frown upon. In other words, the law and one's family pushes people to get married, even if the family has to resort to an arranged marriage, but they won't let them divorce afterwards, even if things don't work out.

To top it all, Japanese culture makes a clear distinction between a childless woman and a mother. Mothers are not seen by their husbands as sexually desirable anymore. Once a child is born the mother becomes like a relative, not a sexual partner anymore. (This may explain why so many families only have one child).

The difference between most Western countries and Japan is that Westerners would divorce or abstain if they were caught in a sexless relationship, while Japanese stay married and have extramarital affairs. Besides, northern and western Europeans (at least) are increasingly having children without ever getting married. This was unthinkable up to the 1950's, but liberal laws in the '60's and '70's have changed all that. A report in the Economist showed that nearly 80% of Swedish couples with children were not married. Only 50% of English parents are. The highest rates of married parents were found in Mediterranean countries, with Italy reaching 75% - a far cry from Japan's 99.9%.

This state of affairs has implacable consequences on the way Japanese society functions. The Japanese sex industry is the biggest in the world (in terms of money generated). Porn magazines are available at every convenience store and read widely, even in public. Many Japanese men are obviously sexually frustrated. According to the Durex global sex survey the Japanese are the national group that have sex the least often among the surveyed countries around the world. 37% of Japanese respondents said they had sex at least once a week (as opposed to 78% in China, 70 to 87% in southern Europe and 55 to 80% in northern Europe), and a dismal 15% admitted to being sexually satisfied.

Extramarital affairs are an almost culturally accepted part of life in Japan. A middle-aged married man won't be in trouble at home for seeking romance with young bar hostesses, or having sex with prostitutes in a soap land or "massage parlour". These are accepted facets of married life in Japan.

Molestations and false accusations

The problem comes when sexual frustration is redirected to other people, outside the sex industry. Molesting girls in the metro has become so endemic in Tokyo that signs prohibiting chikan (groping, molesting) have been placed everywhere, separate compartments set up for 'women only', and special police services organised to deal with the problem.

The sensibilization of the chikan problem has led opportunist girls to take advantage of their presumed "victim status" to throw false accusations to innocent men, in order to receive monetary compensations. When falsely accusing a man of molesting her, a girl can easily convince the poor man to give her the equivalent of a few hundreds euros/dollars/pounds to avoid facing embarrassing charges or tiresome investigations with the police. This is part of Japan's non-confrontational mentality (on the man's side, at least).

Enjo Kōsai : compensated dating

Two groups of people in Japanese society hold power in social relationships : men over 50 and young women/girls. They are the one with money, but also the most confident individuals.

Girls and women under 30 are increasingly stronger and more confident than boys. They are the ones enjoying themselves, travelling, shopping, learning foreign languages... while lots of boys or young men tend to be shy, reserved and obedient.

Men over 50 (till about 70) have the power in companies, as the seniority system keeps youngsters at the bottom of the scale as obedient menials (the word is maybe a bit strong).

It's no wonder that both groups (old men and young girls) should "interact" so eagerly, as the former can provide the money the latter crave. Because of this affinity the system of enjo kōsai was born, a practice in which older men fulfil the material needs of young women (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, travel abroad, cooking lessons, etc.) in exchange for their companionship and sexual favors. This so-called compensated dating is a euphemism for what is really a form of voluntary (and often teenage) prostitution. Girls who practise it do not work for a pimp, a soap land or any other establishment. In fact they aren't prostitute, just normal students, office ladies or even housewives who complement their income by occasionally sleeping older men in exchange for expensive gifts (luxury accessories or clothes) or just cash.

Is Enjo Kōsai there for good, or can it be eradicated ?

Things won't changed easily because the practice of compensated dating has deep roots in many aspects of Japanese society and culture.

First of all, there is the issue of the 2,500 year-old Confucian seniority system that keeps older men in position of power. Men with power almost inevitably have easier access to sex with younger women. This is part of human nature, and all the more so in a society with strong gender roles like Japan.

The second problem is the rigidity and traditionalism associated with marriage in Japan and the taboo on divorce. Older men wouldn't pursue teenage girls if they were satisfied in their marital relationship. Not everybody can be happily married, which is why divorce exists. But the Japanese are naturally more cynical and believe that love and sexual attraction after 10 or 20 years of marriage is well-nigh impossible. In addition, Japanese women have a culturally motivated tendency to neglect their husbands once they have had their first child (in order to give all their attention, care and love to their offspring, they will say).

Admitting that divorce isn't always the solution, and that extramarital affairs may in some cases be better, if both sides are agreed, so as to preserve the family and avoid causing psychological damage to the kids. Let Japanese men have sex with whoever they want if their wife won't sleep with them anymore. All right, but is that morally acceptable to let men in their 50's sleep with 16 year-old high-schoolers ? The age of sexual consent in Japan being 13 it certainly is legal. But is it moral ? Many Westerners won't accept the idea easily. The question should be: why do middle-aged Japanese men like teenage girls ?

It is a universal feature of human sexuality for men to be attracted in young and good-looking women, because they are supposedly more fertile. It's ingrained in our instincts, and only moral education can try to repress this instinct. East Asian religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism) do not inculcate strong moral principles or interdictions regarding sex. In fact sexual restrictions and the association of shame or guilt with sex is a typically Judeo-Christian or Muslim characteristic.

If anything Japanese society encourages the sexualization of teenage girls. Japanese porn has a predilection for school uniforms and baby-like women. This is not something that will veer men towards more mature women. It only nurture the cult of youth and add to the desirability of teenage girls. The truth is that Japanese girls grow up in such an environment and therefore do not see anything wrong with being desired by older men.

As these relationships are purely based on physical sex and not romance or the sharing of interests, the age difference and the immaturity of younger girls is barely an issue for middle-aged men. They are not looking for companionship for in most cases they are still married and their wife already provides that. The problem isn't that they don't have a life partner, but that this partner has become like a relative, and you don't have sex with a relative.

There is one more thing to add to this dangerous cocktail of sexually frustrated middle-aged men with power covet infantile girls and girls brought up to accept this behaviour : brands. If there is one country in the world where women are fashion victims and spend a fortune on their looks it is Japan. The Japanese crave for brands has recently extended into a wider East Asian syndrome, as the Koreans and the Chinese are getting wealthier and can now afford to buy Gucci, Prada and Christian Dior. But to become a fashionable person in the luxury world of Tokyo one needs money, a lot of money, more money than a person under 25 could possibly make with a normal job. Some have rich and generous parents, but that's not the case of everyone. Brands make Japanese girls and young women lose their minds. It is little wonder that some of them would cross the line to having sex with strangers old enough to be their fathers in order to obtain what they want. Japan is a very materialistic society. Money buys everything. Things are unlikely to change. Actually, it may have been like that for centuries, although under a different form.

This may seem like a pessimistic or cynical view of Japanese society, but ask a Japanese their opinion on the matter and, if they know you well enough to speak their mind (not granted in advance), they will probably tell you the same thing as I wrote here.

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