Japan. What a strange place it is.
I am beginning to think it may be the loneliest country in the world. A land destined to retreat ever further into itself. A land that is developing a method for living that is so peculiar, so introverted, so horrifying, that I cannot help but be intrigued by it.
It is a place I must watch. I am in turns both perplexed and delighted by the things that happen there.
But also terrified.
Terrified that Japan may offer us a vision of the future that is so mesmerising, so captivating, so utterly beguiling, that its very strangeness, its sheer ability to arouse our curiosity, is what, in the end, will pull us towards it, and ensure that the vision becomes reality.
I am thinking about all of this for various reasons I suppose.
I was in town the other day and found myself drawn to the Japanese shop Yokoso, which is located in the Magna Plaza .
They have lovely little things there. I especially admire some of the Anime postcards. Irresistable.
There’s a vibrancy and anarchy about this art that really captivates me. The mix of humour and rebellion, or even just plain old cheesiness, is perfect as far as I am concerned.
And yet, if Anime is all that is good about Japan, then there is this flip side to it. A dark, brooding aspect that is even more fascinating.
Take the other day. The Guardian ran an article on the growing number of marriages in Japan that are either unconsumated or characterized by an absence of sexual relations.
Now the demographic consequences of such sexless, childless marriages are interesting in themselves, but it’s not what intrigues me most.
No, I am far more interested in how it is that a country can develop in such a way.
What is it about Japan, about being Japanese, that would cause such a situation to arise in the first place?
Is there something peculiar to Japanese life that results in such circumstances occuring? Or is it possible that any country, anywhere in the world could travel down a similar path?
What perplexed me most about the sexless marriage story, was the blase acceptance of such a phenomenon on the part of those interviewed.
One man simply stated that he and his wife were more like “room-mates” that man and wife.
Still, this is Japan, so the “solution” to the problem – at least temporarily – is to be found in the “clinics” set up by a certain Mr Kim.
His clinics provide desperate Japanese housewives with the opportunity to go on “dates” and enjoy some male company in the hotels and restaurants of their choice.
As solutions go, it’s as good as any I suppose.
In much the same way that say, plastering over the cracks in the ceiling is the solution to dry rot, or subsidence. The edifice will tumble eventually, but it will remain beautiful as it collapses.
As I read this, I was reminded of something I had read in USA Today about a year ago on the same subject, which probed a little deeper into just why it is that sex is on the decline in Japan.
It cites increased affluence and the rise in the numbers of well educated women, as two factors contributing to the lowered Japanese libido.
The reluctance of Japanese men to let go of an ideal of marriage and of the perfect wife also appears to be contributing to strained relations between the sexes.
To quote Japanese writer Yoko Haruka:
“The husband works long hours and carouses into the night with his pals from work. The wife is expected to stay home, clean house and take care of kids. If the children behave badly, she’s a bad mother. If her husband has an affair, she’s a bad wife.”
In response to this conservatism, Japanese women are deciding instead to remain single and to stay at home with their parents, rent free, spending their cash on fashion, restuarants and holidays with their girlfriends.
Such women are called the “parasite singles” a derogatory term that has become something of a badge of honour for some.
Men meanwhile are resorting to the joys of hassle free virtual relationships online, and are checking into love hotels, not for an illicit rendevous, but because such hotels often offer the cheapest karaoke and video games.
It is strange, this ability they have to retreat into these worlds. Into a substitute existence.
And it’s not just in the area of love that it occurs, this flight into a virtual world.
Take this article from the BBC. It’s about the growing number of elderly in Japan who have struck up friendships with robotic dolls in an attempt to stave off isolation and loneliness.
The dolls are a surprise hit among the elderly as they were originally designed to be substitute boyfriends for young teenage girls.
Seems the tamagotchi generation have moved up from pets to boys, but still prefer the fake plastic alternative to the real thing.
You have to ponder this. To wonder why it is that this virtual life, this fake life, this half- removed life, is somehow preferable for some Japanese.
What is it that drives them to seek out such a life? Is it because they have no choice? That, faced with a society composed of people that increasingly distance themselves from one another, they feel compelled to seek out these inanimate substitutes?
Or perhaps they simply desire perfection too much? Perhaps they need to feel in control?
Perhaps these robotic friends are the modern day equivalent of bonsai trees or those carefully raked stone gardens?
A world that is controlled, defined, beautiful and perfect. A world without mess, without fuss.
A lonely world.
A world populated by sexless people, by hidden people.
Like the hikikomori, locked away in their bedrooms, cowering from the world. Too afraid to go outside, but not quite bold enough to end it all.
Will the Japanese eventually turn in on themselves completely I wonder? Simply fade away into some ethereal universe of their own making?
I look at my Anime postcards and sincerely hope they do not.