Creepy? It is true, says Rei Kazama, one of the band members, looking slightly uncomfortable, that many of the fans are ojisan—middle-aged blokes. She would prefer a younger audience. But, she adds, the ojisan are supportive: “It’s like they’re nurturing us as we grow up.” Purity, a band manager says, is a selling-point. The girls are under contract not to have boyfriends—presumably to encourage fans to project their own fantasies onto their favourite band members. (When a member of Japan’s biggest-selling idol band, AKB48, recently announced that she was leaving to get married, fans were as outraged as jilted lovers.) Also essential is offering fans the chance to meet band members, including photographs and 20-second handshakes. It is all part of the setto, as in a set menu, and can cost ¥4,000 ($35) a pop. The promoters have found lots of ways to part otaku from their money.
This is the more palatable end of Japan’s striking knack for transmuting sexual urges into efficient industries. Akihabara, Tokyo’s mecca for manga and anime, is also the heart of a fetish for schoolgirls and their uniforms. There, in “JK salons” (joshi kosei means high-school girl) a young woman in uniform will tell your fortune. Or, for ¥3,000 for 20 minutes, you can lie next to her. In many places that is all you may do. But sex is on offer if otaku know where to look. A new city ordinance barring girls of 17 or younger from working in the JK business may serve only to drive it underground—or onto the internet.
It is, to many, proof of the misogyny of Japanese society: often demeaning and sometimes dangerous to women. Yet some sociologists argue that life in Japan is not much fun for men, either. As evidence, they point to the decline of marriage and romantic relationships. Three-fifths of men between the ages of 25 and 35 remain unmarried. A survey by the research arm of Meiji Yasuda, an insurer, found that 53% of men in their 20s had never gone out (vaguely defined) with a woman; in contrast, 64% of American men claim to have had sex by the age of 20.
Labour practices forged during a high-growth industrial era do men no favours. Male-dominated workforces are expected to put in long hours, often without overtime pay—and then stay drinking in smoky bars with the boss until the last train home. The assumption is that employees have a spouse who is a full-time housewife back home. But even young employees lucky enough to be on permanent contracts now struggle to raise a family on a single income.
As for the growing “precariat” of young Japanese men on non-permanent contracts—forget it. Now that women have more, if hardly stellar, work options, they can afford to hold out for a better partner, ie, one earning a good salary. In canvassing opinion among unmarried women seeking a partner, ¥7m a year seems a common floor among the better educated. The price tag on love and marriage, says Kaori Shoji, a social commentator, seems to go up by the year. Who wants to marry a loser?
Japanese marriages are surely the least fulfilling in the rich world. Open affection is in short supply. Once they have children, sociologists say, mothers feel under intense pressure to go into overdrive at mothering. Lunch boxes are scrutinised critically by other mothers; hiring a babysitter or cleaner is frowned upon. In conventional households the husband has few responsibilities—and offers little help in raising the children or doing housework.
But he also accepts a diminished role. His salary goes straight to his wife, who manages the household finances and hands him back a little pocket money. A wife will often discourage her husband from coming home until after she has put the children to bed. Japanese children sometimes sleep with the mother until they are ten or 11. Toko Shirakawa, who sits on a government panel on gender issues, says: “I don’t know if a separate bedroom for the husband is the norm, but it’s certainly typical.” Sexlessness among married couples appears to be increasing.
For many a young male, a doting mother is his chief experience of women. He may feel it is unlikely to be bettered. When young men are asked why they are not looking for a girlfriend, the word they most often use is mendokusai—too much trouble. That covers a multitude of issues. One, says Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University, is the power of the in-group in Japanese society and the fear of gossip, or even bullying, amplified by social media, if you draw attention. A related factor is Japan’s striking social segregation by sex. As Ms Shoji points out, it is common in pubs to see a table of young company men complaining about their bosses next to one of young single women moaning about the lack of suitable men. Yet each group keeps to itself, rather than spying a chance to seek new friendships and possible mates. Japan does lust and passion well, but sucks at love, she adds.
Here the market can be of assistance. With self-esteem among young men low, and fear of rejection by women high, you can see the appeal of teen idols. But why stop there? Orient Industry, Japan’s oldest maker of love dolls—which now have removable heads and genitalia and remarkably tactile silicone skin, and sell for ¥800,000 or more—wants buyers to think of their purchases as works of art. Cheaper than that come curvaceous pillows (also with add-ons) intended to invite their human users into a fantasy dreamworld. After all, a pillow will never humiliate you.