Thursday, April 8, 2010

Never the Twain Shall Meet, One More Time

I'm still reading Mark J. McLelland's Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan, and still finding contrasts between Japanese gay life and "Western" gay life that don't seem to work. In his discussion of Japanese gay male media, for example, he says that
Gay media in Japan do not, on the whole, address issues of lifestyle and tend to avoid discussion of homosexuality in terms of legal reform or human rights -- issues which take up considerable space in gay media in Europe and the United States. ... Thus the American Advocate, the British Gay Times and the Australian gay newspaper Sydney Star Observer, although containing a few erotic pictures, are mainly news and lifestyle oriented whereas pornographic magazines such as or Honcho or Torso focus more specifically upon erotic fantasy. Japan so far has no nationally distributed glossy magazines similar to the Advocate or Gay Times which, directed at gay men, lesbians and transgender individuals, focus on issues of gay identity, lifestyle and rights, although as I point out in the current chapter, such articles are occasionally sandwiched in between the pornography in Japanese gay magazines [127].
Fair enough, but McLelland seems not to be aware that the Advocate used to have a big personal-ads section, known as "Trader Dick," that probably kept it afloat financially. The balance between politics, "lifestyle," and the erotic was always controversial. By 1992, Trader Dick was spun off to a separate publication, as the "gay market" caught on and it became easier to sell ad space to non-gay publications. The word "lesbian" was added to the Advocate's masthead only in 1990, which made many of the magazine's male readers throw hissyfits, writing angry letters denouncing the lesbian writers who'd been hired. Political papers like Gay Community News that refused to take sex-oriented advertising always had trouble surviving financially, however prestigious their content was. (And I say that as one who preferred, subscribed to, and wrote for the political papers.) I don't know much about the relative circulation of The Advocate and Honcho, but I wouldn't assume that Honcho moves fewer copies.

As for movement politics and "identity" (a word that always bugs me for some reason, partly because it's stressed so much in books like this without much clarity about what it means), politics and the social/sexual have always jostled each other for space in the American gay movement, with the latter usually winning out. Daughters of Bilitis, the first successful lesbian organization in the US, founded in the 1950s, was primarily a social organization for many years, until second-wave feminism politicized many lesbians. Mattachine, founded in 1948 by the ex-Communist Harry Hay and a few other politically minded gay men, was soon purged of its politicos and became largely a social club. Most American gay men really aren't that political. If Japanese magazines don't contain much political content, that could have something to do with the fact that there is no Japanese gay movement to speak of.

The most noteworthy difference I observe about the Japanese gay monthlies McLelland describes is their high price (1500 yen, or about $12 at the time he was writing) and their size: 500 pages. That's much bigger than any American gay magazine I've ever seen. The table of contents for one such magazine McLelland describes, Barazoku for April 1994, doesn't appear until page 54, "suggesting that the magazine is bought more on the basis of the boys in the pictures than the articles listed in the contents!" (130) Duh! This made me think of Playboy; the boys and men who bought it never hung its articles on the walls of their dorm rooms either.

The April 1994 issue of Barazoku also contains "54 pages of personal ads (777 in total)", and "259 pages of ads headed 'Barazoku men's town guide'", ranging from "'Gay nights' at major disco venues (few Japanese gay bars are large enough to permit dancing)" to "a huge number of adverts for both domestic and foreign videos (with stills) covering the usual gay fantasy figures ... Telephone sex is also on offer", along with "ads offering sexual services" (133). All this is roughly what you'd find in the classified ads of the Village Voice, it seems to me.

In the personal ads McLelland analyzes,
In keeping with the general lack of opportunity for developing or expressing a 'gay identity' many of the men placing ads describe themselves as ordinary ... or manly ... and are looking for other men like themselves who are cheerful ... and honest ... Very few men except those with a fetish for transgendered men, specifically request feminine or effeminate partners ... Many ads definitively reject them along with smokers, guys wearing glasses, fat men and foreigners. In fact, such men are rejected so often in the ads, that some ads make a specific mention of not minding such things as glasses or foreigners. Activities are the mainstays of Japanese recreation: driving, karaoke, going eating/drinking, travel and sports. ... The majority of writers are thus men who see themselves as being honest and ordinary, seeking other men to consult about problems as well as relax in very ordinary Japanese ways [145].
Again, this sounds exactly like gay personal ads in the US, where one constantly reads of "normal guy looking for normal guy" and "masc seeking masc", no fats fems or freaks plz. McLelland doesn't make any explicit comparison between cultures in this part of his discussion, except for that bit about the lack of opportunity for developing a "gay identity" -- but evidently even here in the land of Gay Identity, gay men want to see themselves as "ordinary," except compared to other gay men. "I'm not like most gay guys, hate the gay scene" is a familiar refrain in American personal ads and online profiles, so common that you'd have to conclude that most gay guys are different from most gay guys. Isn't that what the dread pirate Assimilation (which takes no prisoners) is all about, the claim that except for what we do in bed we're no different from anyone else? And it appears to be true; seventy-five percent of Americans consider themselves above average, so why should gay Americans be any different in that respect?

McLelland describes
H-san, an editor of the gay magazine G-Men and an AIDS activist, who, although a macho 'bear' himself, has been trying to get a variety of homosexual people together for the purposes of socializing. ... H-san was quite clear that for him the 'bear' type was a fantasy (specifically a sexual fantasy) figure that he did not want to be limited by in his personal interactions ... He would particularly like to see increased visibility for women in the Ni-chome scene as he clearly feels a solidarity with all people, irrespective of their sexual orientation, who are marginalized in Japanese society through their refusal to abide by normative understandings of sex roles [127].
I'd like to meet H-san, who sounds like an interesting person. But he's clearly no more typical, or representative, of most gay Japanese men than an American with similar ideas would be of most gay Americans. It sounds, from McLelland's description, as if gay life in Japan and the US are converging: what with the Internet, it's possible to have a gay sexual life without ever having to set foot in a physical space full of gay people. One can specify one's type -- McLelland has a lot to say about the "typing" of gay men in Japanese gay media and bar life, which mirrors the proliferation of sexual types in the US: bears, leather daddies, clones, twinks, and so on -- and stick to it, or him, as exclusively as one wishes. Though there are evidently more gay political activists in Japan than there were, say, thirty years ago, it's American gay life that is becoming more like the Japanese: a hive of commercialized niches based on sexual types, humming invisibly beneath a bland conformist surface.

(Santa Muscle Bear by the Japanese artist Jiraiya, via Bearotic)