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.

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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Chasing Nightmares – Kanashibari

Takagi Umanosuke and the Ghost of a Woman By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892).

The Dark Presser. The Old Hag. The Ghost Presser. Alien Abduction. No matter what cultural form it takes, kanashibari excites and terrifies.  Between 40-50% of people will have at least one experience of kanashibari in their lifetimes (Schegoleva, 2002). In the West, we know it as sleep paralysis.

Nightmares and sleep paralysis happen together during the second half of the night–REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase, the body disconnects from the brain so you don’t enact your dreams. Even automatic reflexes, such as kicking when the knee is tapped, are shut off. This isn’t a problem unless the brain wakes up before the body reconnects. This is what is called sleep paralysis or kanashibari (Schegoleva, 2002). When the brain wakes in this state, it is still dreaming, but your eyes are open and seeing the dreams. The brain struggles to understand what’s going on by substituting explanations from your culture–aliens, ghosts, demons, vampires, and other creatures. When the body and brain reconnect, the dreaming stops, but it can take seconds to 20 minutes for them to talk to each other again (Cox, 2015). Until then, you are at the mercy of the experience (Cox, 2015):

“I had one patient who was lying in bed and woke up to see a little vampire girl with blood coming out of her mouth,”says Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University and author of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives. “This is an example of a really vivid, multi-sensory hallucination. She could feel this vampire figure grabbing onto her arms, pulling her, and saying she was going to drag her to hell and do all these terrible things to her.”

The first recorded experience appears in Al-Akhawayni’s 1st century Persian manuscript Hidayat. In 1664, the Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck reported a case of sleep paralysis in a 50-year old woman. But it wasn’t until 1755 that nightmares and sleep paralysis became linked when Samuel Johnson defined the word nightmare. The earliest recording of sleep paralysis in Japan dates to the 12th century. The Japanese Emperor Konoe Tonno (1139-1155) experienced the sensation of chest compression sometimes associated with sleep paralysis. “Every night the emperor was oppressed by a mysterious agony which the holiest monks, working all their healing rites, seemed unable to relieve.” In 1153, Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-1180) saved the emperor by killing a winged demon called Nue with an arrow (Orly & Haines, 2014).

The association of sleep paralysis and spirits is found across cultures. The most common story is the Old Hag, which appears in Japan and in Europe. Typically, it involves an ugly woman, often dressed in white, sitting on the sleeper or making eerie sounds. The English word haggard comes from this experience. In some European stories, witches descend onto sleepers who are trapped in their beds. Haggard means “ridden by the hag” (Cox, 2015). However, other supernatural creatures are said to cause sleep paralysis. In Japanese folklore, kanashibari happens whenever a person is about to encounter a supernatural being. It’s something of a premonition (Yoshimura, 2015).

The Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)

The word kanashibari comes from a medieval Japanese spell called kanashibari no ho, a paralysis magic practiced by priests of Onmyodo Shugendo of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s thought the ability can be attained through intense ascetic training, and different groups developed different ways of casting the spell. In the book Shoku nihongi, the founder of Shugendo, En no Ozumu (634-701) used the spell to punish spirits who failed to collect water and firewood for him. Most often, the spell was used to subdue an opponent or expel an evil spirit by invoking Fudomyoo, the patron deity of Shugendo (Yoshimura, 2015). Kanashibari means “to immobilize as if bound with metal chains.” Kana means metal. Shibaru means to bind. 

Who Experiences Kanashibari

While anyone can experience sleep paralysis, women and students are more prone to it (Arikawa & Templer, 1999). As many as 43% of Japanese students report at least one episode. It’s thought women and students are more prone to kanashibari because both have less control over their environment and because they have more disruption in their sleep cycles (Arikawa & Templer. 1999; Schegoleva, 2002).

Kanashibari’s nightmares focus on lack of control. After all, you can’t move during it. The frustration of not having control over your circumstances can come to the fore during your dreams. Despite this discomfort, students want to experience kanashibari. Some attempt to induce the experience by sleeping on their backs, which can help cause it. Others write “Get lost!” on a piece of paper, tear it up, and throw it away in an effort to anger spirits enough to visit that night. In fact, when researchers asked how to avoid kanashibari, students couldn’t offer solutions. They wanted to experience it rather than avoid it (Schegoleva, 2002). Here is an interview Schegoleva had with an 11-year old boy to give you an idea about kanashibari:

‘Yes, it happened when I was five. I remember lying in my bed, my body being pressed by someone in long white clothes. I could see my brother sleeping but could not move to free myself or scream for help.’
‘Was it a male or female figure?’
‘I immediately decided that it was a female. I don’t know why.’
‘You remember it quite well. How did it end?’
‘I felt that I could move my toes, and the same moment the ghost disappeared.’
‘Do you think it was a ghost?’
‘My brother told me next morning: so you had kanashibari and saw a ghost!’
‘Did you tell the other members of your family what had happened?’
‘No, but a few years later my mother asked if I had had kanashibari, and I said yes, and told her about it.’
‘Has it happened to you just once?’
‘In fact, the second time it happened soon after I spoke to my mother about kanashibari.’ [Laughs.] ‘How old were you?’
‘Well, it was about two years ago, so I was nine, I think. But I did not see anything, there was just this
strange annoying noise, like a glass breaking.’
‘Like glass breaking? Was there actually anything like glass around?’
‘No, and the noise was constant, not real, like glass broken into pieces – crrraasshhhh, as if something
big and fragile was being dropped on the floor.’
‘Were you frightened?’
‘No, the second time I knew what was happening and even found it funny, though the noise was …bothering me.’
‘And the first time, when you were five?’
‘I do not remember very well, but I think I should have been afraid.’
‘Do you know why people get kanashibari? Or how to get kanashibari?’
‘I am not sure, but some of my classmates should know, ask them.’

