To Western eyes, contemporary Japan has a kind of earnest childlike wackiness, all karaoke machines and manga cartoons and nuttily sadistic game shows. But, to us demography bores, it’s a sad place that seems to be turning into a theme park of P. D. James’s great dystopian novel The Children of Men. As readers may recall from earlier citations in this space, Baroness James’s tale is set in Britain in the near future, in a world that is infertile: The last newborn babe emerged from the womb in 1995, and since then nothing. The Hollywood director Alfonso Cuarón took this broad theme and made a rather ordinary little film out of it. But the Japanese seem determined to live up to the book’s every telling detail.
In Lady James’s speculative fiction, pets are doted on as child-substitutes, and churches hold christening ceremonies for cats. In contemporary Japanese reality, Tokyo has some 40 “cat cafés” where lonely solitary citizens can while away an afternoon by renting a feline to touch and pet for a couple of companiable hours. In Lady James’s speculative fiction, all the unneeded toys are burned, except for the dolls, which childless women seize on as the nearest thing to a baby and wheel through the streets. In contemporary Japanese reality, toy makers, their children’s market dwindling, have instead developed dolls for seniors to be the grandchildren they’ll never have: You can dress them up, and put them in a baby carriage, and the computer chip in the back has several dozen phrases of the kind a real grandchild might use to enable them to engage in rudimentary social pleasantries.
P. D. James’s most audacious fancy is that in a barren land sex itself becomes a bit of a chore. The authorities frantically sponsor state porn emporia promoting ever more recherché forms of erotic activity in an effort to reverse the populace’s flagging sexual desire just in case man’s seed should recover its potency. Alas, to no avail. As Lady James writes, “Women complain increasingly of what they describe as painful orgasms: the spasm achieved but not the pleasure. Pages are devoted to this common phenomenon in the women’s magazines.”
As I said, a bold conceit, at least to those who believe that shorn of all those boring procreation hang-ups we can finally be free to indulge our sexual appetites to the full. But it seems the Japanese have embraced the no-sex-please-we’re-dystopian-Brits plot angle, too. In October, Abigail Haworth of the Observer in London filed a story headlined “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” Not all young people but a whopping percentage: A survey by the Japan Family Planning Association reported that over a quarter of men aged 16–24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” For women, it was 45 percent.
The Observer seems to have approached the subject in the same belief as P. D. James’s government porn stores — that it’s nothing that a little more sexual adventurism can’t cure. So Miss Haworth’s lead was devoted to the views of a “sex and relationship counselor” and former dominatrix who specialized in dripping hot wax on her clients’ nipples and was once invited to North Korea to squeeze the testicles of one of Kim Jong-il’s top generals. In other words, as the Observer puts it, “she doesn’t judge.” Except, that is, when it comes to “the pressure to conform to Japan’s anachronistic family model,” which she blames for the young folks checking out of the sex biz altogether.
But, if the pressure to conform were that great, wouldn’t there be a lot more conforming? Instead, 49 percent of women under 34 are not in any kind of romantic relationship, and nor are 61 percent of single men. A third of Japanese adults under 30 have never dated. Anyone. Ever. It’s not that they’ve stopped “having sex” — or are disinclined to have hot wax poured on their nipples. It’s bigger than that: It’s a flight from human intimacy.
They’re not alone in that, of course. A while back, I flew from a speaking engagement on one side of the Atlantic to a TV booking on the other. And backstage at both events an attractive thirtysomething woman made the same complaint to me. They’d both tried computer dating but were alarmed by the number of chaps who found human contact too much effort: Instead of meeting and kissing and making out and all that other stuff that involves being in the same room, they’d rather you just sexted them and twitpiced a Weineresque selfie or two. As in other areas, the Japanese seem merely to have reached the end point of Western ennui a little earlier.
By 2020, in the Land of the Rising Sun, adult diapers will outsell baby diapers: The sun also sets. In The Children of Men, the barrenness is a medical condition; in real life, in some of the oldest nations on earth, from Madrid to Tokyo, it’s a voluntary societal self-extinction. In Europe, the demographic death spiral is obscured by high Muslim immigration; in Japan, which retains a cultural aversion to immigration of any kind, there are no foreigners to be the children you couldn’t be bothered having yourself. In welfare states, the future is premised on social solidarity: The young will pay for the costs of the old. But, as the West ages, social solidarity frays, and in Japan young men aren’t even interested in solidarity with young women, and young women can’t afford solidarity with bonnie bairns. So an elderly population in need of warm bodies to man the hospital wards and senior centers is already turning to robot technology. If manga and anime are any indication, the post-human nurses and waitresses will be cute enough to make passable sex partners — for anyone who can still be bothered.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).