Celibacy vs adul­tery Ja­pan’s tech-tra­di­tion dilemma

JUST AF­TER NEWS RE­PORTS CLAIMED THAT JA­PANESE PEOPLE HAVE STOPPED HAV­ING SEX, AN AR­TI­CLE RE­VEALED THAT OVER A MIL­LION PEOPLE HAVE SIGNED UP TO ON­LINE ADUL­TERY SER­VICE ASH­LEY MADI­SON SINCE IT LAUNCHED IN JA­PAN LAST YEAR. IS TECH­NOL­OGY CLASH­ING WITH TRA­DITI

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - _sa claire marie @

ya­sue Yoshi­ike speaks in metaphors. It’s a won­der­ful stereo­type of Ja­panese cul­ture, soft­en­ing words to demon­strate a point in the most har­mo­nious and in­of­fen­sive way. She’s sit­ting on a post­box-red chair in her ther­apy room at Tokyo Coun­sel­ing Ser­vices,drink­ing green tea and telling me what it’s like to be mar­ried to a Ja­panese man. Her jet-black hair frames a face full of char­ac­ter and wis­dom, plenty of which must have been gar­nered dur­ing the 30 years she’s spent as a psy­chol­o­gist in both the US and Ja­pan.‘Mar­riage is like putting two poles in a rapid cur­rent and con­nect­ing them with a net with which to catch fish,’ she says.‘The fish rep­re­sent ma­tu­rity or per­sonal growth.The fur­ther apart the poles are, the harder it will be to steady the net in the cur­rent, and the harder it will be to catch big fish. But bring each pole a lit­tle closer and it will be eas­ier to work to­gether for the prize.’

The point Yoshi­ike is mak­ing is one that ther­a­pists world­wide have been mak­ing for years: for any re­la­tion­ship to be ful­fill­ing you need com­pro­mise and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But be­ing mar­ried to a Ja­panese man means not be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate your feel­ings, needs and de­sires. And never hear­ing his in re­turn. ‘Ja­panese men are self­cen­tred, much like chil­dren. They don’t have much em­pa­thy for their spouse.They don’t think how to please their wives.They just seek their own sat­is­fac­tion,’ she says.

I ask her if this could be the rea­son be­hind Ja­pan’s ‘celibacy syn­drome’,the much-dis­cussed phe­nom­e­non that’s been blamed for the coun­try’s eco­nom­i­cally wor­ry­ing de­cline in pop­u­la­tion, prompt­ing global head­lines such as ‘No sex please, we’re Ja­panese’. ‘It’s one of the rea­sons,’ she agrees. ‘Gov­ern­men­tal sta­tis­tics in Ja­pan show that the num­ber of mar­ried cou­ples over 40 who don’t have sex with their spouses is 40,8 per cent.The prob­lem stems from the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In Ja­panese cul­ture, people are taught to keep things peace­ful and avoid con­flict.The re­sult is that many wives feel dis­sat­is­fied but can­not ex­press their feel­ings.They start to re­ject their hus­band sex­u­ally,which makes him feel dis­re­spected and re­sent­ful.Slowly,the re­la­tion­ship de­te­ri­o­rates to the point where it is purely a prac­ti­cal ar­range­ment, of­ten with the wife sleep­ing in a sep­a­rate bed­room with the chil­dren. In the end, they sim­ply feel that hav­ing sex is too much has­sle.’

Sex is too much has­sle? Why, then, have more than a mil­lion people signed up to Ash­ley Madi­son – a web­site for mar­ried people seek­ing ‘dis­creet af­fairs’ – since it launched in Ja­pan last year? ‘Just be­cause mar­ried cou­ples are not hav­ing sex doesn’t mean they don’t have sex­ual de­sires,’ says Yoshi­ike. I ask if she thinks sites like Ash­ley Madi­son are ex­ac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem by giv­ing people a con­ve­nient por­tal to get their cheat­ing kicks; if tech­nol­ogy is fid­dling with tra­di­tion and break­ing up fam­i­lies.‘No.The prob­lem was there to be­gin with,’ she says.‘All that web­sites like this are do­ing is high­light­ing it.’

