Gender bending in Japan

From myth to 'postsex,' Michael Hoffman reviews an intrinsic feature of national life

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Do our genitals define us? Increasingly, they do not. Is sexuality more complicated than male/female? Increasingly, it is.

Or maybe not increasingly: Maybe the only thing that’s changed over the ages is how much of our true selves society lets us show.

The Bible, keystone arch of Western civilization, had it all figured out. “Male and female created he them,” says the Book of Genesis; “he” being God, “them” being us.

Turn now to Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for anyone who does so is an abomination to the Lord your God.”

What would the Lord our God have made of the 21st century and its explosion of sexual alternatives? Same-sex marriage, legal (as of now) in 13 countries and 12 U.S. states, is the barest tip of the iceberg. Language strains to keep up with new practices, or old practices no longer cloaked in shame or social disapproval: cross-dressing, transgenderism, androgyny, hermaphroditism and more — much more.

Individuals proudly proclaim themselves genderqueer, bi-gender, agender. Last month an Australian court approved the right to officially label oneself “gender nonspecific.”

Japan, where same-sex marriage is hardly an issue, let alone a right, would offend the biblical God less than other places — which is ironic, because Japan is among the modern world’s least Judeo-Christian countries. Sexually, though, it is — on the surface at least — overwhelmingly male/female.

Is the surface deceptive?

“Cool Japan” — manga- and anime-land — springs to mind as evidence that it is. Japan in fact was “cool” long before government PR machinery invented the label.

Myth takes us back to the formless void, where among the first generations of gods and goddesses are Izanagi (“He who Invites”) and Izanami (“She who Invites”). The biblical God’s creation of the universe is awesome and mysterious. Not so Izanagi and Izanami’s begetting of Japan, recounted in the eighth-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki.”

Imagine sexually awakened gods who, like children, don’t quite know what to do. They look at each other and are enchanted. Izanami speaks first: “What a splendid young man!” To which Izanagi replies, “What a splendid young woman!”

Their first offspring was a “leech child,” born without limbs or bones. What had gone wrong? The older gods explained: Izanami, the female, had spoken first. Initiative was the male’s prerogative. Chastened, they tried again. This time they got it right. Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan, and to gods and goddesses without number. The poor deformed baby, placed in a boat of reeds, floated away, never to be heard of again.

Japan, begotten child of childlike gods, escaped the stern sexual discipline imposed by an asexual creator god whose grim intolerance of human passions caused him, for example, to destroy a city, Sodom, for a “sin” known ever since as sodomy. Japan acknowledged no sexual sins, least of all that one, as the 16th-century Christian missionaries who saw this “land of the gods” in its pristine state noted with squeamish disgust.

The missionaries were banished and Japan went into isolation for 250 years. In the mid-19th century it was “opened.” Powerless to resist American and European bullying, it feverishly set about “modernizing.” Science and technology were not all it felt it had to learn from the West. Though it never turned Christian, it did adopt a quasi-Christian morality, toning down almost to the point of squelching the indigenous sexual playfulness (whose dark side, alas, is exploitation, of women in particular). The result was the buttoned-down Japan of the familiar stereotype — which must be taken, like all stereotypes, with a grain of salt.

‘Have you ever wondered how you look as a female?”

A man not predisposed to answer “yes” probably wouldn’t be visiting a website that presumes to inquire. “Cross-dresser’s paradise” — that’s how the Elizabeth Club bills itself. Located in Tokyo’s Asakusabashi district, it is one of hundreds of similar establishments whose existence on the fringes of conventional society suggests conventional society’s failure to accommodate certain aspects — call them deviant if you like, but fewer and fewer people do — of human nature.

“Don’t you want to become a lady of your dream?,” the website’s enticement continues.

It’s easy enough. “At Elizabeth, we want your feminine experience to be all you hoped for. There is a shop that carries everything you need to become a female: lingerie, stockings, wigs, high-heels, clothing, makeup goods, accessories, breast forms. … After you change into women’s clothes, our makeup artists, all young girls, will transform you to a girl or lady of your dream. … There is no limit except for your imagination.”

Clubs like this, and the widening appeal of cross-dressing and prime-time transgender TV stars such as Matsuko Deluxe, Ai Haruna and Ikko, to name some of the more famous, point to a restlessness within our conventional sexual boxes. Is it fanciful to foresee a time when we’ll burst out of them altogether? If so, there’s a lot of fanciful thinking around. Collectively it’s called “postgenderism.” One of its boldest exponents was feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012).

