Six decades after the U.S. occupation of Japan (1945-52) ended, two fascinating books probe the sexual policies, politics and norms that animated and emanated from this encounter with considerable reward from rather different angles.
Sarah Kovner focuses on the post-1945 sex industry serving GIs, while Mark McClelland delves into how the American presence influenced carnal attitudes and practices among Japanese.
Kovner argues that “Sex work provides a powerful subject to analyze social change.” She discusses the establishment of official brothels by the Japanese government for the occupying troops and their disbandment by American Gen. Douglas MacArthur due to health and moral considerations. This did not stifle private enterprise and did not help limit sexually transmitted diseases among the troops, much of which they apparently brought with them and spread among Japanese sex workers and hence their colleagues.
Draconian measures were employed to eradicate STDs, including forced testing of Japanese women detained during random sweeps in streets and parks, even as U.S. authorities limited availability of penicillin for Japanese hospitals and exacerbated the epidemic.
Due to the desperate circumstances in war-ravaged Japan, panpan (prostitutes) were a familiar sight on the streets, irresistible to GIs on the prowl while for many Japanese they were a source of shame, target of censure and unwelcome reminder of defeat.
Kovner points out that tolerance toward prostitution as a “necessary evil” did not extend to those who served American servicemen. She argues that the moral posturing over prostitution ignored the fact that a majority of sex workers needed the money and had few options. Oddly, after “more than 300 years of being regulated and in some cases celebrated, they were now made to represent everything wrong with postwar society.”
The new constitution written by the U.S. occupiers promoted democracy and women’s rights, and was a key factor in bolstering various groups advocating a legal ban on prostitution. Kovner’s detailed analysis of this movement and the politics of prostitution is illuminating, explaining how sex industry bribery of Diet members facilitated crucial compromises ensuring that outlawing sex work in 1956 had limited practical impact. Kovner also draws our gaze to the unintended consequences of efforts to ban prostitution, arguing that it has made it harder for women to organize against abuses, an ongoing problem in contemporary Japan.
Mark McClelland’s excellent and intriguing appraisal of how Japanese responded to a new climate of sexuality under the American occupation draws on several years of research that began auspiciously enough at the Museum of Perverts in Kagurazaka. The U.S. authorities promoted democratization and liberalized attitudes toward gender relations, sparking considerable interest in American dating practices and sexual techniques. Combing through the popular press, McLelland surveys sexual discourse as a means to better understand changing norms and what was going on in bed.
While occupation authorities banned references to the febrile fraternization between GIs and Japanese, there were no such restrictions on covering sex among Japanese. An entire chapter on the kiss debate might seem excessive, but it is a fascinating analysis of how osculating became a symbol for democratization. During the occupation, Alfred Kinsey’s study on sexual behavior in the United States was quickly translated and sparked open discussion of sexuality, a discourse that drew on notions of modern democracy and eager experimentation in the name of scientific inquiry.
The occupation was part awakening and part reawakening as Japanese shed the Victorian inhibitions promoted by the State since the late 19th century. Thus, despite a rich libertine tradition and tolerance regarding inclinations Americans often termed deviant, many sexperts thought there was much catching up to do.
McCelland points out that defeat had profound consequences for Japanese sexual practices and postwar morality. The media dwelled on the emasculating process of surrender and according to him, “an increase in male homosexuality was considered a symptom of defeated nations. “He argues that Japanese authorities maintained a policy of benign neglect toward male-male sexuality, a practice he suggests had spread on distant battlefields and came home to roost.
The press, no longer constrained by wartime strictures, extolled the pleasures of ryoki (curiosity hunting), generating a boom in cruising for fleshly adventures. Ironically, “it became much easier to talk about sex in the Japanese media in the late 1940s than it was in the United States.” But sexual liberation was highly asymmetrical, meaning what was good for men was not necessarily advantageous for women. Sex journalism catered to men’s fantasies while also providing tips on lovemaking. The author explains that male readers were enjoined to “regulate their own climaxes so as to better optimize ideal conditions for the climaxes of their partners.”
McClelland subverts top-down perspectives on sexuality in his riveting bottom-up perspective based on media accounts. We learn, for example, about the cross-dressing male dansho (prostitutes) of Ueno, their battles with police, chivalrous protection of female sex workers and special techniques, all reported dispassionately by the media. While sexual liberation was welcome by many, McClelland concludes that some people may have felt hassled by the relentless and invasive projection of new norms and performance standards that butted in on their sex life.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan