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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008

Modern Japanese women: dealing with sex, lies and the dried-flower syndrome


GOODBYE MADAME BUTTERFLY: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman, by Sumie Kawakami. Chin Music Press, 2007, 219 pp., $20 (cloth)

Who wants to be a woman in Japan? Misery can't get much worse than the sexless relationships, dreary marriages, loneliness, patriarchal blues and stressed out women portrayed in these riveting interviews. These ordinary women, and one rather different man, tell it like it is and force us to reconsider contemporary Japan and its modern pathologies.

Sumie Kawakami is an experienced and intelligent reporter who manages to get her subjects to bare their souls and share their anxieties in a book I found hard to put down. Early on she draws our attention to a sad paradox: Japan has a world beating sex industry while most Japanese don't seem to be having much sex, at least according to a Durex survey. And, those who are getting their share are not very enthusiastic; Japan ranks second to last in the satisfaction category, just above China.

Sexless relationships are on the rise, apparently because its just too much bother. Horny housewives and lascivious "OLs" are a media induced fantasy as most women, Kawakami writes, "wanted their lovers to fill their loneliness, emptiness and lack of self-worth." Apparently, this is nigh upon mission impossible in Japan.

Finding the right lover is not so easy, but we learn that at least women can avail themselves of a clinic that offers them intimate encounters with sex volunteers. Women can select their volunteers from a catalog brimming with intimate details, and, yes, size does seem to matter. The clients say they are grateful for the service while there appears to be no shortage of male volunteers; money isn't everything.

The author divulges glimpses of her own experiences that help us understand where she is coming from, "Having been cheated on many times by my ex, I wasn't in the mood to be sympathetic to these wives who enjoyed the luxury of not having to work, spending their time in nail salons, fancy shopping centers or luxurious cafes, and then going off and having sex while their husbands were at the office working hard to maintain the lifestyle they had grown accustomed to."

Why do women put up with jerks? After reading about the abusive and philandering men in these women's lives it is amazing what they tolerate. They literally roll with the punches and just ask their men to be more discreet in their affairs.

Emi eschews sex because she worries her husband might infect her with a sexually transmitted disease, but keeps the empty marriage going for the kids.

Misa confesses she wishes her husband's mistress was much younger or at least a sex worker, saying, "This is a pride thing, I know, but I couldn't get over the fact that she was not a pro and was almost the same age as me." And so in her prime she resigns herself to a sexless marriage, a bleak trudge through life shared with someone she can no longer love.

We also learn why, in dealing with personal problems, Japanese prefer fortune tellers to psychiatrists. Kawakami writes: "If you say you are going to counseling, it sounds like you have a mental problem. But if you are going to have your fortune told or a purification ritual done, there is no social stigma attached." And, if you need a fail-safe reason to dump a butthead guy, nothing beats fate!

Here, purgatory is described as a wife whose journalist husband is working overseas while she is ridden with guilt for consoling herself with the daughter's cram school teacher. The better it got, the greater her guilt over betraying her family.

So what's life like as a male sex volunteer helping women reach orgasm? Ironically, Hideo has a sexless marriage, but finds psychological fulfillment in helping sufferers of "dried-flower syndrome." He says the women are grateful and tell him that the sex rejuvenates them.

Another interview subject admits that she slept with seven "volunteers" in six months because she could not find love, but still wanted sex. It's her hope, however, "to graduate from being someone who can only relate to men through sex."

Mitsuko, a virgin until 52, toiled at work and cared for her aging mother, but never found the right man until seducing a patient at her acupuncture clinic. Yukio, "told her he loved cuddling with a chubby woman with big breasts." Such romantic pillow talk soon led to marriage, but bliss didn't last as it turns out that the much younger man had a mother complex and soon moved back to where he was indulged and pampered in ways that a career woman could never manage.

Lessons? Finding a good man isn't easy and getting rid of bad ones is even harder.



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