Of “Wacky” Japan and the Myth of the Other

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

Boy Scrubbing!
Oh, the things these eyes have seen surfing the gaming blogs. I never know what is going to pop up on Kotaku, so when I saw a write up of Duel Love, I had to laugh. The Nintendo DS game puts you in the role of a transfer student, who becomes the personal trainer for a secret male fight club. Apparently, your job is to wipe down the boys post battle and give them massages. After reading the helpful description of gameplay provided by one brave blogger, I smiled a bit and surfed on.

But it appears that the game about boy scrubbing was not done with me yet.

A few days later, I checked my Feministe feed and saw that Holly had done a complete write up of the game. In her entry “Boy Scrubbing for Fun and Profit”

The first thing I noticed in the trailer is the fact that all the bodies featured are uniformly hyper-thin and pale. The game features the usual cliched lineup of cute boys to fall in love with: the moody cool loner, the rascally troublemaker, the older intellectual, the long-haired beauty, and the disturbingly young cute kid, but they all have the same disturbingly unrealistic body. (These kids are supposed to be fist-fighters?) A coworker of mine who’s into this genre says the artist who’s responsible for the character design has really gone downhill.

Now, I happen to agree with Zuzu’s points in that post I just linked: this kind of portrayal of boys is relatively insignificant in terms of role-modeling compared to what girls grow up dealing with, either here or in Japan. Although I did notice a very conformist “hot boy” look the last time I was in Tokyo, it certainly wasn’t an anorexic look. I still always wonder what’s going on with the fairly predictable kind of objectification you find in so many hundreds of shōjo and shōnen ai (those are the gay ones) comic books, visual novels, and games. These are products made mostly by straight women, for straight women. So what’s with the hyper-elongated torsos with the bizzarely placed pectorals? Is this really sexy? I remember seeing a Death Note bootleg game not that long ago that even featured a hyper-skinny guy with an absurd 12-pack of abdominal muscles. It’s not just that these artists don’t study realistic anatomy — just like the equally anatomy-and-physics-deficient artists who draw female characters with gravity-defying, spine-shattering boobs, there’s a particular kind of focused fetishization.

Holly then opens the floor for discussion (with a few different issues at play) but quickly comes back to the floor to address some stereotypical statements about Japan and Japanese society that were proliferating in the comments.

Holly says:

March 7th, 2008 at 10:38 am – Edit

I’ve noticed there are quite a few interesting ideas about Japan floating around in this discussion so far. I suppose I ought to have expected that, since it’s a Japanese game and this genre of comics / novels / games / animation originated in Japan. But really, it’s grown to be a global phenomenon. There’s something about it that appeals to a lot of people, not just in Japan. That’s what I’m curious about.

Japan has this place in the Western imagination as deeply strange and different on some level, a funhouse mirror and a convenient Other. That’s what has fueled what some people call the “Japan is Weird” trend in blogs and other websites. (Which, if you read the comments on that thread, I find deeply irritating.) I just want to make it clear, that wasn’t the intention of this post. It’s fine if you guys want to speculate about Japanese society or talk about how Japan is this way or that way based on pop culture you’ve consumed or a trip you made there. Even though I’m Japanese and spent big chunks of my childhood growing up there, I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. I want to do a little bit of myth-busting though… or at least, myth-questioning.

Holly thoroughly challenges many of the myths surrounding Japanese culture, like this one, heard quite often by my ears:


Characters in Japanese comics and animation look like white people!

This topic has been thoroughly written about. The best essay on the subject, in my opinion, is once again by my former classmate Matt Thorn:

http://www.matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/faceoftheother.html

Suffice it to say that yeah, Japanese art started slowly changing when exposed to Western aesthetic ideas, and changed in fits and starts over the next century for a number of reasons. But it’s really more a matter of how racial signifiers are drawn. If an American or European cartoonist or animator (say, from several decades ago, especially) wanted to signify that their characters were traveling to Japan and meeting Japanese people, there would be a whole lot of indications of skin tone, almond-shaped eyes, black hair, etc. But the same is not true in Asia — these signifiers are culturally relative and meant to distinguish racial “others” from the main characters. For instance, would it surprise you to know that Japanese people have, without hair dye, quite a huge variety of shades of hair? They may all look “black” to someone who grew up somewhere else, however. When you combine that with the fact that Japanese visual art traditions have never been given to exact realism in portrayal of people (or anything) it explains a lot. Another good essay:

http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/dec03/ao_1203_3.shtml

So:

“That’s probably to do with the early Disney thing anime had going on, but I really would appreciate more people of colour in my anime.”

… although we absolutely ought to be pointing out the effect of western aesthetic ideals on global culture, those ARE people of color, drawn by people of color, and people of color artists will keep representing ourselves however we want, even if they don’t look like people of color to you.

Another one that I see thrown out quite often:

Japan is a sexist society that is only now catching up with the United States

I see this one so often that it’s become a cliche, and I’ve been hearing this literally for decades. This is a well-understood tendency in anthropology: to look at other cultures and liken them to our own culture in the past, or our own culture with worse problems somehow, or our own culture but amazingly, fantastically better in some way. Of course, every culture deserves to be measured against itself to some degree. So, women in Japan: for starters, I hope every consumer of Japanese pop culture realizes that the “demure, submissive Asian woman” is a total racist stereotype. As far as sexism, it’s undeniable that Japanese women have faced and still face huge barriers in trying to gain access to power in the workplace and in politics. As far as I know there haven’t been major upheavals in this area for decades, so I’m curious where Neko-Onna gets the idea that “the role of women in that country is also rapidly changing.”