Media and Kanashibari

Media impacts kanashibari. When the brain is confused, it will reach for the best explanation for the experience out of its library, and for most of us, media has stocked this mental library. While we can know sleep paralysis is caused by stress, fatigue, and sleep disorders, the sleeping mind taps into the subconscious–the realm of spirits, hags, and aliens. In Schegoleva’s 2002 paper, she reported how one student had seen the ghost girl Sadako from The Ring during the student’s kanashibari experience. While in Japan and parts of Europe people dream of kappa, hags, and ghosts, Americans experience sleep paralysis differently. Susan Blackmore, in 1998, linked alleged experiences of alien abduction with sleep paralysis. The experiences match: the out-of-body sensation, luminous presence, and other associations. But why aliens? Well, in American society it’s more acceptable for people to believe an alien abducted them than a ghost or hag sat on them. Aliens are as much a part of American folklore as the kappa is for Japanese folklore. And it is out of this folklore that the mind pulls its understanding of the nightmare world.

Kanashibari can be a terrifying experience if you don’t know what’s happening, or it can be a something a student seeks for a thrill similar to watching a horror movie. If you’d rather avoid the experience, sleep on your side and try not to stress. A regular sleep pattern helps too. About half of us will have at least one episode of kanashibari in our lifetimes. Kanashibari is one of the more mysterious parts of the human experience, one that links modern people with folklore that had long since understood what we are just coming to know.

References

Arikawa, Hiroko & Templer, Donald, et al. (1999). The Structure and Correlates of Kanashibari. The Journal of Psychology 133 (4) 369-375.

Cox, David (2015) Vampires, ghosts, and demons: the nightmare of sleep paralysis; tales of things that go bump in the night have existed for centuries, but they may in fact be a part of a surprisingly common neurological phenomenon. The Guardian. Nov. 2, 2015.

Orly, Regis & Haines, Duane (2014) NEUROwords Kanashibari: A Ghost’s Business. Journal of the History of Neuroscience 23 192-197.

Schegoleva, A. (2002). Sleepless in Japan: the kanashibari phenomenon. Electronic Journal Of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 2

Yoshimura, Ayako (2015) To Believe and Not to Believe: A Native Ethnography of Kanashibari in Japan. Journal of American Folklore 128 (508) 146-178.

Influenced By… Judaism and Christianity

Saviours, Angels, Robots, Nuns and Vampires!

After my look at the ties of Dao, Onmyōji and Twin Star Exorcists, in this installment of my ‘influenced by’-series I’ll engage with an exotic topic – for Japan, that is. Let’s have a look at Christianity in Japan and its appearances in Anime!

Saint Young Men

Saint Young Men Seinto oniisan Jesus buddha manga anime

Mind the T-Shirts: Buddha’s says “Nirvana”, but I doubt he means the band.

A special favourite of mine, often overlooked, is the manga (by Nakamura Hikaru, 2006-now) and anime film Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan, 2013), which humourusly portrays the day-to-day experiences of best buddies Buddha and Jesus on their vacation in Japan. This usually entails accidental miracles and the trouble the two of them have to (a) maintain their incognito and (b) cope with modern life.

Jesus divides pool Saint Young Men

This is not diving, this is Moses-ing.

In one instance, Buddha takes Jesus to a swimming pool and Jesus has to admit he is somewhat afraid of water, hence his preference to walk across. Buddha persuades him to try and dive. When he eventually does, well… Let’s just say the Egyptians have seen it before.

However, anime with religious allusions or symbolism don’t usually feature a religious figure as a character. Instead, there tends to be a mashup of names, symbols, and stories, or just playing on “cool” exotic themes. The stories, it seems are not as popular as the images.

So, how did Christian lore arrive in Japan in the first place?

The introduction of Christianity to Japan

Francis Xavier Kobe Museum Japan Jesuit missionary

Francis Xavier, as depicted in a painting exhibited at Kobe Museum.

The Portuguese “discovered” the Japanese archipelago in 1542. (From a European point of view. The Chinese, Koreans, and of cause the Japanese themselves had known for centuries that it existed.) Seven years later, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and his subordinates landed in what is now Nagasaki prefecture, on the island of Kyūshū, and introduced the Japanese to Christianity.[i] Initially, the new religion received a warm welcome.

Early Success

At first, Japanese audiences took Christianity for just another sect of Buddhism. Early translations of Christian scripture into Japanese rendered “God” as “Dainichi Nyōrai”, thereby equating him with the Great Sun-Buddha, a central deity of esoteric Buddhism. (In Japan, Dainichi Nyōrai is also associated with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens in Shintō.) This translation intensified general similarities in Christian and Buddhist ethics. It also catered to the Japanese syncretistic worldview, which easily blends different religions according to individual spiritual needs. Therefore, the new religion was not met with resistance. It was seen as an addition, not a replacement, of the old ones. Statistics also play a role here: If a regional ruler converted, his subjects would follow, thus one conversion could bring a significant rise in the number of “believers”.

