Middle-aged virgins: Why so many Japanese stay chaste

Tokyo (CNN)When I was a young, single woman in Japan in the 1980s, the economy was red hot and so was the dating scene. Cool girls weren’t ashamed of losing their virginity before marriage.

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Of course for me personally, losing my virginity was a big deal. But socially, it was no biggie. It was the 80s, Japan was alive, and life was good.

Goodness, how times have changed.

It’s alarming for me, and many of my peers, to see the enthusiasm about sex and relationships we felt during our youth replaced by the sexual indifference seen in Japan today.

A government survey released this week suggested that nearly 40 percent of Japanese in their twenties and thirties are not in a relationship don’t think they need a romantic partner, with many calling relationships “bothersome.”

Another survey from 2010 found that one in four Japanese men in their thirties who’ve never been married are virgins. The figures were only slightly less for women.

Apathy to sex

This sexual apathy is extremely troubling for Japan, which has the world’s most rapidly aging population, sparking concerns that citizens will not produce enough children to sustain a healthy economy in the coming years.

I was skeptical when I learned of a nude art class aimed at inspiring Japan’s growing population of middle-aged virgins.

I thought, if a man hasn’t had any kind of sexual relationship by his thirties or forties, simply sketching a nude woman is like throwing a drop of water on a forest fire. It’s not going to solve the problem.

But then we interviewed Takashi Sakai (we’ve agreed to change his name), a 41-year-old Japanese virgin who says these classes, offered bimonthly in Tokyo by the non-profit White Hands, are the closest he’s ever been to a real, naked woman and not some fantasized version in Japanese manga.

“When you see a woman and find her attractive, you might ask her out, hold her hand, kiss and that’s how it goes,” Sakai says.

“But in my case, it did not happen for me. I thought it might happen naturally, but it never did.”

Never been kissed

Shingo Sakatsume — a self-styled “sex helper” working with White Hands — says middle-aged virgins who would like their situation to change lack real life experience with women, so allowing them to spend time looking at the female body is a first step to solve the issue.

“In Japanese society, we have so much entertainment beyond love and sex. We have animation, celebrities, comics, game and sports,” he says.

“Why do you need to choose love or sex over the other fun things that don’t have the potential for pain and suffering?”

The illusion of a perfect relationship, combined with the Japanese fear of failure, has created a serious social problem, he says.

He knows the apparent disconnect is leading to fewer relationships, record low birth rates, and a shrinking population.

The classes seem to be helping Sakai, a mountain climber and teacher who, at 41, is not only a virgin, but also has never been in a relationship or even been kissed.

For years, he’s kept his virginity a secret from friends, co-workers, and family.

“Not telling others (I’m a virgin) was the same as pretending the problem does not exist,” says Sakai. “It was like putting it away on a shelf where nobody can see it.”

Old clichés

As I watch my six-year-old son grow up, I always think about whether Japan will be a good home.

By 2060 when he becomes my age, if current trends continue, Japan’s population will have shrunk by more than 30%.

Two in five people will be older than 65. Will Japan be able to sustain itself? What will his life be like?

Japanese views on sex and relationships have changed dramatically during my 27-year career.

Back in the bubble economy of the 1980s, unmarried girls over 25 were called “Christmas Cake” — a term for something you throw out after the season has passed.

In the 1990s, the concept became “year-end noodle.”

In Japan, we eat noodles on New Year’s Eve. If not eaten by the 31st, they also get thrown out like Christmas cakes.

Today, many laugh at these old clichés.

Twenty years of economic stagnation seems to have led to emasculation of some Japanese men, who can no longer count on finding a job that will pay enough to support a wife and children.

“Economic status and income is closely tied to self-esteem. Lower income means lower self-esteem,” Sakatsume says.

“Having lower self-esteem makes it difficult to commit to a love relationship.”

Sakai now shares his story openly at White Hands classes. He says confiding in others helps him realize he’s not alone.

“There are so many people living as though they have no sexual desire. I feel first hand that (these) kind of people are quietly on the rise.”

Sakai says he still hopes to say goodbye to his virginity but is philosophical about it.

“I feel much better now because I can talk about it. And by talking about it, I’ve come to realize that my situation is not something that I must change, but I must recognize,” he says.

“I haven’t given up yet.”

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