Japanese sexuality is bizarre. It is difficult to understand why genitals of porn actors are censored while it is absolutely fine to show brutal erotic scenes. Japanese comics contain all types of possible (and impossible) sexual preferences. They have fetishised and sexualised a countless number of objects and areas of human life. However, this is not just a whim of freaks, but a consequence of the Japanese history of customs and social relations between men and women. In the end, a universal desire of intimacy stands behind these incomprehensible practices.
In the beginning, there was a relationship
The approach to down-to-earth affairs in Japan depends on two religious traditions: Shinto and Buddhism. In this case, they are connected by far-reaching practicality.
This sensible approach is perfectly depicted by the story of the first pair of demiurges – Izanagi and Izanami – who have actually created the whole world of gods and people. Before moving on to the act of procreation, they faced… their own ignorance. Since they were the first couple, they could not know where children come from. Fortunately, nature was the one to help. After spending some time observing animals (enlightened birds in this case), they were able to begin creating islands, peninsulas, archipelagos, mountains, rivers, forests and, finally, the first kami – deities. According to common sense, giving birth to the god of fire had disastrous consequences. Izanami got burnt to death and went to Yomi – the realm of darkness. As it happens in mythologies, her holy husband set off on a journey to find her. Orpheus, a hero closer to us culturally, lost his beloved one by his carelessness, which was the reason for his eternal suffering (for us, he became a beautiful romantic symbol). Izanagi’s mission was successful, but unfortunately, it turned out even heroes are all subject to the same laws of nature. He saw that the body of Izanami had already begun to decompose, so any further relation was pointless.
Woman between obedience and power
The ambiguity of a women’s position in Japanese culture still affects the contemporary context of social behaviour. Of course, women’s position has never been equal to men’s, and their situation has often been not enviable, but there are no grounds to talk about inferiority without any rights. In Japan, social status depends on a multitude of different factors: gender, age, hierarchy, faithfulness to a specific family and personal merits are only some of them. Additionally, we should also take into account that changes in customs were happening quite often. Differences in accepting certain behaviours were relatively significant between successive periods. Whether people were paying more attention to Buddhism or Shintoism in different historical periods was not without relevance, as it had a direct influence on everyday life.
Additionally, the Japanese have always been showing respect for contradictions. Due to these factors, women’s rights and possibilities were different in court culture, during the Tokugawa shogunate, in the Meiji era, not to mention the modern times. However, there has always been a certain, common pattern and suspension between the duties of men and women, and the power resulting from the custody of the whole family along with the power of personal potential.
In Japan, it used to be better to be a mother than a wife. Japanese couple usually did not live alone but with the whole family of the husband. The mother-in-law had the right to treat her daughter-in-law like a servant. When the housewife was not satisfied with her son’s wife, she would order a divorce despite the feelings that might connect the couple. This was not a seen as problematic even if the couple was just expecting a baby. After the child was born, the family of the husband would simply take the baby. The first place in the life of a traditionally raised Japanese girl was reserved for a man – first a husband, and then a son. Faithfulness and obedience to a husband were counted among the highest virtues.
Moreover, it was treated almost like a crime when a woman was jealous. Japanese men were not faithful, but their female partners had to be. Interestingly, women’s approach to this issue was practical. First of all, they would satisfy their sexual needs by themselves. Sometimes, in some regions, an ageing wife would choose a young concubine for her husband. The more beautiful the lady, the more respect the wife got. Since their early years, girls were taught that jealous women change into dragons. Besides, the position of a mistress has always been inferior and could never threaten the status of a housewife. Even her children had to speak to the official wife per ‘mother’.
The worst possible situation for a woman was a divorce. Divorce proceedings were very simple, and the woman did not have the right to property accumulated during the marriage, she had a low social position and difficulties in trying to find a job. Nevertheless, the man also had to take social criticism into account when deciding on divorce. Of course, if he held a high public office or was the owner of vast territories, the consequences were limited to rumours. To prevent negative rumours from appearing, it was usually decided to… adopt a former wife. It would also help the position of the children who then got a status of grandchildren. In other words, a truly win-win situation.
Escape from sexual fulfilment
The Japanese men had many opportunities to satisfy his physical needs; A few wives, concubines, geisha, prostitutes, casual romances, homosexual relationships and no rebukes nor punishment for any of these things. Even the most bizarre fantasies could have gained a form thanks to the access to literature and ukiyo-e woodcuts often displayed on stalls. Besides, it was better perceived if someone got an appropriate picture rather than fulfilled his desires. Focusing on the sensual side of life was not regarded as something good. In the eyes of the public, being a lover meant a loss of masculinity by a man. His duty was to reject women’s wooing, not to focus on attracting their attention. A real man vision: a self-controlled fighter serving his mater and his family. While managing his impulses, he should have devoted himself to higher goals, and sexuality was to be mediated by appropriate institutions, which would not affect his behaviour. A free approach to sex was seen in fact as a test of character. The fewer, the better.
Today, Japan is associated with a lot of bizarre erotic habits. Reports about new suspicious cafés or rather unusual vending machines evoke our surprise. Truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle and is often not sufficiently analysed in a social context.