But most important was the current political landscape. Christianity arrived in Japan at a time of internal struggle. It was end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai) and military leader Oda Nobunaga was trying to unify Japan. Among other things, he fought the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and eventually burnt down most of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, from where the monks had brought their demands to the imperial capital of Kyōto. In this context, Oda encouraged the spread of Christianity as a rival to Buddhism.[ii]

Persecution

fumi-e fumie test christian Japan kakure kirishitan hidden stepping picture

“To test a suspected Christian, order him to step on this fumi-e. Believers will refuse.”

The official view of Christianity turned, however, due to several developments. Firstly, the Christian idea of superiority over all other beliefs conflicted with the aforementioned syncretistic approach of Japanese Buddhism and Shintō. Secondly, the newly established military government was concerned about Catholics’ loyalty to the pope. Thirdly, news of the confessional wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe sparked concern of similar things happening between converts of the two sects in Japan.

As a result, missionary action and the performance of Christian belief in Japan was increasingly persecuted, culminating in the violent suppression of the Christian peasant uprisings of Amakusa and Shimabara in 1637. [iii]  Three years later, Japan entered its over 200-year isolation (sakoku), until the ships of American commodore Perry forced the opening of trading ports in the mid-19th century. Christian belief only survived in secret among the so-called “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan). Buddhist images served as disguises for the forbidden worship; for example, the bodhisattva Kannon is often depicted as female, in some cases even with a child, and can therefore double as Virgin Mary.[iv]

Return

Chapel of Dôshisha University, Kyôtô.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan denounced its isolation and rapidly imported European philosophy and science. The new imperial government encouraged everything which seemed to further the modernization of the country. In this context, they eventually lifted the ban on Christianity, but soon grew hostile again. Like Buddhism, the religion of Christianity stood against the proposed doctrine of State Shintō and seemed in conflict with the new, modern, scientific worldview.[v]  However, the establishment of Christian universities such as Kyōto’s Protestant Dōshisha University (1875) and Tōkyō’s Catholic Sophia University (1911) demonstrates the influence of Christianity on Japanese higher education. In this way, Christianity was an important factor in the political developments leading to modern Japan.[vi]

Since the American occupation after WWII, the Japanese have also adopted many aspects of Western Christian culture, such as Christmas and Christian wedding ceremonies. However, only 1-3% of the Japanese population count themselves as Christian.[vii] Thus these rituals are decontextualized and secularized, perhaps a part of global consumer culture. (Which, arguably, is also what they have become in “Christian” countries.) As a part of this global consumer culture, popular culture emerges as a space of cultural interaction and engagement with myth.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon gegensis evangelion poster

The poster doesn’t really tell you what you’re in for.

Ten years ago, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion) would not have needed an introduction among anime fans. The anime series (produced by studio Gainax and directed by Anno Hideaki) ran in 1995-6 on TV Tokyo and reached international audiences from 2000 onward.[viii] Anime scholar Susan Napier lauds it as a landmark series, both as a representative of its genres – science fiction and, more specifically mecha anime – and because of its enormous popularity and impact on popular culture.[ix] For more information on NGE’s outstanding contributions to anime storytelling from this site’s main author, see this post. The effect lingers; you could still see some Evangelion cosplay at German Anime-Conventions in 2012 (which is when I stopped going) and we found figurines of its characters in UFO-Catchers in Kyōto only last year. So I’ll keep the summary brief.

What happens?

In a dystopian mechanized future, the world (i.e. mostly Japan, i.e. mainly Tokyo) is threatened by aliens, the ‘angels’. The only ones who can defeat them are certain 14-year-olds, when they become pilots of giant robots called Evangelions (EVA for short). The main protagonist is one of these pilots, Ikari Shinji, a sulky boy in conflict with his estranged father, who happens to run the operations against the aliens. One would expect a generic “boy hero overcomes obstacles and saves world with his friends” story, as the opening theme[x] suggests, but this is what NGE refuses to do.

Instead, it depicts the psychological issues of its main character(s) and embellishes the “humans fight aliens” plot with so many references to Judeo-Christian lore that researchers have interpreted the work as a) a postmodern deconstruction of reality and identity b) criticism of consumer culture and America-centered political history and c) a contemplation of the meaning of life – and that’s just the three articles I found in my university library.[xi]

What’s Christian?

Much of the stories NGE draws on are not Christian as much as based on Hebrew Kabbala and the Gnostics.[xii] The title ‘Evangelion’ itself refers to the gospel, of course. Because the antagonistic aliens are called angels, on can already assume that humanity has, in some way, angered God and brought these events upon itself? Well, what exactly the root cause of everything is, the series never reveals, but it becomes clear that at least the cataclysmic events around the first angel, Adam, were caused by human arrogance and ‘it attempting to play God’.

