Home/Rod Dreher/Life That Refuses Life

Life That Refuses Life

This story from The Guardian about how young Japanese adults are embracing celibacy has to be the strangest and saddest thing I’ve read in ages. Excerpts:

Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million, which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by 2060.


Japan’s under-40s won’t go forth and multiply out of duty, as postwar generations did. The country is undergoing major social transition after 20 years of economic stagnation. It is also battling against the effects on its already nuclear-destruction-scarred psyche of 2011’s earthquake, tsunami and radioactive meltdown. There is no going back. “Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love. They don’t believe it can lead anywhere,” says Aoyama. “Relationships have become too hard.”

Marriage has become a minefield of unattractive choices. Japanese men have become less career-driven, and less solvent, as lifetime job security has waned. Japanese women have become more independent and ambitious. Yet conservative attitudes in the home and workplace persist. Japan’s punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family, while children are unaffordable unless both parents work. Cohabiting or unmarried parenthood is still unusual, dogged by bureaucratic disapproval.

Aoyama says the sexes, especially in Japan’s giant cities, are “spiralling away from each other”. Lacking long-term shared goals, many are turning to what she terms “Pot Noodle love” – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality “girlfriends”, anime cartoons. Or else they’re opting out altogether and replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes.


Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures? Many of the shifts there are occurring in other advanced nations, too. Across urban Asia, Europe and America, people are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling, single-occupant households are on the rise and, in countries where economic recession is worst, young people are living at home. But demographer Nicholas Eberstadt argues that a distinctive set of factors is accelerating these trends in Japan. These factors include the lack of a religious authority that ordains marriage and family, the country’s precarious earthquake-prone ecology that engenders feelings of futility, and the high cost of living and raising children.

“Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction,” Eberstadtwrote last year. With a vast army of older people and an ever-dwindling younger generation, Japan may become a “pioneer people” where individuals who never marry exist in significant numbers, he said.

Read the whole thing. The reasons behind this state of affairs are complicated, but the whole thing is bizarre and frightening. It’s clearly not simply a matter of material causes. Most people who have ever lived have faced more difficult material circumstances than today’s Japanese, yet they have married and had children and brought about a future for their people.

In a far less dire story, but still part of the general trend, statistics show that Millennials in Mexico are shunning marriage:

Young Mexicans aged 20 to 29 do not want to get married. According to an analysis made by EL UNIVERSAL with data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), from 2000 to 2012 marriages decreased 23% in this age group. 

The causes range from better education to a financial independence crisis and a cultural change, experts said. 

When Ricardo Fernández turned 28, he bought his first car to celebrate his birthday. He works as assistant manager at a Mexican bank, has not had a partner for more than two years and wants to study a masters degree and live alone. Marriage is not in his plans. His friends, all single and with stable jobs, joke with the subject and call themselves the #foreveralone. 


Héctor Maldonado San Germán, director of the Civil Registry of Mexico City, says that divorce is becoming more popular among the lower-middle class. Before divorce used to cost between 80,000 and 100,000 pesos (5,935 and 7,419 dollars), depending on the process. Now, if both parties agree, it only costs 58 pesos (4.3 dollars) and couples can get divorced in 15 days, Maldonado explained.

Let me state this clearly: there are material causes in play here. But I don’t think the economy explains all of this. More than anything, I think this is a spiritual sickness. Life that refuses life.

UPDATE: Great comments from readers. Here’s one from Mohammed, in Iran:

This is just the logical consequence of 1- having easy access to casual sex 2- not feeling that children are necessary for your old age to take care of you, because welfare and retirement system is there to take care of you 3- the deteriorating human relationship between people. Economical hardships are just the catalyst.

That aside, we people of the world have made raising children something artificially burdensome. We want our children to have the best “education”, have access to different expensive toys (like tablets, smart phones,…) so that they don’t feel deprived, and we are overzealous about their safety. Bullying, even small amount of it, is not something of life that should be learnt to be dealt with, but something which needs the immediate attention of the parents. The maturity age has come up from around 14 to 20 and upper. Is it strange then that people no longer feel excited about having children?

Here’s one from Andyra:

I used to have a female Japanese semi-friend (friendly acquaintence) who was in the US on a student visa and who desperately hoped to get an American husband. When, finally, she had to return to Japan unmarried, she told me that meant that she would have to be celibate for the rest of her life. She wanted to marry and have children, but she was absolutely determined that she would not do so within the context of Japanese culture. Here’s why:

She told me that young mothers in Japan have an unbearable existance. Their husbands work such long hours that it’s impossible to have a relationship- married men just come home to sleep. Under these circumstances, and due to tradition, the man participates very little in raising the children. It’s almost impossible to work part time. Worse, she told me that young wives are often expected to live with their inlaws, and there’s a cultural tradition that the mother-in-law subjects her daughter-in-law to nonstop criticism. The pressure for academic success for her children is so intense that a young mother cannot relax and have fun with her kids.

This is just one person’s testimony, and maybe it’s slanted (I’ve never visited Japan myself). However, I was very struck by the situation of this young woman who very much wanted children, but only if she could raise them in America.

If we want people to have children, it’s a good idea to have a culture, and an economy, that makes having children an attractive prospect.

You’re right about that. If a society wishes to reproduce itself, it had better help create the conditions for that to happen. If it refuses, it will die.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment