Saturday, August 25, 2007

Becoming Japanese

The people of Japan, generally free from any religious faith, excel at production of toys for pleasure, from PlayStation to pornography.1

Japan's power elite, while extraordinarily good at selling almost all their commodities, not just pleasure toys, to the world, are rather poor at marketing the culture of Japan, however.  They accumulate dollars, but they fail to use them to assert themselves culturally in proportion to their economic power.  Everyone -- from the Taliban to suburban Americans -- loves Toyota, and yet few learn the Japanese language.

But there is one defining element of Japanese culture that has successfully replicated itself everywhere in the global North -- and in most nations of the global South with the exception of Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and perhaps a few others -- though not due to any conscious effort to export it on the part of the Japanese ruling class.  Which element is that?  That is utter indifference to republican virtue.

The world, especially the global North, is perhaps becoming Japanese.

1 But, at the same time, surveys tell us that, having elevated fetishism to art, few Japanese bother to have sex, or so says USA Today (Paul Wiseman, "No Sex Please -- We're Japanese," 2 June 2004):
TOKYO — Junko Sakai was nervously looking forward to a romantic getaway with the man she'd been seeing.  But when they arrived at a seaside hotel last fall, her beau requested separate rooms.

Stunned, Sakai nonetheless anticipated a late-night knock on the door.  It never came. "Nothing happened," the Tokyo writer says.

Nothing is happening with depressing regularity between Japanese men and women these days.  Marriages, births and hanky-panky are all spiraling downward with troubling implications for the nation's future: A sagging birthrate means that fewer working-age people will be around to support a growing population of elderly; a social crisis looms.

Only in Japan would a popular weekly newsmagazine deem it necessary to exhort the nation's youth to abstain from sexual abstinence: "Young people, don't hate sex," AERA magazine pleaded last month in a report detailing a precarious drop in sales of condoms and in business at Japan's rent-by-the-hour "love hotels."

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And so, to an astonishing degree, men and women go their separate ways -- the women to designer boutiques and chic restaurants with their girlfriends or moms, the men to karaoke clubs with their colleagues from work or the solitude of their computer screens to romance hassle-free virtual women.

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• Sex. In a 2001 survey, condom maker Durex found that Japan ranked dead last among 28 countries in the frequency of sex: The average Japanese had sex just 36 times a year. Hong Kong was next to last with 63.  (Americans ranked No. 1 at 124 times a year.)

AERA reports that condom shipments are down 40% since 1993 (probably in part because Japan finally legalized birth-control pills in 1999) and love-hotel check-ins are off at least 20% over the past five years.  What's more, an increasing number of those visiting love hotels aren't there for romance, AERA says; they've found that love hotels offer the cheapest access to karaoke machines and video games.

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But most young Japanese seem to enjoy the single life. In 1973, a Japanese government survey found that the happiest people in the country were those over age 60.  A similar survey 24 years later found that the happiest people were in their 20s, and twentysomething women were the happiest of all: 77.7% said they were content with their lives.  Maybe Gloria Steinem was right: Women need men like fish need bicycles.

Many young Japanese women live carefree lives, staying at home with their parents, paying little if any rent, letting their mothers cook their meals, clean their rooms and do their laundry.  Many work dead-end jobs that don't pay much but don't cause much stress and give them enough spending money to buy designer handbags, shoes, clothes and jewelry and enough time to take overseas holidays with their girlfriends.

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