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Nov 03 2013

[guest post] Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

Here’s a guest post from my friend Mike about the recent news stories on Japanese sexuality.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Where does this narrative come from?

Throughout Western contact with Asian cultures, there has been this need to assume the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of these “mysterious” lands, establishing a moral superiority. For Asian men, it was the dichotomy of dangerous predator and effeminate asexual, and for Asian women, the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Flower.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigration became something to fear and despise to the mostly white settlers in the West of the United States. The addition of such cheap labor brought out the very worst of the insecurities in Americans, especially when faced with the emerging hype surrounding opium use. Diana L. Ahmad’s article “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community, 1850-1890” describes the belief that opium produced the “feminine” characteristics of “introspection, indifference, defeatism, and silence.” Yet, despite coupling opium use with the grotesque patriarchal notions of femininity, the moral panic around the drug and the scarcity of Chinese women in the early immigrant waves contributed to the ultimate of fears: interracial coupling! This ties in very nicely with Victorian religiously motivated sexual policing and temperance. Ahmad continues:

It was difficult enough for the elite classes to consider the idea of women having extra-marital relations or experiment with sex with Anglo-American men; however, Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and members of the underworld might have been considered unthinkable.

Despite this being specific to certain members of the Chinese diaspora, keep in mind that we live in a society where I’m routinely asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese or Korean (that last one only seems to have appeared on the list after the ’90s). In the U.S., Asian as an ethnicity basically includes a hugely diverse grouping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific islands. While lumping all of us together has its uses, it also means dealing with grossly pernicious generalizations.

As time marched on, Hollywood films depicted the outlandishly dressed, inscrutable male villains (usually white actors in yellow face) and the either deceitful social climbers or virginal damsels in the distress to the mostly white audiences in the cinema. Television shows, comic books, and now the news media seem intent on preserving at least some of these shameful notions even to this day. For every Glenn from “The Walking Dead” or Sun from “Lost”, both characters that address and escape from some of these sexist and racist tropes, there are a ton more of a Raj Koothrapali, a character who LITERALLY couldn’t speak around women for six seasons unless drinking and consistently made the butt of gay jokes, on “The Big Bang Theory”, or a Veronica, an Asian girlfriend cajoled into wearing a schoolgirl outfit to “impress” an Asian businessman, on “Dads”.

What is the harm?

In terms of sexuality, there’s a term that covers the problem for both Asian men and women: “yellow fever”, or Asian fetish. The colloquialism is exclusionary to some South Asian, Central Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, but it’s an unfortunately popular bit of shorthand (a complicated issue when dealing with such a sweeping term as “Asian”). The concept regards non-Asian men fetishizing Asian women, and why this subject is so problematic has to do with the aforementioned history of racial stereotyping. While I certainly take no issue with aesthetic sexual preferences, this form of fetish takes on a dimension of sexism and racism that certainly sets off alarm bells, as Audrey Zao of Xojane states:

The definition of sexual fetishes tend to relate to situations or objects causing a person arousal. When an entire race of women have become fetishes, it’s an extreme case of objectification.

Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”. This form of white privilege also assumes, automatically, that Asian men aren’t in the picture at all when it comes to heterosexual partnering. It’s not a leap to suggest that the litany of stereotyping in media informs this type of objectification, as the fetish in turn reinforces the media’s desire to sensationalize it, making an interesting story about the political, economic and social realities of a declining birthrate into a ridiculing and lurid story about asexual “otaku” and women uninterested in their only partnering option (implying a lack of alternatives such as same-sex relationships or, I guess, no white guys being around).

Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.

It demonizes asexuality itself by equating it to being abnormal and a symptom of prolonged pre-adolescence (see: Otaku).

It demonizes other women, particularly white women, for having the gall to take advantage of feminist advances, well described by Jonathan Guarana of Thought Catalog:

The impact of the crumbling hyper-masculine identity from a white man’s perspective is disheartening. Therefore, where can he turn to regain this hegemonic masculine identity of power, control, and dominance? First, by hating white women and then specifically transitioning to ethnic groups where women are seen to still be submissive, passive, and obedient to men: Asian women.

It internalizes racism in its victims to such an extent that some Asian women parrot the same damaging messages that promote bigotry, and some Asian men begin to believe the rhetoric within themselves. Worse than that, some Asian men become resentful, resorting to using this as an excuse to indulge in their own misogyny and racism.

It excuses the patriarchal norms in many Asian societies with the implicit support from some white men in their preference for “submissive” women, and when the privileged white West is called to the carpet about its own issues with misogyny, it’s all too easy for apologists to turn around and use Asian cultures as a comparative prop to deflect from their own pervasively misogynistic cultures as Jenny Lee at Hyphen Magazine writes regarding her own experience with a rape apologist’s reading of the UN’s eye-opening report about sexual assault in Asian countries:

So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard

And finally, the tropes also negatively affect interracial partners who pursue caring, mutually respectful relationships. Christine Tam at Diaspora @chinaSmack reveals:

When I started feeling attracted to the man who is now my boyfriend, I hesitated for a long time before acting on my feelings. He was a wonderful man who respected me and made me laugh, but I had reservations about joining the interracial relationship cliché. Another white guy with an Asian girl, I thought. No!

