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Defining masculinity in a brave new world of despair

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing writer

Dad works in a bank. “For a man, work is everything” — that’s his motto. It was his father’s before him. Unquestioned and undoubted, it entered his bloodstream.

Work was everything. He rose high, wielded great authority and drew a good salary. He was 42, still young, just hitting his stride.

Mom minded the house. She raised the child. A familiar paradigm – extinct, surely?

Yes and no. Yes, advanced social thinking has envisioned, advocated and produced alternatives. No, the alternatives are not triumphant. A glance at the World Economic Forum’s 2020 gender equality rankings shows as much. Japan ranks 121st.

How can that be? On the Foreign Ministry’s website, we read: “As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly stated in his address at the 68th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on Sept. 26, 2013, the government of Japan will cultivate the power of women as the greatest potential for the growth of the Japanese economy… with the belief that creating a ‘society in which women shine’ will bring vigor to the world.”

The thought shone briefly, then flickered out, although the post remains. Government statistics update us. As of 2018, 6.6 percent of Japan’s corporate executives were women; women’s salaries averaged 73 percent of men’s; 6.16 percent of fathers took paternity leave to help raise their children. As of 2016, mothers of preschool children spent on average 454 minutes a day on housework and child care; fathers, 83 minutes.

Spa magazine last month posed a challenging question: What qualities constitute masculinity in this new Reiwa Era? Its list of “traditional” qualities is familiar enough. In descending order: a will to compete and win; an unemotional exterior; risk-taking; dominance; sexual assertiveness; self-reliance. The research behind the list is American, but the Japanese male is clearly visible in it — at least the Japanese male as the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-26) and Showa (1926-89) eras cast him. Has he been recast since?

The banker’s story above is part of Spa’s answer.

One night his wife greeted him at the door: “I can’t raise the child alone.”

He gaped at her: “What?”

“You heard me,” she replied. “I need your help. A child needs a father.”

“It was as if,” the man tells Spa, “she was denying everything I had lived for.”

The marriage, agreeable enough (to him) until then, turned sour. He vented his frustration on the child: “You should never have been born.”

Six months later, the couple divorced. The man sank into depression. A leave of absence, hospitalization and counseling followed.

He’s only now slowly getting back to work.

Another story in the same vein from the same source: A 43-year-old IT professional grew up as the eldest son of a philandering father and a depressive mother. Still a child himself, he found himself a father by default to his four siblings. It took a sharp tongue and sometimes a strong hand to keep them in line.

His sense of responsibility developed early, too early. He grew up determined to be what his hated father had so disastrously failed to be: his wife and children’s mainstay.

Boundaries never quite draw themselves where they belong. He became a terror to his subordinates at work, riding them hard, as though reliving his childhood through them.

The subordinates at last took their grievances to the top. They allege harassment. An investigation proceeds. The man languishes at home on forced leave, meanwhile.

One final Spa story clinches the point, which seems to be that the traditional male has died, leaving no obvious successor.

It concerns a 41-year-old part-time odd-jobber. How does he define manliness? Negatively.

“You cannot be manly,” he says, thinking of himself, “if you can’t support a family.”

To marry, to raise kids — it was his dream. A matter of course once upon a time; now off-limits, it seems, to all but the favored few. He used match-making apps, trawled encounter sites, attended parties — in vain.

“As soon as a woman hears I’m part time,” he says, “she’ll have nothing to do with me.”

Powerful or powerless, the modern male loses. To whom? The victorious modern female? The statistics cited above suggest not. Maybe the question is misconceived. Can’t both genders win?

Two possibilities occur. The genders can merge, becoming only incidentally male and female, otherwise simply and equally human. Or, they can go their separate ways, which is what Shukan Gendai magazine seems to see happening.

An article it ran last month is titled “Women’s sexuality and personal liberation.” “Liberation” turns out to mean liberation from, or at least a redefinition of, sexuality. Display, not coupling, is its fulfillment. Selfie nudes proliferating on social networks say in effect to male admirers, “Admire me but don’t approach me. I want your praise. I don’t want you.”

Something strange, kinky almost, happened to sex on the long road from nature civilization — “civilization” here meaning its Western variant. Japan in the Edo Period (1603-1868) was civilized but non-Western, and its sex life, in Shukan Gendai’s view, was wonderfully open and natural.

Shame and embarrassment were largely absent. Men and women bathed together. “The naked body was a mere extension of the naked face,” writer Akira Nakano says. The kimono, easily shed, made for easy disrobing.

Everyone knows what came next. Japan went “Western,” clothing itself in trousers, hoop skirts, cumbersome underwear and similar armor. “Rich country, strong army,” the government proclaimed, defining the national project. Sex and gender were drafted into it, men as workers toiling to produce the former, women as breeders to ensure the latter. Thus Japan’s forward march into its future. That future is now past, but the rhythm remains.

Here and there, now and then, the human spirit asserted itself. Japan’s first striptease, Shukan Gendai tells us, was in 1947, a flash of exposed breast on a Tokyo theater stage. Few saw then the evolution it would set in motion — through the fuzoku (erotic entertainment) boom of the 1990s to the selfie nudes of today. And tomorrow? We’ll wake up one day, and it’ll be upon us.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History,” is now on sale.

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