[28 July 2005]
Okay. So we get this big stage… like in the round, you know? And elevated. Why? Well, that should become obvious if you just listen up. Let’s just say that there are reasons. Important cultural reasons. Reasons of deep social significance. But, you’re getting way outside the box here. Aside from the cultural stuff, one of the most important reasons is we got all these skirts short skirts moving on the perimeter. You know, with long creamy legs attached. And the round, elevated stage will come in handy depending on where we position the cameras. Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s save the titillation for later. For now, just imagine this stage. It’s painted pink. I mean a deep pink, like well, one of those colors that is reminiscent of oozing medium rare sirloin. No, no… hear me out… it’s about to get good.
Okay, so, the surrounding set is darker around the edges and on up high, giving your screen a claustrophobic feel all dank, but with a vibrant, pulsating light. You know, like maybe you’re caught in the innards of some well, organic interior. Maybe you catch my drift, eh? If it was Woody Allen during his heyday he might’ve said an “overripe uterus”, but we outta keep this within family values terrain. Besides, anything is inferable nowadays. Anyway, to heighten this effect, we’ll dress up the edges with lots of white and pink and red balloons. This’ll work to both absorb and reflect the light which is going apeshot like when the mother ship in Close Encounters was descending on Devils Tower in Wyoming. And we’ll pump about 350 ergs of breeze continually across the set just enough to get the balloons slowly swaying hither and thither. You know, pulsing with the ambient air on stage.
No, I don’t know… for the effect, okay? The no just listen: here’s the great part. And of course, what is on stage is most important. Moving around the perimeter of this stage, as I alluded before, is a bevy of dancing girls. All busty and, you know, full in the hips. Thin, though. Gotta be thin to accentuate the curves. And young. Full of life. You know: joi de vivre. Yeah, it’s a French term. I understand, this is a Japanese ad, so maybe we’ll say they’re genki and leave it at that. Either way, it means the gals got spunk and are more likely than not willing to entertain a fair offer. Well then, look it up. That’s my definition.
Anyway. these dancing girls are all wearing white mid-thigh dresses. And now get this all of ‘em have red numerals painted on their chests. Yeah, yeah, like athletes. Only, the numbers are not to be too big. Just the size to play off the curvature of their breasts. Why red? Well, that’s another one of those cultural things. It’s gotta be that way. The sponsor thinks it is patriotic. Reminds viewers of the flag. No kidding. Show the audience more bumps than the Himalayas, but damned if they don’t somehow fixate on the counters, then conjure up images of Emperor and sushi. They go and miss entirely what’s in the package.
Whatever. People are strange. Go figure. So, you still with me? Barely? Well, okay, I’ll speed it up. They’re dancing, see? Arms over their heads like a samba… a congo line, lemmings toward the sea… whatever. And there are four chairs in the center of this ring that they are moving around. Oh, you get it? Right, right. Musical chairs. Just so, my quick-connecting friend. And so, when the music stops, all these girls they immediately rush to the center. You know: 25 chesty, leggy gals, using their butts and guts and gumption and full get-out to wedge themselves into the four available seats at the center. The cameras, of course, have been positioned to capture every raised thigh, every elbow in the ribs, every triumphant hoot and loser’s howl. I know, I know, you want to be the director on that shoot. Or maybe the screen-tester. ‘Cause it’s a can’t miss spot. An ad that no one will peel their eyes from. Even the feminists. Hell, especially the feminists. They’ll want to critique every slow-mo wiggle and luxuriating pan up the darkened recesses between both knees. What’s the product? Shesh, pal, who cares? It’s not about the product. It couldn’t be farther from the product. It’s all about sex.
Can there be a more popular pursuit in any society? Certainly in the realm of the ReDot, sex which goes by the color code “pink” on these shores is everywhere. Indeed, sex is one of its major motors. Just like the ad described above a real ad, by the way and probably conceived and realized just about the way the fictitious agency “creative” detailed it. Sex is what makes Japan’s juices flow; it keeps its actors acting, its consumers consuming, its population popularly entertained. It punctuates so much of ReDot media messages that it dominates public consciousness. This is not for the simplest of reasons: that when practiced correctly, sex can lead to the perpetuation of the society. Because if you know your way around population statistics, you’ll certainly know that Japanese are not, as a rule, by and large, by any stretch of the stretchy tissue, reproducing. At last count, one point two-nine per family… and fading.
