Sex myths without substance: Mislabelling Japan

These stories gain traction because they support a view
of east Asia which is at best patronising and at worst overtly racist


Every few months, as if to remind us what a disturbingly odd place Japan is, an alarming Japanese news story explodes online. Western media outlets clamber over each other in their haste to cover the story, with every report of bagel heads, snail facials or ritual head shaving being used as further evidence of a unique Japanese weirdness. A lack of understanding (and, sometimes, basic fact-checking) means that entire stories are lifted, often without critique, and churned into dubious clickbait. Earlier this year, widespread coverage of a supposed eyeball-licking epidemic among Japanese teens that turned out to be a hoax left more than a few editors red-faced.

This round was kicked off with an article in the Guardian looking at reasons behind Japan's rapidly declining population. Since then, sound-bites have been repeated and distorted, and the spiralling birth rate figures have become a hook for a spate of ill-informed, voyeuristic articles that fail to note that the 'weirdness' they see before them is far from representative.

TIME asked whether millions of young people are eschewing sex because they'd rather "manage a virtual candy store in a video game". Vice segued into an exposé of Japan's sex and love industry, taking time to name check "a generation of men obsessed with virtual reality and so intimidated by real women that they prefer cyber girlfriends". They explored 'cuddle cafes', sex dolls, services where you can pay to go on a date with someone dressed as an anime character – all niche industries that would be met with the same bemusement and derision by the average Japanese 20-something that some foreign journalists reserve for East Asia.

Coverage peaked last Thursday, with a BBC2 documentary entitled 'No sex please, we're Japanese'. While there was some good reporting on what a shrinking society means for Japan, it was almost entirely undermined by an apparent determination to blame "a generation that has never had to grow up".

Presenter Anita Rani's quest to understand the "psyche of the modern Japanese man" leads her to Akihabara: the home of otaku, or geek, culture. As happens all too often, a tiny minority is portrayed as though it were representative of the wider population, and its impact wildly exaggerated. In a supporting article, Rani makes the entirely bogus claim that "One reason for the lack of babies is the emergence of a new breed of Japanese men, the otaku, who love manga, anime and computers – and sometimes show little interest in sex".

I'd love to see someone substantiate this claim. At no point this week – or ever – have I seen statistics to suggest a causal link between the rise of otaku culture and Japan's declining birth rate. (Is the number of otaku rising? Who knows? No one's bothered to do the research.)

And yet, this forms the basic premise of the documentary, which features interviews with two men who believe themselves to be dating video game characters. Rani refers to them as though they are typical Japanese men, rather than part of a subculture within a subculture; the extreme end of a broad category of nerds. Does it need saying that not all of them would want to take a Nintendo-generated schoolgirl on a date?

In what can only be interpreted as a bid to come up with the greatest non-sequitur in BBC documentary history, Rani asks why, when "You've got nerdy, geeky culture all over the world... Japan has the declining birth rate. So what's happening here? Are there just more nerds here?"

The World Bank lists 15 countries with a fertility rate equal to or below that of Japan including Germany, Korea and Romania. I don't remember geeks being credited with the power to suppress entire populations in any of those countries.

When exploring why fewer babies are being born in Japan, journalists would do better to look to social issues such as conservative gender roles, poor protections for working mothers and punishing work conditions that mean men spend very little time at home. Few reports mention the fact that Japan recently fell four places to 105th in world gender parity rankings, according to the WEF Gender Gap Report.

Rani, to her credit, touches upon some of these issues, but only briefly. As is often the case, they are paid lip service only as alternatives to a more salacious headline.

Another, more relevant, phenomenon that's worth discussing is that of 'herbivore boys' or soshokukei danshi: men who subvert traditionally masculine traits and are typically passive in relationships. Unfortunately, though, Rani shows herself to be painfully ill-informed by confusing soshokukei danshi with otaku. It's inevitable that nuances will be lost when you attempt to distil one complex social phenomenon into a paragraph of backdrop to contextualise another; but her assertion that they have "taken on a mole-like existence" is baseless, insulting and woefully ignorant.

It's easy to attack one documentary, and it's easy to offer the defence that its effect will be limited only to its audience. Leaving aside the trust that the BBC commands, what's most upsetting is that this is part of a wider trend. We have a kind of voyeuristic fascination with Japan's strangeness, spurred on by irresponsible journalism and sensationalised headlines. These stories gain traction because they support a simplistic view of East Asia which is at best patronising and at worst overtly racist. Lazy journalism supports these prejudices; every poorly written puff piece and ill-researched documentary serves, as one viewer charmingly put it, as "confirmation of japanese weirdness".

Journalists should strive to challenge, not perpetuate, crude stereotypes. Our collective obsession with portraying Japan as a nation of tech-obsessed sexual deviants dehumanises its citizens and echoes orientalist attitudes that should be long since dead and buried. Enough.

Beckie Smith is a freelance journalist who writes about education, media, feminism and current affairs. She has a degree in Japanese and spent time living in Kyoto as a student. She blogs at

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam