Sunday, 7 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Ageing, Sex and Fantasy

Lots of 'Excited Banana' prizes up for grabs at a Shinjuku arcade game


In this post I'll be exploring Japan's ever-jaw-droppingly diverse world of sexual fetishism, the perks of being over 60 and the country's worrying 'Sexless Generation'.


Trying hard not to be judgmental, I'd heard about Japan's love-doll industry, 'parasite singles' and 'herbivore men' long before I'd got here. I found it incredible how the Japanese were so adept at creating all sorts of innovations to satisfy one's particular sexual needs that the real thing became superfluous and boring in comparison. Yet Japan's low fertility problem is a serious economic and social issue not to be laughed at. 

"In Japan life begins after 60", my guide Fu-san told me. Thanks to a diet rich in fish Omega-3s and seaweed nutrients the Japanese are famous for their high average 80+ life-expectancies. It's encouraging to see how society embraces the golden oldies - who are often physically fitter, mentally sharper and more socially active than their younger counterparts. For example in Osaka I saw recruitment posters specifically welcoming and praising the virtues of older candidates. From the impressively knowledgeable traffic wardens who helped us navigate Shinjuku to the helpful airport workers and the regular OAP protesters, they honestly seemed to be having a lot more fun. And when they're not keeping busy they're splurging their hard-earned savings on their next vacation.


The most common sight in Japan. A pair of older Japanese women in Tsujiki. I love their tops.

Spare a thought for the millennials, who in contrast, life consists of long working hours and the responsibility to care for parents in old age - like most of East Asia, the concept of  'filial piety' to elders is widespread. Add in factor of the struggling economy it's hardly surprising that despite government encouragement, many have chosen to delay marriage or not to start families at all. The severe measures conceived to solve its ageing epidemic/plummeting birth rate crisis was shown on a TV news special we watched while we ate a hotel breakfast in Tokyo - chicken curry rice and marbled green tea cake, in case you're wondering.

A Shinto wedding ceremony couple at Meiji Shrine

I'd learned about new government supported dating apps - 'Chiato' (for divorced mothers) and a 'marriage app' targeted the city's busy working singles. It does sound a bit aggressive, but when it comes to dating culture, Japanese men and women tend to be very shy and conservative. In spite of this, the faces in the programme were all digitally obscured - I thought this was counterproductive if the whole point of the pitch was to make actively looking for love less of a social taboo.

Confusing indeed, when you think of these initiatives against an abundant supply of straightforward non-human alternatives, exotic paraphernalia and every niche establishment you can imagine. Why have a baby when it's acceptable to take your dog in pram with you or pay for companionship at a pet cafe/hotel?. That's not including the high number of peeping-toms and 'lingerie thieves' - some say this perversion has risen due to the somewhat involuntary national repression of sexual desire.

Will you?

It's not just the millennials who are lacking in intimacy either. 'The Loneliness Epidemic' is widespread among elders - a result of relationships growing apart between with their busy, working children. Sadly it's not uncommon to see old people wandering aimlessly, talking to themselves on the street and halting traffic. On the other hand I was shocked to find out the biggest spenders in Shinjuku's Kabukichō (歌舞伎町) red-light district (now also open during daytime due to the recent influx of tourists) are actually the growing wealthy community of over 60s widows and widowers. These men and women aren't necessarily after sex, but are mostly seeking affection in the form of companionship, for meal or movie dates. "You don't even have to be attractive to work there, just attentive." said Fu-san.

Japanese men and women are so incredibly polite, yet patriarchy and sexism are accepted social realities. Women are expected to take care of their appearance from childhood and the unspoken gender pay gap has always existed. I couldn't help but notice at the Tsukiji market all the cart drivers were men.

These are just a few phenomenons and contradictions I'd witnessed in Japanese society. I suspect it's not just porn and sexual simulacra that's partially responsible either. Everything 'contemporary' in Japan seems to help one drift further from reality, reinforcing a 'perfect fantasy' world of escapism and imitation. The garish plastic food models outside restaurants, clear varnish painted Mickey Mouse shaped raindrops on umbrellas (over-ornamentation), every new WTF? fusion flavour, shiny product, themed eatery or cartoon character (twee-fication), arcade game, pachinko machine to the many random ferris wheels built for "romantic proposals and photo opportunities". Remember it's the adults who spend money on this...

Needless to say, I was left more perplexed and fascinated with Japanese gender values than I ever was to begin with.


Robot Restaurant - one of the many themed restaurants in Tokyo. You can rent a costume to make your experience extra memorable.

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