Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Japan's love affairs with sex


Special to The Japan Times

Michael Hoffman delves deep into the carnal history of these islands from the Age of the Gods to the lovelands and soaplands of today

a subtle depiction of masturbation and erotic figurines from the Taisho Era
Images from John Stevens' "The Pillow Book of Spring and Laughter: Eroticism in Meiji, Taisho and Showa Japan," published in 2001, include a subtle depiction of masturbation and erotic figurines from the Taisho Era. IMAGES COURTESY OF THE EAST PUBLICATIONS, INC. AND JOHN STEVENS, FROM THE PILLOW BOOK OF SPRING AND LAUGHTER: EROTICISM IN MEIJI, TAISHO AND SHOWA JAPAN 2001

In the beginning, there was sex.

This is true of Japan, though not of Judaeo-Christian and Islamic cultures, whose one God, the Creator of all that exists, is asexual.

Japan's myriad gods did not create heaven and earth. Rather, it was the sexual congress of heaven and earth that produced the first gods, among them Izanagi and Izanami, "the male who invites" and "the female who invites." The eighth-century "Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan)" tells us what happened next:

"Izanagi and Izanami stood on the floating bridge of Heaven, and held counsel together, saying: 'Is there not a country beneath?' Thereupon they thrust down the jewel-spear of Heaven, and, groping about, therewith found the ocean. The brine which dripped from the point of the spear coagulated and became an island which received the name Ono-goro-jima.''

The creation of Japan had begun.

The Pillow Book of Spring and Laughter: Eroticism in Meiji, Taisho and Showa 
Japan, published in 2001

"The two Deities thereupon descended and dwelt in this island. Accordingly they wished to become husband and wife together, and to produce countries.''

A charming account of their courtship follows, in which the god and goddess shyly discover each other's sexual parts and Izanagi declares:

"I wish to unite this source-place of my body to the source-place of thy body.''

Their first offspring were islands; then came a profusion of gods and goddesses, one of whom was Amaterasu, the sun goddess. At one point, outraged by the depredations of her unruly brother the storm god, Amaterasu withdrew to "the rock cave of heaven." Darkness descended -- and might have proved everlasting, had a deity called the Dread Female of Heaven not had a saving inspiration. Reciting prayers, she danced a lewd dance, causing such rollicking laughter among the assembled gods and goddesses that Amaterasu could not resist peeking from her cave to see what was going on. Seized and hauled out, she shone once more upon the world, reanimating it and becoming, in the fullness of time, the ancestress of Japan's Imperial family. As for the storm god, his punishment was fitting: he was banished to the Land of Darkness.

* * * * *

Japanese poetry begins with Japanese civilization, and it touches greatness at the very outset.

The "Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves)" was compiled in the eighth century, but its earliest poems date back to the fifth. The love poems take your breath away. More striking even than their beauty is how familiar the emotions seem, how closely they approach the romantic ideals of our own time. One man loves one woman, from whom parting brings unrelieved, unrelievable sorrow:

"My wife, of this world, has left me, Gone I know not whither! So here, on the sleeves of these clothes She used to have me wear, I sleep now all alone!''

There are enough other "Manyoshu" poems in the same vein to suggest a current of feeling that soon ebbed, not to resurface until the modernizing Meiji government (1868-1912) strove to steer Japan onto the narrow path of "advanced" -- that is, Western -- civilization and morality.

Herald of the promiscuity that broke the "Manyoshu" mold and set the tone for 1,000 years to come is the nobleman-poet Ariwara no Narihira (823-880), author and hero of the "Tales of Ise."

These poem-studded little tales -- 125 of them altogether -- chronicle the adventures of a man for whom indiscriminate love is synonymous with life itself. Not one to take no for an answer, he also, to his credit, does not give no for an answer, not even when the woman pursuing him is "someone a year short of a centenarian, hair disheveled and white."

"It is a general rule in this world," comments the narrator dryly, "that men love some women but not others. Narihira did not make such distinctions."

* * * * *

Some say the court lady Murasaki Shikibu (973?-1025?) was thinking of Narihira when she conceived the hero of her "Tale of Genji." The world's first great novel explores literature's greatest theme -- love; but what are we to make of the erotic world it opens to our astonished gaze?