In “The Dialectics of Sex” (1970) she wrote, “The end goal of feminist revolution must be … not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of the other would be replaced by artificial reproduction.”

Male privilege, 43 years later, is alive and well, much more so in Japan than elsewhere, if the World Economic Forum’s oft-cited 2012 “Global Gender Gap Report” is a fair measure. It ranked Japan a wretched 101st out of 135 countries in terms of female professional, economic and political empowerment.

Behind that is a long past which showed scant regard for women. Warriors despised their weakness; Buddhism dismissed them as polluted beings incapable of attaining Enlightenment; Confucianism stressed the obedience a wife owed her husband and a mother her son. The modernizing regime of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) assigned woman her post-Confucian place — no corporate warrior or captain of burgeoning industry, she, but a “good wife and a wise mother” (“ryōsai kenbō“); it was written into the Meiji Civil Code, which remained in effect until 1947.

Postgenderism? Not Japan’s forte, it seems. Even the grand coming-out party that was Tokyo Rainbow Week, much lauded for its celebration, over 10 heady days in April, of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) life, showed Japan to be rather behind most of the developed world, though slowly catching up.

The gay pride movement in the United States goes back at least to 1968 (kindled, it is true, by a prevalent homophobia more virulent than anything Japanese LGBT people ever faced); Japan’s did not begin until 1994.

All the same, there is a touch, sometimes more than a touch, of “postgenderism” in Japanese culture, going all the way back to Izanami and Izanagi’s confusion over gender roles. Perhaps it’s not quite what Firestone had in mind. Perhaps, though, it hints at a latent capacity, to be realized over time (for better or worse), for what she did have in mind. A whimsical notion, admittedly. Let’s see if it holds.

Manga and anime fans will be familiar with the term futanari, or “new half” — hermaphrodite characters endowed with feminine curves, voluptuous breasts and a virile penis.

Their popularity goes back to the 1990s and endures to this day. Possibly this has something to do with the economic downturn that started around then, eroding the socially sanctioned and officially promoted orthodoxies — sexual and otherwise — that had gone more or less unchallenged during the Meiji and postwar economic surges.

Possibly, too, there’s a futanari element in the psychology of the nation itself.

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) captured it in the title of her classic 1946 work on Japan, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” — beauty and strength; female and male. Among the book’s Japanese admirers was novelist Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). A year before his famous suicide by ritual samurai disembowelment and beheading, he made a speech in which, citing Benedict, he declared, “After the war the balance between these two (chrysanthemum and sword) was lost. The sword has been ignored since 1945. My ideal is to restore the balance. To revive the tradition of the samurai, through my literature and my action.”

“The chrysanthemum and the sword” — they’re in Japan’s blood; both, together; at odds but inseparable. No man is all male; no woman is all female. Femininity was despised, but not the femininity in a man. The fiercest warrior was likely to be something of a poet, shedding unashamed tears over the beauty of cherry blossoms and the dew on a morning glory flower. Buddhism, the principal religion during the first 1,000 years of Japanese civilization, declared women to be unfit for Enlightenment — but not for reincarnation as a man in the next life. In some Buddhist sutras she changes her gender by meditating.

The female within the male, and the male within the female, seem closer to the surface in the Japanese tradition than in the standard Western ones. The 13th-century “Heike Monogatari,” an epic tale of the 12th-century Genpei Civil War that marked the transition to military government under a succession of shoguns, tells of two brothers slain in battle and their widows who, to comfort their bereaved mother-in-law, present themselves to her clad in their late husbands’ armor. This is a long way from the cross-dressing at the Elizabeth Club, but it had to start somewhere.

Some 450 years later, in 1686, the Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) wrote “Gengobei, the Mountain of Love,” a cross-dressing tale whose most striking feature, besides the throbbing passion that animates it, is its perfect naturalness. Saikaku is evidently writing for readers who will be amused, and moved — but not shocked.

Gengobei is a young rake who “devoted himself to the love of young men. Not once in his life had he amused himself with the fragile, long-haired sex.” When two of his especially beautiful lovers die suddenly, Gengobei enters the priesthood and renounces the world — not dreaming of the passion he has stirred in a pathetic young girl named Oman, “graced with such beauty that even the moon envied her.” Who should she fall in love with but Gengobei, “who had never in his life given a thought to girls”?

Cutting her hair and dressing like a boy, Oman boldly sets out for Gengobei’s mountain retreat. As a boy she is irresistible to him, but the truth is bound to out, and when it does, “‘What difference does it make — the love of men or the love of women?’ (Gengobei) cried, overpowered by the bestial passion which rules this fickle world.”

By Saikaku’s time, the theater known as kabuki was already a flourishing art form. Its roots lay in popular entertainments, circa 1600, on the banks or the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto — singing, dancing, acrobatics, skits, burlesques. The earliest performers were female, some of them dressed as men.

Then came the onnagata — male players of female roles. They were Japan’s first stars. The most famous of them all, Yoshizawa Ayame (1647-1709), was Saikaku’s contemporary. No woman, it was said, was more womanly than he — neither onstage nor off, for though unambiguously male (he was married and the father of four sons) he lived his private life in women’s clothes and with feminine speech and mannerisms.

“Unless the onnagata lives as a woman in daily life,” he wrote in a treatise considered a handbook of the art to this day, “he won’t be an accomplished onnagata.”

Yoshizawa set the feminine fashions of his day. Women learned from him, not he from them, how to dress, apply makeup and comport themselves for maximum coquettish effect.

So it was with his artistic descendants as well. “Why should women appear when I am here?” demanded Nakamura Utaemon V, a famed onnagata of the 1920s. “There is no woman in all Japan who acts as feminine as I do.”

Two words often used today to sum up a progressive attitude toward sex are “tolerance” and “diversity.” Human beings are not all of one sort; no one set of practices is “right,” “good” or “natural” as against others that are “wrong,” “evil” or “unnatural.” A glance at the sexual frolics of premodern Japan might suggest precisely those qualities of tolerance and diversity.

Was Japan, before the West molded it in its own image, tolerant? One element it lacked might make it seem so — a “Lord your God” frowning on his creatures’ “abominations.”

“Sodomy” was an early casualty, the stigma remaining until the gay pride movement of our own time began to erode biblically-sanctioned homophobia. Japan, in that sense, was way ahead of its time.

In 1763 a satirical writer named Hiraga Gennai (1728-79) penned a gem of a story titled “Rootless Weeds.”

His tale opens with Enma O, the Buddhist lord of the underword, about to pronounce judgment on a young monk who has just died of love for the onnagata Segawa Kikunojo II (a real-life actor who died in 1773). Counsel for the dead monk’s defense pleads for leniency: “How about letting him off with a soak in a boiling cauldron?”

“Most definitely not!” thunders Enma O. “I’m told that something called ‘male homosexuality’ can be found all across the human world, and I absolutely cannot allow that kind of thing.”

To make a long story all too short, defense counsel produces a portrait of the onnagata — with whom Enma O (did counsel foresee this?) promptly falls head over heels in love. What an unholy predicament!

“I hereby resign,” declares Enma O, “as supreme ruler of the underworld. What’s a precious throne worth when I can go to the human world and share a pillow with him?”

“Homosexuality (in Japan) did not mean delicacy and effeminacy,” writes historian Hiroshi Watanabe (in “A History of Japanese Political Thought: 1600-1901″; 2010). “Quite the contrary. From the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) into the Meiji years (1868-1912), to say of a man that he ‘disliked women’ was to express a certain amount of approbation. … For many samurai, excessive contact with women ran the risk of diluting their masculinity, notwithstanding that heterosexual sex was essential to the continuity of the house. To work at winning the heart of a woman was even more demeaning.”

Buddhist monks had other reasons for avoiding women. Religious celibacy vows do not seem to have precluded boys, however. “Boys appear often to have served as surrogates for the females absent from the lives of the monks,” writes historian Gary Leupp in his 1997 book, “Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.”

“Various Tokugawa Period jokes indicate the conflation of boys and women, and of the anus and vagina, in monastic society. In one, a priest on a religious retreat asks a friend to make him an onyake (artificial leather anus) for use in lieu of a boy. But he adds the request that it taste like a vagina.”

This is homosexuality not as a lifestyle choice but for lack of anything better. Senior monks took under their wing acolytes young enough to look feminine, sexual relations being accepted as part of the acolytes’ education. The boys were called chigo.

“Some monks during the medieval period,” writes Leupp, “shaved (their chigos’) eyebrows, powdered their faces (and) dressed them in female garb.”

One tradition has Minamoto Yoshitsune, a hero of the 12th-century Genpei civil war, spending his early years as the chigo lover of an abbot. “During this period,” writes Leupp, “(Yoshitsune) wears cosmetics, wears his hair up in a girlish bun, blackens his teeth [as women of the day did], and thinly pencils in lines over his shaven eyebrows.”

