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#SexInJapan: The Professor of “Beijinho”

by Antón Castellanos Usigli, January 4, 2018

Surveys conducted by different Japanese agencies, such as the Japanese Family Planning Association and the National Institute of Population and Social Research point out to the same sexual trends in Japanese society: the number of married couples and young people that are not having sex are at records high. This issue first caught my attention in 2012, and at the time, I interviewed Professor Kunio Kitamura who has conducted some of these surveys at the Japanese Family Planning Association. The government is becoming increasingly worried at the prospects of having a fertility rate that would be steadily surpassed by a mortality rate (in 2017 births were less than one million), posing threats to the sustainability of Japanese society.

Daisuke Onuki

Behind these facts, several explanations can be drawn. Is it technology or the economical conditions of people that do not create favorable environments for people to have sex and to have children? I wanted to hear another perspective on the issue and I interviewed Daisuke Onuki, Professor of Gender and Sexuality at Tokai University, who has spent his career between Brazil and Japan. He is the Founder and Board Member of CRI -Chrildren’s Resources International- a NGO that works in education and health in Brazil, and he also belongs to the Boards of the Japanese Association for Sex Education and the Asia-Oceania Federation of Sexology.

His intercultural work between Japan and Brazil has gained him the nickname of “Professor of beijinho/kiss”. However, for Daisuke, the “beijinho/kiss” is not only a nickname, but a central concept behind the difficulties that some Japanese people have to have sex:  “Japan did not, and to my view, still does not have a culture that prepares people sexually/romantically/intimately for courting. Family resorted to arranged marriages until maybe the end of the WWII or even more recent days. For a man to succeed in getting married, and in procreating and leaving descendants, he did not have to be sexually/romantically/intimately attractive. Ask a Japanese, either male or female, what makes someone romantically attractive to them. They will more likely mention “kindness” or “seriousness” and not sexual/romantic appeal.”

Japanese and Brazilian girls. Photo courtesy of Daisuke Onuki.

One of the criticisms that some people raise about the findings of the surveys that indicate lack of sex in Japan is that they don’t capture sex that occurs with sex workers. In this regard, Daisuke remembers his experience working with Japanese interns (from a variety of companies) in Brazil between 1990 and 2000: “Each year at the end of the year, they answered a questionnaire in which I asked them about their sexual activities while in Brazil. In the early 1990s, I noticed that many of the male interns (mostly in their early twenties) used the sex workers’ services, while most of the female interns simply did not engage in sexual intercourse while in Brazil. Then in mid-1990s that tendency changed. Boys kind of stopped going to prostitution (and did not engage in sex intercourse) while in Brazil. On the other hand, some of the girls started getting involved in romantic and sexual relationships with Brazilian men while they lived in Brazil for one year.”

Sexual norms began to change according to Daisuke, but society was not prepared for this: “Men went to prostitutes, that is, if they could afford it. Because the services were relatively expensive in Japan those days, the affordability and the quality of prostitution in Brazil was very attractive to Japanese men. Girls were not sure if they were allowed to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. They tried to stay virgin. Then during the 1990s I could see a shift in sexual norms. It became rather clear that virginity was not a requirement for girls any more for them to get married. Boys noticed that. They did not need to resort so much to prostitution any more, that is, if only they could attract girls. Here comes the problem. Boys were not prepared to sexually/romantically/intimately attract girls. Those youth in 1990s are now in their forties. And they are the ones that suffer from the so called “lack of libido”. I think they really do. They are the ones that had to adopt to the new sexual norm without any preparation. They could not rely on the traditional male and female roles and did not have a chance to learn what the new ones were.”

Sex education in Japan does not bring a positive contribution into the table either: “I have mixed feelings about sex education at schools. I believe in it, of course, but also wonder if forcing unprepared teachers to teach sex in classrooms would not bring disastrous results. One may think that sex education should be a part of teacher’s training. However, I find that the majority of professores are very conservative and inexperienced in life world matters. Media in Japan are also very conservative and ignorant when it comes to sexual matters. When I showed condoms in the TV program of a national broadcasting company in 1991, I was told that it was the first time condoms were shown on TV.”

A “Hug Workshop” facilitated by Daisuke Onuki. Photo courtesy of Daisuke Onuki

Daisuke tries to counteract this situation by teaching interpersonal skills to Japanese people: “I teach and promote Brazilian beijinho/besito and hugging among Japanese public both in sexuality-related and in intercultural education-related lectures and workshops. I believe that one of the most important challenges we, the Japanese, face is the difficulty to have interpersonal empathy. And the cultural lack of bodily contacts among adults (pre-adolescents and above) outside sexual contexts, makes the situation worse. My talks are often focused on the role of bodily rituals of “empathy” such as beijinhos/besitos and hugging in interpersonal encounters. To illustrate my point, I often include explanation of the functions of Oxytocin in our romantic, family and public lives. Imagine not seeing people kiss or make out passionately on the street, and much less in your family. And if you see that happen on TV, they look fake and not sexy at all. Imagine the actual difference in hormonal (Oxytocinergic) balance between those who “kiss” and hug many times a day and every day, and those who bow…”

Finally, in regards to the age of sexual initiation among young people, Daisuke recognizes that the trend of them having sex later in life is not only occurring in Japan but in other parts of the world: “I understand that youth in general in developed countries are starting their sexual relations late. I think that it is natural. I know Brazil. I know Japan. I find that bodily activities are more present in life in Brazil than in Japan.  At least it was so until the turn of the century. Maybe it is changing even in Brazil.”