Old and New Testament, and far beyond that

Rebuild Evangelion Neon Genesis angel cross explosion

Explosion of the 7th angel, as shown in the Evangelion movie versions (Rebuild of Evangelion)

In addition, with the first angel named Adam, it surely comes as no surprise that the robots called EVAs have a certain connection to it (i.e. they are partially constructed after his model), or that another angel by the name of Lilith appears.[xiii] Speaking of angels: the Japanese dub uses shito, which would be more closely translated as ‘apostle’, although both refer to a divine/religious messenger.[xiv] For more of the Old-testament-based references, I refer you to Ortega’s elaborate analysis (see Notes section below).
Concerning the New Testament, we have firstly the three computer brains of the NERV Corporation, which take their names from the three wise men of the nativity story: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.[xv] Secondly, the ultimate weapon against angels is the Lance of Longinus (traditionally, the weapon thrust into the body of Christ on the cross to check if he was dead).  The series queers this artifact’s story, however, because the crucified form we first see the lance stuck in is the angel Lilith. Thirdly, since Shinji is expected to save the world, we might see him as a Christ figure suffering for humanity’s sake. Fittingly, hints of his mother associate the Madonna.[xvi] Fourthly, the cross features repeatedly, not just as a pendant Misato wears – the explosion of a dying angel is cross-shaped. Finally, the secret organization which controls all events is called SEELE, German for ‘soul’.

 

Instant Confusion, Just Add Myth

Lilith lance longinus NGE angel

Angel Lilith, impaled with Lance of Longinus

I’d like to emphasize an aspect Ortega overlooks: the intense blending of stories and images. Traditionally, angels are beings of a different order than humans: stronger, more beautiful, servants of God, but without free will. While NGE retains the power aspect, it also strongly implies that humans and angels are very closely related (i.e. humans, angels, and EVAs are all in some way decedents of Adam and/or Lilith).

 

In a similar vein, the ‘original’ Lance of Longinus has nothing to do with angels, Adam, or Lilith. NGE plays on the association that it is a God-killer weapon, but then again, angels are not God, are they? This anime is so confusing… Anyways, this “take what you need and apply it to your problem/story”-approach resembles the syncretistic view of religion I discussed earlier.

Another aspect I find interesting is the interlacing of religious myth and science fiction, or the myth of technology. You know, giant robots, clones and bioengineering, supercomputers, and the like. A similar connection between religion and science marks the second work I’d like to discuss here.

Trinity Blood

Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques. trinity blood poster

Left to right: Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques.

One story migrating and evolving from one medium to the next is typical for Japanese popular culture, as I mentioned before. Trinity Blood began in 1999 as a light novel series by Yoshida Sunao, spawned a shōjo manga (2004) and an anime adaptation (2005). This leads to a noticeable shift in art styles; it also produces conflicting information, differing plot lines and character developments, and so on. The anime is probably best known, but the novels provide most background information… and I’ve mainly read the manga 😉 But the interesting parts are common to all versions.

What happens?

1000 years after devastating war, two intelligent species live an Earth: humans (Terrans), and vampires (Methuselah). Human military and political power is concentrated at the Vatican, whereas Byzantium has become the vampire capital.  Both powers are in a Cold War-type of setting, and “lost technologies” from before Armageddon greatly impact the balance of power.

For secret missions, usually concerning vampires, the Vatican sends out special agents. One of those is the main protagonist, Abel Nightroad. In Istvan (Bulgaria), Abel and his partner Tres cross paths with Sister Esther Blanchett, and political complications ensue. Despite his ditzy appearance, Abel is an immensely powerful fighter thanks to the “Crusnik” nanomachines in his body: As vampires prey on humans, Crusnik prey on vampires.  Later the story reveals the origin of both vampires and Crusnik: Vampires are humans infected with the Kudlak Bacillus, which in turn served as food for the Crusnik nanomachines, both of which were discovered in a crashed alien spaceship when humanity tried to colonize Mars.[xvii]

What’s Christian?

Cardinal Jacopino del Conte

Compare: 16th century Cardinal, by Jacopino del Conte.

Cardinal Caterina Sforza, Trinity Blood

Cardinal Caterina Sforza

Whereas NGE intensely appropriates stories and symbols, Trinity Blood makes pronounced use of Christian institutions, that is, the hierarchy and insignia of the Catholic Church. Abel is introduced as a priest, Esther as a (novice) nun, and higher positions are occupied by bishops such as Esther’s mother figure Laura and cardinals such as Abel’s supervisor Catharina Sforza. The character’s clothing is visibly inspired by actual nun’s habits, priests’ and cardinal’s clothing, though the artist(s) also take considerable liberties. Esther’s blue-trimmed white habit evokes that of Mother Teresa, though I couldn’t find any habit design with a short, folded back part of the veil like the one Esther’s wearing. Dressing priests in black and cardinals in red also fits the Church hierarchy. Take this image of Caterina as an example. There’s a lot of detail added, such as cuffs, armour, embroidery etc., but the basic shape is still there – notice the short cloak-like part around the shoulders. I don’t know where the hat came from, through… perhaps the artist just likes big hats 😉. And of course, crosses and rosaries and the like abound as decorative elements.

Political involvement

Christian belief plays a role as well, though mostly as a tool of political power, not a feature of the main character’s personality. Thus, Esther is declared a Saint in a context of political intrigue, in order to affect the pious population. Christian charity features briefly in the beginning as part of the description of the convent in Istvan. However, there is no special promotion of Christian values by main characters, although most of them are members of the Church. Similarly, while the series features numerous terrorists or vigilantes of human or vampire origin, their motivation is usually personal, nationalist or racist, not religious. The series carefully subverts black-and-white morality judgements and shows its characters’ motivations to be diverse, personal, and (Terran or Methuselah) very human.

