A SceneIt’s a plain room. Blue foam mattress, a few stuffed animals in the corner, no TV.
A man in jeans and a t-shirt lies facing a woman in polka dot pajamas. They do not look directly at each other. They do not touch. For the first few minutes, there is only soft, intermittent chatter. Small grins, thin laughter—the sense of an awkward first date. An egg timer buzzes, and some of the tension breaks. The man and woman climb to their knees, lean forward, and embrace.
On the wall above them hangs a sign: “¥5000 – Five Second Hug.”
A National Concern
Japan’s declining birthrate has caused much concern for the nation’s future. Annual population growth hasn’t climbed above the two-percent replacement ratio since the mid-1970s, and 2014 births pitched to a new low, with barely one million children born among a nation of over 126 million, almost half the population of the United States. Some project that Japan’s population will dip below 100 million by 2050. The consequences of such low birth rates—from huge increases in healthcare costs for the elderly to brain drains, gender gaps, and currency deflation—are not trivial. European nations such as France, wise to the inevitable backlash of depopulation, have instituted policy to curb falling birth rates since the 1970s and 1980s. Yet Japan’s widespread apathy toward marriage and repopulation has proved more severe and intractable than France’s, begging the question: where (in Japan) is the love?Roland Kelts, a Japanese-American journalist based in Tokyo, has significantly contributed to the chronicle of Japan’s slow withdrawal from marriage. The keys to understanding the Baby Bust, Kelts argues, are careerism, consumer culture, and the sex industry. In an article on the latter, Kelts writes that “Sex is an acknowledged urge in this land of convenience [Japan], serviced by an industry of myriad manifestations. It’s primeval meets postmodern, with no room for the puritanical.” Though prostitution is strictly illegal in Japan, it is still common, and those who prefer to err on the side of legality can find services that run the gamut from straightforward handjobs to platonic girlfriends-for-hire. Frottage is not legally considered “sex” in Japan, and “soaplands”—massage parlors where lubricated rubbing brings customers to climax—dot the pleasure districts of major Japanese cities. Add to the mix strip clubs, maid parlors, and love hotels—institutions that rent rooms specifically outfitted for legal sexual encounters—and it seems almost obvious as to why people might eschew childbearing relationships for a sex industry capable of meeting their needs. What does not sufficiently explain the birthrate decline, however, is a growing distaste for sex. Western media outlets from The Guardian to The Wall Street Journal have seized on uncontextualized (and in some cases just plain false) statistics in order to make the case that an epidemic of celibacy has swept young Japan. Stats cherry-picked by these outlets include those from a 2011 survey by the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research that found “61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier.” This is true, of course, but not a far cry from comparable statistics of other countries. More egregiously, The Guardian claims a 2013 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association stated “45% of women aged 16-24 ‘were not interested in or despised sexual contact.’ More than a quarter of men felt the same way.” These claims (which The Guardian never cites) are utterly unsubstantiated.
Though Japanese sexual desire is undiminished, it’s true that the average age of marriage in Japan has been delayed significantly since the housing bubble. Women have found staying single and ambitious especially advantageous, as careerism provides an alternative to marrying into Japan’s model of working husband and housebound wife. At the same time, the image of Japanese men as sexless, reclusive, and directionless has brought into common use slang like “herbivores,” men who eschew romantic or carnal (carnivorous) behavior.
To explain Japan’s fallen birthrate with respect to prolonged single life and stereotypes of the effeminacy of men, it may be instructive to think of Japanese sexual desire as sublimated, rather than diminished. Here, the world of the animal meets Japan at large.
Herbivores, Carnivores, Animals
Away from talk of databases and departure from grand narrative, Hiroki Azuma’s theory of animalization finds application in Japan’s market for loveless sex. Accepting the commodification of intimacy has helped ease the lives of many young Japanese adults, who find they lack the time, energy, or desire for traditional committed relationships. But in the market, relationships between people and people increasingly take the form of relationships between people and objects. As intimacy is acceptably bought, sold, and diversified like a product, the young Japanese who claim to have no need for others seem more and more credible. As a Japanese friend of Roland Kelts said in response to questions about this topic: “‘Maybe we’re just advanced human beings…maybe…we’ve learned to service ourselves.'”
At Soineya, a tiny establishment nestled between the towers of Akihabara, Tokyo, the commodification of intimacy has a less mechanical face. Soineya is Tokyo’s first co-sleeping (“cuddle”) cafe.  For roughly ¥5000 an hour, patrons can lie–and, with the exception of a few prepaid services, only lie–with trained cuddlers, mostly women. For an article in Harper’s, writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus spent forty minutes with one of the cafe’s new employees. A head pat and minute of staring into the girl’s eyes cost Lewis-Kraus an additional ¥2000–and high discomfort–but by the time the session ended, the girl had confided in him without journalistic prodding. She could not tell her family what she did for money.
The industry affords these little surprises, stumbles across an intimacy far closer than the one you pay for.
- Prostitution is available almost everywhere in the world. Does the diversification of intimacy services (soaplands vs. prostitution vs. cuddle cafes etc.) support the idea of sexual animalization in Japan, or is the Japanese market for intimacy fundamentally the same as that of other countries?
- Is the proliferation of products that mediate intimacy in the U.S. (e.g., Tinder, Match.com, etc.) in a vein similar to Japan’s intimacy market? Or is it something else?
“Sleeping Together” — Gideon Lewis-Kraus