Celibacy syndrome

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As birth rates decline in many modernized countries around the world, it's interesting to think about what's driving that in each place, since the factors are never exactly the same.

In Japan, which is famous for having one of the lowest birthrates in the world (Germany has the lowest rate), a large part of it may be attributed to what is known as the "celibacy syndrome":

sekkusu shinai shōkōgun セックスしない症候群 (literally, "syndrome of not doing sex"; 39,100 ghits)

Incidentally, I was struck while typing this by what a wonderful example it is of the richness of Japanese orthography:  katakana, hiragana, kanji, all in such a short space.  If only there were Arabic numerals in there somewhere!

The same expression can be written using rōmaji instead of katakana:  SEXしない症候群 (around 1,550 ghits).

Nathan Hopson writes:

The verb suru, shinai する・しない ("do; not do") is always written with hiragana in contemporary Japanese. Historically, 為 was used (also as nasu 為す, which likewise means "do" and can also be written 成す), but this is never the case in contemporary Japanese outside of the occasional literary usage. I think it must have been part of the language reforms during the Occupation, but I have nothing to back that except my Spidey Sense.

Here are some journalistic and blog accounts of the "not doing sex syndrome":

"Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?"

"You Guys, No One In Japan Wants To Have Sex Anymore And I Am Really Scared"

"Young People in Japan Have Given Up on Sex"

"Can Japanese really be such cold sushi in the sack?"

[Thanks to Carley De Rosa, Nathan Hopson, and Cecilia Segawa Seigle]


  1. Janne said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 1:46 am

    Just a quick note that the frequency of sex does not correlate with fertility rate in practice. You can have lots and lots of sex without conceiving, after all, and have a child with only a single sexual encounter. That's not the reason for the low number of births in other words.


  2. Nathan Myers said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    I particularly liked the expression "Mendokusai" from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex — translated there as "I can't be bothered", with a subtle pun in English. I wonder if the pun is possible in Japanese.

  3. kamo said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 2:44 am


    Works better written down than spoken out loud, I think. If I was faced with 39,100 ghits I wouldn't feel particularly horny either.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 4:44 am

    In a 1974(?) article in Scientific American, "The Transfer of Technology to Underdeveloped Countries" (http://www.abebooks.com/Human-Population-Scientific-American-Editorial-Staff/81380394/bd), Gunnar Myrdal argued—and I don't know if this was original with him, but it's where I first encountered the idea—that birth rate is something parents control with or without the assistance of outside family planning agencies, based on their need to provide for their old age. He showed a strong inverse correlation between birth rate and the strength of a country's social security system. The gist of the article was that death rates drop more quickly than birth rates because medical technology can be transferred to a developing country much faster than industrial infrastructure can be built, but that once a country has a strong enough industrial sector to support a social security system, birth rates drop dramatically. I don't know whether the research has been extended over the last forty years to fine tune the predictive model in a way that would correlate the birth rates in different countries with specific measures of the strength of their social security systems, but I can't say I'm shocked by the rankings of Germany and Japan in terms of birth rate.

  5. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    This is the first time I've come across this phrase. There are two things that make me feel strange about it. One is that "セックス" is the word chosen, instead of "エッチ/H," an indirect and roundabout way of saying it, tinged with vulgarity. The other is that it is not "セックスレス[=literally, "-less", as in "careless"]症候群."

    Probably, the reason for the first is just that those who named it so want you to believe that they do take it more seriously, facing it squarely.

    And what about the second?
    I think we need to understand what "X+する" may mean first, in order to find a plausible, if not convincing, answer.

    One of the standard (and also productive) ways to make a new verb is to put "をする (with the objective case-marker "を" being tied with "する")" right after an NP (or DP), as in "宿題+をする," which literally means "to do+homework." However, people sometimes prefer to drop the case-marker. A good example will be "お茶する" (literally, "do tea"), meaning "to kill time chatting at a cafe." This casual expression might be similar in usage to something like "do science."

    In this light, "セックスしない" should sound less formal than "セックスをしない."
    But what matters most here is that "セックスしない" seems to mean more than "not having sex." To me, it sounds like "セックスしない" is the course of action you have chosen or preferred.

