Gawping at Japan’s population perils

A new BBC doc fails to offer any illumination on Japan's shrinking numbers.

Zoe Apostolides

Topics Culture

No Sex Please, We’re Japanese was a call to arms: have more sex, make more babies. The alternative is, apparently, the diminishment of Japan’s population by up to a third in the next 40 years. As part of BBC 2’s This World series, the title was racy enough but the documentary simply didn’t do what it said on the tin. Anita Rani, who presented the show, and John Holdsworth who produced and directed it, have tried to cover too much ground in an hour, and the result makes for a haphazard, disjointed documentary.

‘In Japan, there isn’t a population boom: more like a population crisis’, says Rani, as the camera pans the teeming streets of Tokyo. Inexplicably the scene then switches to the northern town of Yubari, which once boasted a population of over 100,000 but has since shrunk to a mere 10,000. As she walks through deserted playgrounds and mood music inevitably trills, Rani sighs: ‘This is terrible,’ she says. ‘It’s as though time has stood still here. Is there anything so sad as a rusty, disused swing?’ To which everyone collectively replies: well, yes, actually, I can think of several things.

It all felt like a bad remake of Children of Men. Yubari was a mining town and, when the last mine closed in the early 1990s, many people left. It’s sad, certainly, but it’s hardly representative. It’s like being surprised that Detroit hasn’t recently invested in a multi-million dollar theme park. One elderly man explains to Rani that the future of his grandchildren ‘depended on government regulation’, but exactly what sort of regulation he was referring to wasn’t picked up on. No Sex Please was rife with similar loose ends and failed, ultimately, to explain anything. One person’s comment that ‘every woman must have 2.4 children for the population to remain stable’ sent shivers down my spine, with its vaguely The Handmaid’s Tale-esque undertones.

Rani goes on to describe the comparative rise in birth rates among other neighbouring countries, only some of whom will be able to maintain it. This suggests a cultural shift, a societal dictum that begs investigation. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the film would explore attitudes to sex and relationships among Japanese people of all ages and backgrounds, and why these attitudes were impacting on the declining birth rate, but Rani is tentative about touching on anything approaching real sexuality.

A pair of late-thirties men reveal their virtual girlfriends on a game ironically called ‘Love+’: high-school apparitions coyly moving their digital heads and saying things like, ‘Let’s go to the beach. Let’s dream and have lots of fun.’ The men can’t meet anyone’s eyes as they speak about love or passion, and when asked if they viewed their ‘girlfriends’ erotically, responded: ‘We like the girls in this game too much for that. We mustn’t have those kinds of feelings.’ This was the moment it might have been worth considering, for example, the average 10 days holiday permitted but rarely used by many Japanese, whose focus on ‘the team’ might have clouded other considerations.

One redeeming aspect was the focus on Japan’s attitude to its elderly population. There were interesting points about demographics and, implicitly, our own child-obsessed culture that often neglects the elderly in favour of such endlessly cutesy retailers as JoJo Maman Bebe. In Japan, for instance, shops have whole floors dedicated to the needs of pensioners, and organisations like Japan PomPom – a cheerleading club for women over 55 – which seem like exciting, much-loved places of genuine joy.

Still, the question remains: what is making the Japanese have less sex, invest less time in relationships, decide not to have children? I still don’t know, and I’d vouch no one else who sat down to No Sex Please, We’re Japanese was any the wiser either. Rani finally landed on immigration as her answer because, as she glibly pointed out, ‘immigrants have more children!’ But where, after all this, does it leave the Japanese?

Zoe Apostolides is a journalist based in London.

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Topics Culture


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