Dangerous Liaisons

Japan’s casual ‘sex friends’ risk more than broken hearts
By Amy L. Webb
NEWSWEEK INTERNATIONAL (Sept. 16 – 23 issue)

Masami strides out the main gate at Tokyo University, her mobile phone in hand. The pretty 21-year-old economics major speed-dials a male student, and the two agree to meet at a nearby coffee shop. A study break? Hardly. “I’m meeting him to have sex,” says Masami. “He’s one of my sex friends.”

MASAMI HAS SEX with several of her pals, she admits, rotating among partners who themselves enjoy numerous liaisons. Her promiscuity is not uncommon: Surveys suggest that many young Japanese maintain multiple sekusutomo – literally “sex friends.” According to a joint study by the University of California San Francisco and Hiroshima University, of 602 teens (age 15 to 19) surveyed in the Shibuya section of Tokyo recently, 43 percent said they keep five or more sex friends at a time. In a similar survey of 16-year-olds in two rural prefectures, 20 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls said they have at least five sex partners. “To many young Japanese people, everything about sex is casual,” says Masako Ono-Kihara, a public-health expert at Hiroshima University School of Medicine. “Girls now share their boyfriends like they’d share chips. Everyone’s hand is in the bag.”

Among other reasons, young Japanese sleep around because they assume sex is safe. Their logic: Japan is largely HIV-free, so by having sex within a closed circle of cohorts they can enjoy lifestyles reminiscent of the West after the advent of the birth-control pill but before the emergence of
AIDS. That flawed reasoning reflects the unwillingness of older Japanese, particularly parents and schools, to educate kids about the risks of promiscuous behavior. The result, new research shows, is a significant rise in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases among young Japanese.
According to the Ministry of Health, between 1998 and 2000 (the latest figures available), the STD infection rate rose 21 percent for Japanese men under 24 and 14 percent for women in the same age group. And while Japan’s HIV rate remains one of the world’s lowest, the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific has forecast that the number of full-blown AIDS cases in Japan, now at 14,000, could top 50,000 by 2010.

Japan’s new sex culture dates to the collapse of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s. Until then, Japan Inc. absorbed most university and high-school graduates, welcoming them to a social structure that determined whom they would date and eventually marry. These days, many corporations have stopped hiring, so ever-greater numbers of young Japanese matriculate each year to find temporary jobs on the economic margins. They form social groups that-like their jobs-are part time, low stress and temporary.

A 24-year-old named Yuji is typical. On a recent weekday, he waited to meet friends from one of his part-time jobs at Dogenzaka, Tokyo’s famous “love hotel hill.” He counts himself as a member of several social circles, and within each group occasionally sleeps with two or three girls. “It’s understood that we are all healthy, and that we’re not paying prostitutes for sex or sleeping with foreigners,” he says.

Yuji hasn’t been tested for STDs or AIDS because, he says, none of his friends have become sick. But like many Japanese in his age group, he seldom wears condoms during intercourse. Indeed, condom sales have dropped 25 percent over the past decade in Japan, bucking the trend in the United States and Europe. “Condoms are hard to sell in Japan right now because young adults refuse to use them,” says Toshiyaki Ishi, spokesperson for Okamoto, Japan’s largest maker of prophylactics. As a result, Japan’s abortion rate has nearly doubled since 1999 to 13 per 1,000 (still a far cry from the U.S. rate, which is 51 per 1,000).

Japan’s Ministry of Education has outlined a broad sex-ed curriculum for high schools, but it’s optional. Many principals reject the idea of sex-education classes for fear of offending parents. Private organizations struggle to fill the knowledge gap. The Yokohama AIDS Action and Information Center offers peer counseling and classes. But activists say young Japanese tend to stay away, terrified of having their sexual behavior scrutinized.

Masami, the Tokyo University student, says her biggest fear is not getting a disease but getting pregnant. She joins her male friend at a nearby hotel, and afterward admits the two had unprotected sex, ignoring condoms provided by the hotel. Unless that attitude changes, Japanese kids could find themselves with as many problems as partners.

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