cultural curiosity: pink japan

As promised, I’m going to attempt to give a summary of Midori’s “Pink Japan” talk from last week in Toronto. As a good little sex geek, I took notes… lots of notes.

For starters, it’s worth saying that I’m not sure that a summary is really possible. Basically, Midori’s got a highly unique take on things because of the very nature of who she is. She’s an intellectual but not an academic; an educator but not a lecturer; a performer but not an entertainer. In addition, her perspective on the topic of Japanese sexual culture is informed by her own upbringing—she was raised in a feminist intellectual household located in a working-class neighbourhood outside Tokyo—and her life in San Francisco, where she’s a person of German-American-Japanese origin who makes her living as a world-travelling sexuality educator and kink writer. Add that all together and she’s got quite the eclectic range of cultural references to draw upon.

In fact I think that’s what made the presentation so interesting. Beyond the bare information she conveyed and the entertaining stories she told, I was completely charmed to notice the places where Japanese sex culture made sense to her and the places she, as a Westernized person, found it confusing.

I think most of us, when spending time in countries and among cultures other than our own, tend to do a lot of comparing. Our understandings of “otherness” are necessarily filtered through our experiences and the cultures we come from. So, for example, when I come to the States I find it fascinating to note the differences. Different accents, different products in stores (they don’t have ketchup chips here, and their yogurt is just plain disgusting, but organic food is readily available all over the place), different assumptions based on the ways our governments and social structures run (health care, for example), different approaches to language (French is considered exotic – hee hee! – but Spanish is not – hmm!), different attitudes (the racism I see in major American cities is heaps more overt, pervasive and visible than I ever see in Canada), different opportunities (education costs a fortune here; queers can’t get married; etc., etc.) and so forth. Of course, mores around sexuality and relationships are high on the list of what I notice, and probably would all the more so in countries that don’t bear as strong a cultural resemblance to one another as Western ones do—not that they’re all the same by any stretch.

For someone like Midori, though, her cultural references lie in two places. Well, doubtless more than two at this point, but two main ones: Japan and the States. So she sees some elements of Japanese sexual culture from the inside out, and some from the outside in, and some in a hybrid fashion that really serves to show her own cultural multiplicity. It was endlessly amusing, and intriguing, to see where those lines were drawn for her.

Case in point: she explained a major cultural difference in fascinating terms, saying that when it comes to sex, in Western society our sexuality is influenced by guilt and in Japan it’s influenced by shame. In her words, “Shame is horizontal; guilt is vertical. Guilt is about an omniscient higher power watching your every move, with sexuality and other behaviours being judged. Shame is a failure to fulfill social obligations with regard to your peers, your social circle, your hive.” With this model in mind, she talked about how Judeo-Christian guilt is pervasive, and follows a person everywhere, whereas in Japan, shame only occurs when someone infringes on another person’s socially sanctioned privacy.

According to her, this plays out, for example, in Japan’s famed “love hotels,” where a person’s (or rather, a couple’s) entire experience of checking in, using the facilities and checking out can take place without the clients ever having a face-to-face meeting with another human being. It’s not shameful to use these locations to have illicit (or simply private) sex, it’s just shameful to be seen to use these locations. So they are entirely designed to preserve the clients’ anonymity, including a parking lot with curtains hanging to about waist level so that a person’s face is never seen when they step outside their car. Fascinating.

Midori also attacked a common Western perception that Japan is a country of pedophiles. She explained that there is definitely a cultural eroticization and fetishization of “cute” but that this is more like eroticizing the concept of “innocence verging on sexual knowledge” rather than an indication of any particular sexual interest in children. She drew the comparison to Western porn, in which unrealistically huge-breasted starlets are made out to be both extremely wanton and sexually knowledgeable—not particularly reflective of the average woman, who doesn’t look or act like a porn star, and not reflective of the sort of person that most hetero men end up dating or marrying.

All that being said, she expressed her downright confusion at some of the outfits being sold in sex shops there—stiff, ruffled, demure maids’ outfits that look nothing like the “sexy French maid” things you might see here, but rather more like something out of a Gothic European manor. It fits with the culture and she seems to get it on an intellectual level but in gut-level terms, as a woman steeped in North American sex culture, much like the rest of the folks in the lecture hall, she just doesn’t seem to grok how this stuff is sexy.

Here are a few other interesting tidbits:

