Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

'Yellow fever' and the fantasy of the Asian female

Dissonance between dreams, reality can kill or kindle relationships

by Nicolas Gattig

Here is a dumb thing you should never do: watch the 007 caper “You Only Live Twice” with your feminist American girlfriend — a woman of color to boot. In a series renowned for its sexism, the Japan entry takes the biscuit.

My date night was first upset as Bond is massaged in a bathhouse by Aki, an improbably svelte and doe-eyed assistant, who whispers that she will enjoy very much “serving under” him. The feminist girlfriend, adorable if not exactly svelte, emits a derisive snort. “What is she — a slave?”

When Bond and another “sexiful” nymph, the pearl diver Kissy Suzuki, search for the villains’ hideout in the Kyushu mountains, the feminist girlfriend at last blows a fuse. “Why is that chick running around in a bikini and high heels on a volcano?”

It is a valid point that I have given a lot of thought. The honest answer can only be that Kissy Suzuki understands what men like, the recesses of the lizard brain, and that she is guilelessly happy to deliver. No wonder my date night went south.

Any cultural interaction can trigger fantasies, a pushing of buttons in the collective unconscious. Few of these fantasies, though, seem as keen as the one Western males have of Asian females (and this, in turn, pushes buttons for non-Asian females). What lies beneath this attraction besides obvious physical features? And what are the fantasies driving “yellow fever,” the fetish for Orientals that can make Western guys in Japan act like brats in a toy shop?

“What’s wrong with a preference?” is a common response to accusations of having a fetish. Indeed, not every man dating Asian women is a closet pedophile yearning for back rubs and full geisha service. (Which Western man harbors fantasies of a good cup of tea and an extended shamisen recital anyway?) Moreover, to see a real Asian fetish, you don’t have to look further than, say, Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki drooling over “a bare milk-white food of sheer perfection, with exquisitely chiseled toes and nails like the iridescent shells along the shore at Enoshima.” I mean, talk about yellow fever.

But some preferences can be creepy, as demonstrated in the recent online series “They’re All So Beautiful” by the hordes of amorous man-babies lured to Asian/non-Asian speed dating — the kind of operators who would try to impress a date by eating with chopsticks and cooing “I really like your people!” Asked to explain his particular taste in the documentary, one American wife-hunter explains that “Asians are more caring and trustworthy; they listen better.”

In her sprawling expose “The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient,” Sheridan Prasso explores the romantic notions that enchant Caucasians and Asians alike. It is a sobering read, a panorama of human folly enabled by longing, projections and misconceptions, and at times even cynical engineering.

“The issue of fetishism and preference,” Prasso writes, “is so prevalent, so pervasive in relations between East and West, that even healthy, normal relationships often are tarnished by the accusation.” Anyway, she explains, the line between preference and fixation, the kind of obsessive preoccupation that a fantasy can engender, is often vague to the point where each individual must decide for herself — or himself — if they feel they are being objectified.

“As an Asian person, I can immediately sense when someone has an Asian fetish,” writes Reina Mizuno, a Harvard MBA graduate from Nagoya, in the business school’s student newspaper. “You see a guy walking down the street, hand in hand with another Asian girl, and he still checks you out as you walk by him.”

Other giveaways among Harvard men, says Mizuno, are graduating in East Asian Studies or working as an English teacher in Asia. “Is this about American men, tired of Anglo-Saxon feminists, seeking more traditional Asian women who would be dependent on them and make them feel good about themselves?” she asks.

According to Prasso’s research, that is indeed partly what this is about. An American interviewee admits: “There’s a fear there with women I feel too much equality with. I see something of a feminist backlash. I don’t really understand it, but I feel less threatened by Asian women.”

Sadly, some Asian dreams come in dark and depressing hues. In fact, Prasso’s survey of the Pacific Rim makes you wonder if East and West bring out the absolute worst in each other. Slumming through pay-for-sex cesspools in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, she meets a parade of body consumers with a colonial sense of entitlement, the ghosts from next door who must quench their inner void with the purchase of flesh and affection. A fantasy never satiates, so it’s no wonder confessions of yellow fever are often stories of sex addiction.

Of course projections are cast both ways, and Asian women too nurse their own dreams and desires. Jaron Blaye, an African-American IT consultant in Tokyo, says he often leaves people guessing about his ethnicity, due to his light complexion and vaguely Asiatic features. As a result, different buttons are pushed in the fanciful female mind.

“The Japanese eat up stereotypes,” says Blaye. “I had a female friend who said I was different from other black men — somehow ‘not really black.’ It was only when we went dancing that she said, ‘Oh my God, you really are black! I can see it in your dancing!’

“For her, being a real black person was to live up to the Japanese stereotype. And when I finally did that, she became sexually interested. Of course, I myself took advantage of the ‘myth of the black man’ to conquer as many Japanese women as possible.”

In the wake of his trysts, Blaye has shattered the mother of all fantasies. “The funny thing is,” he explains, “the notion that black men are these well-endowed Mandingo lovers is not true. I remember the disbelief and disappointment of some women when they first saw me undressed! Others were interested in the fact that what they’d heard about black men and size was a myth. Some of the disappointed simply continued their fantasy quest, perhaps in the streets of Roppongi, looking out for their ‘real black man.’ ”

When flights of fancy clash with reality, sometimes the result can also delight. “The strong samurai warrior is a very attractive image, to me and a lot of Western women,” says Melanie Harper, a Canadian business English instructor. But “in reality, Japanese men can be really good listeners, and incredibly supportive. They are chivalrous in their own way, like carrying your purse, paying for dinner, and positioning themselves on escalators so they can catch you if you fall!”

And this is where the plot thickens. Japanese men being chivalrous? Is there a native on these islands, male or female, who concurs? Likewise, how many Japanese husbands, squeezing cigarette money from their monthly allowance, can believe Western men yearn for a Japanese wife they imagine will be docile and malleable — more appreciative and less demanding, a doll who will scrub your back?

When it comes to romantic attraction, there is no objective reality. Perhaps we are different with a partner from another culture, or perhaps it is all in the mind. A fantasy may deceive, but it can also help shape what is real. Sometimes we receive what we choose to see; sometimes we don’t get what we choose to ignore.

Consciously or not, some intercultural relations may work as a “performance team” — both partners staging respective fantasies to the point where both get something they want. If familiarity indeed breeds contempt, one path to romantic bliss may be finding someone different enough not to know us completely — so completely that we may tire of ourselves.

In “The Quiet American,” Graham Greene’s novel of Oriental enchantment, the Vietnamese lover Phuong is described as “wonderfully ignorant.” She is not stupid or naive, just uneducated, so might her charm be in part that she cannot fathom the “Western mystique”?

Print and e-book giveaway: Send your thoughts on these issues to community@japantimes.co.jp for a chance to win one of 10 copies of “Black Passenger Yellow Cabs” (five in print, five e-books) or “Understanding Japanese Women” (e-book only). Winners may have their responses published. Please indicate which book you would prefer to receive and in which format. The deadline for submissions is Friday, July 19.

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