A Look at Japanese Feminism and Japanese Misogyny

 Women are the emissaries of hell; they cut off forever the seed of buddhahood. On the outside they have the faces of bodhisattvas, but on the inside they have the hearts of demons.

–Buddhist Sutra

A woman’s talk does not go beyond one village.

A smart woman ruins the castle.

–Japanese Proverbs

Japanese medieval literature teemed with deceptive and dangerous women–devils in disguise with insatiable passions. Among these fantasies and frustrations caused by celibate life among literate monks were the Rasetsu. The Rasetsu were a race of shape-shifting cannibal women who seduced men and ate them alive. The women lived on Rasetsukoku. The island’s location changed throughout different periods, first appearing in Konjaku monogatari shu, a collection of stories about India in the 12th century (Moerman, 2009). “How Sokara and the Five Hundred Merchants Went to the Land of the Rasetsu” explains one of the first encounters with these women. It begins with a group of merchants setting sail in search of treasure.

They are shipwrecked on an island of beautiful women where each man takes a wife and enjoys a life of bliss. But Sokara, the sailor’s leader senses something is off and investigates. He finds a prison of men and signs of cannibalism. One of the prisoners tells him how he had enjoyed the same pleasures until a new ship washed ashore. Then, he and his mates were set aside for food. Sokara manages to get all but one of his crew to safety. However, 2 years later one of the women visits him at home, but Sokara wasn’t tricked. The King, however, falls for the beautiful she-demon and after spending three days with her in his bedchamber, she breaks out with a blood-stained mouth. All that was left of the king was “a pool of blood and hair.” In response, Sokara gathers an army and attacks the island. After destroying all of the demon-women he is made king of the island.

This land of demon women appears in a Ming Chinese encyclopedia of 1610:

The Land of Women is in the southeastern seas. The Water flows to the east. Lotus flowers one foot across bloom once a year and the peaches have stones two feet long. Long ago a ship drifted there and the women gathered together and carried the ship off. The sailors were all close to death. But a clever man among them stole the boat back at night and they were able to escape. The women conceive children by exposing their genitals to the sound wind. According to others, the women become pregnant by looking at their reflection in a well.

The Land of Women shifted from a fantasy sexual amusement park to a land of she-demons throughout different time periods, but it provides an early example of a cultural view of women that challenged feminist movements in the modern period. Women were relegated to a child rearing role and as household managers.

Women’s Rights and Legal Status

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), women did not legally exist. They could not own property and were subordinate to men. However, women in different classes had more rights than others.For example, samurai class women had fewer rights than the farming class, which needed women to help run the family far. The urban class allowed women to manage businesses. In fact, wives of merchants were expected to be literate.  However, by today’s standards women lacked equality. A woman was still under the authority of men who decided the course of her life–who she married and more. Birth control didn’t exist as we know it. Midwives had their means, but women were expected to have children to continue the house.

Equality became more of a concern during the Meiji Restoration, when Japan pushed to catch up with the Western nations in terms of military and technology and law. Japan looked toward Enlightenment ideals, exemplified by John Locke, when it examined its laws (Okin, 1998). These ideals later shaped the Universal Declaration of Human rights (1948), the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights declaration, among others by the United Nations that proclaim equal rights of human beings regardless of sex. However, women remain discriminated against in differing ways.  As Okin (1998) writes: “Indeed, discrimination on the grounds of sex is frequently justified as being in accordance with many of the cultures—including religions aspects of these cultures—practiced in the world today.”

However, both the 1948 declarations and Meiji Japan pulled from a 17th century system that was designed for male heads of households. Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers didn’t have women’s private rights in mind when they wrote their ideas of law and equality. For example, Locke states no one should interfere with a father’s decision to whom his daughter should marry:

In private domestic affairs, in the management of estates, in the conservation of bodily health, every man may consider what suits his own convenience and follow what course he likes best. No man complains of the ill-management of his neighbour’s affairs. No man is angry with another for an error committed in sowing his land or in marrying his daughter. Nobody corrects a spendthrift for consuming his substance in taverns.

This male bias sits deep in human rights thinking. Women have different life experiences than men that these old systems fail to take into account: rape—marital and war, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, valuation of childcare and domestic labor, unequal opportunity in education, unequal housing opportunities, unequal credit opportunities, and unequal healthcare. Okin (1998) points out how inequality can be obscured by cultural norms and what people consider natural, such as motherhood. Cultural norms against certain things, such as single motherhood, also obscure inequality.

This male-centric view of rights appeared in various Meiji Reformation laws. For example, in the Criminal Code of 1880, adultery applied to women only. Men couldn’t commit adultery on his wife, only with another man’s wife (Sasamoto-Collins, 2017):

Article 353: A wife guilty of adultery shall be punished by imprisonment of no less than six months and no more than two years. Her lover shall receive the same punishment.

The punishment shall be imposed only if the family formally lodges complaint. If he has tolerated adultery, his complaint has no effect.

 

Article 311: If a husband has discovered his wife’s adultery and killed or injured her or her lover immediately at the actual place where they were discovered, the crime is excusable.

However, this provision does not apply if the husband has tolerated the adultery.

In other words, women were punished for adultery solely based on her status as a wife. For the lawmakers at the time, this was a natural part of womanhood and Japanese culture, as Okin discussed. Men had to be certain their wives’ children truly carried their genes. Of course, prostitutes and other women didn’t fall under the law as their children didn’t factor into the family system.