  • Despite the Western idea of Japanese people being extremely kinky, there is no Japanese word for SM. She showed photos of signs written entirely in Japanese with the letters “SM” appearing here and there. “This taxonomy was developed in the 19th century by white European men, so it has simply been lifted directly.” This is not, of course, to say that nobody in Japan practices BDSM or other forms of kinky sex; simply that the specifics of contemporary SM subcultural identity are a Western construction based on the pathologizing/categorizing vocabulary created by folks like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and used by sexologists ever since - a vocabulary that has evolved specifically in the West.
  • In Japan, pre-worn underwear can be purchased in packages, ready for sniffing or jacking off. There are establishments set up with televisions, magazines, exercise machines for working up a bit of a sweat; girls can go there and put on a fresh pair of new underwear, provided by the company, and hang out while their scent permeates the fabric. Then they take off the panties, hand them over, get paid and leave. It’s considered a form of sex work. Wow. Pretty fascinating how different cultures come up with entirely different forms of sex work—not that there’s no market for panty-sniffing in the West, but we certainly don’t have a quasi-institutionalized setup for it. I wonder if they have things like Montreal’s adult-baby-fetish “dungeon” in Tokyo.
  • You know those weird sex toys called Fleshlights – the ones that look like a woman’s mouth, made of purple jelly, parked on top of something that resembles a large metal thermal coffee cup? They’re basically jack-off cups. Well, in Japan they have a disposable version that’s pre-lubed and fully microwaveable, for that “realistic” feeling. There’s a Japanese term for them, but they’re also commonly known there as “Dutch wives.” I do not know what this says about the Japanese perception of Dutch women, and neither does Midori. I do wonder when the shops here will start carrying them.
  • Not that this is particular to sexual culture, but Midori mentioned that Western words (from her slides I’d say English mostly, but also French, Italian and Spanish) are considered trendy in Japan, much the way that Japanese and other Asian language characters are trendy in the West in the form of clothing prints, tattoos and other such things. In her words, “cultural misappropriation is rampant on both sides of the pond.” I’d love to pick her brain sometime about the nuances of that—for example, when we’re talking about a white-dominant culture that misappropriates Asian cultural symbols, is there an inherent power differential to be considered that doesn’t apply the same way when an Asian culture misappropriates Western cultural and linguistic symbols? And would the answer depend on the location where the misappropriation is happening, or is it independent of geography? I’d be curious to hear her take.

I’m not going to write out my full detailed notes from her talk, partly because I don’t want to give a full play-by-play of someone else’s teaching work, partly because that would turn into a seven-page post, and partly because you should really go see it yourself when you have the chance. Hearing my version of her stuff is not the same as getting it from the source, not to mention she’s got a bunch of slides to illustrate her points and a table full of sexually-oriented materials produced in Japan (from comics to sex-club ads to gay pride pamphlets) that definitely serves to punctuate and enhance the things she talks about. Plus, she’s intending to update it with new photographs and information every time she makes a visit home, so a few months from now the whole presentation might look really different.

In any case, “Pink Japan: Contemporary Sex Culture” was definitely an interesting evening, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in such topics. I’d be intrigued to see sex educators from other cultural backgrounds do similar stuff… ethnographic work and the fields of culturally specific sociology and anthropology so often seem to shy away from analyzing these things, but sexuality is an incredibly interesting microcosmic canvas for the expression of a culture’s quirks and particularities that I can’t help thinking that it’s a major loss for people to leave it out of academic discussions. Food for thought indeed!

6 Responses

  1. As an anthro, I would obviously love to see this presentation. You may be relieved to know that there is a growing number of anthropological works on all things sex-related, from ethnographies of prostitution and stripping, to cultural analyses of porn, etc. There is also a growing number of anthropologists who actually admit to having sex in the field, even though it’s been commonly known for the past century.

  2. Unfortunately, I missed this talk when it came through the San Francisco Bay Area earlier, so I’m glad to see your summary, thanks!

    A brief comment on the trendy misappropriation of words. In Japan, English words (or rather, words with roman letters, most commonly English) are misappropriated. In China, Japanese words are misappropriated (hiragana and/or katakana (the phonetic alphabets), not kanji (the characters, which look identical to the Chinese ones)). Or at least that’s how it has been. I don’t know how much that is changing as China modernizes.

  3. More anthropological sex data = goooood. I wonder what flavour it has – Midori brings the perspective of an alternative sexuality educator to her take on things, and I can’t quite picture your average anthropologist coming at things from that angle. Which isn’t to say the work wouldn’t be interesting, of course.

    Interesting bits about Asian languages and linguistic misappropriation = also very good. Not the misappropriation itself, but learning about how it plays out. Thanks, Kay. Pepper tells me you spend a lot of time in China – neato!

  4. How interesting. I considered going to this presentation but ended up busy with other work. There seems to have been a lot of intriguing stuff to digest, though, so it’s good to hear a bit of that here.

    I am curious, though, as to why the pink (and/or twink) porn phenomenon in the States (I don’t know about Canada) didn’t come up in her discussion of fetishizing cuteness and innocence on the cusp of sexuality. There’s a whole booming genre of porn in the west that’s all about fetishizing “barely legal” female and male persons with bodies that tend to fit notions of “girl” and “boy” much more than “man” and “woman”. In light of that and other related things, I’m often surprised by what I might call semi-hypocritical name-calling when it comes to the supposed sexualizing of youth in Asian cultures. If it happens, which it seems to, outside the bounds of actual pedophilia, then it’s certainly not something that only happens “over there” in the exotic othered somewhere, ya know?

  5. On the topic of geekdom, though far from academic, you’ve used the word ‘grok’ twice recently. Are you finally reading Heinlein? My inner 14 year old boy would love to hear your take on that!

  6. Sadly, no Heinlein yet… tell your inner 14-year-old boy that as soon as I have time I will get around to it, I promise I will post something all about it! :)

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