Michael Facius

In Western popular culture, “sex(uality) in Japan” conjures up two sets of contrasting images: a culture weighed down by “traditional” gender roles, prudish in its aversion to displaying or discussing sexuality in public; but also the land of kink, where people read pornographic manga comics on the subway and buy used panties from vending machines. In Japan, the erotic also seems to go well together with the exotic: The geisha, one of the iconic figures of Japanese culture, often exudes an erotic flair in Western representations, for instance in Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005).

Romantic tryst by the pond. Scene from the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Unreliable as they may be, stereotypes offer a window into the history of Japanese sexualities. They are also a convenient entry point for me. I am not a specialist in the history of sexuality or in literary studies, but in global history. Global history, among other things, is interested in interactions between regions and cultures and the ways in which they are connected and transformed through interactions – in particular in the history of the global integration of the world. I want to think about how sex(uality) in Japan always took place in a web of cultural entanglements.

One reason sexuality is rewarding to study is because it is informed by forces that transcend the bedroom (or a wooden bridge encircled by cherry trees) and personal intimacy. At times, it is even bound up with global power politics. In the nineteenth century, pointing out the lack of “civilization” in non-Western societies often served to legitimize Western imperialism. From the 1860s onward, Japanese statemesmen and intellectuals put all their energies into warding off the threat of colonialization at the hands of the encroaching Western powers. To prove that their country’s level of civilization was up to par, they also had to accommodate Western sexual mores.

In the process, the genre of erotic woodblock prints called shunga (春画) or “spring pictures”, wildly popular in the early modern period (1600–1868), became something of an embarrassment to Japanese statesmen as they internalized Western ideas of “decency” and pornography. So much so, in fact, that the prints became “taboo in Japan for nearly a century”, as the ad for a major shunga exhibition at the British Museum alluringly announced. It is only recently that they are being rediscovered and appreciated as part of the cultural heritage.

A complicated slice of history and politics also lurks behind the seemingly harmless movie Memoirs of a Geisha. The decision to cast Chinese actresses in the lead roles sparked an outburst of patriotic resentment in both Japan and China. Japanese observers asserted that the quintessentially Japanese geisha called for Japanese actresses. Chinese commentators on the other hand were infuriated over the “Chinese” geisha sleeping with a “Japanese” man for money. They also felt reminded of the cruel fate of the euphemistically named “comfort women” (ianfu), mostly Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese women who were forced to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers during World War II. 

Of course, the history of sex in Japan isn’t all gloomy. The journal Japan Review entitled a recent special issue on shunga, “Sex and Humour in Japanese Art and Literature”, and when you have a peek at some of the prints, it’s hard to miss the playful, quirky (and, after all, distinctively Japanese) vibe they give off. As these vignettes readily demonstrate, the history of sexuality must grapple with everything from fun and play to trauma and pain in a context that flows between the local and the global.

Michael Facius is a Research Fellow at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute of History, Freie Universität Berlin. His research focuses on Japan and East Asia in global history. In his current project, which is part of a Collaborative Research Center on the premodern history of knowledge, he explores evolving views of the Early Modern period in 20th-century Japan.

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