Of course, it is possible to find shops with used women’s underwear, which can be even more expensive in the case the user has left her picture attached. Some special vending machines can also be found in unfrequented streets, as well as cafés, where you can take a nap next to a beautiful girl. For those who want more, there are also some places in which waitresses do work without their underwear on. Some even eat sushi from the body of a naked woman or go for a local variant of striptease where they use a magnifier to watch the dancer’s body in detail. Until recently, harassing women in public transport was a real scourge. All these behaviours have one thing in common – the absence of sexual intercourse. Of course, ordinary brothels still exist, but they can no longer operate officially after introducing anti-prostitution laws in 1958. Ten years before, dancing in public places at night was also prohibited, which was supposed to limit prostitution. Paid love was gradually being penalised.
Why, however, do Japanese men find pleasure in practices that do not lead to fulfilment? The answer may be hidden in double negation. In the past, sex was treated naturally and freely, but the leniency was not looked upon favourably. For men, the act of seduction was to rely on repelling their potential partners as long as possible. Self-control was a virtue.
Moreover, despite acceptance, some things were not to be publicly discussed – they were there, but nobody would praise or criticise them. Then, as a result of encountering Victorian rules, more bonds were imposed on eroticism. It is here that the censorship of Japanese pornography begins. Japanese pornography, according to the law, cannot show the intimate places of actors. However, Japanese are well known for practical solutions.
If showing human organs is forbidden, let’s show the organs of monsters, demons, and anything more or less able to play the role of lovers. Instead of employing real actors, we can just draw all the scenes. A multitude of pornographic genres and the presentation of eccentric fetishes in them not necessarily originated from licentiousness of the Japanese, but from the historical and cultural conditions, and above all from the legal ban. We should not think that all these behaviours are standard for the Japanese society. Only eccentrics or people being on the margins of the social hierarchy boast about such preferences. For ordinary people, privacy is more important. In Japan, some things just happen, but people do not talk about it out loud. Acceptance is always silent and uncertain.
Japanese man and the huge expectations
Another area that Western observers are concerned about is the Japanese reluctance to enter a relationship with real women. Some are fully satisfied having so-called waifu – an unreal wife who is usually a character from animated series or a computer game. Others prefer to invest in dakimuras, which are large pillows with images of characters usually from manga (Japanese comics) or anime (i.e. animation) characterised by strong erotic themes.
Of course, both tendencies can be combined and do not concern only people affected by the social withdrawal (hikkomori) who practically do not stay in touch with the world outside. For many ordinary people participating in normal social life, waifus and dakimuras are substituting a relationship. The wealthiest people decide to buy sophisticated models of sex dolls that are supposed to resemble real women in the most faithful way. They often treat these devices with genuine care: they take them on dates, buy presents, do not use violence against them. Recently, the Japanese has married a hologram and claimed to be the representative of a new sexual minority. Replacing women is not only limited to erotic issues, as evidenced by the example of Hatsune Miku, a virtual vocalist with thousands of devotees coming to her concerts.
What makes Japanese women too scary for Japanese men? Because of their high expectations, of course. The proper candidate for a husband should have a pleasant appearance, high social position, prospects for further development, appropriate property status and some other advantages. He is, in the end, responsible for the whole family.
There also exists a time pressure. Japanese women want to get married quite early, as their ‘value’ on the matrimonial market falls drastically when they are above 27 years old. In Japanese pop culture, there is an image of so-called OL (Office Ladies), who take up work until they find a suitable candidate for a husband. The older they are, the harder it is for them to reach their goal. As they reach 27 years old, they may as well stop searching, because usually they are quickly outclassed by the younger competitors. The potential candidate should be accepted not only by the woman but also by her family, placing further demands in place.
Furthermore, the job market in Japan is just as predatory as in other countries. The tendency of staying within one company for the whole life is slowly disappearing, so young employees do not expect to get a stable income, which previously was dependent on their age and experience in a particular place of employment rather than on their abilities. The pressure exerted on men is enormous, and half measures do not satisfy Japanese women.
Moreover, more and more females decide to start their own careers, which is perceived as a considerable disadvantage by the conservative Japanese. Such women are less likely to have a happy relationship compared to their conventional friends. Nevertheless, the emancipation of women in the labour market is progressing, which is hard to bear for men. The demand for substitutes for women is snowballing. It is women who mostly read comics telling stories about erotic adventures of gay couples. Working as a host is becoming more and more popular. These are young men with whom you can go on a date, talk about interesting topics or show up at an important business meeting. However, the full range of services they offer never includes sexual intercourse.
The outstanding sexual habits of the Japanese, regardless of their gender, rarely lead to intercourse. Most of them are very innocent, and they are about contact with other people – or about replacing it in one way or another. Without social pressure and requirements set by the other person. Among the mix of historical factors and possibilities of new technologies, the longing for the presence of another person is especially visible. Following the principle of practicality, if you cannot get something in the usual way, then you must look for other ways to meet your needs. In fact, when we realise for whom and for what reasons these substitutes of another human remain the only option, we should not be concerned about the Japanese’s interest in this bizarre eroticism. The desire for closeness is independent of cultural affiliation.
Translation from Polish: Bartłomiej Piątkiewicz
This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.