What’s been changing a lot in recent decades is actually the role of men, as people and institutions are starting to realize that keeping male office workers chained to their work for 18 hours a day is having a deleterious effect on health, family, the birth rate, etc. That may end up having a reciprocal effect on Japanese women, but let’s get one thing clear — Japan is not somehow analagous to the United States in the 60s. In other ways — especially in terms of traditional depictions of female strength and power, and in terms of financial decision-making and authority outside the workplace, it’s been argued that the situation of Japanese women is actually really good relative to a lot of places. Japan has different kinds of problems; there is a strict “division of powers” along gender lines between the working world (where still, it’s difficult to be a career woman and most women are only part-time or employed-until-marriage) and the home world — where, completely unlike the 50s Father Knows Best model of family here, everyone agrees that women are entirely in charge and that men do not run the household. Women are generally in charge of budgets and financing, most decisions about purchases (except the most major ones, which require joint decisions), how kids are raised, etc. The real problem is that men aren’t participating in this sphere, and women are discouraged from participating in the other — in part because the work conditions, until fairly recently, have been horrible and grueling, to the extent that many women are GLAD they don’t have to work for a corporation.

An interesting note on homosexuality in Japanese culture:

Norvegica says:

“I doubt there are very many healthy queer relationships out in the open, media-wise, in Japan.”

That’s definitely true. Although there are plenty of gay folks in Japan, I still feel like I met half the out gay population of Tokyo by wandering through several gay clubs. Obnoxious queeny stereotypes still pepper the mass media, although that’s been changing slowly too. Now there are leatherman stereotypes too. There hasn’t been a widespread “gay liberation” or “gay pride” movement, with the result that there’s still a lot of shame, especially related to family.

Holly also provides an international perspective on sexualized images of youngsters:

“I do think it’s jarring to see visually a character of either gender that I would peg as around twenty and read that they are more in the ballpark of sixteen. There are all kinds of ridiculous about it. Shonen action manga marketed to boys has these steroid-esque characters who are warriors or fighters of some sort who are six-feet tall and so on and so forth who are sixteen, sometimes fourteen in the story.”

This has been a problem in television dramas here in the United States too — if you watch many TV shows set in high school, or about teenagers (again, Dawson’s Creek comes to mind, as does 90210, and there are many more recent examples…) they tend to be populated with actors in their 20s. Who just don’t look like teenagers in many cases, no matter how you try to dress them up. I think this has to do with cultural perceptions of “mature” faces being more attractive, mature meaning college-aged.

And tackling the issue of statutory rape in other cultures:

Anne Onne says:

“I think it’s worth pointing out that they’re not ‘underage’ by Japanese standards, since their age of consent is much lower than that of the US or the Uk where I’m from.”

Also true, it’s 13 — however there are also a lot of local laws which have the same effect as statutory rape laws here in the United States. It’s not considered OK for adults to cultivate relationships with 13-year-olds, in other words. But I think this does make a big difference in terms of who’s portrayed as being potentially sexual. High school is 15 and up. (And notably, the most common age of consent here in the US is around 16.) I guess this is partly a question more for American audiences — I’ve been surprised that so far, there has been no hue and cry around what’s basically illustrated gay porn featuring minors, but maybe the fundamentalists just haven’t noticed in a big way yet.

(Hmm…there’s part of an answer for you, Wendi.)

Holly also deftly takes on popular media based assumptions:

“I think the general Japanese aesthetic naturally runs toward the more stylized and refined. I also think more Japanese men actually have the slight build of bishie boys.

I think you get this type of body a lot because the big ‘super hero’ type in Japan has always been the Samurai. Not overly muscled, cultured, well groomed, and bad assed.”

I’m sorry — this stuff made me giggle. A lot of Japanese men would be very surprised to hear this. There is definitely a beauty standard about young, pale, skinny, tall boys with spiky haircuts — like EoL says, the Shinjuku hipster look. But that’s like saying, the American aesthetic is for Brooklyn indie-rock hipsters (who happen to look exactly the same). There are plenty of burly Japanese dudes with beards. They just don’t show up in the media as much, especially not in the west. I think a lot of this is a stereotype. Wait, did you hear that Japanese guys have small dicks, too?

As for Samurai, have you watched old Samurai movies? The heros do not look like Rurouni Kenshin. Toshiro Mifune? The classic image of samurai heroes I have from the fact that my grandmother incessantly watched samurai soap operas for 23 hours a day, not to mention any number of classic films, is of the grizzled burly tough guy — not all that skinny, definitely not smooth-skinned, and more weathered and beat up than pale. The bishi character in period stories is a far more recent invention, that appeared via anime and manga — in other words, due to the influence of shoujo. The hyper-thinness has become more and more pronounced in recent years too — if you look back at works that I grew up with, like Rose of Versailles, you can see the origins of that, but those characters are THICK compared to some of the stuff these days.

The conversation continues over at Feministe.

Personally, I’m kind of amazed. I read a great discussion, got some great references for debunking myths about Japan and Japanese culture, and learned quite a bit in the process.

All this from a game about wiping down sweaty adolescents. Who knew?