Sheer revulsion has been one response down the ages -- from a fragmentary 13th-century Japanese Buddhist text maliciously picturing the author suffering in hell "for leading people's hearts astray," to the 1949 fulminations of Scottish historian James Murdoch, damning the aristocracy of Heian Japan (794-1185) as "an ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti -- as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate . . . but withal the polished exponents of high breeding and correct 'form' . . . "

"Foully licentious?" That draws smiles today when, sexually speaking, pretty much anything goes, and certainly so crude a description does scant justice to one of world history's most aesthetic civilizations -- and yet so utterly different is the Heian setting, so foreign to us are its standards of good and bad behavior, that Murdoch's distaste, though comic, is not altogether incomprehensible.

Genji's first true love is his stepmother. It is her alleged resemblance to the mother he lost in infancy that draws him so irresistibly. Their union produces a child who in later years, as the presumed son and heir of Genji's imperial father, ascends the throne. Physical resemblance, and the replacement of one love object by another based on it, are recurring themes throughout the tale, suggesting that our own views regarding the unique and immutable individuality of each person are not to be taken for granted.

The same twin themes are at play when Genji first sets eyes on the child Murasaki, destined to be the most enduring of all his loves.

She is barely 10 at the time, but her resemblance to his stepmother -- her aunt, as it happens -- arouses such longing in Genji as to justify the most extreme measures. To us, his making off with her is apt to seem scarcely distinguishable from kidnapping, and his first bedding of her dangerously close to rape. And yet neither action dims Genji's luster among those who know what he is up to, or earns him the slightest disapproval, beyond a spell of sulkiness from the girl, who soon gets over it. (Later, it is true, when Genji attempts to seduce a young lady under his protection, who is thought, mistakenly, to be his daughter, he is said even by his admirers to have gone too far.)

Is sexual morality so indeterminate? Our own age says yes and behaves accordingly, disparaging restraint and, for the most part, withholding judgment. But one would think at least that the purely physical parameters of intimacy would be, however variegated, at least finite.

Heian mores challenge that assumption too. Sometimes, in "The Tale of Genji" and other literature of the period, the sexual preliminaries are so bewilderingly different from anything we know, that we can't help wondering if they lead to the familiar culmination. If Murdoch read Murasaki Shikibu's diary, the one passage in it that might have shocked him, at least in the sense of giving him pause, is the very opposite of foully licentious. "Unforgettably horrible," she writes, "is the naked body. It really does not have the slightest charm."

prostitutes behind gratings in a brothel district in 1915
The practice of displaying prostitutes behind gratings, or harimise, is shown in a brothel district in 1915 (above). Spectators have some fun on wooden willies at a fertility festival in 2001 (below). PHOTOS COURTESY OF KUBO SHOTEN, TOKYO, FROM KINSEI KINDAI 150 NEN SEIFUZOKU ZUSHI BY TETSU TAKAHASHI (above)/ANDREW KERSHAW PHOTO
Spectators have some fun on wooden willies at a fertility festival

Nakedness never appears, nor is it even hinted at, in her tale. Clothing is voluminous, the women swathed in layer upon layer -- up to 12 -- of heavy, color-coordinated silk kimono robes. Add to that the unlighted gloom of even daytime indoor settings, the thick curtains screening (until breached) a maiden from her wooer, the absolute lack of personal privacy, the conventional restraints upon women's movement beyond the four walls of home ("Ghosts and girls are best unseen," went a popular proverb of the day), and you have an erotic picture strangely lacking in something so natural to us that its absence seems unnatural: visual stimulation.

Lovers are aroused instead by an exchange of vaguely suggestive poetry, the sight through a gap in the curtains of a disembodied kimono sleeve, a nuanced stroke of calligraphy on well-chosen, perfumed paper attached to an appropriate blossom -- in short, by provocations that would be utterly lost on most of us today. Not copulation but the subsequent sight, permissible at last, of the face of one's beloved is the climax of Heian courtship. A premature or illicit glimpse prefigures disaster, the cosmos turned upside down.

"Seeing," says Cambridge University Japan studies professor Richard Bowring in his study of the tale, "in Heian literature is always a form of possession" -- of the demonic variety.

* * * * *

Legend, spuriously, gives prostitution in Japan a royal origin. Asobi, derived from the verb "to play," were professional musical and sexual entertainers -- spiritual descendants, it may be, of the Dread Female of Heaven -- who, "by the end of the 10th century," writes Janet Goodwin in a new study titled "Selling Songs and Smiles," " . . . had developed their distinctive practice of using small boats to stage entertainments for men at ports [near present-day Osaka] on the Yodo River . . . " -- a fresh twist to the modern Japanese sex-trade euphemism "water trade."