Names

Lilith Hologram Catharge Trinity Blood

Hologram of Lilith as a Saint

The characters refer to the Earth-encompassing war which led to the present state of affairs as Armageddon, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the Book of Revelation or just popular culture, where both “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are used to describe large-scale catastrophes capable of exterminating humanity.

Like NGE, Trinity Blood references Genesis and the first humans, but goes one generation further. The first Crusnik is Cain, followed by Abel (the main Character) and their sister Seth. In the Bible, Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain had slain Abel. The fourth Crusnik bears the name Lilith. She is the eldest of these four – all genetically engineered for a Mars colonization project. Interestingly, Lilith becomes a Crusnik last, and only to protect humanity from the other three. This is a weird echo of the NGE moment when humanity is collectively, as “Lilim” or Lilith’s offspring, indicated to be the final, the 18th angel. In both cases, Lilith is associated with humanity, whereas in the source material, Lilith is punished by God for insubordination and becomes a mother of demons. Trinity Blood, by contrast, shows her as a saint-like figure.

Concluding remarks

When it comes to the use of Christian content in anime, the primary appeal probably lies in its exoticism. Whereas with Twin Star Exorcists the animators could assume at least a vague familiarity with the religious associations among their audience, Christianity is both relatively new and relatively rare in Japan. Its visual cues (churches and clothing, like the bride’s white dress) are probably more familiar to the audience then any narratives. Except of course prior adaptations of the same source material. Thus interaction with Christianity might be more external, as in Trinity Blood, adapting the institutions and clothes to contribute to the work’s exotic European flavor. Or it may delve into complex, multilayered and contradictory myth-building, as NGE does. One reviewer of the latter points out that the mere inclusion of religious imagery can both add a cool factor and give a work a feeling of depth and gravitas.[xviii]

Trinity Blood vatican airship

Screenshot from episode 1 of the Trinity Blood anime: A Vatican Airship.

The creative blending of diverse types of stories may, as I mentioned above, be linked to the syncretistic tradition in Japanese religion. In this vein, the connection of Christian elements and Science Fiction makes me wonder if there is some historic precedent as well. Was European science and ‘modernity’, as imported after the Meiji Restoration, seen as somehow connected to European history of thought?

At least in the beginning, this seems to have been true: “It should be remembered that Christianity was introduced to Japan after it had already been well refined in Western society and was arrayed in the garb of modern religion. At the beginning the Japanese people even thought that modernization, Westernization, and Christianization were one and the same thing.”[xix] Perhaps, some residue of this conflation still remains?

Star Wars Force Luke Skywalker Obi Wan Kenobi

Not that religion and science fiction where unrelated in Western media…

Notes and References:

[i] See http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c02303/ for a biographic account of these early missionaries and (on page 2) pictures of Japanese churches.

[ii] Bunce, William. Religions in Japan. Rutland & Tōkyō: Charles E. Tuttle, 1948. 20-21. See also: Covell, Stephen. “Religious Culture”. In: Sugimoto, Yoshino (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 147-8.

[iii] Bunce 1948:21-22, 150; Covell 2009:148-9.

[iv] http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/maria-kannon.html

[v] Bunce 1948: 151-3, Covell 2009:149.

[vi] Ellington, Lucien. Asia in Focus: Japan. Santa Barbara & Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009. 165.

[vii] Covell 2009:150.

[viii] Both the American and German versions were apparently first broadcast in 2000; but I have to trust Wikipedia on this since TV-schedules prove quite difficult to research.

[ix] Napier, Susan. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain”. In: Bolton, Christopher; Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr; & Takayuki Tatsumi (eds). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 108.

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYZfeY8Vg0E, notably the lyrics say „shōnen wa, shinwa ni nare”, “Boy, become a legend”.

[xi] 1) Napier 2007; 2) Redmond, Dennis. „Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion“. In: Allen, Matthew, & Sakamoto, Ruby (eds). Japanese Popular Culture: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. Volume II: Japanese Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century. London & New York: Routledge, 2014; 3) Ortega, Mariana. „My Father, He Killed Me; My Mother, She Ate Me: Self, Desire, Engendering, and the Mother in Neon Genesis Evangelion.“In: Mechademia, Vol.2 (Networks of Desire), 2007.

[xii] Ortega 2007.

[xiii] Ortega 2007:218-9.

[xiv] https://wiki.evageeks.org/Angels

[xv] Ortega 2007:223.

[xvi] Ortega 2007:224.

[xvii] http://trinityblood.wikia.com/wiki/Methuselah

[xviii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiUs6YuSloM

[xix] Kishimoto Hideo, „The problem of religion and modernization in Japan“, p.12. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/3240

Anime’s One-Piece Swimsuit Fetish and the History of Japanese Swimsuits

anime high school swimsuit

Form-fitting, sleek one-piece swimsuits dominate high-school anime’s depictions of girls. Fans demand, in fact, require their anime to feature their favorite female characters in these iconic one-pieces. More than a few fetishes in the fandom focus on this blue spandex swimsuit. The swimsuit features in high-school anime because it is a part of Japanese school life. But where exactly did this one-piece swimsuit come from?

To answer that, we need to look at the history of swimwear in the West. Japan imported Western-style swimwear, along with many other Western ideas and costumes, during the early part of the 1900s.