When the culture is so heavily saturated with this form of sexual/racial politics, it may be confusing to assess how many of your choices are really your own. Guilt and outside pressure, such as being labeled as someone who has “white fever”, makes dealing with it on a personal level a terrific mess. Or for the less acutely self-aware, it can lead to lashing out against critics of the current paradigm.

It would do well for those who call themselves journalists to take a beat or two and ACTUALLY THINK about the story they intend on posting when it comes to drawing wild conclusions about different cultures, especially in the implications of what it means historically. It’s also important for those of us saturated in an institutionally racist society to be self-aware when consuming media, to combat as many of these damage-dealing tropes and stereotypes as possible. As much as it’s fun to entertain the notion, K-Pop likely won’t fix the problem on its own.

Mike Nam is a writer, and editor from New Jersey, a volunteer with CFI-New York, and the organizer of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. His biggest professional thrill is still the time he received fan letters for a video game cheats newsletter he wrote a decade-and-a-half ago. While an unabashed nerd, he’s been known to indulge in sports and outdoor activities from time to time. He also occasionally blogs at humanstellstories.wordpress.com.


The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Center for Inquiry or the Secular Asian Community.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    James

    Journalists write articles because they will be accepted by their publication’s readership, and they became journalists for their publication because they’re very capable of doing so. Asking readers to think about what they’re reading may work (even if anyone who reads this is probably already doing that), but asking journalists to do anything differently seems necessarily fruitless.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Actually, people have a responsibility to do their jobs ethically. Just because something is popular or allowed doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. There already exist many guidelines for journalists, such as the AP Style Guide, that give them direction when it comes to covering sensitive topics. Journalists also receive instruction both in school and in their workplace on reporting ethically and promoting accurate, unbiased information rather than information that’s been colored by racial (or other) prejudice. So no, journalists are exactly the people who should be reading this blog post, and at least one tweeted at me asking for more information. That’s good.

      1. 1.1.1
        James

        I’m not suggesting that journalists shouldn’t do their job ethically (augh…). I’m saying that, a priori, it seems like you shouldn’t expect to be able to convince any journalist who wrote such an article that it was a bad idea and they should apologize and fix it, because that article was written for its audience, by someone who writes specifically for that audience professionally. If that does happen then very good!

        1. 1.1.1.1
          smrnda

          I don’t disagree that journalists write to please a market, but let’s not pretend that’s always a good thing. People are out looking for their ‘Japan is weird, especially sexually’ fix – we have two options (not mutually exclusive) – convince people that this desire for ‘Japan is weird sexually’ news is racist and patronizing, or convince journalists not to write dreck like this.

          Throwing up one’s hands and going ‘well, they’re just catering to their readership, nothing I can do’ doesn’t seem like a responsible choice.

      2. 1.1.2
        James

        To expand on (augh…), which was more passive-aggressive than useful: This was spectacularly patronizing. Assuming that your commenters need to be informed that people should do their jobs ethically and that people receive suggestions and guidelines on how to do so in college is about as uncharitable and unwelcoming as it gets. Did I really sound like someone who doesn’t understand “people should be ethical” or “people learn how they’re supposed to do their jobs in college”?

        1. 1.1.2.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          I’m sorry that you felt that was patronizing, but I don’t think it was any worse than your assumption that Mike or I do not understand that journalists write things that will be accepted by their readership (I went to journalism school for a while, so I do know that, and Mike is a writer and editor, so I’m sure he knows it too). Perhaps we’re even? :)

          I also don’t understand why “you shouldn’t expect to be able to convince any journalist who wrote such an article that it was a bad idea.” If the only reason journalists ever wrote was to please an audience, that might be the case, but most seem to be motivated at least partially be a desire to express ideas, help people understand what’s going on, promote a certain agenda (sometimes), etc. Sometimes people don’t realize that the things they do (in good faith) are harmful. That, I think, is what Mike was trying to convey.

          What you’re saying, on the other hand, seems equivalent to saying that one shouldn’t put pressure on politicians to stop supporting harmful policies because they’re just trying to appeal to an electorate. Sure, they are. But some things that a majority votes for are harmful, and it’s reasonable to at least try to ask politicians not to indulge it.

          1. James

            Even sounds good to me.

            I guess this question hinges on to what extent articles are published because they will maximize expected revenue for their publication, vs. any other reason. I very much subscribe to idea that any professional journalism is necessarily going to have to appeal to its intended audience to be approved for publishing, and the journalist’s own reasons are basically always secondary to that–these are profit-seeking companies, after all (if you have a perspective on that view I’d be very interested in hearing it). Unfortunate though it may be, there are many, many humans out there who would find this guest post boring and preachy and “everyone in this wacky country stopped having sex” unobjectionable and fun, and I suspect somewhere between most and all of the editors who approved these racist articles are aware of that on some level.