The legend is that the first asobi were eight princesses dispatched to the various regions by the ninth-century Emperor Koko. A more plausible theory, says Goodwin, has their role evolving from that of female shamans. Either way, "Their voices halt the clouds . . . ," wrote the 12th-century courtier-poet Oe Masafusa, "and their tones drift with the wind blowing over the water. Passersby cannot help but forget their families . . . "

Genji himself seems to have had no truck with asobi, but Goodwin has unearthed numerous contemporary literary references to them.

"The younger women melt men's hearts with rouge and powder and songs and smiles," wrote one Oe Yukitoki in the late 10th century, "while the older women give themselves the jobs of carrying the parasols and poling the boats. If there are husbands, they censure their wives because their lovers are too few. If there are parents, they wish only that their daughters were fortunate enough to be summoned by many customers. This has become the custom, although no human feeling is involved."

It must have been an intoxicating experience indeed that inspired the 11th-century courtier Fujiwara Akihira to compose this description, fictional but realistic, of a particularly accomplished asobi: "Her vigor in soliciting lovers, her knowledge of all the sexual positions, the merits of her lute strings and buds of wheat [female genitalia], and her mastery of the dragon's flutter and tiger's tread techniques -- all are her endowments . . . "

But intense pleasure always, everywhere, calls forth second thoughts: "Alas!" Akihira concludes. "Even though she may spend her youth selling her body, how will she pass her remaining days when her beauty fades?"

It was during the succeeding Kamakura Period (1192-1333), writes Goodwin, that the prime venue for sexual commerce began shifting from boats to inns. Another change, too, accompanied the transition from soft Heian aestheticism to the martial ways of Kamakura. Sex became subject to stern government regulation, partly at least because the murderous wrath of cuckolded husbands, in sharp contrast to their brooding, tearful Heian predecessors, was a threat to social order. The tide turned in favor of standards of sexual conduct that moralists closer to our own day would recognize and approve.

It was not to last.

* * * * *

In 1715, the Shinto priest Masuho Zanko wrote a book titled "A Comprehensive Mirror on the Way of Love."

"Sexual activity between couples," he wrote, "is part of yin and yang harmony, which is the primordial and sustaining energy of the cosmos." Moreover, "Man and woman make a pair; there are no grades of high and low." Sex is sacred. Lovers re-enact the divine creativity of Izanagi and Izanami. The act of love celebrates Japan's sexual origins.

Masuho's "mirror" reflected, of course, the mythical past, not the actual present. Men, women and the nation itself had long since fallen from the grace of innocent, unspoiled love. Foreign doctrines -- Chinese Confucianism, Indian Buddhism -- had come between the people and their native gods, with results that were plain for all to see. The natural equality of men and women had splintered. Confucian hierarchy identified man with heaven, woman with earth. Man ruled, woman obeyed. Sexual pleasure vacated the marriage bed for the government-licensed pleasure quarters.

"Women are messengers from hell," said a Buddhist sutra. Perhaps so -- but in the "floating world" of the pleasure quarters, if not at home, men were too dazzled and distracted to care.

The first licensed quarter was the Shimabara in Kyoto, built in 1589 on orders from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruling warlord of the day. It became the model for the "politically backed institutional segregation of nonreproductive sex," as University of Kansas religious studies professor William Lindsey puts it. The Tokugawa shoguns of the Edo Period (1603-1867) designated 24 quarters throughout the country -- walled, moated, "glittering island[s] of style and panache," says Lindsey, "in the dreary, gray seas of Confucian social order."

"Once upon a time a hitherto unknown itch attacked Hyotaro, the Gourd Boy, and he began frequenting the pleasure houses of Shimabara." So we read in "Tales of the Floating World," written in 1666 by a samurai-turned-priest named Asai Ryoi. In the arms of courtesans, Hyotaro "became so intoxicated with joy as to think less of his own life than of dirt. And all the while he was being fawned on and flattered by the hired jesters . . . "

His elder brothers took him to task; he was squandering the family fortune. They gave him a stern talking-to: "By her nature, a courtesan is a woman who attends herself well, dresses up and adorns herself, and so is quite alluring . . . Her charming willowy tresses, her face lovely as a cherry blossom . . . And how lovely when she moves, swaying back and forth; truly she could easily be mistaken for the living incarnation of Amida Buddha! . . . And the thankfulness you feel just to hear the sound of her voice! What great priest could bestow on you words of enlightenment equal to this? . . . When compared with this creature, a man's wife can hardly seem more than a salted fish long past its prime!"

