COLONIZING SEX: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan, by Sabine Fruhstuck. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, 217 pp., 15 illustrations, $50.00 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).

Philosopher Michael Foucault has written that sexuality is the most useful tool in any power relationship. It is adaptable to the greatest number of maneuvers and is capable of serving as support for the most varied strategies. As such it has long been used by most governments in their efforts to stay on top.

Laws pertaining to sexual matters are commonly rife, as sexual knowledge is denied or pushed according to the needs of the state. The means are usually normalization, medicalization and pedagogy. These are modulated by complicated exchanges among governmental agencies, the media and other interested parties.

This, true as it is now, was not always so in Japan. The pre-Meiji years are distinguished by few governmental inquiries into sexuality as such. Sexual practices, habits and beliefs were, in a way, tolerated. It was not, however, that the Tokugawa government purposely pursued such a benign course. Rather, sexual matters were perhaps regarded as too mundane to serve as a governmental tool.

This innocent state ended when the Meiji government, inspired by the West, decided to put sex to work or, as the author of this very interesting study describes it, “colonized” Japanese sexuality. This colonization variously foreshadowed, coincided with, and overlapped with the Japanese imperialist penetration of East and Southeast Asia.

The results were not only enforced prostitution and “comfort stations” for the soldiers, but also a full frontal attack on that most private of activities: masturbation. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the young must avoid the “horrible consequences of the practice.” The founder of a medical school claimed that masturbation was “the most terrible ailment related to the sexual instinct.” He went on to assert that, since the only purpose of the sex drive was reproduction, any such abuse would have fatal consequences.

Fatal certainly to the aims of the state. “For imperialist and militarist ideologues, population increase was proof of a prosperous empire, potent and willing to fight future wars thanks not only to healthy and well-trained male subjects but also to a supply of offspring provided by unlimitedly fertile women.” Masturbators would obviously not contribute toward that goal.

Welcoming this new generation of bellicose babies was a concerted effort to control sexual knowledge, to discourage such infertile habits as “self-abuse,” to start talking about “racial hygiene” and to stigmatize, more and more, unapproved sexual activities as “disruptive to morals” and as “obscene.”

One still hears those terms bandied about because, as Sabine Fruhstuck indicates, there are many enduring legacies of the colonial ruling apparatus of sex. Though what is disruptive and what is obscene have never been defined under Japanese law, the categories are just too handy to give up. And too copious — almost anything can be shoved into those bins.

Or taken out. Viagra, for example. Usually a new drug must, according to Japanese law, be tested on animals, then on Japanese citizens; results are then submitted, and the ministry involved typically takes two more years before the product can appear on the shelves.

In the cause of this potency pill, however, there was an instant demand, the impotent audience having long lost faith in aphrodisiacs, injections and vacuum pumps. It took only half a year before Viagra appeared.

An unexpected but welcome outcome was that the birth-control pill, long available elsewhere while tied up here with medical red tape and bogged down with medical doubt, was suddenly sprung. Critics had cried: “The drug that lets you get pregnant is approved, but the one that would prevent pregnancy is not.”

And there were voiced suspicions of a secret nationalist agenda to boost the population, which was aging fast. The pill was very shortly on the shelves.

No one neglected to remark on an unsurprising disparity: that Viagra is for men and the pill is for women. The playing field has never been precisely level. But this has long been a part of the colonization of sex — it’s a man’s game. Women’s sexual desire is there only to create kids; women’s sexual desire is weaker than men’s, if it exists at all. Lies like this have always been used and still are.

One of the benefits of this scholarly inquiry into the manipulation of Japan’s opinion on sex is that it also looks closely into prejudice, sexism and bigotry. It thus well defines its field.

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