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The long and short of male circumcision in Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

For most of its history the Japanese archipelago knew nothing of circumcision. Contact with missionaries and merchants from Europe did little to raise awareness of the custom, and the procedure does not seem to have been a high priority for the promoters of Western ideas and technology during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Even today, circumcision at birth remains extremely rare in Japan and the medical establishment’s attitude toward the procedure is lukewarm at best. And yet Tokyo alone is home to dozens of clinics offering to relieve men of their prepuces, hinting — with greater or lesser explicitness — at the new world of possibilities that this sacrifice will bring.

Male Circumcision in Japan, by Genaro Castro-Vazquez
224 pages
Palgrave Macmillan, Nonfiction.

“Male Circumcision in Japan,” by Genaro Castro-Vazquez, assistant professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, seeks to explain why this has come to pass, without delving too much into the history. (Readers hoping for a tell-all account of the procedure’s rise from obscurity to the back pages of men’s magazines will be disappointed. As Castro-Vazquez notes, the historical details remain murky and even current statistics are hard to come by.)

The framework for the inquiry is “Symbolic Interactionism,” which prioritizes the meanings people attach to things and how those meanings are created and modified by social interaction and personal interpretation. To investigate these meanings, Castro-Vazquez conducted interviews with four groups: men, women, medical professionals and mothers. There is particular focus on the “sexual scripts” that contextualize circumcision in Japan — how people think about circumcision, even if they have little or no personal experience with it. (The author notes that none of the women interviewed for the project “had actually seen a circumcised man in real life.”)

The bulk of the book is taken up with excerpts from and commentary on the interviews Castro-Vazquez conducted with these four groups, so it is unfortunate that they make such frustrating reading. “I don’t know,” the interviewees say. “I’m not sure.” They hedge, they hem and haw, they pause awkwardly, and the faithful transcription of all this makes them sound oddly like characters from a Judy Blume novel. (“I mean … for instance … ,” says one of Castro-Vazquez’s male interviewees, “if your willie is big or small, you have to accept it.”) To be fair to the author, this very awkwardness constitutes evidence for his arguments about how sexuality and related issues are discussed (or not) in Japan, but one still wonders if it couldn’t have been dialed down a notch.

One of Castro-Vazquez’s main theses is that circumcision in Japan is not performed for religious or medical reasons, but rather “biomedical” ones: using the techniques of medicine to intervene in and enhance the biological self. Economic and social change, he argues, has left the male identity in Japan struggling to find its way, as exemplified by freeters, “herbivorous boys” and the other usual suspects. By positioning the phallus as the essence of manhood and then arguing for circumcision as a way to radically improve this metaphorical stand-in for the male self as a whole, private clinics offer nothing less than a new way to function as a man, both sexually and socially. And overall, the interview excerpts Castro-Vazquez presents seem to provide convincing support for this interpretation of what’s at work.

One interesting example is the discussion of the word “hokei.” Although the literal etymology of this word is “covered stalk,” implying a glans completely covered by the foreskin, Castro-Vazquez’s interviews, particularly with women, reveal that it is used to describe everything from “true” medical phimosis — where the foreskin physically cannot be retracted — to merely aesthetic issues involving otherwise perfectly functional equipment. In other words, one of the “problems” that circumcision is believed to solve can be defined just as much by discourse as by any specific configuration of skin and flesh.

Perhaps the most interesting interviewee chapter is the one featuring urologists and cosmetic surgeons, the former condemning circumcision as an unnecessary hazard and the later defending it as a practice that can bring real benefits. In other words, the urologists are opposed to what they see as misguided medicalization, while the cosmetic surgeons prefer a biomedical paradigm — but, as Castro-Vazquez perceptively observes, neither challenge “the sexual script that places sexuality as having its source in the genitals.”

The downside of the interview-centric format is that at times one has the impression of reading an oral history whose editors prioritized naturalism over narrative. Many of the same issues appear over and over again, while others flare once and are gone forever. This may be partially due to the fact that, according to the acknowledgments, the interview chapters originated as separate articles. Perhaps more could have been done to tie them together. (For example, since all of the “mothers” interviewed must have once qualified, sociologically speaking, for inclusion in the “women” group, why not explore how their attitudes differ from that group and what role motherhood itself has played in that change?) This underedited feel, however, extends beyond the interview chapters: we find more or less the same summary of circumcision’s 2,400-year history in both the introduction and the conclusion, right down to the spotlight on “the sebaceous secretion known as smegma.”