Only ruin can come from such exquisite pleasure, they warned.

"Truly," replied Hyotaro, "I am most grateful for your kind advice. Henceforth, I will not go there anymore."

If the elders took this at face value, that's their problem. As for Hyotaro, he "ended up as yet another of those thread-bare bums, to the tune of the samisen's 'te-tsuru-ten!' ''

* * * * *

There is a recklessness, a desperation in Hyotaro's pursuit of pleasure which is characteristic of the time. He is an early exponent of what came to be known as chonin-do (the way of the townspeople), in contrast to bushido (the way of the warrior). In the 17th century the townsman, the merchant, came into his own, and his quest -- in defiance of a prevailing moral code whose only acknowledgment of the free individual self was in its relentless exhortations to self-abasement, self-restraint and self-sacrifice -- was the search for happiness in love.

"Indeed," writes Wm. Theodore de Bary, introducing a collection of stories by the great novelist and connoisseur of love Iharu Saikaku (1642-93), "this pursuit, so taken for granted in our part of the world today, was almost revolutionary in its implications for a society which had long lived as though in a graveyard, overcast by the seemingly endless tragedy of war . . . "

Saikaku's ideal lover, Yonosuke, reminds us more of Narihira than of Genji. His prime haunts were the licensed quarters, large and small, elegant and shabby, from one end of the country to the other. By the age of 54 he had slept with 3,742 women and 725 men. Nor was he done; far from it. We leave him at 60, bound for the mythical Island of Women, his boat stocked with, among other stores, "20 crates of Women Delighter Pills, . . . 250 pairs of metal masturbation balls for women, . . . 600 latticed penis attachments, 2,550 water-buffalo-horn dildos, . . . 200 erotic prints . . . " -- and so on.

Yonosuke is unusual among Edo Japan's heroic lovers, fictional and actual, in the happy-ever-after ending Saikaku gives him. A more typical love story -- a true one, subsequently fictionalized by Saikaku -- involves a 15-year-old maiden named Oshichi, who was executed in Edo in 1682. Her neighborhood having been destroyed by fire, she and her family found refuge at a temple, where she met and fell in love with a temple page named Ikuta Shonosuke. When the family home was rebuilt, the lovers were unable to meet. The poor distracted girl hatched a feverish plan. Fire had brought the lovers together once; wouldn't another fire reunite them? She set the fire, was caught in the act, and punished according to the letter of the law -- that is, she was paraded through the streets of Edo and then, in company with five other arsonists, burned at the stake. "It would appear," notes historian Richard Lane, "that the crime of arson was very much in vogue at the time."

A generation later another vogue arose -- the love suicide. Of this, the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) is both chronicler and -- such was the power of his drama -- instigator. His puppet plays, like Saikaku's stories, were based on actual incidents. The one that inspired his "Love Suicides at Sonezaki" had occurred only a month before the play was first staged in 1703.

The Osaka soy-sauce merchant Tokubei and the courtesan Ohatsu are deeply in love, but it is hopeless; she is under contract to her bordello, and Tokubei lacks the money to ransom her. There is only one solution: death. "Did our promises of love," sobs Ohatsu, "hold only for this world?"

The pair flee in the dead of night to the Sonezaki Forest outside Osaka: "Farewell to this world, and to the night farewell."

"They embrace, flesh to flesh," chants the narrator, "then fall to the ground and weep -- how pitiful they are! Their strings of tears unite like entwining branches . . . a symbol of eternal love. Here the dew of their unhappy lives will at last settle."

Tokubei cuts first Ohatsu's throat, then his own.

* * * * *

In 1872 there occurred an incident that profoundly embarrassed the new modernizing Meiji government. A Peruvian ship landed at Yokohama with 230 Chinese indentured laborers. When one of the laborers staged a dramatic escape bid, the government -- "eager," as Princeton University modern Japanese history professor Sheldon Garon remarks, "to demonstrate Japan's 'civilized' status to the Western powers, . . . detained the ship and ordered that the hapless passengers be returned to China. Peru's savvy minister to Japan protested. Because Japanese law permitted the sale of women and children into prostitution, he observed, traffic in human beings was perfectly legal. The Japanese court dismissed his claim, but the embarrassing nature of the incident persuaded an influential group of self-described 'enlightened' bureaucrats that the entire system of regulated prostitution should be eliminated."

