For Alisa Yamasaki’s accompanying opinion article on this theme, click here.
Sometimes over drinks in Tokyo, I was amazed to find that the Western “Charisma Man” — that creature of urban myth, the nerdy guy who transforms, Clark Kent-style, into a superhero in Japan — was alive and well. I would listen to expats in their 30s and 40s — all otherwise well-mannered, educated men — as they relayed their exploits with Japanese women in an awkwardly boastful manner.
Some of the locker-room lore was sexist. Invariably the women were “girls,” regardless of age, with no character, no traits beyond being attractive — and in seemingly endless supply. With great investment of time, the men would chase these girls like missions to be accomplished, then drop them after the hookup, forgotten like umbrellas.
There was a sense of arrogance underneath — a whiff of the colonial age. One acquaintance, a man working as a career adviser, said he roamed Tokyo all night, accosting any female that was “higher than a six.”
I never knew how to respond besides a lame “Good for you.” Nothing wrong with consensual hookups, and anyway, I knew some of these stories were braggadocio, based partly on wishful thinking. Sometimes men perform masculinity, to establish credentials with other men. We say and do things that we think “real men” say and do, which includes living like James Bond in exotic locales.
Short of piling on your own “conquests,” the locker-room code makes it hard to respond. You sound either jealous or prudish, both of which are uncool. And certainly I was jealous: A part of me, selfish and cached, wouldn’t have minded joining the Peter Pans, making out like bandits in Tokyo.
And so I thought I would sound disingenuous if I suddenly asked, “What is up with the obsessive chasing? Ever thought you might be a little selfish?” And so, I didn’t ask.
I liked these men, aside from the bragging, but sometimes when men have fun, women get hurt. I think there is a reason why some Japanese women, repelled by the unwarranted stereotypes such men have about them being “easy,” are wary of dating foreigners. And there is a reason why a Japanese female writer once referred to Roppongi — the party district in Tokyo known for Westerners chasing women — as “a cesspool of slimy privilege.”
Now that I’m living back in San Francisco, what strikes me is that in their home countries — whether it be Canada, the U.K., America or Australia — many of the Tokyo playboys wouldn’t openly objectify women. Asked why they do it in Japan, the honest answer might be “Because here I can. Because I don’t get called out.”
Of course, I know many Western men in Japan who are champions of gender equality — caring partners and husbands who treat Japanese women with respect. It is a point of pride in the expat community to be progressive about women’s rights.
But this enlightenment coexists with the entitlement — the gluttonous disrespect of women that can be seen among some Western men, both white and people of color. For them, the rules in Japan are different, the thresholds lowered.
Last week, Akiyoshi Saito, a social worker at a Tokyo mental health clinic for addiction, wrote on the website Diamond.jp that some of his patients with sex addiction are so-called “elite foreigners”: “Many of the foreigners at our clinic are working in tech or other big companies,” writes Saito. “They didn’t realize they were abusing power over women. In their home countries, they have no history of chikan (gropers). They get socialized into the chikan culture in Japan.”
In America, a recent social media campaign has brought attention to the dark side of boys being boys, calling out men on a troubling scale. On Oct. 15, the actress Alyssa Milano started it with a tweet: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Since then, #MeToo statuses have been flooding social media, expanding to other countries and totaling in the hundreds of thousands. The magnitude of the problem, it turns out, is staggering, much larger than most men realized.
Hailed as a sea change in public awareness, the #MeToo campaign shows to what extent anger and pain have been hidden. Some women have called on men to start owning the problem, to overhaul ancient attitudes — so ingrained as to often be unconscious — and face what some see as a culture of permission.
There is a big difference, of course, between a sexual predator and a playboy. But the #MeToo campaign shows that, if women worldwide are going to have more respect, they will have to drag men, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. In Japan, foreign men won’t be getting much of this pressure.
Which brings me back to my Charisma buddies. Perhaps my own failing was not to challenge the locker-room code — not with the wagging finger of a spoiler, but as a man who is also learning. Some of the scoring seems desperate for a reason, and a better response to the lore might be “Hey — are you lonely?”
As Western expats, we all bring our own baggage to Japan and its people. And as men, sadly, we may dump some of this stuff onto women, the perceived next rung on the power scale.
I’m trying myself to figure out the 21st century, and I too get confused about wants and desires. Most of the times that I learned something about dates and selfishness, it was because somebody — a woman or man — called me out.
Nicolas Gattig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Foreign Agenda is a forum for readers’ opinions on issues related to life in Japan. Send your comments about the issues raised here to email@example.com.