            I do, in fact, think that asking politicians to do things that their constituents don’t want is a true waste of time, for basically the same reason. It may be fun or cathartic or what have you, but, yes, their job is to get reelected, that’s the incentive structure we’re stuck with right now, and they’d be a horribly ineffective politician (read: soon replaced by someone who is better at appealing to their constituency) otherwise.

        2. 1.1.2.2
          michaelnam

          You know what else is patronizing? Stating “I’m saying that, a priori, it seems like you shouldn’t expect to be able to convince any journalist who wrote such an article that it was a bad idea and they should apologize and fix it, because that article was written for its audience, by someone who writes specifically for that audience professionally. If that does happen then very good!” In essence, it’s an assumption that criticism doesn’t help alleviate or correct longstanding problems. As history shows, this is dead wrong. Or are we still writing headlines like “Half a Million Darkies from Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves” and “Negroes Arrive by Thousands — Peril to Health”?

          There’s a long history of cultural and social criticism seeming to appear fruitless to those who don’t want to put in the effort to change it, but it’s the price of living in a free society. So before of complaining about being patronized to, please take a long look at what you just wrote. Because as a professional editor with over a decade-and-a-half of experience, who has both been corrected and done the correcting, I can tell you that journalists VERY MUCH learn from our mistakes.

          1. James

            Does criticism actually help alleviate or correct longstanding problems? Specifically, criticism directed at publications? This isn’t obvious to me. Were letters to the editor an important part of changing public perception of black Americans? (Can we even answer this question in some kind of non-guessy way? I actually don’t know.)

            You might be a particularly enlightened professional editor; you comment on blogs about feminism and social justice, after all. Trying to change people’s minds is a good and worthy thing, but doing so by letting your displeasure be known to an organization that only exists as long as it appeals to the preexisting beliefs of its audience seems like one of the less effective ways to go about it.

        3. 1.1.2.3
          michaelnam

          I take it you’ve never been in a newsroom. Yes, we do take reader feedback seriously, otherwise the guy who wrote “Chink in the Armor” about Jeremy Lin never would have been fired. Or the Chicago Tribune wouldn’t have apologized for “Fright 214″ in their Asiana crash coverage. I would also argue that it’s pretty “guessy” “subscribing” to the overriding profit model as presented, stating vaguely “there are many, many humans out there who would find this guest post boring and preachy”, and suspecting “somewhere between most and all of the editors who approved these racist articles are aware of that on some level.”

          A few of things you neglect:

          The context of any of these types of criticism. In terms of the specific population I’m writing in regards to, Asians and Asian-Americans, it has been an issue that we sometimes do not make ourselves heard when we are wronged. If I do even a little to alleviate that issue, amplify our voices or help others find their own voices, more journalists, in the future, WILL either change or be fired for unethical or irresponsible writing.

          Expanding profit. Any talk of writing to an audience includes fears of losing a segment of an audience that we had not heard from before or losing out on potential future audiences. If revenue is the extent of your criticism of this post, I assure you that outlets take a great deal of care trying to figure out shifting demographics, even if slow to react to them. There is no such thing as being comfortable with current market share in a for-profit model.

          The effects of changing the readership. As noted, if these critiques make the audience themselves aware, my boring preachiness being a rather subjective measure, then I’ve done my part to make a little alteration in who the outlets are selling to. And if that change is maintained by pressure over time, it has a cumulative effect. I’m sorry I didn’t change a million minds at once (I’m not a celebrity writer or anything), but I’m not sure that anything in life works that way. So I’m wondering why this piece is being held to such an arbitrary and ridiculous standard.

          Basically, I don’t see anything in this response that suggests ideas more effective in producing change, and I’m pretty sure I’ve demonstrated that educating both journalists and audience members CAN affect that change. Now, if there are SPECIFIC critiques on how I can improve outreach in terms of the content of my article, I’m all ears. But, I pretty much reject the unfounded and blanket criticism that my post is somehow useless based on little more than bald-faced assertions.

          1. James

            Fair enough. I am deferring to your domain experience. I wasn’t trying to inform you that your entire post is useless, or suggest that I have anything significantly better to offer, only that one sentence seemed to be recommending something that sounded relatively futile to me. (I should really remember to fold well-meaning criticism in with praise, lest people think I just hate their stuff…)

            Do individual responses really sway editorial focus that much? I’d naively imagine that in our days of market research and data science, relying on the small, self-selected, and skewed subset of people who care to express their opinion to an editor is not optimal.

  2. 2
    blondeintokyo

    I can’t quite tell what this author is getting at. There is definitely a real problem in Japan, but he seems to be saying that the article (I assume he is referring to the recent article in the Guardian) is an exaggeration based on racist stereotypes. I read it, and thought it was fairly accurate although over simplified. The real problem is societal attitudes towards gender roles and the fact that Japanese don’t like going outside the norm. Young people are in a kind of rebellion stage right now, where they don’t want their lives to look like the lives of their parents, but they don’t see any way to compromise as there are no other relationship models out there for them to emulate. Very few young people are liberated enough to completely defy tradition and simply make their relationship or marriage their own. in other words, they are rebellious enough to say “I don’t want a relationship or to get married” but not rebellious enough to say “I’m just going to do this MY way.”

