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Modernity as Sexlessness

The Guardian has a downright amazing even if uncomfortable article on the disappearance of sex in Japan. Several explanations are given for why younger people are choosing to remain single, but a few center around the current social economy. Some argue that the modern world makes sex and, particularly, meaningful personal relationships, just too difficult:

Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery, from the exorbitant costs of buying property in Japan to the uncertain expectations of a spouse and in-laws. And the centuries-old belief that the purpose of marriage is to produce children endures. Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like”.

The sense of crushing obligation affects men just as much. Satoru Kishino, 31, belongs to a large tribe of men under 40 who are engaging in a kind of passive rebellion against traditional Japanese masculinity. Amid the recession and unsteady wages, men like Kishino feel that the pressure on them to be breadwinning economic warriors for a wife and family is unrealistic. They are rejecting the pursuit of both career and romantic success.

“It’s too troublesome,” says Kishino, when I ask 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 Kishino as “herbivores” or soshoku danshi (literally, “grass-eating men”). Kishino says he doesn’t mind the label because it’s become so commonplace. He defines it as “a heterosexual man for whom relationships and sex are unimportant”.

This is very similar to the reason Americans postpone marriage. The modern economy simply isn’t friendly to it. We’ve got better and more pressing things to do.

But there’s another side to this problem. In addition to being a bad fit, sex, or at least sex between two humans, is starting to appear unnecessary:

Romantic apathy aside, Kishino, like Tomita, says he enjoys his active single life. Ironically, the salaryman system that produced such segregated marital roles – wives inside the home, husbands at work for 20 hours a day – also created an ideal environment for solo living. Japan’s cities are full of conveniences made for one, from stand-up noodle bars to capsule hotels to the ubiquitous konbini (convenience stores), with their shelves of individually wrapped rice balls and disposable underwear. These things originally evolved for salarymen on the go, but there are now female-only cafés, hotel floors and even the odd apartment block. And Japan’s cities are extraordinarily crime-free.

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 assistant professor of anthropology at Montana State University in America. “But more people are finding they prefer it.” Being single by choice is becoming, she believes, “a new reality”.

Well now. The machine has taken over after all. Are these the inevitable eunuchs of capitalism? The final bourgeois decadence turns out to be celibacy!

Of course, it is unlikely that all sexual activity is going away in Japan. This article doesn’t mention the various solo ventures, and I apologize for bringing them up. But they are pretty clearly the replacement. And isn’t it interesting that the article locates the one voice of sanity in the person of the dominatrix?

A better solution, the only one really, is returning to basic biology. Sex needs to be reconnected to our nature, to the natural state, and the marital relation needs to be come a foundation rather than a capstone to human lives and dreams. We need to learn how to become human again, and that means the original human pair of man and wife.

This will take more than arguments. This will take a refocusing of our notions of success and personal fulfillment. But it doesn’t really seem like we have an option.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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