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The long and short of male circumcision in Japan

by Matt Treyvaud

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.