    At the moment, they feel their only choice is “stay at home mom and salaryman dad”. This is definitely reinforced by society, considering that most companies still expect women to quit their jobs when they get married. Companies still give allowances to men who are married, and promotions are not based on merit but on how long you’ve been with the company. This of course means a woman who takes time off until her child is old enough to go to school has to start all over again in her career, and it will be very difficult for her to find a job at anywhere near the same level as she had before quitting. You can’t blame women then, for not wanting to get married- they know it would mean being chained to the house forever. As for the men, they only can see a future where they work their butts off every day and never see their families, sacrificing themselves for the company. This leads them to avoid each other and seek companionship with same-sex friends. They aren’t very well socialized to relate with the opposite sex other than seeing them as a potential marriage partner. “Just dating” doesn’t really exist; they date with an eye towards marriage. Meaning, if they don’t want to get married they often just won’t date at all. And if they are not dating, they are not having sex- that much of the article is true. I would not say, however, that they don’t have sex drives or are aesexual. They simply sublimate their urges into other things, such as work and hobbies. Generally, people here are conservative about sex and not many people have one night stands or casual flings. There are of course exceptions; this is a generalization. There are other contributing issues.

    The article also mentions the obsession that Japanese men have with childlike women. They even have a name for it: “Lolita Complex”. And as strange as it may sound, it’s completely normalized. It’s not unusual for a grown up man to listen to AKB48, buy plastic models of his favorite female “idols” or to buy magazines with pictures of preteen girls in bikinis. It doesn’t really carry stigma, they are just…used to it. They definitely have a real problem when it comes to dealing with strong, independent women, particularly the guys who are 40 years old and up. Younger guys are a lot more flexible, but they still carry around the idea that men are the breadwinners and head of household, so it’s very hard for them to let go of the idea that women are supposed to be weak and doll-like and in need of male protection. Now that women are becoming more independent and financially secure, they just don’t know what their role should be, and it scares them. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard men here refer to independent women who speak their minds as “kowai”, or scarey. They idolize cute women because they are intimidated by strong ones.

    But even so, I do have some hope for the younger people. I think that they will eventually get out of this stage and come to realize they have more choices than “stay at home mom/salaryman dad”. I’m heartened by some of the young women I meet, because they have real guts and are going their own way. The men will eventually get used to it. :)

    FYI, I’ve lived in Japan 21 years, so I’m speaking from a place of first hand experience here.

    1. 2.1
      miller

      What I’ve heard, is that English news sources completely overemphasize the sex aspect. Maybe it’s not obvious from the Guardian article by itself, but if you search for news articles on herbivore men, over half of them say in the title that it’s about sex. Even if the Guardian article is “fairly accurate although over simplified”, I think it is worthwhile to explain why there is a systematic distortion across all news sources.

      Mike is coming from one perspective, and thinks it’s because of Asian stereotypes in the US. I come from an asexual perspective, so I tend to think it’s because the idea of people who forgo sex is so shocking in the US. But perhaps we’re both right.

      1. 2.1.1
        michaelnam

        I do mention that these tropes demonize asexuality, but I don’t think I can speak to the subject authoritatively from that point of view to expand that much further on it. But I agree, I think there’s also an aspect of added shock value for the media to be focusing on asexual behavior.

        1. 2.1.1.1
          miller

          Oh, but I very much enjoyed the Asian stereotypes angle. It’s especially relevant to me as an Asian American male who is on the asexual spectrum. I will be sure to read many of the linked articles as well. :-)

          On a side note, I generally advocate against referring to these stereotypes as “asexual”, as they generally bear little resemblance to actual asexual groups. I prefer calling them desexualized stereotypes or similar.

          1. blondeintokyo

            I was going to say that, too. What is being described as “aesexual” isn’t what I understand asexuality to be about.

            Additionally, masculinity in Japan is not defined in the same way as it is in the US and other western countries. When seen from a western point of view, Japanese men seem very “metrosexual” or even overtly feminine. I’ve heard many expats remark that they can’t tell gay men from straight men here. (Of course they are stereotyping gay men, but that’s another issue). The crux of the matter is, Japanese men simply don’t hold themselves up to western ideals of masculinity. For example, Japanese men aren’t insulted or embarrassed by the idea of having a small penis- they even laugh and joke about it. They wear pink without thinking anything of it, and they will happily hold their gf’s or wife’s purse without it hurting their male ego as I have seen western men complain about. Basically, they just aren’t afraid of expressing their (stereotypical) feminine side.

            It really shouldn’t be all that surprising, then, that they don’t approach love and sex in the same way as Western males do, and that western society might see that as a sign of asexuality.

          2. michaelnam

            Fair point, and I will make sure to make that distinction clearer in the future!

          3. smrnda

            blondeintokyo

            my brother lived in Japan and now divides his time between Japan and China, and has actually said that, as a man who doesn’t fit the macho type, he feels prefers those locations to the States for that reason alone. The idea that Japanese males (or Asian males in general) are somehow ‘asexual’ just comes from the fact that the Usian idea of being male is pushed to such extremes.

