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

Reporting Japan’s changing sexual landscape

by Abigail Haworth

“Idon’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 spinoff 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.

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.


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 “sexless ness” 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.

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.