Figures released by the Statistics Bureau of Japan reveal that the country’s population is declining. The 2010 census returned a figure of 128 million inhabitants. Five years later it fell by a million.

While this may not sound like much of a drop, it reflects a long-term decrease in the birth rate. As such it has major implications for the future. UN figures predict that Japan will lose 34% of its population over the next century, returning to virtually the same level as the end of World War II.

The result is a dwindling work force, a rapidly aging population and a growing number of rural ghost towns. In 2014 Japan had over 8 million empty homes. Of these, 40% were not even on the market.

Marriage

A variety reasons have been put forward to explain this fall. Many of them are backed by statistics. They include fewer marriages, women marrying later and women having fewer children. Marriage is a huge factor in this equation. Having children out of wedlock is still socially unacceptable. Only 2% of Japanese births occur outside marriage.

Examination of Japan’s declining population often hits a brick wall with these cultural factors. But there is another set of statistics that is more revealing:

  • The growing numbers of Hikikomori, ‘withdrawn’. Over a million young people—mostly men—hide in their family homes and avoid the outside world
  • Around 50% of unmarried men and women are single; a third of people under 30 have never dated
  • 45% of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact”
  • 32% of young men dislike sex because “they are afraid of failure and rejection”

Shame

All of these startling statistics point to one thing: sexual shame. As I have written in other posts, sexual shame arises from a psychological fracture that divides the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ components. This fracture arises from social pressure so powerful it replicates from generation to generation and so widespread that, in its lesser forms at least, its manifestations are socially accepted.

Shame exists in direct proportion to honour. Japanese society has always placed a very high emphasis on honour, as epitomised by the samurai warrior ethic.

But why Japan? Shame exists in direct proportion to honour. Japanese society has always placed a very high emphasis on honour, as epitomised by the samurai warrior ethic. In the late 1900s Japanese officers recited a daily oath of loyalty to the emperor. If an officer stumbled or sneezed during this recitation he was expected to commit hara-kiri, ritual suicide.

It is no coincidence that Japanese forces were responsible for 1937’s ‘Rape of Nanking’, when over 20,000 Chinese women were raped and murdered—often with a bayonet to the vagina. Behind this lies an obsession with cleanliness—moral, spiritual and physical—that equates sex with dirtiness.

Herbivores

Japanese women derisively use the term soshoku danshi (‘herbivore men’) to refer to men lacking an appetite for flesh. The term could equally be applied to Japanese women. Many prefer pets to boyfriends. Men immerse themselves in online worlds and virtual girlfriends whose devotion is assured.

During the 20th century, Japan was one of the most powerful nations on earth. Unless it can overcome its chronic shame, the 21st century is likely to be a very different story. This is how shame shapes the world.

Image: Nichitsu ghost town by Ikusuki on Flickr. Cropped to 16:9