            On asexuality, as an asexual person I find some people assume, wrongly, particularly among men, that not talking about sex a lot indicates a lack of interest in sex, but it isn’t necessarily the case as not all men feel compelled to talk about it all the time.

    2. 2.2
      michaelnam

      Thanks for the feedback! Let me clarify here that this not just about the Guardian article, but the gamut of articles basically being ‘over simplified’. This isn’t JUST about perceptions of Japan, but how the West perceives people of Asian descent. The very real and complex issues of a changing, conservative society isn’t something the Western media, in general, is very interested in.

      “They simply sublimate their urges into other things, such as work and hobbies. Generally, people here are conservative about sex and not many people have one night stands or casual flings. There are of course exceptions; this is a generalization. There are other contributing issues.”

      Since you are specifically discussing the Guardian article, I’m not sure how that gibes with this description:

      “Aoyama says the sexes, especially in Japan’s giant cities, are “spiralling away from each other”. Lacking long-term shared goals, many are turning to what she terms “Pot Noodle love” – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality “girlfriends”, anime cartoons. Or else they’re opting out altogether and replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes.”

      It isn’t just Japan that’s conflating sex with marriage and procreation, but Western media. And if the concern is about these deep-seated issues, it becomes questionable to lead-in an article with a Japanese dominatrix (as fun as they are), a hypersexualized depiction of Asian women for Western consumption.

      Just to add, there are a lot of issues in play here that I couldn’t get to without writing about 10 essay pages because my focus was on how this fits into long-held Western stereotypes. There’s technophobia present and a handwaving away of issues in other countries like Germany (another country who has unusual, to U.S. standards, sexual procliviites), but compare the frenzy around Japan to how this article was written: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/14/world/europe/germany-fights-population-drop.html?_r=0

      Much of what I come to understand about the misinterpretation of the numbers being presented comes from Brian Ashcraft’s article in Kotaku, who is himself a longtime resident of Japan.
      http://kotaku.com/wrong-about-japan-and-sex-1450567428

      And I really like your conclusion:

      “But even so, I do have some hope for the younger people. I think that they will eventually get out of this stage and come to realize they have more choices than “stay at home mom/salaryman dad”. I’m heartened by some of the young women I meet, because they have real guts and are going their own way. The men will eventually get used to it. :)”

      But it doesn’t seem to be the conclusions being drawn by a great many of these articles. And of course, for a man like Bill Maher, stories like this are just easy fodder for hacky jokes.

      I want to add that I agree with a number of the points you made about the arch-conservative nature of Japanese society, but that doesn’t mean that the media and its consumers are absorbing that issue as the central conceit of this runaway story.

      1. 2.2.1
        blondeintokyo

        Yes, these articles are definitely written from a Western perspective, and the author obviously doesn’t quite understand the culture well enough to get to the real root of the problem. On the other hand, I don’t think the article distorts the situation that much. Young people really are having problems connecting with each other sexually and emotionally, and many people are in fact abstaining from sex. There are huge problems in socialization between the genders, and an inability to see the possibility of other alternative relationship models. There is also the idea that casual sexual flings aren’t moral, and a general shyness and embarrassment about sex in general.

        One thing they’ve gotten bass-ackwards is referring to them as aesexual, because it’s pretty obvious that they desire sex. The use of porn here is prolific, and it’s quite common for men to visit “soaplands” (places of prostitution). And even though this is not a Christian culture, I don’t think you can say Japan is “sexually permissive”. There are still a lot of sexual taboos in society, particularly for women. For one thing, indulging oneself is somewhat taboo here, so people don’t easily give in to their desires. It is seen as being immature and immoral. This is part and parcel of Japanese culture, and manifests itself in other ways, too, i.e., not indulging in food, holding back oneself from saying what one really wants to say, holding back from expressing emotions, (particularly anger) etc. It’s seen as a sign of maturity if you can control yourself, and that includes sex. This is particularly true for women- women are supposed to be cute and innocent, and not overtly sexual. It is assumed that women don’t have much of a sex drive, and that all desire for sex comes from the man. If you, as a woman, are told your entire life that you have to be a wide-eyed innocent who is soft spoken and not overtly sexual in order to attract a man and thus be a “good girl”, is it a surprise that they then they act that way? See “Kyary Pamyu Pamyu” and AKB48 as examples. Also take a gooood look at Japanese porn and note that the most popular and prolific theme is rape- an innocent girl gets ravaged by a man, and only then starts to enjoy it.

        I happen to have plentiful experience with the underground sex world here, being that I’m involved in both the swinging and kink communities, and have been friends with and dated Japanese porn stars. :) I can tell you that this theme is carried out even among the most sexually liberated Japanese. For example, in the US, the swinger’s world is controlled by the women, but this is not true at all in Japan. Even in the kink community, female dommes aren’t given much, if any respect. It’s almost the opposite of what I have seen of kink communities in the US and Europe where women’s sexual autonomy is respected and even seen as desirable.

        In summary, I would say that the articles aren’t that far off from the truth of the matter. The people writing them don’t have great insight, but they aren’t entirely inaccurate, either.