Is this tolerance, or exploitation? It can be a fine line between the two, and though it’s hard to enter into the feelings of people of bygone times, it’s the persistent hint of exploitation that disqualifies premodern Japan, sexually liberated though it seems in some ways, as a model for our own sexual liberation today.

If liberation for some means slavery for others, it’s damaged goods. Women in particular have little reason to regret the passing of the past. “A wife must think of her husband as her lord and look up to him with humility,” explains “Onna no Daigaku” (“The Greater Learning for Women”), a manual for female conduct written in the early 1700s. “A woman regards her husband as heaven.”

Custom was custom; force was force. Most women submitted — with varying degrees of willingness, resignation and despair. Some did not submit. The mid-19th century gives us the example of Matsuo Taseko (1811-94), an obscure peasant poet from a village in present-day Niigata Prefecture who, in the 1850s and ’60s, embraced the radical Imperial cause against the Tokugawa Shogun who had shown himself helpless against the intrusive foreigner.

The year 1862 found her in Kyoto among swordsmen, assassins, poets and rabble-rousers, all bent on overthrowing the shogun and “restoring” the Emperor to real, not merely ceremonial, power. These were the birth pangs of the Meiji (Imperial) Restoration of 1868.

What was Matsuo doing in the thick of this maelstrom? The only violence that she herself perpetrated was in her vituperative anti-Tokugawa poetry. More startling than her presence was her husband’s absence. “No other woman abandoned husband and family for the chaotic conditions in the capital (Kyoto),” notes her biographer, Anne Walthall, in “The Weak Body of a Useless Woman” (1998).

Japanese history is rich in women of indomitable courage: a wife fighting and dying at her husband’s side; a widow defending to the death her husband’s name and cause. Matsuo acted alone. Her husband, a well-to-do peasant, stayed home and minded the farm.

“(Matsuo) Taseko,” explains Walthall, “became androgynous, an onna masurao (a ‘manly woman’). … By appearing in (Kyoto) at this critical juncture, she usurped the male prerogative to move about and to act on one’s own. … Not for her was the role usually assigned to women in revolution, that of ‘giving moral support to their men folk.’ ”

In becoming an onna masurao, did Matsuo sacrifice her gender, or free herself from it? One of her poems suggests that the sacrifice, if such indeed it was, meant little to her: “How awful to have the ardent heart of a manly man and the useless body of a weak woman.”

Postgenderism. When Matsuo’s femaleness hindered her, she shucked it. And women today? Among shōjo manga (comics for young girls), none has ever matched the inexhaustible popularity of “Berusaiyu no Bara” (“The Rose of Versailles”), which, since its original run in 1972-73, has been recast as anime, films and musicals — all smash hits.

The story, set during the French Revolution, is about one Oscar François de Jariayes, born a girl but raised as a boy by a father who wanted a son. As a boy she masters fencing, horsemanship and combat; as a man she flings herself into the revolutionary drama and falls in love with a man. The all-female Takarazuka Revue has performed it over the years to audiences totaling millions. Its starring role, that of Lady Oscar, is a sure vehicle to superstardom for the lucky otokoyaku (female player of male characters — Takarazuka’s answer to kabuki’s onnagata) who is appointed to play it.

How to account for popularity on this scale? Evidently, today’s young women see the sexually ambiguous Lady Oscar as a kind of role model. What does she say to them? That a female gets nowhere in the world as a mere woman? That any single gender — female or male — falls short of being fully human? That both genders are equally meaningless, relics of an outgrown stage in the evolution of our species?

Men, in that case, seem to be traveling the same road. Postgender male par excellence is the otaku, the hyper-computerized “nerd” whose absorption in manga, anime and computer games renders him unfit for, uninterested in, and contentedly detached from, anything previous generations have recognized as “real life.”

Here we are in the heart of “Cool Japan.” In October 2008, a young man named Taichi Takashita circulated an online petition demanding the legal right to marry an anime character. “Nowadays,” the petition explained, “we have no interest in the three-dimensional world. If it were possible, I think I’d rather live in a two-dimensional world.”

The desire to escape into a fantasy world is not new. What may be is the possibility of actually doing so — permanently. The 2-D girl of Takashita’s dreams is Mikuru Asahina, a beautiful but shy time traveler who figures in an anime series titled “Haruhi Suzumiya” — concerning which there is this interesting sidelight: In 2010, it hit the electronic grapevine that Aya Hirano, the 22-year-old voice actress who voices the series’ eponymous heroine, was not a virgin. The indignation and sense of betrayal that swept otakuland! One 23-year-old male fan told the weekly Spa! magazine at the time, “An idol must embody men’s ideal. To otaku, virginity is an ideal.”