One Woman’s Observations of the Meiji Period

Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, born in 1878, wrote an autobiography that examined the differences between this type of environment and that of the United States. She married an American man and moved there to live with their daughters until he died. Afterward, she returned to Japan. The cross-cultural experience allowed her to write about both Japanese and American feminism at the time. She thought American women immodestly exposed their bodies “just for the purpose of having it seen” while Japanese women covered theirs from neck to ankle. When she returned to Japan with her two daughters she accounts (Kuo, 2015):

As I sat and thought, I wondered if Hanano was ever really happy anymore. She never seemed sorrowful, but she had changed. Her eyes were soft, not bright; her mouth drooped slightly and her bright, cheery way of speaking had slowed and softened. Gentle and graceful? Yes. But where was her quick readiness to spring up to my frst word? Where her joyous eagerness to see, to learn, to do? My little American girl, so full of vivid interest in life, was gone.

During Sugimoto’s life, the concept of ryosai kenbo, good wife and wise mother, was the focus of post Meiji Restoration (1868) education of girls. Before compulsory education passed in 1872, Confucian ideals prohibited women from getting an education. Girl’s education was seen as helping the nation as a whole, but it did little to break women from their traditional roles. In fact, education was seen as enhancing mothers’ abilities to produce patriotic, able citizens and supporting husbands. (Kuo, 2015). This education system, although a small step toward equality despite its failure to allow for different roles, contributed to the West’s misconceptions of women.

Sugimoto tried to correct this misconceptions–that Japanese women were less able to protect themselves and were less independent than American women. Japanese women were thought to be gentle and meek and needing American feminism to come in and liberate them. However, Sugimoto writes: “Although our women are pictured as gentle and meek, and although Japanese men will not contradict it, nevertheless it is true that, beneath all the gentle meekness, Japanese women are like—volcanoes.”

Sugimoto also illustrates how Japanese women had more rights than American women. Japanese women were the bankers of the family—responsible for both the family and for the family’s wealth. The husband must ask the wife for money, not the other way around like in the US at the time. She writes: “It was one of many exaggerated ideas that we had of the dominant spirit of American women and the submissive attitude of American men.”

American and Japanese Feminism Movements

Kato Shidzue and Margaret Sanger

In fact, during the early 1900s, American and Japanese feminism inspired each other. An early birth control advocate in Japan, Kato Shidzue, worked closely with American birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Shidzue brought Sanger to Japan in 1922 to speak on the topic (Kuo, 2015). The New Woman Association (NWA) in the early 1900s pushed for more rights, including a revision to the adultery law we examined which would allow women to file for a divorce if she discovered her husband or fiance had a venereal disease. The association framed their arguments in terms of protecting women’s family role–allow women to become better wives and wiser mothers through increased political awareness. They didn’t seek to completely break from ryosai kenbo.  Most advocates focused on the improvement of women’s lives through better health, elimination of poverty, better work conditions, protection of motherhood, and similar goals instead of political ends. Political liberation was seen as a path to these ends (Molony, 2000).

In a 1920 article, Ichikawa Fusae, a leader of the NWA, wrote:

Aren’t we treated completely as feeble-minded children? Why is it all right to know about science and literature and not all right to be familiar with politics and current events? Why is it acceptable to read and write but not speak and listen? A man, not matter what his occupation or educational background, has political rights, but a woman, no matter how qualilified, does not have the same rights…If we do not understand the politics of the country we live in, we will not be able to understand conditions in our present society.

She pushed for absolute rights instead of women’s rights based on education or maternal roles–which laid the groundwork for later feminist activism after World War II.

Speaking of World War II, the good wife and wise mother role carried forward throughout and into today. Motherhood and housewife roles remain highly valued, but they leave little room for self-development and work-family balance. A survey of female seniors in 561 Japanese universities in 1992 found women expected and didn’t mind sexism at work. 91% said they don’t mind being treated as “office flowers” and 25% considered that to be a woman’s role (Thornton, 1992). This shows how strong the male-dominated view remained.

Modern Japanese Feminism

Today, young Japanese women postpone marriage. Intimate relationships with other women also increase in appeal—free from the motherhood association  (Enns, 2011). The idea that a man should be dedicated to work and the good wife supporting him at home affects men in addition to women. Three-fifths of men between the ages of 25-35 remain unmarried. 53% of men in their 20s have never gone out with a woman. In contrast, 64% of American men claim to have had sex by the age of 20 (Homegrown, 2017). Women’s withdrawal from relationships to focus on career shows how they have moved beyond being “office flowers” in the 1990s. However, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), World Economic Forum, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japanese women lag behind other developed countries in terms of labor participation and political representation. They have higher than average education rates, but many women don’t return to work after having children (Japan, 2016). Children remains an all-in affair for many Japanese women, which explains why so many are postponing or foregoing marriage and expectations of motherhood marriage brings.

When asked why young men aren’t looking for a girlfriend, they answer that it’s too much trouble. Japan’s social segregation by gender doesn’t help matters. The combination of low self-esteem in men and fear of rejection by women opens the doors for teen idols, anime, sex dolls and sex pillow. Misogyny is a strange loop of love and hating because you love what you can’t have. And that idea of possession remains a problem too. The tension between feminism, traditional ideas of good wife and wise mother, and men’s views–which is a topic to itself–all add up to this trend.

Throughout all of this, the Japanese feminism movement worked. However, many of its leaders today are discouraged by how slow the progress over the past century has been despite the shift in marriage and the focus on career. Maternity harassment, sexual harassment, and employment discrimination remain real problems. Some progress is being made: there is greater acceptance of mothers returning to work and fathers taking on more child care responsibilities (Japan, 2016).