Ash­ley Madi­son’s founder, Noel Bi­der­man, agrees. ‘I’m of­ten crit­i­cised for de­stroy­ing mar­riages, but my re­sponse is this: you’re telling me that my 30-sec­ond ad­vert has more of an im­pact on a re­la­tion­ship than the 10 years the re­la­tion­ship has been go­ing?’ Bi­der­man, who has been nick­named The King of In­fi­delity, ad­mits his site has had an im­pact on in­fi­delity, but not in the way most people think.‘I don’t think we have changed the path of men at all – men have

al­ways sought out af­fairs. What we have fa­cil­i­tated is a much eas­ier path for fe­male in­fi­delity. There’s a lev­el­ling of the play­ing field, be­cause women are now de­mand­ing sex­ual equal­ity.’ This is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant in Ja­pan, where women have not en­joyed the same level of equal­ity with men as women in Western coun­tries do. But more Ja­panese women are en­ter­ing the work­force and be­com­ing in­de­pen­dent. ‘In the past, a woman was re­stricted – she could not sup­port her­self fi­nan­cially if her hus­band di­vorced her. So not only would women have to stay in an un­happy mar­riage, they would have to just ac­cept that their hus­bands were cheat­ing on them. Now, their in­hi­bi­tions are be­ing shed and tech­nol­ogy is pro­vid­ing a way for them to pur­sue non-monog­a­mous be­hav­iour them­selves.’

Bi­der­man doesn’t be­lieve that Ja­pan’s de­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion is a re­flec­tion of people’s sex­ual de­sires.‘You can have very sex­u­ally ac­tive cul­tures that have no in­ter­est in pro­cre­at­ing.The fact is,hav­ing chil­dren is an eco­nomic de­ci­sion. It’s also a huge com­mit­ment. Sex is still be­ing pur­sued in Ja­pan en masse; it’s just be­ing pur­sued as en­ter­tain­ment.’ Which is noth­ing new, re­ally. Any­one who’s strolled around Tokyo’s in­fa­mous Kabu­ki­cho sub­urb will know that sex as en­ter­tain­ment is a vis­i­ble part of Ja­panese cul­ture. Host and host­ess bars line the streets, love ho­tels abound,sex shops clam­our for at­ten­tion,and money can buy you all sorts of bizarre things such as a pair of used panties.

So what, then, do we make of the teens and twenty-some­things who say they have no in­ter­est in any sort of in­ti­macy with an­other hu­man be­ing? Who proudly in­tro­duce friends and re­porters to their vir­tual girl­friend and say she is much eas­ier to deal with? There is clearly no sex as en­ter­tain­ment go­ing on in these‘tech re­la­tion­ships’.Yoshi­ike says that most of these people are part of Ja­pan’s otaku sub­cul­ture,which refers to those who have an ob­ses­sive in­ter­est, most com­monly with manga (comics) and anime (an­i­ma­tion).‘They are lonely people,’she says.‘They don’t have close friends, so tech­nol­ogy has be­come a place where they can es­cape. In the past, it was more dif­fi­cult for this kind of per­son to fill their time.To­day, they can find en­ter­tain­ment and sat­is­fac­tion on­line. But it’s not real sat­is­fac­tion.’

Tak­ing it to ex­tremes is the hikiko­mori – young Ja­panese people who re­treat from so­ci­ety al­to­gether. When I meet Yuki* (29) and Kise* (31), who work in Tokyo’s buzzing fash­ion in­dus­try, Yuki tells me of a friend’s brother who is one such recluse:‘He still lives with his par­ents but stays in his bed­room all day,only com­ing out when it’s time to eat.Some­times the fam­ily doesn’t see him for days on end. He stopped go­ing to school and re­fuses to talk to any­one.’ Last year, the BBC re­ported that up to a mil­lion young people – mostly male – in Ja­pan are thought to be hikiko­mori.