    Of course, this implicature is not limited to "セックスしない". If something is the normal thing to do, and you just don't do that something, it can implicate in Japanese that what you're actually doing is neglecting to, refusing to, or positively speaking, choosing not to, do that something. For example, if you are a-宿題しない-child, you are most likely to be regarded as the type of children who neglect or refuse to do their homework.

    As for "セックスしない," there could be another possible way to say it, that is, "セックスしたくない (not to desire to have sex)." I'm assuming that not choosing that option will produce the implicature that you're desiring NOT to have sex (or virtually, that is your decision).

    The relevant scalar here might be:
    Scalar: do not do (fail to do) <neglect to do < not desire to do <prefer/choose to do (≒desire not to do) <refuse to do

    This is only my tentative assumption.
    Seiichi MYOGA

  6. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    By "prefer/choose to go," I actually meant "prefer/choose not to do." Under the influence of alcohol is no excuse.
    Seiichi MYOGA

  7. Paul Cowan said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    Re "ghit", I must agree it's unaesthetic, whether written or spoken. Even worse than "googits", which I also see a lot. Myself I've invented googlure, which does suffer from some Frenchness, but may put the fun back in being pretentious.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    @Paul Cowan

    ghit 323,000 ghits

    ghits 41,800 ghits

    googit 19,400 ghits

    googits 7,350 ghits

    googlure 52 ghits

    googlure 87 ghits

    You're fighting an uphill battle.

  9. julie lee said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    Professor Mair: This trend about Japanese youth giving up on sex is news to me. I also read the articles listed at the end of the post. Thank you.

    @Dick Margulis

    On social security and birth rate:

    An old Chinese proverb gives the unsentimental reason for having children : "Raise children so as to guard against old age" (yang-er-fang-lao 養兒防老 )。 Children was the old system of social security.

    When I told an old Chinese lady that children nowadays don't support their parents any more, she promptly replied with another four-word Chinese proverb: "Well then, the thing to do is 'Accumulate grain so as to guard against hunger' (ji-gu-fang-ji 積穀防飢)." In modern terms, this would mean developing your career in order to save for old age.

    So I find the Japanese spiral away from sexual relationships eminently sensible. Japan would be leading the wave of the future here.

  10. Paul Cowan said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    @V. Mair:

    I'm encouraged there are so many googlures for googlure :-)

    My next campaign: to popularize my coinage for the English equivalent of franglais: Ench.

    (Word already exists in es-za, I see. For ciggie.)

  11. Paul Cowan said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    en-za, of course :-|

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    The last link in the post, to the Japan Times, gives us “sexless” (セックレス), i.e. sekkuresu, not sekkusuresu. I wonder if that's a typo (a missing ス) or if this is the actual term used. In any case, as the article explains, it applies mainly to couples that have stopped having sex.

  13. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    What were the general aims of the spelling reforms? Was there an ideological element to them? In modern written Japanese, what are the reasons, if any, for using hiragana over kanji in words like 'do'?

  14. Janet Williams said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

    Have I spotted a new trend in Professor Mair's posts?

    In Chinese, we also use this term 症候群(Mandarin: zhènghòuqún) for Syndrome. Do you think it a good loan word? Or would another term such as 综合症(zònghé zhèng)be better?

    There is a catchy Mandarin pop song called "The syndrome of falling in love" (liàn'ài zhènghòuqún) ▶ 恋爱症候群 – by 黄舒骏 huáng shūjùn (MTV) – YouTube. Enjoy!

  15. dainichi said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

    "googlure 52 ghits

    googlure 87 ghits

    You're fighting an uphill battle."

    And half of those are probably typos anyway =P

  16. Matt said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

    The verb suru, shinai する・しない ("do; not do") is always written with hiragana in contemporary Japanese. … I think it must have been part of the language reforms during the Occupation, but I have nothing to back that except my Spidey Sense.

    Definitely true that the postwar Toyo/Joyo lists that laid the foundation for all subsequent kanji education gave the Sino-Japanese /i/ as the only pronunciation for 為/爲, but I think this was more a continuation than a reform. I'm actually not sure how much guidance Monbusho gave on how the characters were to be used (as opposed to written) in their prewar publications, but just looking at the pre-1945 Monbusho publications on KDL, you can find 標準漢字便覧 from 1943 and 音訓引標準漢字表 from 1944, and neither of them have 為/爲 in their indexes under /suru/ (or /su/, for that matter). The 音訓引標準漢字表 does have it under /nasu/, though.

