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Two undeniable facts: Japan's birthrate has been in a steady decline since 1949 and Japan contains the largest quantity of dating sim games in the world – but are dating sims and the decline of Japan's birthrate somehow connected?
Japan has, for the last 10 years, had more deaths than births in its country. The population is in serious decline, and this is a huge national crisis for the whole country. Numerous theories exist as to why this is so – the aging population, a rise in infertility rates, gender politics, an overworked younger population too busy to breed.
What can disposable entertainment like dating sims tell us about this population crisis? Can we see an underlying fantasy lurking out of sight? Is it possible that dating sims and the decline of Japan's birthrate are not only linked, but so intrinsically so that we can solve the puzzle of why this is happening?
The Cultural Value of Entertainment
"But it's only a video game!" you may say, but I would argue that games are an incredible reflection of the culture that creates them, as it is with all entertainment.
Consider the Japanese classic Godzilla. The monster is a very clear metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. the film's message is one of caution: stop using nuclear weapons, unless you want the whole world to die.
That film is a little obvious, even specific. But cultural messages can also be gleamed not only through specific films with a specific creator behind it, but also through broad trends.
Throughout the 80s, there were plenty of science fiction stories – film, books, and video games – that featured technology turning against humanity. Technology as the bad guy. The Terminator is an obvious example, but consider the rise of the cyberpunk genre, the Borg in Star Trek, or, yes, Mega Man, a humanoid robot who has to fight the less humanoid machine masters. In the 80s, tons of media featured man opposing machine.
Yes, evil robots appear from time to time, but are they nearly as prominent as they once were? Hell, Iron Man, one of the most popular characters around, flies around in a metal, computerized suit. Even Terminator has grown stale – the sci-fi titan barely able to draw in an audience.
Trends in media reflect public perspectives. In the 80s, tech was foreign. Even into the 90s, tech was a source of fear. Anyone else remember Y2K, and all the doomsday preppers who were convinced computers would end up blowing us all to hell before 2001? Today, everyone has a cell phone. What was once a source of anxiety is now familiar.
Entertainment, even disposable entertainment, reflects cultural opinion. This is essential to understand before we move onto the link between dating sims and the decline of Japan's birthrate.
Japan's Family and Work Culture
Japan's birthrate dipped below one million in 2016. This doesn't mean that no babies were being born, but far more people were dying. There are numerous theories as to why this is, but one key reason could be that the Japanese just aren't having enough sex.
A study performed by Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that 60 percent of unmarried women and 70 percent of unmarried men between the ages of 18-34 weren't in a relationship and that a little less than 50 percent of that population were still virgins. This is probably the biggest reason for Japan's decline in births. No one is having sex.
Why are so few young people having sex?
The simple answer? Work.
The study showed that 90% of unmarried individuals felt as though they would get around to being married eventually, maybe having kids. But that their reality at that moment did not give them a chance to raise a family.
Because work gets in the way.
22% of Japanese people work over 50 hours a week – some regularly working over 18 hours of work in a single day! Death by overworking has become a legally recognized cause of death in the country due to its frequency. The work culture compels people to work more and more and more – even as the government tries to limit this.
But priorities are clear: work hard, and don't stop working. How can the Japanese think about settling down when they're compelled to work almost 100 hours ever week? Forget birthrates – we need to focus on our work week.
Yet 90% of the population wants to be in a family.
A Dream of Love
Many Japanese people will read manga or play video games while on the trains to work. It is here that we develop a true sense of the Japanese culture through their entertainment, where the link between dating sims and the decline of Japan's birthrate is solidified.
While dating sims do exist in English, the genre took shape in Japan, and remains the most popular place for dating sims. In these games, players get to date a character (usually from a pool of candidates) and try to win their affections. Some games are more romantic in nature and incorporate a compelling story. These are very similar to romance novels, only digital and mildly interactive.
Others are essentially porn games with plot.
The dating sims offer various scenarios (catering to both male and female audiences, as well as catering to every sexuality and sexual preference), and are sometimes successful enough to warrant adaptation into anime. The demand has only increased over the years.
Again, we return to that idea that entertainment reflects culture. Japanese culture birthed this whole genre, in part because there was a demand for it. Most video games allow players to live out some fantasy they may have, be it being a super soldier, a hero, or what have you.
What fantasies do dating sims satisfy for the millions of Japanese people playing them?
Perhaps their dream of love.
This is the link between dating sims and the decline of Japan's birthrate. The Japanese, as statistics indicate, want to be in relationships. Many of them want to love. But, sadly, because of their overwhelming work schedules, they can only live out their fantasies through video games.