Yuki and Kise say that of­ten the rea­son people with­draw is be­cause of the very real prob­lem of bul­ly­ing in Ja­panese schools. Kise her­self ad­mits to hav­ing avoided go­ing to school in the past be­cause she felt like she ‘didn’t fit in’. ‘There is a lot of so­cial pres­sure in Ja­pan. Pres­sure to do well in ex­am­i­na­tions, pres­sure to dress in ex­pen­sive brands. I didn’t have many friends at school be­cause I didn’t fol­low these “rules”,’ she says. She’s also not fol­low­ing a tra­di­tional path in terms of her re­la­tion­ship – her long-term boyfriend is Swedish.

Says Yoshi­ike, ‘Ja­panese people are taught from a young age:“Don’t be the nail that sticks out”. But it’s like an ocean – there may be calm on the sur­face but un­der­neath there is tur­moil.This frus­tra­tion must come out in some way.’ She be­lieves bul­ly­ing is af­fect­ing young men’s self-es­teem, mak­ing them weaker emo­tion­ally. On the other hand, women are be­com­ing emo­tion­ally stronger, so they’re gain­ing courage to speak up when they don’t like some­thing.‘The Ja­panese man can­not deal with this kind of con­flict,’ she says.‘He doesn’t want to feel hurt. So he may choose to avoid a re­la­tion­ship al­to­gether.’

Or he may choose to work longer hours, spend less time with his wife and get his ego boosted at a host­ess bar. Chi­haru Go­toh is a 33-year-old hair­dresser who worked as a night re­cep­tion­ist at a host­ess bar to make ex­tra money. She tells me it’s com­mon for mar­ried men to visit these bars. ‘Per­son­ally I don’t un­der­stand why they would want to spend so much money on a fake ro­mance.’ (Some high-end clubs will charge you $4 000 just to sit down.) She says most women she knows tol­er­ate their hus­bands vis­it­ing host­ess bars be­cause they be­lieve the girls who work there are ‘pro­fes­sional’, mean­ing they won’t cross the line and have sex with the men.

But a for­mer host­ess in­ter­viewed by Jar­rett Reynolds for Toky­obased on­line mag­a­zine Jagr-mag.com paints a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. ‘Ba­si­cally all the clients are mar­ried,’ she says.‘In Ja­pan, most men have mis­tresses. The wives are meant to stay at home and take care of the kids. Once they fin­ish a hard day’s work, men want to go to a bar where they feel like a king, and sit with women who are beau­ti­ful and young and laugh at their jokes, and touch their boobs. Most of the clients have sex with the girls… They want to do what they can’t do with their wives. They don’t speak to their wives. It’s re­ally a dou­ble life they’re liv­ing.’

Cur­rently, the di­vorce rate in Ja­pan is 24 per cent. While this may seem low in com­par­i­son with other coun­tries, it’s clear that many cou­ples who re­main mar­ried are un­happy. ‘Al­most all Ja­panese cou­ples be­lieve that stay­ing in a mar­riage is im­por­tant for the chil­dren, even if they don’t func­tion as a cou­ple.They be­lieve the fam­ily is more im­por­tant than the in­di­vid­ual,’ says Yoshi­ike.

So the ques­tion is, how does a con­tem­po­rary Ja­panese man or woman bridge the gap be­tween tra­di­tional val­ues and a mod­ern life­style that’s throw­ing all sorts of new de­mands and tech­nolo­gies into the mix? Iron­i­cally, per­haps the best an­swer comes from the man who is mak­ing a liv­ing from en­cour­ag­ing people to have af­fairs. It’s an an­swer that’s rel­e­vant to all cul­tures. Bi­der­man be­lieves, ‘We are in dan­ger as a so­ci­ety of cre­at­ing a fic­tional per­cep­tion of sex­u­al­ity. Al­most a third of the in­ter­net con­tent vis­ited is porn, but some­times hav­ing all this choice at our fin­ger­tips can lead to even more dis­con­tent. We need to look in­ward and get in touch with what we re­ally want.’

‘What we have fa­cil­i­tated is a much eas­ier path for fe­male in­fi­delity’

WORDS AN­NEMARIE LUCK

Left The founder of the Ash­ley Madi­son web­site, Noel Bi­der­man.

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