        1. 2.2.1.1
          michaelnam

          I understand what you’re getting at, but the problem is that the “minor” inaccuracies, or rather the exaggerations or presentation of these truths, are grossly sensationalized through the prism of historical stereotyping, which is why I spent so much time putting this into that context. I understand that someone close to it wouldn’t see it that way, but as I point out in another comment, the actual interpretation by Japanese nationals isn’t what I’m going for. To me, this is pretty much like NBC News spending time asking the Chinese if they were insulted by the Spanish basketball team doing the “slanted” eyes pic before the Beijing Olympics. Well of course they weren’t really offended, because they live in a relatively homogeneous society without the history of oppression from the dominant white culture. Those of us who live in the diaspora, however …

          To you, or the Japanese themselves, it may not distort the picture much, but there’s an additional lens of distortion that gets missed from that perspective, and whether or not much of what one particular article gets right, it launched a wave of grosser distortions that ends up fitting the previously mentioned historical narrative. This is the crux of my argument

          1. blondeintokyo

            I understand the crux of your argument. What I’m getting at is that the problem isn’t that the reporter isn’t accurate enough, or that they are only being sensational to attract readers. They actually aren’t – the vast majority of articles I’ve read about Japan are pretty spot-on, including the ones you’ve referenced. The real problem is, then, that reporters can’t possibly explain Japanese culture well enough in a 1,000 word article so that people who have never visited the country can understand it as well as those who live in the country do.

            It’s not that the journalists are sacrificing their journalistic integrity to get readers – they are just doing the best they can with the space that they have. The only way you’d be able to explain to a largely ignorant audience in a way that would help them understand the sexual mores in Japan fully and accurately would be to write them a BOOK about it. And the only way to avoid people from misunderstanding or misjudging it would be to simply not report on Japan at all- and that really isn’t practical or feasible, is it?

            As much as I hate cultural stereotyping – and I DO know what it is like to be stereotyped – It’s inevitable and unavoidable. The vast majority of people are close-minded about other cultures. They don’t travel much, and often don’t really CARE enough to really learn, either. Take this article for example: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/10/23/voices/japan-no-safe-country-for-foreign-women/#.Unh_XCSBATk

            The complaint that a lot of people have with it, if you read the comments, is that it makes Japan look bad. If someone who doesn’t know anything about Japan reads it, it might make them think that Japan is an incredibly dangerous country and that single foreign women are in constant danger here. People are calling it “Japan bashing”. But it’s not- it’s largely accurate. Japan IS full of perverts, just as the USA and other countries are. Granted, Japan IS a lot safer than the vast majority of first world countries, but to further the narrative that Japan is perfectly safe would be dangerous. It’s important that women who live or travel here to know that this kind of thing happens, and the fairy-tale safe country that they think Japan is doesn’t exist. I firmly think this article does women a great service- if Lucy Blackman or Lindsey Hawker had read this “sensationalized” story before coming to Japan, they might be alive today.

            I too wish that newspaper, magazine, and internet stories about other countries could be written better and more accurately, but considering the limitations of print media it’s just not possible. It’s largely up to the audience to be skeptical, interpret what they read, and learn more on their own. That most people don’t do that isn’t the reporters faults. Note that I am not saying we shouldn’t criticize any cultural stereotyping that occurs in these stories or point out the inaccuracies; only that it’s not being done on purpose for nefarious reasons or just to gain readers.

          2. michaelnam

            “It’s not that the journalists are sacrificing their journalistic integrity to get readers – they are just doing the best they can with the space that they have. The only way you’d be able to explain to a largely ignorant audience in a way that would help them understand the sexual mores in Japan fully and accurately would be to write them a BOOK about it. And the only way to avoid people from misunderstanding or misjudging it would be to simply not report on Japan at all- and that really isn’t practical or feasible, is it?”

            I absolutely disagree because you seem to be limiting it to single articles as the only way to get across this information in a less than sensationalistic manner. As I pointed out, in comparison with other articles, such as, say, Germany, this is not an issue. Are you really telling me that the NY Times journalist could get across all of the nuances of living in Germany better and THAT’s why it wasn’t nearly as distorted as the reporting on Japan? And I will again rely on my own experience on this matter: That’s a cop-out argument. The limitations of the written medium, print or online, are a challenge, but apparently it’s only a limitation when dealing with certain differing cultures, not ones that people seem predisposed to seeing in a more familiar light despite their on-the-ground ignorance.

            The women’s safety issue article about Japan, or for that matter, ones about India, aren’t usually problematic to me (except in the cases when men stateside like to use it to comparatively diminish the negatives in their own culture http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2013/09/asian-men-angry-womyn-and-reverse-rape ). Nor did I ever make that assertion. I don’t feel that it’s necessary to gloss over negatives, I feel that it’s important to realize what the stereotypes are when dealing with something that is not as safety consequential as a story about declining birth rate. I think it’s a bit of a strawman to suggest that these two types of articles are the same for the purposes of this discussion. As for knowing what it’s like to be stereotyped, sure, like all of the conversations that I’ve had on privilege, we’ve all had our share of being on the downside of it. This does not change the fact that I can’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and you can’t know what it’s like to be an Asian-American.

