A i Aoyama is a sex and relationship counsellor who works out of her narrow three-storey home on a Tokyo back street. Her first name means "love" in Japanese, and is a keepsake from her earlier days as a professional dominatrix. Back then, about 15 years ago, she was Queen Ai, or Queen Love, and she did "all the usual things" like tying people up and dripping hot wax on their nipples.
Her work today, she says, is far more challenging. Aoyama, 52, is trying to cure what Japan's media calls sekkusu shinai shokogun , or "celibacy syndrome".
Japan's unders 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 million , which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by Aoyama believes the country is experiencing "a flight from human intimacy" — and it's partly the government's fault.
The sign outside her building says "Clinic". She greets me in yoga pants and fluffy animal slippers, cradling a Pekingese dog whom she introduces as Marilyn Monroe. In her business pamphlet, she offers up the gloriously random confidence that she visited North Korea in the s and squeezed the testicles of a top army general. It doesn't say whether she was invited there specifically for that purpose, but the message to her clients is clear: she doesn't judge.
Inside, she takes me upstairs to her "relaxation room" — a bedroom with no furniture except a double futon. Aoyama's first task with most of her clients is encouraging them "to stop apologising for their own physical existence". The number of single people has reached a record high. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all.
There are no figures for same-sex relationships. Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan — a country mostly free of religious morals — sex fares no better. More than a quarter of men felt the same way. Many people who seek her out, says Aoyama, are deeply confused. They're coming to me because they think that, by wanting something different, there's something wrong with them.
Official alarmism doesn't help. Fewer babies were born here in than any year on record. This was also the year, as the number of elderly people shoots up, that adult incontinence pants outsold baby nappies in Japan for the first time.
Kunio Kitamura, head of the JFPA, claims the demographic crisis is so serious that Japan "might eventually perish into extinction". Japan's unders 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 's earthquake, tsunami and radioactive meltdown. There is no going back. They don't believe it can lead anywhere," says Aoyama. 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. Some of Aoyama's clients are among the small minority who have taken social withdrawal to a pathological extreme. They are recovering hikikomori "shut-ins" or recluses taking the first steps to rejoining the outside world, otaku geeks , and long-term parasaito shingurus parasite singles who have reached their mids without managing to move out of home.
Of the estimated 13 million unmarried people in Japan who currently live with their parents, around three million are over the age of They flinch if I touch them," she says. Keen to see her nation thrive, she likens her role in these cases to that of the Edo period courtesans, or oiran , who used to initiate samurai sons into the art of erotic pleasure.
Aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Nor is growing preoccupation with digital technology. But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country's procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it's especially true for women. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers.
Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up. Tomita says a woman's chances of promotion in Japan stop dead as soon as she marries.
You end up being a housewife with no independent income. It's not an option for women like me. The World Economic Forum consistently ranks Japan as one of the world's worst nations for gender equality at work. Social attitudes don't help. Married working women are sometimes demonised as oniyome , or "devil wives". Her end was not pretty. Prime minister Shinzo Abe recently trumpeted long-overdue plans to increase female economic participation by improving conditions and daycare, but Tomita says things would have to improve "dramatically" to compel her to become a working wife and mother.
I go out with my girl friends — career women like me — to French and Italian restaurants. I buy stylish clothes and go on nice holidays. I love my independence. Tomita sometimes has one-night stands with men she meets in bars, but she says sex is not a priority, either.
They assume I'm desperate because I'm single. Mendokusai translates loosely as "Too troublesome" or "I can't be bothered". It's the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery, from the exorbitant costs of buying property in Japan to the uncertain expectations of a spouse and in-laws.
And the centuries-old belief that the purpose of marriage is to produce children endures. The sense of crushing obligation affects men just as much. Satoru Kishino, 31, belongs to a large tribe of men under 40 who are engaging in a kind of passive rebellion against traditional Japanese masculinity. Amid the recession and unsteady wages, men like Kishino feel that the pressure on them to be breadwinning economic warriors for a wife and family is unrealistic. They are rejecting the pursuit of both career and romantic success.
Kishino says he doesn't mind the label because it's become so commonplace. He defines it as "a heterosexual man for whom relationships and sex are unimportant". The phenomenon emerged a few years ago with the airing of a Japanese manga-turned-TV show. The lead character in Otomen "Girly Men" was a tall martial arts champion, the king of tough-guy cool. Secretly, he loved baking cakes, collecting "pink sparkly things" and knitting clothes for his stuffed animals.
To the tooth-sucking horror of Japan's corporate elders, the show struck a powerful chord with the generation they spawned. Kishino, who works at a fashion accessories company as a designer and manager, doesn't knit.
But he does like cooking and cycling, and platonic friendships. Emotional entanglements are too complicated," he says. Romantic apathy aside, Kishino, like Tomita, says he enjoys his active single life. Ironically, the salaryman system that produced such segregated marital roles — wives inside the home, husbands at work for 20 hours a day — also created an ideal environment for solo living.
Japan's cities are full of conveniences made for one, from stand-up noodle bars to capsule hotels to the ubiquitous konbini convenience stores , with their shelves of individually wrapped rice balls and disposable underwear. And Japan's cities are extraordinarily crime-free. Some experts believe the flight from marriage is not merely a rejection of outdated norms and gender roles. It could be a long-term state of affairs.
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. 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. Japan's somethings are the age group to watch.