Review of SBS The Feed’s Sex in Japan: a new look at a disturbingly old problem

In Japan almost half of people under the age of 34 are virgins,‘ begins Marc Fennell, presenter of The Feed’s documentary Sex in Japan: Dying for Company, first broadcast on SBS in September, 2018. I instinctively rolled my eyes (sorry Marc) because I’ve heard this all before – Japanese are weird and immature about sex (‘compensated dating’, burusera,  upskirt videos),  leading to the fall in birth rates, which could be the end of Japan… Around 20 years ago, similar stories were doing the rounds.

But far from being the same old story, Sex in Japan is a nuanced exploration that I think, hints at the insidious bureaucratic authoritarianism that has plagued Japan since perhaps the Meiji Restoration. Though the half hour documentary doesn’t go quite this far, it does successfully link a rather titillating statistic – the high rate of millennial virgins – to deeper social ills like institutionalised sexism and the inhumane reality of Japan’s corporate ‘culture of overwork’ that’s given birth to the term karoshi, or death from overwork.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the documentary claims that long work hours mean younger people don’t have the time or are too stressed to date. And with women increasingly rejecting the infantalised, cutesy, subservient images of them promoted by Japan’s pop culture, men and women are just not meeting eye to eye and getting it on. The long term implication is that Japan’s population is not growing but ageing, and in the short to medium term, Japan’s young workers are at risk from dying from overwork. The documentary revisits the much publicised and tragic case of 24 year old Matsuri Takahashi’s death from overwork in 2015.

What I like most in this story is the reporting. Rather than talking to media savvy academics or commentators, The Feed team engage with ‘ordinary’ young Japanese. There’s the ‘traditional’ salary man who trots out his vision of the ‘ideal woman’ as someone who lets him do what he wants, and ‘if she’s pretty and gives me a good massage,’ well that’s ‘awesome’. And there are the thoughtful, stridently non conformist views of young Japanese female sushi chef Yuki Chizui, or Miki Tanaka, who staged a protest outside her former employer’s office for inhumane working conditions. Then there’s Makoto Iwahashi, the English speaking NGO worker whose eloquent critical analysis sheds light on the woeful state of Japanese industrial relations and the rise of karoshi.

What’s instructive is Iwahashi’s claim that karoshi has been around for decades. The term was coined way back in 1978, around the beginning of the Japanese economic boom that inflated into a dangerous bubble, and eventually burst spectacularly in early 1990s. I was working in the media in Tokyo in the 1990s, when karoshi became for the first time, a huge public issue. The reason given then was the economic boom – not enough workers to meet demand, so longer working hours.

Interestingly,  the current rise in karoshi cases is being blamed on the protracted recession –  chronic deflation means more work for the same level of customer service. I suspect karoshi has little to do with economic upturns or downturns, but power relations in Japan that put human interests last.

There is a view that Japan’s long history of pre-Meiji era isolation has given rise to weak democratic institutions, and together with a powerful bureaucratic class that has co-opted the middle classes to kowtow to corporate interests, Japanese people’s needs are often ignored in a system that constantly works against them instead of for them. That’s a long, complicated debate, and this documentary doesn’t pick apart the systematic failings of Japanese society or politics.

But by putting ‘ordinary Japanese’ voices at the front and centre of this story, The Feed is following in the traditions of Japanophiles like John Dower, Donald Keene or Tony Barrell whose reporting has given non-Japanese audiences access to the contradictions Japanese people live with every day. Like all societies, there are some who fight the system, and some who go with the flow.

I think Sex in Japan: Dying for Company is a compassionate and insightful look at today’s Japan. Unfortunately, today’s Japan doesn’t look all that much different from the Japan I knew 20 or 30 years ago. And that distresses me.