    So at the very least we can say that even before the Occupation, Monbusho's official stance on /suru/ was that it should not be written 為/爲 (or any other kanji).

    (Which was in step with common usage, of course; as you say 為/爲 was generally considered the correct kanji for /suru/, but I think this was essentially a relic of "every word must be assigned a kanji"-style thinking. It's relatively uncommon to see it actually used that way even historically in mixed kanji/kana text, especially in an X-suru type verb construction like セックスしない.)

  17. Ross Presser said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 1:49 am

    The Futurama episode "I Dated A Robot" touched on this, I think.

  18. julie lee said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    @Janet Williams:
    "In Chinese, we also use this term 症候群(Mandarin: zhènghòuqún) for Syndrome. Do you think it a good loan word? Or would another term such as 综合症(zònghé zhèng)be better?"

    The Chinese word for "syndrome", 症候群(Mandarin: zhènghòuqún), has always puzzled me, and I suspect it comes from Japanese because 症候 is a word meaning "symptom" in Japanese, and 症候群 would literally mean "symptom group/complex".
    On the other hand, I don't find 症候 (zhenghou) as a word in the online Chinese medical dictionary. (Though it might be a word in classical Chinese.)
    The other word for "syndrome" in Chinese, 综合症(zònghé zhèng) is probably not from Japanese, since it's a simple Chinese translation, 综合(zònghé) for "syn-" and 症( zhèng) for "symptoms".

  19. Janet Williams said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

    @ Julie lee

    I feel 综合症(zònghé zhèng) is probably a better translation for Symptom compared with 症候群(Mandarin: zhènghòuqún). I used to be puzzled by the term 症候群 too. I find this term difficult to remember.

    I prefer using words that have already existed in Chinese than using loan words, when the Chinese words are sufficient enough to convey the message. For example, a lot of people write 杯葛 (bēigé – transliteration) to mean 'boycott'. However, in Chinese, we have a term called 抵制(dǐzhì), which means 'boycott'. 抵制(dǐzhì)– resist and repel. In a situation like this when the Chinese term is sufficient, I think it is unnecessary to use a loan word.

  20. julie lee said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 2:31 am

    Janet Williams,
    I too find the term 症候群 zheng-hou-qun (sydrome) difficult to remember.

    However, I find the term 抵制(dǐzhì)"resist, repel" not quite right for translating "boycott". I can't think of a good Chinese translation for it.

  21. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 8, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    Quote: sekkusu shinai shōkōgun セックスしない症候群 (literally, "syndrome of not doing sex"; 39,100 ghits)

    I think we need to reconsider whether it is proper to identify "しない" just with "not doing."
    Yesterday I happened to be reading Palmer (1987) when I came across this:

    (1) John will always help his friends. (Palmer 1987:97)
    (Note that the "will" in this case suggests the willingness of the subject person.)

    The "to help" here can correspond in meaning to "手助け+(を)する," among others.
    If we use "手助けをする" to translate (1), then we will obtain something like this:
    (2) ジョンは,いつも友人の手助けをする (where "いつも" and "友人" mean "always" and "friend(s)" respectively)。

    Then if we were to put (2) back into English, we would realize that actually, (3) is just as good a candidate as the original (1) is.

    (3) John always helps his friends.

    Put simply, the Japanese "する" may mean "will do" as well as "do."

    There's one more thing I think I have to add.
    "食べない" is made up of the verb "食べる(eat)" and the negation "ない(not)." With this in mind, look at the pair in (4).

    (4) a. 食べない?
    b. 食べない。

    Literally, (4a) and (4b) may mean respectively, "Don't eat?" and "Don't eat."
    But if you are asked to put them into English, you will answer for example that it is (5a) and (5b) in this order.
    (5) a. Don't you want to eat (something)?
    b. I don't want to eat (anything).

    I think the same thing applies to "セックスしない(?)."
    (5) a. セックスしない? (Don't you want to have sex?)
    b. セックスしない。(I don't want to have sex.)

    In terms of translation, the Japanese "する" can seem to mean willingness or desire.
    Seiichi MYOGA

  22. Wentao said,

    November 9, 2013 @ 9:51 pm

    @Julie Lee and Janet Williams

    FYI, The standard form is 综合征, a tricky bit of MSM that often comes up in high school tests.

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