Takashita may never win the legal right to marry Mikuru (though his petition drew 3,000 signatures within two months), but he — like many others nowadays — commands the technology to spend as much time with her as he pleases. Isn’t that as good as legal marriage? It is, if “postgenderism” takes on the added meaning, as it seems to be doing, of “postsex.”

Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan”(2010) and “The Naked Ear”(2012).

  • Christopher-trier

    This article shows precisely why I loathe post-modernism.
    Winding, circuitous, and unable to be criticised as the arguments are too
    loosely made. Push on one end, it comes out in another — just like an amoeba.

    Homosexuality has always existed. Every species which engages in sexual intercourse for pleasure has a small number which prefer members of the same sex. It’s a natural part of life and worrying about where it comes from, or if it can be “cured”, is irrelevant. Some traditions have been more tolerant of it — Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shinto along with many other indigenous faiths. Others have been less tolerant — the Abrahamic faiths especially.
    Yet the tolerance shown in some faiths should not be treated as if it were an acceptance of relationships as we know know them — sometimes yes, but not always. The Chinese have a long tradition of male-male romantic relationships, but they were primarily pederasty. An adult male, an adolescent youth — often purchased for a number of years at auctions — would spend a few years in a relationship until the young man almost inevitably left to take a wife and have children. Confucianism, after all, demands that obligations must be fulfilled and carrying on the family line is at the core of domestic duties. Japan was no better. Many young samurai were expected to serve their superiors in every single way, including sexually. It did not matter if the thought disgusted them, they had no right to refuse. In both China and Japan men who had boyfriends on the side did not always care what their wives thought of it. Some may have been fine with it, others not.

    • kyushuphil

      Why object to Michael Hoffman’s piece here as “post-modernism”?

      His “winding, circuitous” ways here duplicate those of Montaigne, but nobody is going to call him, the original father of the essay any “post-modernist.”

      I learned much from Michael Hoffman’s dipping into history, classics, current retailing, and popular lit from many Japanese eras. I like his relaxed, leisurely tone in handling all this. I wish kids in Japanese high schools would get such perambulating models for widely-referenced writing they, too, might try.

      The problem isn’t whether one is more male or more female, but whether one has the chance and rhetorical skills to explore one’s options. Schools in Japan don’t teach writing. They give youth no chances to develop investigative skills. It’s not that the schools fear youth choosing more this way or that along the gender-bending curves, so much as that the schools are loathe to let youth ever choose let alone express anything in any form at all remotely human.

      In contrast to the cram robotics of Japanese schools today, Michael Hoffman’s essaying through Japanese history shows institutions don’t inevitably have to be as neutered-deadly here as the zombies in charge now construe.

      • Christopher-trier

        I agree with you about the problems inherent in the Japanese education system.Students do not receive a proper education, they simply learn how to pass exams. Exams for high schools, exams for universities — cram, cram, cram until it’s time to start at university in which the next 3 years will be spent relaxing and partying before the ritual of job hunting begins.
        This is most unusual for Japan, especially considering how brilliantly creative, innovative, and lively the country was more most of its history. I just don’t think that Hoffman’s piece is a good example of how to replace it.

  • Alicia MacCara

    I found this article incredibly interesting. It is an exploration rather than a defined argument which I really enjoyed! Good article!

  • shinjukuboy

    Japan’s gay pride movement began before 1994. In the early 1980s (at least by 86), International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA) was set up in Japan by Minami Teishiro, publisher of Adon magazine (gay magazine). By 1987 he published My Life My Way (MLMW), the first attempt to establish the “gay lifestyle”. Also, around 1987, the first gay pride parade was held in Tokyo under his sponsorship.

  • Stugo

    Your shocking population crisis in Japan comes from a ridiculously low fertility rate among your women. Did you rush to embrace the West’s “family planning” thinking it would give you a better life, when it was devised by eugenicists to destroy our culture? (Destroy the family, you destroy the country. – Lenin)

    As for homosexuality. It is generally shunned everywhere and throughout the ages as it poses a danger to the tribe. Same-sex “marriage” was never legalised by any emperor, king or government prior to the past few years of cultural subversion.

    Listen to Yuri Bezmenov on YouTube describe equality and diversity as a tool to destroy western society.

    • Afonso Ribeiro

      Faaaalse. Ancient China and Ancient Rome.