Sumo throwing salt
At the same time, sex is everywhere. And like any liberal-democratic, consumer-oriented, mass mediated society worth its salt, its messages are multiple, contradictory and, therefore, confusingly worthy of attention. I’ll give you a for instance. I just mentioned salt. Well, salt plays a minor, but important role in sumo. You know, the sport where overly large guys strip down to elaborately accessorized loincloths and push one another around a three meter ring until one of them is forced out or to the ground. Salt enters into the festivities during the course of the series of ritual face-offs. In between the stare downs, the contestants retreat to a sidebar, in which a repository of salt sits. These combatants take the time to dip their hand into the dish, hurl a stream of salt skyward; some even take a taste of the bitter powder to prove their purity, their fortitude, their worth before returning to ring center. Symbolically, it has been said, these salt-dispensing displays refer to purity, but it is not a stretch in viewing photos of grapplers scattering the crystals to imagine the emission of human seed. In short, the act of spreading salt is a fertility rite, an appeal to the gods for fecundity, for successful reproduction.
Given its reproductive doldrums, Japan would seem to be in need of a lot more sumo matches these days. At the same time, sumo’s declining popularity may partially account for Japan’s declining birth rate. Effect following cause.
In any case, the male ritual is interesting or ironic, depending on your perspective insofar as one story about sumo’s origins concerns women. It is said that centuries ago, an emperor was so peeved at the cockiness of a particular carpenter in his court that he organized a wrestling display amongst his lithe maids-in-waiting, draped in nothing but strips of cloth. The carpenter had wagered that he could maintain a perfect line, no matter the distraction. And yet, as his eyes strayed to the grappling beauties performing in front of him, he failed in his task. Though pleased at delivering comeuppance, the king, nonetheless was satisfied with nothing less than the carpenter’s head. Proving early on, what a dangerous thing sex can be in Japanese society.
Just like that story, sex has not always been about sex in Japan. More often it is a tool to achieve other ends. Whether it is to force a carpenter to err, or else to sell a product. The examples of sex in advertising are so numerous as to numb the senses. Their sheer bulk is so overwhelming as to threaten to trivialize the fact of their existence. Or to desensitize us to exploring the meaning of the fact that they keep coming. Indeed, their presence is meaningful, for all sorts of reasons. One is that a deep content analysis suggests that what Japanese ads tend to sell is sexism, rather than sex. The number of female body parts that are carved up and served piecemeal to the presumably eager viewer is enough to make one feel that they have stepped into a slaughterhouse rather than a box of information and entertainment.
A representative example in this regard is the recent car ad in which a young European boy he must be French or Italian judging from the cobblestone streets (if not the fact that an eight-year-old is so randy) stares down from his perch on a doubledecker bus (well, he couldn’t be British could he?), through the sunroof of a car (the product in question). The key feature of this car at least for our young protagonist is the voyeuristic capabilities provided by the key feature of this car. Because of the broad ceiling-glass, the boy (and the audience at home) can spy a winsome vixen behind the wheel; one so carefree and content with her ravishing beauty as to have chosen to expose her long, creamy legs by pulling her loose, silky skirt well up her thighs in order to better appreciate her ravishing beauty. But it is the boy who is most appreciative. But it is the boy who is most appreciative. “Thanks for designing a car like that, you marvelous engineers at Honda!” the boy verily chortles. A discerning viewer might wonder, however, why it is the inward view that is being hawked by the car company. After all, isn’t the point of this marvelous feature for the owner to better view the world outside?
The answer, of course, is simple. It would have been hard to squeeze sex out of that ad, viewing the world above the car unless the ad had been about the birds and the bees or possibly nude sky-diving. Yeah, doing the inside-out perspective could have proven a challenge that even our sex-obsessed creative introduced at the outset might not have been up to solving. Certainly, though, numerous solutions in other cases have been within intellectual grasp. In the past year alone, sex(ist)-tinged ads have included a fully nude woman exposed by the unfurling petals of a riverside lily; and an assemblage of seven or so female models seated in an interlinked display that were they not smiling could conjure images of Abu Graib. Arms, hands and knees strategically positioned to hide nipples and public hair, but just about every other fleshy part exposed. This ad by the way, was for tomato juice. Naturally.
