As a general rule, I avoid writing stories about “sexless Japan” that seem to enrapture so many in the Western press. Such stories are usually sold from a sophomoric, “weird Japan” angle. (They also tend to treat Japan as somehow unique, even though other countries are experiencing the exact same thing.)
However, as a fervent foodie, I found one recent story about sex in Japan too captivating to ignore. One could say it isn’t even a story about sex. Rather, it’s a story that goes a long way to explaining why everyone in Japan – and everyone who visits the country – is so taken with its cuisine.
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Food is Number 1. Sex is Number 5. And That’s All Right.
The news comes from Japanese sex toy manufacturer TENGA. In a recent issue of its weekly magazine, Tenga ran the results of its 2019 Self-Pleasure Survey ( 2019年マスターベーション世界調査 ). The survey asked people from nine countries various questions about their sex lives, including their degree of sexual satisfaction with their partners. (A copy of the report in English is available here.)
The statistic that many in the Japanese press are hyping is the country’s dirt-last ranking in sexual satisfaction. Only 41% of respondents said that they found sex with their partner either highly satisfying or somewhat satisfying. Japan’s percentage of people “highly satisfied” with their sex lives is a low 9% – right well behind even the next lowest ranking country, Korea, at 15%, and well behind Spain’s 46%.
But it’s the next question’s results I found really intriguing. TENGA asked respondents what the most pleasurable thing (最も快いと感じるのは) was to them. The first result for many countries – the US and UK, Spain, France, China, and Korea – was the same: sex.
For Japan? It was “delicious food.” In fact, sex ranked fifth place, behind “Spending time with someone you love,” “hugging,” and “laughing.” (Sex did narrowly beat out “quenching a parched throat.” Read into that what you will.)
Japan wasn’t the only country where sex failed to make the number one spot. In Germany, hugging took precedence over sex. And Taiwanese appear to value spending time with a loved one (#1) and hugging (#2) over third-place sex.
TENGA says that their report surveyed over 10,000 individuals across the world, and is the largest study of its kind to date. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people per country responded, which is a fairly decent sample size.
However, there’s a question – brought up by both Japanese and US commenters – as to how the questions were translated. The Japanese word used was kokoroyoi (快い), which carries a meaning of “feeling fresh or invigorated in your heart,” “a good sensation in your body,” or even “a clean heart, an even disposition.” It can mean “pleasant” or “pleasurable,” but it can also be interpreted more broadly. And that, says commenters, could lead to some unevenness in the results:
Additionally, we know from the English and Japanese reports what the English wording was (“pleasurable”), but it’s not clear how this was translated into other languages.
There’s also an issue of whether Japanese survey respondents felt they could be frank about sex. As commenter poema_harmonico said on Twitter: “Japanese people won’t write frankly about this kind of thing. Even if it’s anonymous, people might not respond ‘sex’ because it’s embarrassing.”
“Happiness…is Eating with People You Love”
I expect a lot of Western media to focus on the parts of this story regarding low sexual dissatisfaction in Japan. Such arguments make for sensational (and mostly wrong) explanations about Japan’s declining birth rate. But Japan’s population decline is a complex issue with multiple causes – including the fact that many find the country intolerant towards children and parents. We’d all do well to avoid the temptation of falling for a simplistic narrative about “sexless Japan.”
However, there’s a more positive way to look at this story: Japan really loves its food! More than that, Japan loves the experience and pleasure of eating. Twitter user Yamashita Masatoshi, a store designer and author, highlighted this aspect on Twitter:
This survey from TENGA shows that the Japanese have a real appetite and inquisitiveness about food, and explains why our convenience stores are so good, and why we consume food & drink with abandon at standing drink shops. Japan is the only country that, when asked what gave them the most pleasure, placed food first.
In a follow-up tweet, Yamashita asserted, “If you add one and two together, then happiness for Japanese people is eating with people you love.”
Many English language commenters on Twitter who re-tweeted my original tweet made similar comments. The consensus seems to be that Japan has its priorities in the right order. Indeed, maybe we in countries such as the US, UK, and Spain would be happier if we prioritized a good meal over a bit of action.
Food Porn Nation?
I’m inclined to take these survey results at face value. First, anyone who watches Japanese TV – including both variety programs and drama – can see the value that’s placed on food. Dishes are shown in long, loving shots that give the term “food porn” a whole new definition. Program stars take a delight in eating that seems almost sexual. And, of course, Japan is also no stranger to Instagram food porn.
Second, as many commenters have already opined, Japanese food is just that good. While there are certainly some mediocre meals to be had, it’s also possible to wander into a random restaurant and luck into a good meal. I stopped using restaurant rating apps while in Japan a while ago, and take a seat at whatever place is pulling my interest. While I’ve had a few less than stellar dishes, I’ve never had what I’d call a “bad” meal.
My wife likes to argue that Japan takes such pride in its food that businesses serving crap go out of business in a heartbeat. I don’t know how much of that is truth versus Japanese pride speaking. But given the intense competition in dense metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka, combined with my own experience with random selection, I can’t dismiss her hypothesis out of hand.
You may not agree that food is better than sex. But there can be no doubt of the overwhelming love that Japan puts into its cuisine. The next time you go, skip the tourist traps and take time to savor all of the delicacies the country has to offer.