pink eiga - My observations

Aaron Gerow gerow
Thu Nov 9 20:41:03 EST 2000

Just some quick comments on Jasper's interesting observations.  While I 
do think it is important to note and understand cultural differences, and 
their roots in historical precedents, I do worry about the tendency to 
make those differences black and white, to tone down the role of history, 
and to ignore their political dimensions.

>Just something I noticed whilst in Japan which struck me as very different
>from the attitudes to sex in Europe and North America, though please anyone
>feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but aside from the explicit content
>found in most manga comics, I quite often noticed men reading pornographic
>magazines in public places such as on the Shinkansen, and they were often
>provided along with other magazines in coffeeshops for the customers to
>read, so there was none of this furtive "Shall I put it into a brown paper
>bag for you, sir?" attitude we have in Britain. People aren't embarassed by
>nudity or sex.

This is something often cited and it is certainly a curious phenomenon.  
But I would definitely not go so far as to say, "People aren't embarassed 
by nudity or sex."  Because they are.  Why does a country that is 
supposedly free of such inhibitions have much stricter censorship than a 
country that has such inhibitions?  Is it all because of a few prudes in 
government?  Not really: the history of public movements against 
depictions of sexuality in film and manga in Japan (the taiyozoku scare, 
the yugai manga problem) reveal something more broad and often popular.  
Frankly, I think a lot of Japanese are embarrassed by nudity.  Anecdotal 
evidence is problematic, but as a counter to the porno on the train case, 
how's this: I once interpreted for a Japanese amefuto team and it struck 
me as very curious that they took showers after practice with swim suits 
on!  What are we to make of this?

These are, of course, only questions, but they show that the issue is 
much more complicated than is evidenced by one case.  For instance, what 
would have happened if it was a woman reading porno on the train?  Surely 
there are a lot of ladies pornographic manga these days, but one doesn't 
see a lot of women reading those on the train.  Issues like gender 
definitely complicate the issue and make it hard to make a unified entity 
"the Japanese" that shares the same attitudes towards sex.

>Bearing in mind the large proportion of Japans film output devoted to pinku,
>I think its safe to say that it is an accepted part of Japanese culture and
>not something either women or men really think about. A Japanese friend
>mentioned to me that current Japanese morality was in no small measure
>imposed from outside during the Meiji Period when Japan began to open up to
>the world and adopt a lot of  Western cultures and philosophies, and also in
>the post-War period when it was more or less forced upon them. This strikes
>me as something pecularliar to the Japanese. Whereas the country adopts a
>lot of fashions, philosophies and styles from outside the country, there is
>no real depth to them, and at heart Japan is still a fundamentally different
>culture from anywhere else in the world. (Taken in this light, claims to
>Globalism and Coca-Colonisation from America ring rather hollow). He put it
>in terms of a return to the hedonism of the Edo period after the enforced
>morality imposed from outside during the last century (Eirin etc).

This is an argument that is quite old and still very strong: that Japan 
has not changed in essence despite Westernization, and that any of the 
changes we see are only surface.  As a scholar who always historicizes 
cultural phenomena, I strongly disagree with this statement. In the case 
of film, for instance, there have been drastic changes in the way films 
have been made when you compare 1910s films with 1990s works.  Are all 
these changes "superficial" such that deep down all these films 
supposedly still reflect the same essence?  Not only do I think that is 
wrong, it seriously downplays the historical transformations of the 
post-Meiji world (no wonder many Japanese don't study their modern 
history!).  We can continue the historical debates, but one should also 
note there are various ideological and political issues involved in these 
ideas.  Seeing Japan as unchangeably different, somehow immune from both 
the ravages of modernism we Westerners have experienced, as well as 
expressive of certain freedoms we desire (e.g., sexual freedom), more 
often stems from orientalist desires for an Other to define (or 
criticize) the Self than from any accurate account of Japan.  In other 
words, such views tell you more about the observer than what is observed. 
 On the side of Japan, views that "at heart Japan is still a 
fundamentally different
culture from anywhere else in the world" have functioned ideologically in 
this country to support militarism in the 1930s or the Japanese as Number 
One phenomenon from the late 1960s on. In fact, such ideas were at the 
core of the Nihonjinron (theories of Japaneseness) boom from the 1970s 
on.  Saying that you are fundamentally different from other countries has 
helped Japanese bureaucrats reject opening the country to foreign trade, 
but it has also aided a domestic ideological system that denies real 
differences between classes, ethnicities, and genders in favor of some 
unified ahistorical essence that defines "we Japanese."  Personally, I 
find such ideas dangerous, and there are certainly many Japanese (as well 
as non-Japanese) in academia, the arts, and civil society who recognize 
the ideological dimension of these ideas and strongly oppose them.

This may all sound very strong for you, Jasper, who just had the 
wonderful experience of visiting a great country, Japan, for the first 
time.  But as I tell my international students, to whom I teach Japanese 
culture, Japan is something that is marvelously complicated (but not 
necessarily mysterious)--as are most cultures--and thus something that 
demands many visits and many opportunities to approach, critique, and 
appreciate.  My advice to them is to never accept the final word on the 
culture--it is, after all, always changing--and remain open to, but still 
critical of, both what they experience and what their own position in 
regard to that is.  I tell them this is not just advice for Japan, but 
for any culture they encounter, including their own.  Because, in the 
end, Japan is different, but it is not the only culture that is 
different.  Understanding these differences without privileging any of 
them is part of the process of crossing borders and becoming a little bit 
more global.

Aaron Gerow
Associate Professor
International Student Center
Yokohama National University
79-1 Tokiwadai
Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama 240-8501
E-mail: gerow at
Phone: 81-45-339-3170
Fax: 81-45-339-3171

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