But the progress Japanese women have made toward equality remains tenuous. Misogyny and objectification of women remains rampant. Part of this is a result of culture. Japanese culture idealizes quiet, stoic endurance, which extends to sexual violence against women. They are expected to be Japanese and endure without complaint. Sexual harassment on commuter trains is an example. In the early 2000s, two-thirds of women surveyed reported being groped while riding crowded trains. In response, train companies introduced women only cars, but no other action was taken (Hayes, 2016).

Many Japanese women are victims of unwanted photographs, typically up-skirt photos on trains and other public places. Japanese cell phone manufacturers are even required to make cameras with audible shutter sounds meant to deter men from taking these photos of women in public places. All of this points to how a dominating, objectifying attitude toward women remains strong in Japanese culture. Despite efforts since the 1920s, oral birth control is still hard to get–doctors often prescribe low doses for one month at a time (Hayes, 2016). All of this extends from the traditional, deep-rooted view of women.

Manga and anime carry on this view in many stories. Many sexually explicit, male-focused manga are violent toward women. They show women as sex toys and many of the stories of these comedies focus on the loss of male virginity while reinforcing men’s superior social status and women’s traditional status. This was a problem when Ito studied images of women back in 1994. From my own observations, this still remains an issue within anime and manga.

In fact, feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno looks at the pay gap between men and women (men are paid 26.6% more in a 2013 OECD study), media, and these attitudes and writes:

We struggled, fought, but unfortunately were incapable of making real change.

Gendertrolling

Japan isn’t alone in this problem, and the problem even extends onto the Internet in the form of gendertrolling. You are likely familiar with the word trolling, but I’ll go ahead and define it– “disrupting a conversation or entire community by posting incendiary statements or stupid questions for the person’s own amusement or because they have a quarrelsome personality.” The word first appeared in the 1990s, and most trolls on the English-speaking web are white, male, and somewhat privileged (Mantilla, 2013). Now, gendertrolling is a little different. . It involves numerous people who are often coordinated and the attacks persist online and offline—sometimes for years. Usually happens in response to women speaking out about some form of sexism. I’ll give you a few Western examples from Mantilla’s (2013) paper.

Melissa McEwan in 2007, who runs a feminist blog Shakesville, had her address and other information published online and received rape and death threats.

Anita Sarkeesian saw this when she started a Kickstarter to fund a project to point out sexist representation of women in the video game community. She received rape and death threats. The  gendertrolls made pornographic images of her being raped, tried to have her social media accounts suspended, and tried to disable her website. They also released her personal information, including home address.

In 2012, Zerlina Maxwell, on the FOX News show Hannity, spoke about how the focus on ending rape should start with men instead of women carrying guns to defend themselves. The rape and death threats rolled in. Maxwell said, “Do not feed the trolls’ is really easy for people to say when you’re not getting 100 rape threats, when you’re not getting 100 death threats.”

Sexual harassment, including gendertrolling, tries to keep gender boundaries in place–preventing women from competing with men at work and preventing women from feeling safe in public places without a male companion. Japan’s problems with groping on subways and with inappropriate photos are good examples of this. Gendertrolling tries to keep these gender-boundaries in place online by attacking women who speak out online in male-dominated spaces, such as online video games. Not even Japanese women who serve in the Japanese government are safe from this problem. 52% report being targets of sexual harassment at least once (Osumi, 2015). The survey reports:

“Some respondents said they had been neglected or forced to buy cigarettes for their male coworkers, while others had endured taunts such as: “Why don’t you strip?” or “You must get excited by being groped.”

Some of these women work in Japanese legislators.

Feminism and misogyny are bound together. Misogyny results from women gaining some measure of equality and the perceived threat this can bring. Japanese women have come a long way from the Tokugawa Era and the Meiji Restoration, but many of the same problems back then continue today. Women in the United States still struggle with similar issues. Even when they are online, women have to face people who threaten them just for voicing an opinion or their experience.

Media adds to the pile. Manga and anime sometimes caters to sexist ideas, which only reinforces those ideas. Objectifying otherwise strong female characters through upskirt camera angles and other techniques that reduces them to sex objects encourages the thinking behind the problems women face. Yellow fever and orientalism, waifuism, and moe can all add to the headwinds.

Of course, feminism also has its own problem. Some activists look down upon women who want to be traditional wives and mothers. Women should have the freedom to choose this route if they want. In any case, with the issues of gendertrolling and continued pay inequality and continued objectification, Japanese women and women in general are still do not have equal rights.

References

(2016) Japan Tries to Promote Women’s Rights, but Cultural Norms Stand in the Way. World Politics Review. http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/20172/japan-tries-to-promote-women-s-rights-but-cultural-norms-stand-in-the-way

(2017). Homegrown misogyny divides sexes in Japan. The Australian (National, Australia).

Enns, Carolyn (2011) On the rich tapestry of Japanese feminisms. Feminism and Psychology. 21 (4) 542-546.

Hayes, T. (2016). The Cultural Limits of Japanese Feminism. International Policy Digest, 3(6), 132-133

Hidari, Sachiko, McCormick, Ruth & Thompson, Bill (1979) Feminism in Japanese Cinema: An Interview with Sachiko Hidari. Cineaste 9 (3). 26-29.

Ito, K. (1994). Images of Women in Weekly Male Comic Magazines in Japan. Journal Of Popular Culture, 27(4), 81-95.