            “It’s inevitable and unavoidable. The vast majority of people are close-minded about other cultures. They don’t travel much, and often don’t really CARE enough to really learn, either.”

            And frankly, this is the part of your argument that I most disagree with. The “it’s inevitable so what can you do about it” position. As everyone who gets involved with activism of one type or another apparently has to point out to naysayers: who says? If we can’t change the entirety of a culture of indifference, what’s wrong with changing just one little bit of it? Why are people so hellbent on not resisting change for themselves, but resisting it on behalf of others? I have a very different definition of the word “possible” I suppose, and if that’s the point of this argument, then I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere further. As in my exchange with a previous commenter, I categorically reject that the public and the reporters whose jobs (including my own) have been to inform the public are impervious to progressive change. And history rejects it as well since even in my lifetime, insensitive stereotyping language like “tranny”, “retarded”, “handicapped”, if not expunged, has declined significantly. For reference: http://www.lodinews.com/opinion/columnists/rich_hanner/article_b2710afb-dcb2-52cb-8419-31734cf2a7df.html?mode=jqm

            So, while I appreciate your stance on the subject, I don’t think we’ll find additional areas of agreement on the subject of this article. Thanks for the feedback regardless!

  3. 3
    Pen

    It’s ok for a westen newspaper to attemp a report on what goes on in other countries and it’s ok for a reader to say, hmmm is this real, what gives? It’s another to write another whole article criticising the original article in terms of tropes in your own culture. Now we know what Mike thinks Americans assume about Asians, but so what? The article was meant to be about what the Japanese think about an aspect of their own lives.The only people writing a directed criticism of this article should be Japanese or at least people who have visited Japan. Something about this situation strikes me as being similar to an American of Swedish origin writing about how an article on recent cultural developments in France plays into American stereotypes of white people. Maybe it’s an old world / new world thing. In the new world, race tends to dominate as a paradigm. In the old world, Japanese does not equal Asian, just for a start.

    1. 3.1
      michaelnam

      Hmmmm…what gives? That’s what I and others who criticized the articles did, and found that these articles aren’t “about what the Japanese think about an aspect of their own lives”, but what Westerners think the Japanese think. Since last I checked, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Slate, et. al, are not Japanese outlets.

      And being that these are Western media outlets, and I happen to live in the “West”, I have no problem criticizing them through the lens of our own issues. What the Japanese think about this is their concern. How we here think the Japanese think, and how that affects people of Asian descent (a generalization I address in the article), particularly here in the U.S. is MY concern.

  4. 4
    Andrew Ryan

    Thanks for that article. Much to think about there.

    “Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”
    The link doesn’t quite work.

    1. 4.1
      michaelnam

      Not sure if the link is broken entirely, but here it is as well. The music video itself was taken down a while ago, but they do include a transcript of the lyrics and some descriptions in the blog:

      http://blog.angryasianman.com/2013/07/okay-so-this-is-pretty-much-worst-thing.html

  5. 5
    blondeintokyo

    I think you’ve misunderstood. I’m not basing this on only one single article. I have read many on the subject, including ones in the Japanese press that are written in Japanese that say basically the same thing- that Japan is having a sexual crisis. And if the Japanese media are also saying it, then how can you then claim it is an exaggeration of the western media? The news stories in the foreign media are, as I said, lacking in some pertinent detail, but they aren’t particularly exaggerated or distorted.

    That isn’t to say that this is a permanent situation, because it isn’t. As I said, Japan is right now going through very big changes. After the crash of the bubble economy and the subsequent economic downturn, universities can no longer guarantee new graduates lifetime employment at prestigious companies. We’ve entered the days of the “freeter” the “parasite single” and the “neet”. Young people don’t have high hopes for their futures, don’t see any way to support a family on a single salary, and since they have no other relationship models, they are simply opting out of marriage altogether. I predict that the up and coming generation, having grown up in these uncertain times, will be used to having these uncertainties and thus will be more flexible in their approaches to marriage and family. Many of the articles mention that, so its not as though they are all gloom and doom, either.

    One of Abe’s main talking points right now is getting more women into the workforce and equalizing opportunities for women who work. They plan to open more day care centers (Yokohama city has already accomplished this) and increase the monthly childcare allowance. Once more women are in the workforce, men will be forced into recognizing them as productive members of society and not simply housewives. When women get more respect, and men get used to the idea of women being breadwinners, I expect they will begin to relate to each other on a more equal footing, and that will definitely kickstart the birthrate.

    But at the moment, men and women hardly relate to each other outside of their individual gendered roles, and that is why they aren’t having much sex. Do you not know that many married couples in Japan don’t even sleep in the same beds? Do you not know that the birthrate this year slipped yet again? Are you not aware of the taboo of female sexual autonomy? If you think the articles that have been appearing in the western media were concocted out of thin air only to feed the western appetite for “weird Japan” then you haven’t done your research.

    Actually, the articles that came out of western media after 3-11 were much more distorted than any of the articles I’ve read about the decline of sex in Japan. Many of them were downright dishonest, for example, showing pictures of people wearing masks for the hay fever season and claiming they were wearing them to ward off radiation!