That was not to happen until 1946. The number of licensed prostitutes peaked in 1916 at 54,049, Garon's research indicates, and remained, even as proliferating factories offered alternative employment, at around 50,000 well into the 1930s.

The system had energetic defenders. "To Japanese officials, "says Garon, "tightly regulated and segregated vice districts served as a 'breakwater' or 'public latrine,' protecting society and the 'daughters of good families' from foulness."

He quotes Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito explaining to an English reporter in 1896 that the Japanese prostitute (unlike, presumably, her Western counterpart) was motivated by the most exalted Confucian sentiment of all, filial piety -- "a lofty desire to help her poor parents or relations." In fact, no other motive would do for the Home Ministry, whose "standardized registration procedures," says Garon, "effectively screened out any woman who personally desired to be a prostitute."

* * * * *

Much of what has shocked Western observers of Japanese sexuality through the ages boils down to a simple but crucial cultural difference: the Christian West traditionally idealized virginity; Japan idealized sex. Compare the Italian poet Dante's first awestruck glimpse of the 9-year-old Beatrice with Genji's of the child Murasaki. To Dante (1265-1321), Beatrice "seemed not the daughter of a mortal man but of God." That fleeting glimpse was enough -- he was accorded little else -- to set him on a lifelong course of ethereal, unconsummated love, culminating in the ascent to Paradise recorded in "The Divine Comedy." Genji's more earthly path we have already seen.

Symbolic of how large sex looms in the Japanese view of life is what John Stevens, in "The Pillow Book of Spring and Laughter," calls "the gross exaggeration of the sex organs in Japanese erotic art. The most obvious [explanation]," he suggests, "is that sexual union is the biggest event in life!"

The biggest, maybe; the most puzzling, certainly. Freed from Confucian constraint, Buddhist distortion and official manipulation, liberated at last from the crushing poverty that once drove parents to sell their daughters to the licensed quarters, what was to prevent sex from recovering its innocence and becoming what it so rarely is -- simple, healthy, natural, loving and happy?

It was not to be. Prostitution for survival has given way to prostitution for brand-name fashion accessories. Pleasure quarters have yielded to garish love hotels and fuzoku -- the modern erotic-entertainment network of host clubs, hostess clubs, imekura image clubs, terekura telephone clubs, kyabakura cabaret clubs, "delivery health" call-girl services, lovelands, soaplands, Internet virtual-sex sites, Internet deaikei encounter sites, and so on and so on -- an endless array of game-center-like "sexy services" whose combined annual turnover, the biweekly magazine Dacapo estimates, is 2.3 trillion yen. Perhaps when official and corporate Japan accords women their due respect as professionals, commercial sex will cease to draw them with remuneration an "office lady" can only dream if.

Ironically enough, what all this frenzied activity points to is not a vigorous national sex life but, on the contrary, a waning one -- children, perhaps, the sad exceptions. "My impression," gynecologist Tsuneo Akaeda told the weekly magazine Spa! in 2002, "is that 30 percent of junior high school students have had a sexual experience by the time they graduate" at age 15.

Akaeda offers free weekly health consultations in Tokyo's Roppongi entertainment district. "Kids," he warns "are having sex before they know much about it."

As for adults who do know about it, they soon get their fill, a lethargy reflected in the rock-bottom birth rate. In March the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry released a survey showing that 34.6 percent of married couples have not had sex in at least a month, confirming a trend noted in 2005 by the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, which described 55.2 percent of married couples over 40 as "sexless" -- meaning they engage in sexual relations less frequently than once a month.

Izanagi and Izanami would be struck dumb.

a young Meiji Era courtesan with an older patron and fully clothed lovemaking in the late Taisho Era, Taisho Era couple embracing as cherry blossoms fall about the
"Images from John Stevens' "The Pillow Book of Spring and Laughter: Eroticism in Meiji, Taisho and Showa Japan": (from left) a young courtesan with an older patron in the Meiji Era; fully clothed lovemaking in the late Taisho Era; and a Taisho Era couple embracing as cherry blossoms fall about them. IMAGES COURTESY OF THE EAST PUBLICATIONS, INC. AND JOHN STEVENS, FROM THE PILLOW BOOK OF SPRING AND LAUGHTER: EROTICISM IN MEIJI, TAISHO AND SHOWA JAPAN 2001

Michael Hoffman is the author of "Nectar Fragments" (Authorhouse; 2006). His Web site is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com


Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.