Kuo, Karen (2015) Japanese Women Are Like Volcanoes. Frontiers 36 (1) 58-89.

Mantilla, K. (2013). Gendertrolling: Misogyny Adapts to New Media. Feminist Studies, 39(2), 563.

Moerman, Max (2009). Demonology and Eroticism: Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 36 (2). 351-380

Molony, Barbara (2000) Women’s Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan 1870-1925. Pacific Historical Review. 69 (4). 639-661.

Okin, Susan (1998) Feminism,. Women’s Human Rights, and Cultural Differences.  Hypatia. 13 (2) 32-52.

Osumi, M. (2015, August 14). Over 50% of assemblywomen in Japan have been sexually harassed, survey suggests. Japan Times.

Sasamoto-Collins, H. (2017) The Emperor’s Sovereign Status and the Legal Construction of Gender in Early Meiji Japan. Journal of Japanese Studies 43 (2).

Sato, Kumiko (2004) How Information Technology Has (Not) Changed Feminism and Japanism: Cyberpunk in the Japanese Context. Comparative Literature Studies. 41 (3) 335-355.

Thornton, E. (1992). Japan: sexism OK with most coeds. Fortune, (4). 13.

Yamaguchi, T. (2014). “Gender Free” Feminism in Japan: A Story of Mainstreaming and Backlash. Feminist Studies, 40(3), 541-572.

Friendship, Bacon, and Growing up: Silver Spoon

On its surface, Silver Spoon appears to be another one of those the-countryside-is-idyllic-compared-to-the-city anime. However, the anime has a clear view of the challenges of rural life, including perpetual farming debt and even the brutality of farm life. It also has a heart to it, focusing on several moral lessons: appreciation for life–including livestock that die so we can eat, the idea of true friendship, and the difficulty of balancing life goals with reality.

Yuugo Hachiken enrolls in an agriculture school to escape the demands of his strict father. Being a city-kid, he has no idea what he’s getting into. Silver Spoon traces Hachiken’s change a from nerdy, brooding spaz to a somewhat more mature person. I say somewhat because he fits squarely in what I call the annoyingly impulsive protagonist. He’s earnest, which draws people to him, and kind, but phew, he is full of emotional outbursts and fits of impulsive stupidity for being a supposedly smart character. As the story progresses, he does little to improve in that regard. The story even acknowledges it as “teenage boy drama.” But aside from his meatheadedness, the story focuses on the challenges of farm life from helping cows birth calves to butchering pigs to cheese making.

Hachiken eventually moves from a people pleasing yes-man to having a desire to focus on helping his closest friend and love-interest Aki Mikage. Friendship plays a central role in the story as Hachiken develops his first true friendships with his fellow farm-students. Hachiken takes time to understand that friendship isn’t a transactional relationship. Everyone on the farm wants each other succeed and so share their knowledge, help, time, and food freely. Even the upper-classmen randomly hold grilling events for everyone in the area. And all they want is their produce, whether it is meat or veggie, to be appreciated by someone. Silver Spoon doesn’t play on country-simpleness, however. Each of Hachiken’s friends have their own struggles and concerns, such as farm debt, that they keep to themselves. In fact, the anime shows that best friends are those that willingly share your worries. Hachiken, in an effort to prove himself worthy of their friendship, is a busybody in this regard before he settles into sharing Mikage’s burdens and becoming her closest friend.

The anime speaks out against transactional relationships that are fairly common today. People seek relationships as a means of getting what they want from others. In Hachiken’s case, its vindication and a way to ease his self-doubt. However, he quickly learns that isn’t friendship. Many of the farmhands around him cover his chore mistakes, offer knowledge, and look out for him without seeking anything in return. It’s just something people do. Hachiken drives himself too hard in an effort to seek their approval and pay them back, landing himself in the hospital despite their warnings. Only then does he realize his actions were based on his transactional view of friendship. Giving without expecting anything in return is the sign of true friendship. Friends also stand in support when facing challenges, even when it comes at personal cost. When Mikage shows her agony about her expected role in taking over the farm, ignoring her dream of working with horses, Hachiken wants to do anything he can to help her try for her dream.

Dreams, life goals, play significant roles in Silver Spoon. Hachiken is troubled by how he doesn’t have a dream while those around him does. All of his new farm-friends apparently have goals they are working toward. However, reality sets in for most of them, hampering or ending their dreams. Hachiken takes reality hard when dreams are crushed, and he goes off on his emotional tirades whenever his farm-friend remains stoic. He rails against reality while his farm-friends accept it. Most are pleased they managed to work toward their life goal, even though they can’t obtain it. That isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt them. Mikage, on the other hand, never worked toward hers. After seeing dreams get crushed under reality, she wants to try for hers. It is better to try and fail than never try at all.

Much of the dynamic in these conflicts comes from Hachiken’s achievement focus. Grades were his life before going to the ag-school. Because of this, failing to achieve a dream, no matter how far-fetched like his friend Komaba’s dream of being a professional baseball player, cuts into him. However, he soon learns the striving is more important than attaining. We need to pay attention to this lesson. Too often we focus on attainment rather than the journey. When we fail to attain, we feel like failures and forget all the benefits of the journey. Striving toward a goal that you fail to reach still allows you to come away with more achievements than if you didn’t strive at all. Throughout Silver Spoon, Hachiken feels as if his life is finished because of a single failure. He comes to compare this to livestock that are sold to the slaughterhouse if they are hurt or fail to perform. However, he realizes that even livestock can have second chances, such as a horse jumping an obstacle in a competition. A single failure doesn’t mark someone forever.

