National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Porn is in the iPhone of the beholder

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

“Her lips languorous like a loose-wound spool, the fragrance of her perfume reaching to the skies. And how lovely when she moves, swaying back and forth. … When compared to this creature, a man’s wife can hardly seem more than a salted fish past its prime!”

Most writing from the 17th century shows its age. This little snippet, from a satirical novel published in 1666 by Asai Ryoi, is as fresh as this morning. Some things never change, or the more they do the more they remain the same. The longing for beauty is insatiable. It drives us to subterfuge, excess, shame, disgrace, even crime. “And thus,” concludes the moralizing elder brother in Ryoi’s story, “do many men go to their ruin.”

He seems suspiciously conversant with the pleasures he’s warning his wastrel younger brother against. He too in his youth must have frequented the elegant and accomplished courtesans of the “floating world,” the licensed urban pleasure quarters. You had to, in those pre-smartphone days, to make your secret dreams come true.

Today, the pleasure quarters come to you. Download this app, download that app, click here, click there and your little screen fills with images — the sort of images that in pre-“smart” days you had to slink into grungy theaters to see, or stand writhing while a bookstore clerk rang up the sale and handed you, hopefully not smirking, your shrink-wrapped volume of carnal delight. It’s hard to know whether Shukan Post magazine is celebrating or bemoaning the post-post-modern phenomenon of “the world of adults addicted to free smartphone ero-manga!” Anyway, it’s noting it.

Pornography and embarrassment have always gone hand in hand. Enjoyment came at a price — you hated yourself. You felt other people’s eyes on you and saw yourself through them, knowing you didn’t look good. Porn defenders boldly declared themselves champions of free speech. That may have dignified the producers, but a consumer would have required remarkable self-confidence to feel like the champion of anything.

Smartphones to the rescue! Unlike theaters, which people can see you entering, unlike books and magazines that your mother or father or wife or husband might stumble upon however carefully hidden, unlike personal computers on which traces of suspect websites remain like smudges, the miniature, individual smartphone guarantees near-perfect, all-but-inviolable privacy. Technical development makes images ever clearer, bursting the limitations of the small screen. E-book publishers, ever more awake to the fact that free images lead consumers on to material they’ll pay for, are growing ever more free with them. And so, says Shukan Post, the ever-proliferating smartphone screen fills with ever-proliferating images of … well, you know. Still or motion, manga or not, there’s nothing the imagination can conjure up — frolicsome maids, frustrated housewives, goddesses descending to play with men — that’s further than a click away.

There’s an anomaly here, evident to anyone who’s been following the evolution of “sexless Japan.” Two surveys are often cited in this regard. One, by condom maker Durex, portrays Japanese as remarkably sexually inactive relative to most of the rest of the world, and remarkably dissatisfied with what sex they have. The other, by the Japan Family Planning Association, classifies 44.6 percent of Japanese married couples up to age 49 as “sexless,” meaning they engage in sexual activity less than once a month.

Tokyo University professor Kaku Sechiyama, writing last December in the business publication Toyo Keizai, sums up the anomaly this way: “When foreigners come to Japan, they are surprised by the advertisements on the train showing women clad in swimsuits, or by the (mainstream) weekly magazines and newspapers that show pictures of nude women. … The Japanese society that is overflowing with connotations of sex is, in reality, a sexless society.”

That depends, of course, on what you mean by “reality” — or by “sex,” for that matter. What defines it — reproduction? Pleasure? Freedom?

Here’s a story, a true story, of a “pornographic” writer whose “scandalous” “sex life” once aroused contempt — now she’s much admired. The name by which she’s known is Jakucho Setouchi. She’s 92, still active, still an activist, most recently against restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors and depacifying its pacifist Constitution. Among other remarkable things, she’s a Buddhist nun. The weekly Sunday Mainichi profiles her as part of its commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to the victors of World War II.

She was in Japan-occupied China at the time, the 23-year-old wife of a lecturer at Beijing University. He was drafted in July 1945, leaving her alone with their infant daughter, starvation looming. She found a job at last, with a transport company, and started work on Aug. 15. At the office, the radio was on and she heard the Emperor issuing Japan’s surrender. It was impossible. Japan would never surrender. Japan could never be defeated. Japan was the land of the gods. Its emperor was a god. It did only good things. So she’d been taught to believe, and anyone who questioned it was, in her eyes, a “defeatist,” “not Japanese.” “Japanese,” like “sex,” is subject to various definitions.

Through many hardships, she, her husband and baby made it back home in the summer of 1946. A group of her husband’s students was on hand to greet them. She fell in love with one and ran off with him.

“Our relationship was platonic; still, what I did was terribly wrong,” she tells Sunday Mainichi. But the times were what they were. “Morality was shattered. It was a revolution.”

She turned to writing. Novels of women going their own way, economically and sexually, were “pornographic” then. So much hinges on ever-shifting definitions! Her writing deepened and she began winning prizes. In 1973, at the height of her fame, she took religious vows.

Buddhism’s appeal, she says, is its core teaching that killing is absolutely wrong. “I’ve been to China, the Soviet Union, Iraq, any number of countries,” she says, “and all the people I’ve ever met have been kind and good. Individuals are good, but group them into countries and judgment gets skewed. If there were no national borders there’d be no war.”

Japan’s latest moves under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to explicitly militarize the Self-Defense Forces fill her with dread. “Japan today,” she says, “is like Japan of 1941, 1942. I seem to hear the echo of marching boots.”

She doesn’t use the word “pornography” to describe it, but maybe she could have.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.