Thursday, April 8, 2010

Never the Twain Shall Meet Redux

I'm reading Mark J. McLelland's Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities (Curzon, 2000), and I'm struck by how often his descriptions of Japanese culture sound just like American culture. For example, "although there are now well-publicized Japanese gay activists, who have adopted a western agenda of gay identity and gay rights, many ordinary Japanese gay men remain sceptical about the usefulness of this discourse in a Japanese context" (19). You could substitute "American" for "Japanese" in that sentence, and it would be just as true; especially in the early 1970s when the American gay movement was first starting to make waves, but I heard similar reservations expressed by American gay men well into the 1980s, and (not always coherently) right down to the present. I think McLelland (who's Australian, I believe) knows this, since he mentions correcting the misperceptions Japanese had about gay life in the West, so I'm not quite sure what his point was here, unless it was to let non-Japanese readers know that gay Japanese don't unanimously endorse gay activism either.

Then there was this on page 86, on the absence of women in the comic books or manga, very popular among Japanese women, which depict sexual love between beautiful, androgynous boys.
This [i.e., the absence of women] is not unusual in postwar Japanese popular culture however, as Susan Napier has pointed out. In her book on The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature (1990) she includes a chapter entitled 'Woman lost: the dead, damaged, or absent female in postwar fantasy' where she charts a paradigm shift in the treatment of women in Japanese literature which took place after the war where 'women are no longer caretakers but objects of prey, only acceptable as victims upon which to enact male rage' (1990: 53). The male ego, rendered so fragile now that women have encroached upon all the areas of life that were once the sole domain of men: the realm of education, the workplace and even the sexual market-place, sees itself as under attack. Napier comments that in literary portrayals, 'male characters are shown damaged and angry' (1990: 57) and women 'are frequently seen as agents of entrapment or humiliation' (1990: 56), resulting in a situation where 'women seem to have become increasingly Other, unreachable, even demonic' (1990: 57).
Again, my first thought was Wow, that sounds like postwar American fiction too: Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Philip Wylie, and many others. Not to mention film noir, with its femmes fatales trying to feed on men's precious bodily fluids, and its boring homemakers trying to sap their men's lives of all excitement, which drives them into the clutches of the femmes fatales. There's often a tendency to blame such crises in masculinity on the loss of a war -- WWII for the Japanese, Vietnam for the Americans -- or on colonialism. But the US won World War II! What did our guys have to whine about? I don't want to oversimplify, because I think that many, maybe most American veterans wanted nothing more than to live quietly and safely with their wives and children; but there was a countermovement, partly among male youth who thought they'd missed something by not having gone into combat and having their legs blown off. (You can see this in the Western Shane, in which the annoying little boy character wants Shane to be the hero and defeat the bad guys, and his father droops a little because he's not an expert in violence. Send the little brat to boot camp, I says.) The theme of the demonic female is of course much older and widespread than just the post-WWII period in Japan and the US, so this is something I'll have to look into some more.

Let me stress, by the way, that I'm not saying there are no differences between Japanese and American cultures, only that the similarities are so very interesting.