In fact, only through failure can we learn.

Silver Spoon addresses the callousness many people develop. Before Hachiken, the farm students thought little of killing and butchering animals. Hachiken is troubled by this and struggles to eat the meat from these animals. But he realizes a true appreciation for the animal’s sacrifice–and enjoying the flavor of the meat–ensures the death isn’t in vain. His hesitance toward death instills the same respect in his friends, and they grow the appreciate the animal cost of farming even more. That isn’t to say they didn’t care for their animals, but Hachiken broke through the callouses that had built up toward the end result of their animal care.

Silver Spoon made me consider my own relationship with meat. Now, I grew up in a rural town. I hadn’t seen cattle or pigs butchered, but I had seen deer, squirrel, fish, and other critters butchered. However, the supermarket has put distance between us and the animals in ways that disrespect the animal’s death. Americans eat large, unhealthy quantities of meat. This would change if we had to raise and then butcher the animals. At the least, we would gain a deeper appreciation as we see the gang on Silver Spoon achieve.

The anime points out how its good to bring in an outside perspective. We have the habit of not seeing what we consider normal or that which we see everyday. Think about your room and a nice shiny poster or figurine or piece of furniture. You noticed and appreciated it while it was new, but over months and years it faded from your consciousness. It became a part of the everyday. Hachiken breaks this problem for his friends because everything about farming was a new experience to him. It gave a new perspective for those who can’t see farming for farming any longer. Through Hachiken, they gained a deeper appreciation for farming and their dreams. Mikage, in particular, sees her fate isn’t sealed to the ranch and gains a deeper appreciation for the ranch at the same time.

Silver Spoon, unlike many agriculture-anime, doesn’t wear its idyllic goggles. It shows farm work as long and exhausting, debt-troubled and structured. It also shows farm work as friendly, cooperative, and teeming with simple pleasures like farm-fresh pizza.

An Afternoon at Dr. Makoto Nakamura’s Zen Garden

Recently, I heard about a genuine Zen garden hidden away in Ohio. So of course I had to take a look. The garden was originally designed and built in 1963 by Dr. Makoto Nakamura of Kyoto University as a cultural exchange program. It has all the traditional Zen elements: a raked gravel garden with islands of stone, a koi pond with islands and bridges and a tea garden with stones that leads to a meditation house. The meditation house was a great place to relax and enjoy some frozen custard, by the way. The garden nestles in a larger garden and preserve complex (nearly 2,000 acres)  with woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, swamps, lakes, rare Chinese redwoods (part of a preservation project), and more. I also browsed their bonsai collection that included a tree that was first planted in 1958.

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Yellow Fever – The Sexual Preference for Asian Women

Yellow fever isn’t particular to otaku culture, but many men in the culture have it. Yellow fever is the strong sexual preference some men have for East Asian women–Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. These men feel more attraction toward Asians than other groups of women, often to the point where a man can struggle to form relationships with women of his own ethnicity or with non-Asian women (Chang, 2006; Chow, 2013). Whether or not anime feeds this fetish–and yellow fever is a fetish as we will see–is debatable, but anime does show female characters with the traits thought to fuel yellow fever.  Yellow fever isn’t limited to white heterosexual men. It also extends to Western women preferring Asian men. For this article, I’m limiting myself to just heterosexual men, but most of the argument should apply to the other groups.

Online dating data from the Facebook app “Are you Interested” and OKCupid has found (Chow, 2013):

  • Women get 3x more interactions than men.
  • All men seem more interested in people outside their race.
  • Black men and women get the lowest response rates.
  • All women, except black women, are most drawn to white men.
  • Men of all races (except Asian men) prefer Asian women.
  • Asian and Latina women prefer white men “even more exclusively.”

This data does not reflect offline dating, but there is a clear discrimination toward black people. Some of this overall preference for Asian women comes from Asian stereotypes, and these stereotypes form the core of yellow fever. It is interesting to note that Asian men–who presumably live among Asian women–don’t prefer them over other ethnicities. This suggests how powerful stereotypes can be for the preference. Presumably, Asian men lack the stereotypes Western men hold toward Asian women. These data tells us how yellow fever has embedded itself in online interactions to the point where Asian women struggle with dating non-Asians (Chow, 2013).  Zhang (2016) shares one of the comments of Asian women interviewed:

“I still feel like I have been objectified, exotified, and hypersexualized because of my race and sometimes I have trouble trusting people who find me attractive because of that”

A common refrain among the studies and interviews  I’ve read: “Am I loved for me or because I’m Asian?”

The East Asian Female Stereotype

Yellow Fever doesn’t always distinguish between Asian nationalities. Chinese women are sometimes lumped together with Japanese, Korean, and other nationalities. However, some men do prefer one nationality over others. Photo by Evawen

The exoticism of East Asian women goes as far back as Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road in the 1200s (Ren, 2014). The Western interest with the idea of the exotic East Asian woman extends throughout Western literature and with the opera Madame Butterfly, which glorified servitude and love of an Oriental women for a white man. The opera built upon and popularized the traits long attributed to Oriental women (Chang, 2006; Gattig, 2013; Ren, 2014) :

  1. Submissive
  2. Innocent with an open mind toward sex
  3. Better at sex than all other women
  4. Quiet
  5. Faithful mother

These traits play into male fantasies. Male culture looks for submissive women who are quiet (no nagging!), cute and innocent, but a she-devil in bed. Oh, but don’t forget she also has to be a faithful wife and mother too. These contradictions extend to any ideal female, but Asian women are seen as the living embodiment of these ideals.  The American Occupation of Japan after WWII cemented these ideas. Japanese prostitutes, often posing as geisha and other exotic women, serviced American soldiers and precipitated the idea of the East Asian as a sexual goddess. Then came Madame Butterfly and the influx of Asian war brides, who were seen as a kind of war trophy by many. Western media often shows Asian women as passive and submissive because it is attractive for many men (Ren, 2014). The image of the East Asian woman appeals to many men who are tired of feminists, with their values of independence and autonomy, and crave a “traditional” relationship where women were dependent on men (Gatting, 2013).

