Although Japan is known for its thriving sex-industry, such as the ever-popular Love Hotels or the countless themed bars, each pampering to a unique sexual fantasy, the country still has, in many ways, a conservative approach to sexual desire. This may seem like a contradiction, but scratching the surface of what may seem explicit, will show that most of these industries are working on the fringes of society, the underbelly that is never explored, commented upon or even acknowledged, even though its existence is blatant.
The Love Hotel is a prime example, although many may see them as crass, they highlight Japan’s need for privacy; them being a retreat for many couples to get a little alone time. Any number of relationships can take place in secret, be it a quick getaway for a long suffering married couple, or a sordid night of debauchery for an illicit affair. The point is, the hotel with its emphasis on privacy helps keep these encounters out of sight, and therefore out of mind.
The adult bars that line the streets of the larger cities of Japan also may strike a little disgust, if not curiosity with those unaccustomed to them. They range from the milder hostess bars, to the more niche market, yet strangely popular themed bars, known in Japan as イメクラ (Image Club). Both come in all shapes and sizes, with hostesses dressing in anything from ballroom dresses to brassiers, maid outfits or school uniforms. Host bars are also increasingly popular, with well-groomed and often effeminate young men offering a sympathetic ear to frustrated or lonely women. Themed bars are limited only by the imagination of their potential clientele, with some resembling crowded trains, bathhouses and even classrooms. But again, they all have one thing in common, what lies inside is kept hidden to those unwilling to venture inside.
Although neon lights and promiscuous photographs may line the building, it is very rare for the actual workers to approach potential customers. They are more often kept inside and hidden from the public. Fans or packets of tissues, both embossed with a map to the establishment, are normally given out on the street nearby, but the services available are always kept vague.
Whether you believe that living out your sexual fantasies in private is either a way to relieve tension, or a form of suppression is down to individual perspective and opinion, but it is an interesting subject that is often brought up in popular culture in Japan. In the novel by Shusaku Endo, Scandal, an elderly man called Suguro is tormented by a doppelgänger, who is a rampant explorer of sexuality and decency, a stark comparison to the high-brow and Christian protagonist.
The book is a clear depiction of the fear men may feel in Japan of their deepest desires becoming known to the world. It does not say that the actions of the doppelgänger are wrong, but simply that they have the power to ruin Suguro’s career. Whether the double actually exists, or if Suguro is bottling up and ignoring his own hunger is of no real consequence, the true force behind the book is that the world behind closed doors can be a dark and strange place, one which we long to peer into, but one we would not like to be associated with or far-worse, seen entering.
This fear of exposure is matched only by the fear of surrender or submission. In a broad generalization, you could claim that “cute” outweighs “sexy” with the majority of Japanese men, a fact that can be seen from the growing popularity of young girl groups in Japan (such as AKB48), as well as the long-running appreciation for cute costumes (in both the real and the animated world). Overtly sexual figures are not so commonly seen on Japanese television, and when they are, they are depicted as “strong” and more often than not rude women, a fact that is instantly seen in the panel present on the popular weekly show, 怖い女たち, which directly translates into Scary Women.
The film and literature industries have a very similar approach, with two of the most iconic characters of the past two decades fitting the bill of a sexually aware and predatory female, Asami Yamazaki from Ryu Murakami’s novel, Audition and Sadako from Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. Both have been immortalized with internationally popular movies, both of which center around an isolated yet powerful woman.
Sadako may best be known for her lank hair and bloodshot eyes, crawling freakishly out of a television set, but in a later book by Suzuki, Spiral, she has matured into an attractive and alluring figure:
“She turned out the lights without even asking him. Her wet hair was wrapped in a towel, which she held together with her left hand, and with her right, she grabbed Ando’s head and pressed his face against her flesh. He felt sucked into her fine skin; his nose and mouth were covered, and he was starting to smother. It was all he could do to push her away enough for him to breathe. Then he filled his lungs with her fresh scent and put his arms around her…”
The book’s protagonist, Ando, a man facing divorce after the death of his son, helplessly falls for her charms. The rapture he succumbs to seems almost inevitable and the power Sadako wields over him seems otherworldly.
An even more overt example of the fear sexually dominating women can have on men is found in Asami, played beautifully by Eihi Shiina in Takashi Miike’s film adaptation of Murakami’s Audition. Almost a mirror image to Ando, Aoyams is a widower left to fend for his only son and after 7 years of the single life, attempts to find a new wife, through a morally questionable process. Again the allure of Asami is described to be supernatural, as when Aoyama first lays eyes on her, he explains:
“As if Luck, normally dispersed in billions of tiny, free-floating, gemlike particles, had suddenly coalesced in a single beatific vision – a vision that changed evertyhing, for ever.”
And her power over Aoyama is complete and unavoidable. What makes Asami an even more terrifying character is that, unlike the paranormal Sadako, she is described as a real person, an average member of society who is emotionally scarred, yet unshakably determined, remaining both unemotional and strangely alluring even in the presence of true horror.
Whether this apparent caution of women with a strong sense of their own sensuality is a fear of loss of control, and a metaphor for the rapidly changing gender roles in Japan, or a deeply hidden desire to succumb to dominance is open to debate, but one thing is for certain, it makes for great reading.