    I also never said that you were wrong to criticize the media or wrong to point out cultural stereotyping where you see them. To say cultural stereotyping is inevitable due to people’s general ignorance of other cultures isn’t equal to saying it is excusable. I definitely think it is important to point out when cultural stereotyping takes place, and demand better and more honest coverage. For example, I’m a huge fan of Arudo Debito who writes a monthly column in the Japan Times that he uses to take the Japanese media to task for distorting things like the foreign crime rate.

    The mistake I think you are making is in thinking that the articles are hugely a distortion of the truth, when they actually are not- it really is pretty bad here.

  6. 6
    michaelnam

    First off, I don’t know what the Japanese media is saying, but that again isn’t the matter for me. How you say something and the context it’s presented in does matter. The context is the English-speaking media. A word-for-word translation from the Japan Times wouldn’t change how people receive that message in a completely foreign land based on the preconceived notions that exist AND the messaging ability of the translator. My message wasn’t just for the media but for the audience that consumes that media … the ones that might not go beyond the headlines, like viewers of Bill Maher or readers of aggregators like http://www.uproxx.com/webculture/2013/10/young-people-japan-stopped-sex/

    The “single articles” comment wasn’t about your research, it was about the point you made about “limited space” for getting across ideas. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. It’s about the fact that complex ideas can be conveyed if newsrooms are cognizant of these issues over time. Unfortunately, they’ve been lax.

    Also, again, I haven’t disputed any of the deluge of details you’ve provided me about what are the actual underlying issues. I know that there are extreme issues of patriarchy and gender oppression in Japan. Being of Korean descent, I know that my ancestral homeland is going through similar (though not as drastic) an issue, and it’s patronizing to assume that I have not been made aware after you provided these details repeatedly. Since that hasn’t been the point of my argument, note that I haven’t disputed any of them. And frankly, I point out the cover affect these stereotypes provide for actually confronting that issue in my article anyway:

    “Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.”

    And once again this is not all about Japan. This is about how the story from Japan became lost in the zeitgeist of Western white privilege, historical racism and sexism and the effects towards those of us of the Asian diaspora. I have to reinforce this because you keep ignoring that point.

    And again, you introduce another non-sequitur article that doesn’t have remotely to do with the topic. We have been discussing this particular issue intersection of racism AND sexism in the West. The Fukushima disaster is another topic entirely.

    And, yes, you didn’t say it was wrong to make these cultural criticism of the media, after what I felt were excuses made on behalf of the media and the audience that they were somewhat immune to this cultural criticism on grounds that I dispute such as lack of “space” or an intractable audience. Considering the mixed messages of not seeing a problem with the stories, but that writers can’t get across all that nuance with lack of space, but in terms of reader retention, “That most people don’t do that isn’t the reporters faults”, it basically amounts to the same thing. If it’s only “up to the readers”, then why should any criticism of the media occur?

    Furthermore, I never said these are “huge” distortions:

    “To you, or the Japanese themselves, it may not distort the picture much, but there’s an additional lens of distortion that gets missed from that perspective, and whether or not much of what one particular article gets right, it launched a wave of grosser distortions that ends up fitting the previously mentioned historical narrative.”

    Note that I also previously stated that your perception of these stories from your point of view, without the context of how Asian-ness is received by those of us who are, is your privilege, and you cannot know how those of us on the receiving end feel. You can empathize, but you don’t live these particular experiences. As for the grosser distortions, please see the Uproxx link I just added and the Bill Maher link above. When I say the media, I think you think I only mean the news media, when the my article clearly spoke on depictions of Asian-Americans in general. And perhaps I should have been clearer on that point in my responses, but it is in the article itself. I didn’t think I’d have to keep reiterating that this is not about Japan itself. It is about the lack of awareness on the part of the media (be it news or entertainment) to approach that story, sensationalize it and feed that distortion.

    On Facebook, a friend of mine once posted a story she was angry about, regarding Disney “updating” and sexualizing certain princess characters, particularly Merida from ‘Brave’. There’s a side-by-side of original Merida and new Merida, and it’s clear that they made new Merida bustier, with slimmer build, larger hips, made up hair, ornate new dress and a blushing, sultrier looking face. A male friend of her’s commented that he didn’t see the problem. She explained repeatedly what the differences were, and he repeatedly said that he could not see any significant difference or why she found it problematic. They went back and forth, and he kept assuming she was being overly dramatic and imagining what she was seeing. I think that’s where we’re at right now, and I sincerely wish to conclude this.

  7. 7
    bl

    Declining birthrate is a problem?

    Are you kidding?

    Seven billion people in the world and we should worry that we aren’t adding to the population fast enough

    1. 7.1
      James

      What is the ideal number of people that should concurrently exist on Earth?

  1. 8
    Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism | Humans Tell Stories

    […] I did a guest post for my friend Miri at Brute Reason on Freethought Blogs highlighting the racism AND sexism of the popular story going around about Japan’s declining birthrate being salaciously tied to a lack of sexual activity. Here’s a quick look, and the rest of it can be read here. […]

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