Booth girls play into Yellow Fever. Although it isn’t uncommon to see booth girls of all ethnicities. Photo by tenaciousme

This ties back to the old sense of male identity that has come under threat in recent decades. The traditional view of masculinity was of a dominate, bread-winning guy and a quiet, stay-at-home wife who submitted to his needs and needed protection. Never mind how this type of relationship didn’t exist. But masculinity’s current identity crisis may fuel yellow fever because of how Asian women are stereotyped to match masculinity’s ideas. In anime, you see some of these masculine ideals, particularly that of protection. So in that regard, anime encourages the problem.

But is it really a problem to like East Asian–Japanese women in the case of otaku? Isn’t it the same as liking women with blond hair or brunettes or blue-eyed girls?

The Mere Preference

“The issue of fetishism and preference,” Sheridan Prasso, author of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient,  writes, “is so prevalent, so pervasive in relations between East and West, that even healthy, normal relationships often are tarnished by the accusation. (Gattig, 2013).

Fetish has two definitions which combine in the case of yellow fever. The first definition involves an abnormal sexual attraction toward something, such as a foot fetish. The second definition of fetish involves an object worshiped by people because of its supposed magical powers or because a spirit dwells within it. East Asian women are both sexually sought after because of their ethnicity and worshiped because of their supposed magical combination of ideal traits.

Yellow fever isn’t a preference as much as a subtle form of racism. We normally think of racism as a form of hate, but you can like an ethnicity and fall into racism. Racism involves a belief that a group of people have characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to their ethnicity (Chang, 2006). Black men are fast runners. Chinese are good at math. These are all forms of racism despite being “positive” statements. Who wouldn’t want to be a fast runner or good at math? But they reduce individuals to a bundle of stereotypical traits. Yellow fever falls under this same line of thought. Asian fetishism is brushed off as a compliment rather than being offensive. Asian women, after all, should feel flattered so many non-Asian men prefer them.

But it’s not racist to like blonds or brunettes, so why is liking Japanese women more than other women considered racist? Yellow fever is nothing more than an attraction to superficial attributes. Well, that alone is a problem because its liking someone for how they look rather than who they are, but let’s look into the argument.

The best way to examine the mere preference argument is from the perceptive of the women. First, people who lack culturally attractive physical traits have disadvantages in their careers along with their social and romantic prospects (Zheng, 2016). This puts pressure on women in particular. Yellow fever compounds this discrimination by adding more pressure to live up to the stereotypes. When they fail to live up to the stereotypes, Asian women are open to harassment and even violence (Zheng, 2016).  Yellow fever combines sexual attraction–the first definition of fetish–with the idea of an object with special, magical properties. This is more than feeling attracted to Asian faces. Yellow fever’s exclusivity shows its not just aesthetics. Otherwise, men with yellow fever would feel attraction to beauty in general and not just Asian beauty. How ever that is defined.

Yellow fever has the stereotypes of Asian women built into it because “racial fetishes always depend on racial stereotypes rather than pure aesthetic features, and second explicit disavowals of the stereotypes provide no evidence against the fact because the origins of sexual preferences are not usually transparent to those who have them. (Zheng, 2016).

But the mere preference idea does offer another argument: that it is a sign of color-blindness. Because it is a cross-racial preference, it shows it isn’t racist. However, yellow fever is a form of objectification. Asian women don’t always know if the guy is into them for who they are or if it is because of her ethnicity. This creates a feeling of interchangeability. This form of objectification, called, fugibility, is the opposite of love (Zheng, 2016).  Love means the beloved cannot be replaced with someone else with similar qualities. Yellow fever places a different between Japanese women and, say, Middle Eastern women and Western women when the differences shouldn’t matter. Instead of being color-blind, yellow fever emphasizes it. It also fails to recognize the fact East Asian women have experienced racialized patterns of treatment (Zheng, 2016).

Furthermore, blonds and brunettes don’t have the same history of exploitation, colonization, slavery, persecution, and exclusion because of their hair color. Nor does hair or eye color affect socio-economic and political opportunities. Race does. Asians and people of color experience this daily. Added to this is the fact white people are more likely to date within their race than outside it despite what online dating reports (Zheng, 2016). Online dating reports interactions, not actual dating patterns. Yet, there there isn’t a term like “white fever” for those who are interested in white men and women. Choosing to date non-whites, if you are white, requires some special explanation. White men with yellow fever are viewed as unable to date white women. As this thinking goes: many Asian immigrant women are of lower-class backgrounds, perfect for these inept men. Cross-ethnic marriages across other groups face similar implied judgments from people. Black men who marry white women fall under the suspicion of self-contempt—the marriage says black women aren’t good enough (Zheng, 2016). All of which is nonsense.