Given the topic under discussion, putting it this way might seem like cheap opportunitism, but some judicious trimming could probably have helped Castro-Vazquez’s often quite stimulating insights make a much stronger impression.

  • John Dalton

    Tokyo alone is home to dozens of clinics offering to relieve men of their prepuces, hinting — with greater or lesser explicitness — at the new world of possibilities that this sacrifice will bring.

    Opportunities from circumcision? Perhaps. Threats also.

    Men electing for circumcision have a right to do so, they also have a right to full and frank information as to the realistic prospects of them achieving the claimed benefits as well as the very real risks and harms.

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    • Lawrence Newman

      The men need to be informed all the erogenous tissue is in the parts cut off and so circumcision will take away most but possibly all their pleasure. The glans is basically non -erogenous.

    • KevinJM1280

      [Men electing for circumcision have a right to do so]

      See my argument in response to rockycz for my answer to this.

      [they also have a right to full and frank information]

      Which I’m sure will be offered in the form of a 100+ page, jargon-filled “pamphlet” which will leave them no better informed than before they read it.

  • rockycz

    It is their right, as consenting adults, to choose this for themselves. Just don’t start inflicting this cosmetic surgery on non-consenting minors! It is a barbaric practice the USA should be ashamed of.

    • KevinJM1280

      When one takes an honest examination of all the places where genital mutilation is common, one must ask: can it ever remain a practice restricted to consenting adults? No nation or culture in the world that practices genital mutilation restricts it to consenting adults. The practice is ALWAYS eventually turned forcefully on those who do not want it or on those powerless to even object, let alone resist.

      With that in mind I must say that while the “consenting adults” argument is usually a persuasive one, it fails with me in this case. I can’t imagine a society where genital mutilation is allowed in which it does not eventually become required.

    • KevinJM1280

      When one takes an honest examination of all the places where genital mutilation is common, one must ask: can it ever remain a practice restricted to consenting adults? No nation or culture in the world that practices genital mutilation restricts it to consenting adults. The practice is ALWAYS eventually turned forcefully on those who do not want it or on those powerless to even object, let alone resist.

      With that in mind I must say that while the “consenting adults” argument is usually a persuasive one, it fails with me in this case. I can’t imagine a society where genital mutilation is allowed in which it does not eventually become required.

  • Karagarga

    Oh, oh, the hokei pokei!

  • joseph4gi

    Seems like a book pitch about one man’s experience in Japan. I spent several years in Japan as an English teacher, was invited to many hot springs, and though I did see a few cut guys, most were uncut.

    You do see a lot of circumcision ads in the backs of boys’ and men’s magazines, but right next to penis enlargement pills and other “male enhancement.” Some of these same clinics offer other stuff like penis lengthening and silicone ball implants, as well as vasectomies. It is my impression that circumcision is not widespread in Japan, and those who are might just be victims of a confidence trick played by snake oil salesmen trying to make money off of male insecurity.

    The difference between circumcision and englargement pills is that you can always stop taking the pills. Once a man is circumcised he’s stuck with what he has, whether he likes the results or not.

  • http://www.scottasahina.com/ Scott Asahina

    If you’re an adult and you want to mutilate your body, go ahead.

    Mutilating body of a perfectly healthy young or baby boy is child abuse and it should be illegal. Sick and twisted procedure and totally unnecessary in 99.999% of case.

    To me there is no difference between FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and male circumcision. Both are nasty and barbaric.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    All genital mutilation of babies should be criminalized. I abhor the way male genital mutilation is sanitized into being called circumcision and is presented as a Western concept. It is not. It is a particularly US fetish borrowed from backward societies who are unable to throw off their religious superstitions.

  • Tyler Young

    Cutting off a part of your penis doesn’t “enhance the biological self”, it looks bizarre and unnatural. It’s like those people that cut off their nose, it just makes you look like you’re missing something.

  • Dismantle_Me

    This may be the least illuminating article ever to appear in The Japan Times. So the book actually said nothing?

  • EuropeanMan

    What a creepy article!

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Japan should be proud that the scourge of infant genital mutilation is entirely unheard in its borders.