Casale_BikiniLet’s backpeddle to the first swimsuit: the bikini. Official history states the bikini was designed by French engineer Louis Réard in 1946. The swimwear is thought to be named after the Bikini Atoll, the site of several US atomic tests happening at the time. However, the bikini appears much earlier. A Roman mosaic dating the to the 4th century in Sicily shows Roman women exercising in quite modern-liking bikinis (Spivack, 2012).

When the Roman Empire collapsed, bathing suits and bathing in general numbered among the collapse’s victims. Up until the 1500s, Europeans believed bathing spread disease rather than prevented it (Tousignant, 2014). Bathing didn’t return until the Renaissance and the Baroque period, and by then people expected female skin to remain covered. For example, in 1687, the English traveler Celia Fiennes described the typical lady’s bathing suit (Spivack, 2012):

The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.

These bathing gowns sometimes had lead weights sewn into their hems so nothing would float up and reveal an ankle (Tousignant, 2014). Swim gowns persisted until form fitting bathing suits became popular in the early 1900s. Made of wool, these swimsuits covered from neck to ankle. In case you are wondering, men covered almost as much as women. They wore vests and swim shirts up until 1937, when they finally went bare-chested.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Anyway, these form fitting swimsuits caused a scandal. In 1907, Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-fitting one-piece that showed skin on her arms and legs. Her arrest backfired. Instead of halting the trend of creeping skin, her arrest encouraged women to show more leg and and arm (Spivack, 2014).  As the years passed, more skin appeared, but the invention of spandex marked the beginning of the modern, form-hugging swimsuits we are familiar with today.

The Japanese Modern Girl and Western Fashion

So what does the history of Western swimwear have to do with the Japanese school-girl one-piece? The answer traces back to the Meiji Restoration and the rise of the modan garu in the 1920s.

The Meiji Restoration marked the end of Japan’s closed-off feudal period and the start of rapid modernization. Japan looked to the West, particularly the United States, for examples. The rapid import of Western ideas sent shocks throughout Japanese society. One group in particular noticed a profound different in traditional views and Western views: women. Women became consumers of new Western forms of media: mass market magazines, movies, radio, jazz, and other imports. A small group of women began to emulate the Western fashions they witnessed in American movies. The modan garu, or modern girl, became the symbol of modernization.

As a symbol of modernism, you’d think the modern girl would be a common sight in the 1920s, just as the flapper was a common sight in America during the same decade. However, a 1925 survey of the Ginza area of Tokyo found 99% of women still wore traditional Japanese clothing. Only 1% of women dressed as modern girls. However, that 1% stood out. The modern girl wore bright-colored one-piece dressed that reached to her knees. She wore high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings that drew attention to her legs. Her bobbed hair was modeled after Hollywood actresses like Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson. The hair style in particular marked a significant change. Traditional Japanese women wore their hair in a bun, and an ordinance from 1872 forbade women from cutting their hair (Sato, 1993). Interestingly, during this period it wasn’t unusual for women to dive nude. Known as ama, this fisherwomen would become popular examples of the “Exotic East” for Westerners. They caused less of  a stir than the modern girls.

So the modern girl was a woman who bucked tradition and embraced the Western fashion she witnessed on the silver screen. Among these fashions was the swimsuit. Postcards from the era sometimes showed Japanese women wearing Western style swimsuits. Swimsuits like the ones Kellerman wore. These women were at the height of fashion and controversy. Just as Kellerman ran into problems in Boston, Japanese modern girls faced backlash for showing too much and being too Western. The modern girl faced real challenges. Novelist Mochizuki Yuriko wrote an account of her experience as a modern girl when she cut her hair (Sato, 1993):

The long kimono was beautiful, but it was no longer in keeping with the age. Long Japanese hair was also beautiful, but that,  too, had become anachronistic. Those were the feelings I had when I decided to cut my hair. . . . You  can’t imagine the shock it gave to the people around me. My mother took one look at me and cried out in indignation, ‘You must be crazy! If you go out,  everyone will call you one of those atarashii onna [new women]’-the  term modan garu was not in use yet.. . . I remember another instance after I returned to my family home in the country. I ran into two girls,  fifteen and  sixteen, living in the neighborhood who had had a short cut. Ours was an extremely provincial, tradition-bound village, and it caused a great sensation. The girls were punished severely and their mothers sobbed and wailed, carrying on as if they were lunatics. My own mother confronted me and said,  ’It’s your fault that this dreadful thing has happened. You’ve lost face with everyone in the neighborhood, so I wish  that you’d just go right back to Tokyo.’ In no time I packed my bag and returned to Tokyo feeling as if I were  escaping.. . . It’s  been almost ten years since I got a short cut. During that time there have been a string of  tragicomedies.

When I think back [to 1918], the painful experiences far outnumbered the comic situations. Even today, it’s appalling how many idiots jeer and hiss at me and are ignorant enough to  label me a modan garu.

Japanese modern girls faced real problems for their decisions to embrace Western fashion. They not only faced problems with their families for breaking tradition, but they also faced the label of sexual deviant. Their embrace of Western fashion marked them as a sex object and women of poor sexual morality. Despite police investigations in 1923–which found nothing sexual or immoral going on in modern-girl cafes and other hang outs–the idea persisted. Some of this persistence is because of the exoticism of Western dress at the time. These women represented something new, different, and modern. In a word: exotic, and exotic women stimulate male libido–just as the ama and geisha did for Western men. The sexual attraction of the 1920s modern girl continues with the attraction for Japanese high-school one-piece swimsuits. Much like panty fetishes were caused by Westernization, the fetish for the one-piece started with the sexual objectification of early modern girls and their Western swimwear. And the association stuck.