Because of all this, yellow fever isn’t a mere preference. It has too many stereotypes built into it, and the exclusivity stops it from being a mere preference. This isn’t to say everyone who finds East Asian women attractive has yellow fever. But if they are only attracted to East Asian women, that is the marker for the fetish.

The Cost of Yellow Fever

Of course, businesses are aware of the fetish and use it to sell music, services, and products. Objectification sells.

Yellow fever hurts women. It creates a set of standards East Asian women are expected to live up to and paints them with a broad brush. Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Korean women are all seen in the same way. Cultural nuance and individual personalities disappear. When ladies can’t live up to the standards, they face harassment and even violence (Zheng, 2016).

The existence of the fetish makes Asian women doubt their relationships with non-Asian people. She has to wonder if he loves the idea of her as an Asian woman instead of her as a person.

Yellow fever costs men too. It encourages a one-dimensional, false view of masculinity and of womanhood. It has created an industry of Asian mail-order brides who are supposedly submissive and less-intimidating (Chang, 2006). This reduces a person to an object that is as interchangeable as a shirt. Yellow fever stops men from forming true relationships.

Behind all of it is superficiality. The appearances of Oriental women varies far more than yellow fever acknowledges. Just as the personality traits are turned into a checklist, the fetish reduces outward appearance to a single ideal image of “Asianness.” Yellow fever doesn’t acknowledge culture differences or personal differences. It is a colonialist, chauvinistic perspective that disguises itself as color-blind ideology even as it encourages racism. Ironically, yellow fever works against itself. It prevents a man from forming a true connection with a woman he supposedly loves the most.

References

Chang, M. (2006). Made in the USA: Rewriting Images of the Asian Fetish. Undergraduate Humanities Forum 2005-6. Workd & Image 6.

Chow, K. & Hu, E. (2013) Odd Favor White Men, Asian Women on Dating App. Code Switch, NPR. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/11/30/247530095/are-you-interested-dating-odds-favor-white-men-asian-women

Gattig, N. (2013) ‘Yellow fever’ and the fantasy of the Asian female. The Japan Times. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/06/25/issues/yellow-fever-and-the-fantasy-of-the-asian-female

Ren, Y. (2014) ‘Yellow fever’ fetish: Why do so many white men want to date a Chinese women? The Telegraph.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10935508/Yellow-fever-fetish-Why-do-so-many-white-men-want-to-date-a-Chinese-woman.html

Zheng, R. (2016). Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 2(3), 400-419. doi:10.1017/apa.2016.25

Reminances of a Bibliophile

Before I got into anime, before I got into studying Japanese culture, I was a book lover. I grew up ravenous, reading every book in my school library’s science and fantasy sections. Few experiences in life match the musty, ancient scent of a book old enough to be a great-great grandparent.  The touch of paper–how old was the tree before it gave its life to spread human knowledge?–between my fingers whets my appetite for knowledge.

Yes, before I was a Japanophile I was a bibliophile. I still am. Inked conversation torrid on the page excites me. People, hundreds–no, thousands–of years gone can whisper into our ears. Stories and facts, drivel and the sublime, are available for those who merely look.

Then came the e-reader and the online world.

The inked order of books scattered across the digital ether, free of their bindings. Anyone can share their stories and their facts, their drivel and their sublime. You’d think with such open access people would be able to seek out new worlds and boldly go where they haven’t read before.

Well, you’d be wrong.

The rise of the internet and social media allows people to wall themselves into rooms of their own making. The voices echo without any naysayers until we believe the world works so. The messages our minds consume shapes how we think. It strikes me as odd how the age of open access has increased this trend more than the closed world of books. Or perhaps we simply have more studies on this human tendency. We don’t like to be wrong, after all.

E-Readers and Books on Electrons

I dislike Kindles and other digital readers. I also like them. I like them as a librarian and as an author. I dislike them as a bibliophile. Where is the luscious musty scent? Where is the feel of the page? Where is the annoyance of your bookmark falling from the book?

But as a librarian, I like them because they encourage reading. But then, I also dislike them because of the hassles companies make. Ebooks can be copied to devices any number of times, yet companies use old book models to protect their profits. Okay, I get it as an author. After all, I want my books to make money so I can write more than I can now. However, efforts to enforce the old model create issues for accessibility. It strikes me as odd how ebook lending libraries have limited copies available. Not to mention, ebooks are overly complicated for those who struggle with basic computer skills. I encounter this issue regularly at the library.

Each day, I work with older library users who love their ereaders (they love the ability to change font sizes). But the complication of downloading ebooks leaves them confused. Do I want a Kindle file? Epub? Nook? What’s a MOBI? Techies like us like to see these under-the-hood options, but it scares anyone who doesn’t understand computers. Is is better to hide all of this and let the device handle it behind the scenes. Some of this is compounded by publishers insisting in digital rights management and other access limitations. It is getting better, however. New apps like Libby do a better job of hiding the headaches.

The Bibliophile and the Manga Fan

So what does all this have to do with you, the anime and manga fan? Well, most of us are familiar with online manga, but libraries have recently gotten into legal e-manga. Online subscription services also move manga increasingly off of paper. This is mixed, like so many things. Online distribution increases the chances of seeing more obscure stories being translated. It doesn’t cost as much to produce and distribute e-manga which makes for better profitability for even low selling titles. However, for those who enjoy physical media, this will reduce our selection. Titles on smashed and pulped trees are only those with the most popularity. You see this problem with American fiction. Shelves are dominated by a handful of bestselling authors: James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler, and others. It makes it harder for new and low-selling authors to make it. Likewise, the cost of printing keeps lesser known mangaka from getting translations here in the States. But on the flip side, ebooks make it easier for new and low-selling authors to find readers.