What these ads described above share is the fact that the women baring skin are western women. Academics engaging in careful analysis would, by comparing such ads to those featuring Japanese models, note that when it comes to showing female skin, more is demanded of westerners. To frame it more critically, Japanese models are presented as more modest, less extreme. About the raciest images inflicted on Japanese actresses are turns in a hot spring, modeling a bra, or playing (presumably nude) hide and seek behind a sheet flapping on a clothesline in the wind. Everything else is merely implied, as this advertisement for popular Pocky chocolate treats, featuring the trendy, but enigmatic female comedy duo, Othello, demonstrates. Whether an actual racial policy is in effect at Japanese advertising agencies, would be impossible to determine by an outsider. However, it can be said that sexism seems to mirror societal perceptions in Japan of East and West.
For, in fact, (and despite western views to the contrary), Japan is not a licentious or wanton paradise. Sure, there has been a past (one might even claim pervasive) practice of public urination. So, too, is the apartment world so small that dryer-less homes have necessitated that laundry (and hence undergarments) be hung out on every apartment veranda daily. Despite such public displays, sexuality has most often been a private matter. Historically, the rule of thumb about sex (and its corollary elements of body, health, appearance, morality and modesty) has been circumspection. Whatever happens to appear in front of a person, she ought to look the other way. If one doesn’t actually witness it with the naked eye, then it really doesn’t exist. Lovers can actually go at it in the park one lawn over, but as long as no one actually makes the effort to observe it, then it hasn’t actually occurred. There are times and places for sexual conduct and anything else out of frame isn’t a material incarnation by mutual consent. This is why those ukiyo-e prints from the 18th and 19th century that documented such an exotic if not down-right ribald world, were socially appropriate (as in, politically correct) because of who and what they represented: they were most often depictions of entertainers, courtesans and thrill seekers in the so-called “pleasure quarters”... they belonged to (and carefully refrained from straying from) domains in which run-of-the-mill folk did not normally tread. And, at least for some time, were rarely viewed by everyday people; they were reserved for select consumption.
While sex in Japan follows particular rules of time and class and place, it also has firm roots (pardon the pun) in culture. One has to look no further than the numerous oversized wooden phalluses gracing certain shrines and serving as centerpieces of festivals around the country. And here I don’t mean just your average extra-long schlong; you know, the kind that you might find in novelty stores adorning Times Square or else depicted in pornographic comics. No, the items I refer to are on the order of the trees employed by the Orcs to batter the gates of Helm’s Deep). In short, of a length and girth sufficient to stimulate a sudden case of envy if not an intractable dose of inadequacy among mortal males. But the impact such fallacies have is not limited to a single gender. Visitors to the shrine, male and female, alike, are often found mounting these icons, stroking them, being photographed in tete-a-tete poses (so to speak), without a trace of reluctance or embarrassment. The point here (yeah, more pointless puns) is that sexuality in the ReDot realm is “natural”, in the sense that such talisman are vestiges (or else simply quaint reminders) of the animistic society from which Japan grew. These tokens recall a time when inhabitants viewed sex in alternate terms; where it was equated with paying homage to the deities to stimulate agricultural production.
Whether this makes sex more appropriate for prime time in the ReDot realm is open to question (certainly in today’s RedStates of America), although the focus on sex qua sex certainly comes off as a more legitimate use of the topic than selling cars, conditioner or canned juice. (Just ask the folks trying to figure out how Paris Hilton foaming up a sleek auto translates into a better tasting burger). In fact, though, a look at prime time (or “golden time” as it is called in Japan) indicates that, when it comes to sex, not every topic is served up on the menu all the time.
Let’s get there this way. Snap on the tele at eight one night and see celebrities talking about their most embarrassing experiences. He’s an actor in his late 50s who receives an email from some woman he was once intimate with. His wife (who is spying on him by logging into his cell phone mail while he is in the shower or snoring in their bed) thinks he is revisiting old pastures behind her back. He admits: “there may have been times that she would have been right, but this time I was faithful!” The audience titters with glee. Next up, a 40-something, relatively refined actress talks about her attraction to rough and off-beat men and how (surprise, surprise) it never works out. After a pregnant, if not embarrassed, pause she bats her eyelashes and confesses that, in fact, her type is sharing this very sound stage with her. The glib host grows serious all at once. Screwing on an earnest face (all the while sensing the great stroke of luck should he manage to make a emotional coupling materialize on nation-wide TV), he encourages her to identify the object of her affection. Before too long, and at his urging, an impromptu date is arranged.
The next night, on what has often been labeled a “trendy drama” (as in those stories that mix humor, pathos, the recent popular activities, with an ensemble cast of the most attractive 20 to 30 somethings in the pop limelight), two office workers end up in bed. Although she is clothed, he is less so: abs exposed; trousers and boxers (and socks!) still on. The pair quickly offer up mutual affirmations to one another that “nothing happened” (or, in the words of the man: “I didn’t do anything! Honest. Absolutely NOTHING!” Nonetheless, to the co-worker (and female rival for this man’s affections) who happens to stumble into the company flat at dawn’s early light, what is conjured is visions of rolling mattresses and undulating bed sheets that no amount of denial can expunge.
Cut to the next night: different time, different station. Another 30ish couple ends up in a hotel after a romantic dinner. In truth, he is enamored of another woman; one slightly older, a divorcee with child. Yet, because he must be concerned about advancement through the stodgy corporate hierarchy, he has been compelled by his family to eschew his true love and offer a diamond ring to the woman currently on screen. She’s pert, well-groomed, looks smart in a silk ensemble. She’s the perfect “girl next door” to help fill out his managerial profile. He has offered her a diamond ring over dinner, a consecrating token that she has only reluctantly accepted. He doesn’t love her, she knows; and for this reason if not the fact that she can’t manage to feel one tiny sexual spark when he is in the same room she is not particularly pleased with where all this is going. Dinner done, they pause below the neon of an elegant hotel. He suggests that they continue the evening by renting a room. Better to consummate this liaison before either can have second thoughts. Now inside the hotel, he suggests she freshen up. In the bathroom she stares at herself and spies her deepest possible selves inside the mirror. Black and white footage of her in bed tousled hair, sheets pulled just above her breasts, abandoned, unwanted capture one potential sexualized future. Following this fantasized scenario, she flees the hotel room. Not because sex wasn’t possible; not because it was morally “wrong”; simply because it didn’t strike her as emotionally right.
Viewing these few program offerings serves to confirm that, on television, sex abounds, but not in the same measure. And according to my wife (who is not only a trained sociologist, but actually enjoys watching this stuff), a careful assessment of these shows suggests that, to paraphrase the Bible (of all things!), “there is a time and place for everything”. Thus, when it comes to sex on Japanese TV, that time seems to be after the little ones (and their grandparents) go to bed. For this reason, you don’t get the lovers in bed at eight; instead, you get talk-talk-talk: innuendo, giggles hidden behind hands, pretend promises to meet up after the show. By the same token, at nine you don’t get the woman beneath the sheets contending with the moral dilemma of: “I could, but… should I? I can, but do I really want to?” No, instead, you get the: “Oh, shoot! (wake up Little Suzy) I sacked out next to the guy I really have the heat for, but I didn’t really mean to lie in bed with him. And how the heck did he end up without a shirt? But darn if he doesn’t look GREAT out of his blue blazer!” It is not until ten that viewers are fed the more worldly, if not socially approximate, “yeah we’ve sacked with one another in the past, but now we’re chasing other tail”. All of which means that ReDot TV viewers aren’t immune from messages of sexuality, they just might want to eat a late dinner while they wait to get there.
There is one dimension of this TV-sexuality thing that is worth mentioning before we shut this topic down for the day. It is the trend, of late, to feature career women in the more advanced age-range of 30 to 40. Rikon Bengoshi (Divorce Lawyer), (so popular that it was brought back for a second season), is but one example of this recent tendency. This fictional demographic likely reflects the audience demographic, but it also exposes changes that have occurred in Japanese society over the past two decades. Once the discussion was in the vernacular of damage or failure. Women over the age of 26 who were unwed were viewed of as socially dysfunctional (or else as having circumnavigated the block, possibly more than once) and were consequently referred to as “stale Christmas cake”. The discourse surrounding such women now is of empowerment and possibility. These are women who have made choices, who are independent enough to have said “no” to an arranged marriage or the pressure to tie the knot, who have the experience commensurate with being an adult out in the world. Role models are no longer virgins, since the demographic they speak to are no longer virgins. Their viewers are as likely as the characters to have managed to elude expectations (and labels) once imposed by society (in the guise of parents, family, friends, and company).