Modan garu kept up with American fashion changes up until World War II. By the time the war ended, the American Occupation cemented America’s influence on Japan. However, there is another piece of the puzzle. The high-school one-piece isn’t merely a result of Japan copying America. The one-piece is distinctly Japanese. It resulted from the influence of the modern girl merging with the distinctly Japanese school uniform.

The Uniform Swimsuit

This is just one of the examples of how the high school swimsuit for ladies is fetishized. The abnormal pose shows off her lolita figure. The high-school swimsuit and lolita fetish often converge.

Besides the one-piece swimsuit, anime focuses on the Japanese school uniform. The Japanese school uniform, like the modern girl, came out of Japan’s rapid Westernization. Japanese school uniforms are as iconic as the samurai, and Japan engineered that iconography. When Japan entered the world stage, it was obsessed with how other nations perceived it. Japan wanted to present its military as modern, and military uniforms are the way to do just that. Military uniforms are designed to impress foreign nations, after all.

Japan took its modernization so seriously that it extended military dress to its school system. Female school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Navy uniform, and male school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Army. These uniforms were a way of advertising how Japan became modern across all levels of its population.

Beginning in the 1950s, school uniforms became associated with morally wholesome children. That is, until the Lolita movement and the push toward fashion started in the 1980s. During the 1980s, private girl schools began to use uniform styles to attract students. This pushed school uniforms into the public eye, including school swimsuits. In 1985, the book Girl Uniform Fieldbook by Mori Nobuyuki outlined various school uniform fashions and which schools featured each uniform (Kinsella, 2002). This, in combination with the shift in using school girl as advertising, brought the school uniform and school swimsuit back into the realm of sexuality. The long running strand of sexuality introduced by the modern girl back in the early 1900s had returned.

Kosaki Onodera from Nisekoi

Anime picked up on this return of the swimsuit as a subject of sexual attraction. The one-piece became an iconic fetish because for many Japanese men it was the first exposure to the female body. First exposures leave lasting influence and tap into nostalgia. The one-piece dredges memories of high school and junior-high, times when you had more freedom. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, especially when it is combined with sexual attraction.

The Japanese Male Swimsuit

So far, I’ve focused on the female one-piece. Although it is not as iconic, the male swimsuit shares similar DNA. However, it doesn’t the same potent sexual symbolism as the female swimsuit in popular culture. Some of this is because female sexual interests tend not to be as public as male. Marketing hasn’t capitalized on female sexual attraction as long as it has on male sexual attraction. This is changing as more marketing and anime aims at titillating women through male objectification. I’ve written about female objectification many times so I won’t get into it again here. If you want to read more check out these links: breast obsession, magical girls and sexism, otaku culture is sexist. The male swimsuit follows the same trail as the female. As women adopted Western fashion, awareness of Western male fashion also increased. Male swimwear has undergone fewer changes than female swimwear. Depending on your perspective, Westernized societies place a higher value on female skin than male skin. This is why males tend to have fewer controversy with swimwear. Female skin is more valuable as a commodity and therefore shouldn’t be shared as readily as male skin. For the record, I firmly disagree with this view, but patriarchal views hang on. This view is changing, however, as female sexual attraction and homosexual male sexual attraction becomes more accepted.

The Revenge of the One-Piece

Anime’s focus on the female one-piece swimsuit traces back more than a century, back to the opening of Japan to the rest of the world. For decades, Western fashion has influenced Japanese, but in recent years that has begun to reverse. The one-piece has returned in many American magazines. While the one-piece hasn’t completely disappeared, it played second-fiddle to the bikini. That is changing. In a 2015 article of InStyle, many women are returning to the one-piece as a backlash against the ever-shrinking bikini (Cheng, 2015).

I suspect Japan’s high school one-piece has had a small hand in this shift as well. Manga and anime enjoyed a period of booming popularity between roughly 2004-2008 here in the States. Many of these fans are now at an age where they can influence fashion. While anime and manga fans are a small cohort, their views cause ripples among nonfans. The constant exposure to one-piece swimsuits in anime and manga–not to mention how anime portrays the one-piece as sexier than bikinis–will shift ideals of fashion. I have to be clear: I don’t have data on this. It is merely a suspicion.

In any case, the one-piece swimsuit sits on a line of influence stretching all the way back through the Japanese modern girl movement, back through the swim gowns of yesteryear, back into the Roman Empire, and back even further into history. The one-piece shows how even a simple piece of material is connected to a web of ideas and people stretching back into time.

References

Cheng, A. (2015) Proof That One-Piece Swimsuits Are Now More Popular Than Bikinis. InStyle. http://www.instyle.com/news/celebrities-in-one-piece-swimsuits

Kinsella, S. (2002). What’s Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms? Fashion Theory 6 (2). 215-238.

Sato, B. H. (1993) The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles during the 1920s. Gender & History. 3(3) 361-381.

Spivack, E. (2012). How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back. Smithsonian.

Tousignant, M. (2014). The History of Swimsuits, from Togas to Bikinis. The Washington Post. June 2, 2014.

