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The Sun Also Rises? Japan Confronts a Crisis of Sexless Marriages



In order to counter the ever-worsening trend of childlessness in Japan, a survey is carried out by the Japan Family Planning Association each year which peels back the secrecy surrounding the “marital act.” The survey found that in 2016, 47.2 percent of married couples reported living in sexless marriages, fully 12 percentage points lower than the sexless 34.6 percent of marriages reported ten years earlier. When pressed on the reasons behind this trend, many Japanese men cited their jobs as the cause, while many Japanese women said that sex is more trouble than it’s worth.


The survey consists of 3000 questionnaires hand-delivered during October and November of 2016 to 3000 men and women between the ages of 16 and 49 and got a response rate was 46.8 percent. This was the eighth time this survey had been carried out—the first one was in 2002, and questions about sexlessness were first asked in 2004. According to the Japan Society of Sexual Science (JSSS), “sexless” is defined as “lack of consensual intercourse or sexual contact between couples for one month or longer and expected to continue for the long term thereafter, even when the couple is not particularly conscious of the lack of sex.” In Japan, more and more marriages become sexless year after year, with each year setting a new record for the highest incidence of the sexless-marriage phenomenon.




The Japanese have sex on average just 48 times a year, or a little less than once a week. For comparison, a 2008 survey carried out by contraceptive manufacturer Durex showed that Greeks have the most sex of anyone in the world (an average 164 times a year). Brazilians are next, at 145 times a year, followed by the Poles and the Russians at 143 times. The world average is 103 annual sexual encounters.



It is not necessarily the case that more frequent sex is a good thing. In 2015, a professor at the University of Toronto published a paper which argued that having sex once per week was sufficient for couples to be happy.


Why are Japanese couples are so far behind? Men often say that they are tired from their jobs, with 35.2 percent of men citing their work as the reason for their lack of interest in sex (up from 19.7 percent from six years before). The next most common answer was that men thought of their wives as their blood relatives and so could not bring themselves to have sex with them (12.8 percent), closely followed by “after my wife gave birth I lost interest” (12 percent) and “it’s too much trouble to have sex”(7.2 percent).


By contrast, 22.3 percent of women say that sex is too much trouble, followed closely by loss of interest after childbirth (20.1 percent), being tired from work (17.4 percent), and thinking of their husbands as blood relatives (8.2 percent). The top answer six years ago was also “sex is too much trouble,” with 26.9 percent, so there is some consistency over the past six years in women giving this answer.



Kunio Kitamura, the president of JSSS, says, “It is very interesting that people gave the response that they do not have sex with their husbands or wives because they think of them as members of their family. When children are born, husbands call their wives ‘Mama’ and wives call their husbands ‘Papa’. This is a custom unique to Japan. The French media have pointed out that husbands and wives should continue to call one another by their given names throughout their marriage.”


“When we asked women what they meant by ‘sex is too much trouble’,” Kitamura continued, “We found that they said ‘If I say it’s too much trouble, then it’s too much trouble.’”


JSSS also carries out a survey on sex education. People who, as middle schoolers, responded that their households were boring, on average had their first sexual experience one year earlier than did people who thought their households were fun. The same gap was evident for people who responded that they did not eat breakfast every day, as compared to those who responded that they did. This survey’s data also revealed that people who did not typically discuss things with their parents were likely to have their first sexual encounter earlier than those who were in the habit of having discussions with their parents.


When asked where they most wanted the government and local administrative institutions to help alleviate the problem of childlessness in Japan, 44.8 percent of respondents said that they wanted financial assistance for childraising, 26 percent said that they wanted financial assistance for children’s education, and 24.9 percent said that they wanted financial assistance in order to be able to get married.



Japan is not the only country which faces a crisis of childlessness, and the Japanese government is not the only government attempting to solve the problem with incentives and initiatives. In Spain, for example, parents are awarded around $2,500 for their first child, with the amount increasing to $5,700 for the fourth child and each child thereafter. Many other countries—Russia, Romania, South Korea, and Denmark, to name just a few—have experimented with various ways of incentivizing, encouraging, or even coercing procreation in the wake of precipitously aging and declining populations.


But Japan’s case is different in that Abenomics, the centerpiece of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe economic policy, is premised upon greatly increased female participation in the workforce. Can the Japanese government successfully persuade more women to leave home in order to work, and then to leave work in order to raise children? The answer to this question remains far from clear.

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