I know first hand about this social evolution because my wife was part of that earlier cohort. And the fact that we met and married, then conceived and gave birth to two children, means that four lives (and even more) have been profoundly altered because of my wife’s strength and courage in resisting all the arranged meetings, all the labels and external pressure to relent, all the effort to make sure the cake was cut and consumed on time. Thanks to her will, though, she followed her own program. And once she passed a particular age when she was no longer considered fresh enough to be married off she went to her parents and said: “now can I do what I want to do?” Which in her case was go off to the States and get an education. Well, I have her tenacity to oppose the institutionalized sex-system to thank for all that has eventuated.
But beyond this one case, it would be wise to recognize that it is a system. A racket. The old way things were done. This was how society Japanese society generally, but also other worlds elsewhere through the aegis and careful ministrations of the family made sure that it kept moving forward. The next generation (and the next and the next) was produced not out of love, but obligation; to family, to society. The act of women saying “yes” to being iced and consumed amounted to a social commitment to do one’s part. What women offered was sex in the name of societal propagation. Which may explain why sex is everywhere in Japan. But sex is not particularly sexualized.
Yes, to a western eye, trained on all that is incomprehensible, all that is taboo, the messages of PinkDotPop, of ReDotSex, glitter spectacularly because they stand beyond reach; tantalizingly within sight, just beyond reach. They are consumables denied, pleasures unobtainable. This, along with their seeming omnipresence accounts, at least in part, for their irresistible allure. Given this fact, it is certainly possible to envision alternative hypotheses being offered, built of discrepant data. An analysis, for instance, in which hyper-sexuality in the form of compensated dating (for men), daytime dalliances (for women), and host and hostess clubs (for both genders), has proliferated in large part because of societal abundance, over-consumption, a pampered younger generation, an older generation searching for meaning amidst the ennui.
The greatest indicator of this society-wide malcontent was the tendency a few years back to heap unbridled scorn on the man of the house. The “three Ks” it was called: housewives and children who regarded their husband/father as uniformly kusai (smelly), kitanai (dirty), and kirai (hateful). This lead psychologically-battered males to seek comfort elsewhere and disappointed (if not entrepreneurial) females to seek sexual and/or pecuniary fulfillment, as a consequence.
Well, as you can see, when it comes to the BlueDotworld, there is no shortage of material; sex outside my ReDot window (or inside my DotPop screening room) is in endless supply. Which makes it difficult to bring this discussion to any some of conclusion. If we were to summarize what has come before, we might say that Japanese aren’t as horny a lot as earlier media expressions may have led us to believe. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t active or inspired. According to researchers contributing to an academic book I am compiling on the subject, sex is pert near pervasive in the ReDotworld.
For the young, first experiences are important and engaged only after pre-mediation; they are generally reserved for steady relationships. Extramarital affairs may be on the rise, especially for women, but this is likely tied to the need for greater fulfillment in life and the desire to validate one’s self-esteem. Host and hostess clubs (the latter of which have proliferated in the last five years) serve important social outlets and reflect a certain (“advanced”) level of economic “development” by Japanese society. Gay and lesbian hook-ups are still hard to effect publicly, but have been rendered more possible by the various media available today: comics, magazines, newspapers and especially the Internet.
Still and all, these sexual worlds are a far cry from the kind of sex packaged and sold in golden time dramas and advertising. Instead, the reality for people in Japan is that they are lonely, they seek companionship, they hope for happiness, often through intimate, physical exchange. As one researcher on on-line dating has found, though, much of this human exchange differs depending on which side of the gender divide one happens to sit. For, above all, women seek love and long-term commitment, while men are pretty well invested in getting their rocks off, as often and with as many partners as possible.
If it sounds familiar, wherever you happen to be sitting at this moment. Well, that may be because this is a disjunction that likely transcends cultures. It is one of those cultural universals that popular culture is so deft at exposing.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden050729/