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Number 1 Shimbun

Reporting Japan's Changing Sexual Landscape

Is the tuned-in global reader
more understanding of nuance than the media?
A story gone viral
makes Abigail Haworth wonder.


“I don’t really go along with this story I’m afraid. . . In fact I didn’t bother to read it.” This was a comment from someone named Frank under my Oct. 20 article on The Guardian website about young Japanese rejecting conventional relationships. Frank said he had recently lived in the Shonan area of Japan. He was so incensed by the article’s headline, “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” that he declared the whole piece to be “utter garbage!”

That, of course, is Frank’s prerogative. In these days of instantaneous online commentary anyone can express an opinion about a piece of journalism without having read it – and many, as we all know, do. But a huge number of people did read the article (which appeared in print in the Guardian Media Group’s Sunday publication, The Observer Magazine).

To date, it has had 90,694 shares on Facebook, it has been Tweeted 8,170 times and, according to the newspaper’s latest figures, it has been viewed close to five million times. It also prompted numerous spin-off articles, TV panel discussions and a lovingly crafted but unprintable piece of poetry from a reader in Los Angeles.

So why did it take off? The provocative headline and colorful ex-dominatrix who opened the piece no doubt played a role. Yet I don’t think prurient interest alone explains it. One would have to have a staggeringly low opinion of the readers who plowed through almost 3,000 words to believe that.


Readers from diverse countries drew parallels
with their societies:
a growing tendency to delay marriage,
greater solo living in cities,
the difficulty of juggling work and children.


Putting it down to prurience is also out of step with how the country is viewed overseas today, particularly by people under 40. In much of the world, the vast reach of Japanese cultural exports like anime, fashion and technology has in turn inspired a desire for deeper knowledge about the society. Smart young people are far more clued in and comfortable with all things Japanese than previous generations. (A revealing aspect of the recent eyeball-licking story – expertly exposed as a hoax in this magazine – was that it demonstrated how far-fetched and ridiculous “weird Japan” stories have to be these days to spark a reaction.)

This sense of easy familiarity came through in the comments on social media about my article. Many people in their 20s and 30s in Britain and the U.S. related to Japanese singletons without a second thought, commenting on how precarious job prospects, financial dependence on parents and insecurity about the future were affecting their own sex lives and personal relationships.

Readers from countries as diverse as Brazil and Nigeria drew parallels with their societies, too: a growing tendency to delay marriage, greater solo living in cities, the difficulty of juggling work and children. A single woman in India talked about her desire for a career and her fears it was incompatible with traditional expectations. A retired Danish woman talked about how Denmark was adjusting to a population in which over 50 percent of urban dwellers were single.


All that changed for the worse
when other big media outlets picked up on the story
and started recycling it as faux “news.” 


In the end, it’s hard to say how much Japan does offer a window on the global future – it’s complicated, and there are few straight parallels with other countries. But the article seemed to resonate so widely due to the perception that Japan is dealing with the human and emotional consequences of issues like demographic change and technological advancement before anyone else. “Japan is the future,” said one commenter. “Japan has got it all figured out,” said another. “A nation too sane for its own good,” said another.

All of this is not to say there weren’t some responses along the usual “Japan is weird” lines. Of course there were. As a friend in Tokyo noted, that’s par for the course even if the subject is ikebana. But interestingly, one of the least-discussed subjects in those first few days was lack of sex, despite its prominent billing in the headline. If the subject did come up, it was talked about as a normal or understandable response to circumstance.

All that changed for the worse when other big media outlets picked up on the story and started recycling it as faux “news.” The conversation shifted as their spin-offs took the usual sensational course of twisting facts and ignoring context. Suddenly, an epidemic of indigenous “sexlessness” was being blamed for falling births and Japan was allegedly hurtling towards extinction – exactly the kind of groundless scaremongering my story dismissed. These distortions, in turn, were then picked up by indignant Japan watchers who used them to criticize the “viral” Guardian story without appearing to read it.

Whatever happens,
Japan is increasingly unlikely to
be alone
in suffering the indignity of media hyperbole.

It was fascinating to watch this media cycle play out.  But it wasn’t that fruitful. The topic of sex and relationships in Japan is hugely complex, with many different sides and apparent contradictions that are all worth exploring. Media sensationalism doesn’t help the debate. And neither do kneejerk cries of “cultural stereotyping” at genuine attempts to explain sexuality in Japan. Most readers, I believe, can discern what is hyped or silly, and those who can’t or won’t are not worth bothering with. (See ikebana, above).

Sex is fun, and in my opinion writing about sex should be fun whenever possible, too. But it’s a fine line to get it right when it comes to Japan. I suspect that’s only going to get harder as technology develops and ever-new forms of virtual interaction become commonplace.

Whatever happens, Japan is increasingly unlikely to be alone in suffering the indignity of media hyperbole. A few days ago, the Guardian ran a story about new research showing that British people are having 20 percent less sex than they did 10 years ago. Reasons cited included more people living alone, economic recession and addiction to technology. The headline made the one on my article seem subtle. It asked: “Are Smartphones Causing a Bonking Crisis?”

Abigail Haworth is senior international editor at Marie Claire U.S., and a contributor to the U.K.’s Observer Magazine. She has won numerous awards, including an Overseas Press Club of America award, and was nominated for the 2013 Orwell Journalism Prize. She lived in Tokyo for 10 years, and is now based in Bangkok.



Published in: December

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1 comment

  • Eido Inoue

    posted by Eido Inoue

    Friday, December 27, 2013

    Ms. Haworth would like you to think that the comment peanut gallery alone criticized her piece. However, she neglected to mention that non-anonymous professional journalists and academics, Japanese and non-Japanese, male and female, who had fully read her piece and challenged her directly and publicly, were also extremely critical of her piece. In particular, the poor formal data reading analysis, the misunderstandings of the Japanese language, and her poor choice of reliable qualified human sources were brought directly to her attention by these people.

    Rather than rant about the dearth of unbiased readers and media, perhaps Ms. Haworth should look in the mirror, and reflect how her predilection towards an identifiable pattern of data misinterpretation and stereotyping towards a pre-decided conclusion is more indicative of her personal bias, especially with respect to the topics of sex, the sexes, and Japan.

    Just because some readers related to statements about marriage or sex and demographics doesn't excuse the reporter from accurate and unbiased reporting. Just because you get a generalized statement right doesn't excuse you from getting the points leading up to it wrong. "The ends don't justify the means."

    It's a little bizarre to read about Ms. Haworth complain about media sensationalism. She may have not picked the SEO link-bait title; her editors are probably guilty of that. But she knew full well what she was doing when she decided to lead her article with a paragraph about a common prostitute (Ms. Haworth, who lived in Japan for 10 years, surely must've done a Japanese web search and read her subject's Wikipedia entry, or rented one of her adult videos, or visited her "out-call" website) masquerading under the euphemism of sex and relationship counselor and use that as a main source for the lead and 10 more of the article's 35 paragraphs. In the journalism world this is known as putting the attention getting bits "above the fold" (in old journalism speak; new journalism speak: "before the scroll"). I thus doubt her pleas that her attempts to "explain sexuality in Japan" were "genuine" as she claims. As she is so proud to numerically boast about her page views, tweets, and shares, it seems that quantity, not quality, is what's important to her.

    I agree with Haworth in that bias and sensationalism are a problem in journalism. Unfortunately, Ms. Haworth was unwittingly part of the problem, not solution.



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