In recent times pornography in Japan has expanded into new media such as manga (hentai) and video games (eroge). These new mediums are in addition to mainstream film and historic shunga (sexually explicit woodcuts) and feature graphic images of sexual activity.
When first walking around Japanese streets it appears that Japan is a sexually open society with an evident erotic culture. Pornography is available throughout Japan; the shopping alleys of Tokyo and Osaka are lined with explicit sex shops neighbouring popular karaoke places and restaurants that are open in the daytime.
Japan’s working adults are often compared to drones, suffering long overtime and equipped with unsmiling and unhappy faces. For a Westerner this view is in conflict with media that depicts fantasies of the Japanese being something ultra-sexual. That’s what people want to believe, and that’s what sells!
The Sexual Facade
And yet, at times it seems that sexuality is more hidden in Japan than it is in the West. Westerners have become accustomed to sex playing a mundane role in the media – Game of Thrones frequently uses sex as a literal backdrop to the central conversation or action of the scene. While sex scenes are of course present in Japanese television and film, it does not seem to have this same function of being placed into the plot for the sake of it, but usually only if it is relevant to the storyline. Japanese dramas often seem to build romances in such a way that a kiss is as much of a turning point in a character’s relationship as a sex scene would be, and these love stories are more like modern fairy tales than drama.
In Japan television with real live actors does not portray the same sexual explicitness or experimentation that is seen in animation forms such as manga. Japanese sexual norms today do not allow women to freely express their female sexuality, and unlike centuries past sexuality, particularly for woman, is now severely repressed.
What represents this paradoxical concept of sexual frankness alongside sexual privacy is Japan’s ongoing chikan (pervert) problem. This usually refers to women being groped on packed public transport – the act has even become a popular feature in Japanese pornography. Signs reading “beware of chikan” are dotted around the cities, and some train lines provide women-only carriages during rush hour. However, in contrast to the catcalling that Western women are unfortunately so familiar with, chikan is often a more secretive act and women are advised to directly address their attacker as an effective method to stop them in a ‘shame society’ such as Japan. So why has the issue taken on this particular nature? The reason could absolutely be interpreted as a result of Japanese attitudes towards sexuality. Sexualised females are presented not as mainstream, but as a male fantasy. The openness of sexual harassment in the West could be seen as reaction towards the female sexual revolution, as a method for men to regain their power over women though public humiliation; perhaps in Japan, harassment of women is more secretive because female sexuality could also be seen as being repressed in the mainstream.
Prostitution has existed in some form throughout Japan’s history. Despite the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956, various legal loopholes, liberal interpretations of the law and loose enforcement have allowed the sex industry to prosper and earn an estimated ¥2.3 trillion (US$20 billion) a year. Just like in Australia and the US, Japan’s Anti-Prostitution Law makes prostituting oneself a crime, whereas those who use the service of a prostitute are immune from prosecution.
In Japan, the “sex industry” is not synonymous with prostitution. Because Japanese law defines prostitution as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” in order to remain legal, most sex clubs offer only non-coital services. This has led Joan Sinclair, the author of Pink Box, to observe that the sex industry in Japan ironically “offer(s) absolutely everything imaginable but sex.”
Misconceptions about Geisha
A frequent misconception by outsiders is that the time-honoured geisha is a sex-worker. Rather than a prostitute a geisha is a woman trained in arts such as music and cultured conversation, who is available for non-sexual interactions with her male clientele. The geisha fulfilled the non-sexual social roles that ordinary women were prevented from fulfilling, and for this service they were well paid. That being said, the geisha were not deprived of opportunities to express themselves sexually and in other erotic ways. A geisha might have a patron with whom she enjoyed sexual intimacy, but this sexual role was not part of her role or responsibility as a geisha.
For centuries homosexuality was accepted within Japanese society. Of note were the relationships between monks and their pubescent accolades and warriors and their young apprentices, both formal in nature and extended to sexual relations. Male prostitutes were also prevalent and catered to both male and female clientele.
With Japan’s desire to modernise and appear more ‘Western’, sexuality became more and more repressed and sodomy was finally outlawed in 1873. Confucian thought and the government’s desire to appear ‘civilized’ influenced the way that homosexuality was viewed by both the Japanese state and by the population at large during the Meiji period.
Despite recent trends that suggest a new level of tolerance, including public displays of sexuality in most cosmopolitan cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, Japanese gays and lesbians often conceal their sexuality, and many marry a partner of the opposite sex to avoid discrimination.
The Unfettered Fetish Scene
One of the most unusual fetishes to be found in Japan’s geek market is Moe, the sexual desire created by watching female and often child-like anime and manga characters perform on screen! When pornography is central to both anime and manga it is called hentai, and this medium in itself is becoming a fetish for young people worldwide.
One does not have to look far to see this: countless convenience stores in Japan openly display erotic magazines depicting manga girls in school uniforms. This activity could not be condoned in Australia or other Western countries. Possession of child pornography was only banned in Japan in 2014, though pornographic manga depicting minors that caters to paedophilic lolicon and shotacon fetishes is still legal today. Lolicon refers to the sexual attraction to seemingly underage girls whilst shotacom is for underage boys! While there is no suggestion that every part of Japan’s sexual society is disturbing to such an extent, it cannot be denied that Japan’s sexual deviations are certainly a controversial topic.
For something really weird and traditional Japan savour food play known as wakamezake. This involves nyotaimori, the act of presenting food (typically sushi and sashimi) on a nude female – particularly torso. This act has become an icon of Japanese food play. Largely due to Western influence, the attraction to vary large breasts has emerged as a fetish in Japan.
The World’s weirdest festival for Penises
Yes, the celebration of penises is a happy event! The Kanayara Festival (aka the Penis Festival) at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki features phallic images in everything from the decorations to snacks. There is also a mikoshi (portable shrine) parade of numerous giant phalli around noon. Men in drag carry the pink ‘Elizabeth Mikoshi’, donated by a drag queen club called Elizabeth. Profits raised from the event go to HIV research. The festival only started in 1977 and is famous today outside Japan, and far lesser known within. Typically many in Japan are embarrassed to promote such a phallic event!
Here’s some backstory. Kanayama Shrine was popular with sex workers from the local teahouses who prayed for protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Two gods of mining and blacksmiths, Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime, are enshrined in it, which might sound totally unrelated to phalli. But Japanese legend says that they healed the Shinto goddess Izanami after she gave birth to a fire god. People prayed to them regarding STDs, childbirth, etc. because of this myth. Another story tells of a demon who fell in love with a woman and hid inside her vagina, biting off both her newlywed husband’s penis, on two separate occasions! She then sought help from a blacksmith, who made her a metal phallus. It broke the demon’s teeth and sent him off for good. They later enshrined this metal phallus in Kanayama Shrine.
Next time, I will talk about the changes occurring in the Japanese sexuality.