Online manga and books skip one of the pleasures of physical media: the bookshelf. The sight of a bookshelf is part of the culture of the book. If you want to learn about someone, you browse their bookshelves. Their organization, their titles, and their state of wear reveals a fair bit about a person. Bookshelves are quite private despite being publicly displayed. So too with manga collections.

E-readers, however, are even more private. It is socially frowned upon to grab an e-reader or phone and start looking through it. Although people who own e-readers typically own books as well.

The Times Are A-Changin’

Books and manga aren’t going anywhere, but ebooks and e-manga are going to increase in popularity. This, as with all things, is mixed. Various studies have shown we remember less when we read on a screen compared to paper. Much of that is because we don’t just read on most e-readers. We check email, visit Facebook, and other distractions. Books don’t have that option.

You’ve probably read online scanlations of manga at one point or another. The access is great, but part of the culture of the book is the collection as I’ve mentioned. As more books go online, it will become harder to collect our favorite series. But change is part of life.

This post is rather personal. I dislike reading ebooks unless I am researching a project. But I don’t really have anything against them. If you love ebooks, great!  I am a bibliophile. A home must have books to be a home. While more people read more than ever (which is excellent!) I ponder the fate of the bookshelf. Normally, I try to keep abreast on change. I believe everyone needs to learn new technology and adapt to the rapid pace of change. If you don’t, eventually you won’t be able to function in the modern world. I know how to use Kindles, Nooks, and other e-readers, but I don’t own any. Nor do I plan to do so anytime soon. In this, I choose to resist. I will learn how to use each new version, but I likely won’t use them myself. Now,  you can be a bibliophile and use e-readers. In fact, most do. But I already stare at screens for most of my waking hours. Books, newspapers, and magazines are the few sanctuaries I have from glowing screens of text.

What are your thoughts on the shift toward e-reading? Are you a bibliophile? Do you worry about the future of books? Let’s discuss.

Midnight Diner: Tokyo

One night as I scrolled through Netflix, I stumbled across Midnight Diner: Tokyo, a half hour show that focuses on, well, a midnight diner. The tiny eatery sits in one of the many narrow alleyways of Tokyo, well off the neon main streets. As you may suspect, some interesting characters appear in the late, late hours. Based on a manga, this live-action show centers on the small, but cozy confines and the lives that drift in an out of the space. The diner’s owner, simply called the Master, offers only one item on his menu, pork soup, but he will make anything upon request as long as he has the ingredients.

These requested dishes brings together the various diners, and as an added bonus at the end of each episode, the show explains how to make each dish. As you may suspect, the diner has regulars that appear in various episodes. An elderly gentleman named Chu becomes almost a part of the diner’s furnishings. Visitors include young women, transvestites, high-powered businessmen, and even porn stars. The Master acts as a sounding board, listening to his visitor’s stories and offering advice when asked. He possess a sad warmth, and he doesn’t reveal much about his personal life. At least, he doesn’t during the single season Netflix has. But the show offers hints. Interestingly, the diners don’t really attempt to learn much about him. They are engrossed in their own affairs, which is realistic from my own experiences working with the public. Despite the Master’s relative quiet, the show has a pleasant mix of sadness and happiness. Episodes end on a happy note, which I found a welcome reprieve from the often overbearing shows that fill television nowadays.

The Master refrains from interfering with the hi-jinks of his customers. He prefers to disappear into the background and listen, sometimes facilitating conversation with a well-placed treat or drink when conversation slows. He only intervenes in one episode when a comic duo beings to fight. For the Master, his restaurant is a place of sanctuary.

Throughout the season, small bits of philosophy and life-lessons spice the stories, such as the idea that a good day must follow a bad one. A few central themes keep reappearing, however. Although they are not overtly stated, they reside in the subtext of the diner’s purpose. First, the show urges us to be introspective as we grow older. Time passes swiftly, and it does us well to take time to dwell on memory. The second subtext ties together with this idea: to carve out small pleasures in the daily routine. It’s easy to lose sight of what gives life meaning as we go about the daily routine of work and home life. The small pleasures, such as a good hot-pot meal, lend meaning and help prevent the slide toward drudgery. The Master seeks to provide a small area of pleasantness for this very reason. He often offers food on the house for people who are obviously down or having a bad day.

The final theme of the diner involves togetherness. People from all walks of life sit elbow to elbow in the small, not-quite claustrophobic confides of the diner, sharing in conversation and food. The diner acts as a sanctum of connection between people who would normally just walk past each other without a thought.

Midnight Diner is a pleasant show you need to watch. A few of its episodes are odd, but then it is a Japanese show with different sensibilities. It often ends on an upbeat note, tinged with a touch of reflection. Its themes and focus on connecting people is needed in our divided society. You’ll notice throughout the show that people don’t chatter on cell phones. Rather, they sit next to each other, enjoying food and conversation. You’ll see quiet visitors who sit back and enjoy the banter of the old men. You’ll see the prim and proper sit next to transvestites with brightly dyed hair. All the while the Master works to make the conversation smooth with his food. Regular customers will bring treats to share with the Master and whoever is at the diner at the time. At the center of it all is the idea of connection and pleasantness, even when people disagree with each other.

That, perhaps, is the lesson we Americans need to learn the most.