Ama: Japan’s Sea Diving Women

Ama come from a tradition that dates back over 2,000 years, and the tradition is dying. Today, about 2,000 ama dive off the coast of Japan, and fewer dive each year. Most ama are well into their 60s and 70s (LeBlanc, 2015; McCurry, 2016). Before we continue, I have to leave you with a disclaimer. This article contains nudity. Before the 1900s, ama dived naked except for a traditional loincloth. The earliest images of ama, naked from the waist up, appear in 18th century ukiyo-e. Ama have worn wetsuits since the 1960s (LeBlanc, 2015).

The Ama Tradition

No one knows exactly how women became deep sea divers. Westerners assume ama dived for pearls, but most dived to collect seaweed, fish, and shellfish to supplement their meals and sell on the marketplace. Ama are almost exclusively women. They dive in the cold sea without the aid of scuba gear, using only rocks to help them sink as far as 30 feet below the sea. Most traditional ama were wives of fishermen. They would dive so they can earn extra money while their husbands were away on prolonged fishing trips (Martinez, 2004; LeBlanc, 2015; Tanaka, 2016).

On Shima peninsula, ama once dominated. After World War II, 6,000 of the 10,000 total divers lived in the area. Today only 750 live there (McCurry, 2016).  Ama break with Japanese culture norms, particularly the ama of Shima. Since feudal Japan, women were relegated to a limited role, based upon class. In samurai classes, women were shut off from society and were expected to manage the household and raise children. The lower classes granted women more freedom, but she was still subject to her husband. Merchant class women, for example, were expected to help manage the household and provide help with the family business. Farming class women helped plant the fields in addition to her household duties.

However, ama in the Shima area flipped these expectations. In some situations, the husband assisted her. He would wait topside for her to tug on her safety rope. Then, he would haul her up and help with her catch. During the Tokugawa period, these women were seen as strong and a match for their husbands. Many started their profession as children to continue to dive well into their 80s (LeBlanc, 2015).

When the husbands were away, ama dived in groups. Each woman would tie themselves to a wooden bucket that acted as a float. Diving in groups helped reduce danger, but whenever you dive up to 30 feet in cold water for up to 2 minutes, people can die. In a typical day, these women dive 100-150 times (Tanaka, 2016). Ama developed a culture of beliefs and practices to help reduce this danger.

Superstitions of the Ama

Ama fishing villages feature a special temple for the women to pray before heading off and their own communal warming huts for when they return from a cold day’s work. They developed their own protective symbols. The seiman, or 5-pointed star, adorn their head scarves and tools. Written in a single stroke, starting and ending at the same point, the star represents their safe return to the surface. Another design, the dohman,  a lattice design that keeps danger away and represents watchfulness. Before each dive, the women knock on the side of the boat with their chisel and recite a short mantra (LeBlanc, 2015).

Ama diving. Photo by Fosco Maraini 1954.

Men ama divers exist, but the profession is dominated by women. Diving is done relatively close to shore. While men took trips out into open waters, women could dive nearby to help the family’s income. Men would take the best boats, while women could make do with less seaworthy craft. Women were also thought to be better at diving than men. First, women have an extra layer of fat that helps them tolerate cold water better than men (LeBlanc, 2015). Women were also thought to be better able to hold their breath and for longer than men (Tanaka, 2016).

Today’s Ama

Ama is a dying profession. Several reasons go into this. First, young women don’t have any interest in learning the special breathing techniques ama have perfected. Second, the profession doesn’t pay. While their staple crop abalone can net $80.00 for 2lbs, abalone are getting harder to find due to overfishing and environmental changes (McCurry, 2016). Ama is a sustainable fishing system. It allows the diver to be selective. While the lack of nets and other gear protects the environment, oceans face pressures from industrial methods that impacts the ability of ama to find their catches. The profession may soon disappear because of these factors.

Topless Diving and the Mysterious, Exotic Orient

I have to comment on the images I chose to use. For a good portion of Japanese history, nudity among women carried little shame, particularly for the lower classes. Nudity is natural. I selected these images because they are a part of history. It was a part of who the ama were. That said, these photos were often intended for Western audiences. Soon after Japan opened, postcards of the exotic East began to be sent by visitors. Geisha, samurai, and ama numbered among the topics Westerners considered strange. Topless women who dived in cold waters. How strange! How erotic!

Never mind they dived nearly nude for safety. Clothing could snag on rocks. Although after the 1900s, many wore cotton gowns.

The exoticness of Japan was fetishized by the West since Japan modernized in the late 1800s. Today, Japanese women face continued fetishes by many Western men. These photos are not intended to cater to either fetish. Rather, I decided to use them to give a glimpsed of the women called ama while pointing out how these glimpses need to be understood. Today we sexualize far too much.  The women you saw in this article felt the cold salt water on their skin. They knew hunger and joy. They were mothers and grandmothers. These photographs provide a small window in their lives, a window distorted by Western exoticism and by modern sexuality.

References

LeBlanc, P. (2015). UT professor studies group of traditional Japanese pearl divers. Austin American-Statesman.

McCurry, J. (2016) “Japan’s women of the sea hope G7 will boost their dying way of life; The ama divers of the Shima peninsula, who harvest shellfish from the seabed, see the nearby gathering of world leaders as a chance to promote their culture”. The Guardian (London).

Martinez, D. (2004) Identity and Ritual in A Japanese Diving Village: The Making and Becoming of Person and Place. University of Hawaii Press.

Tanaka, H. and others (2016) “Arterial Stiffness of lifelong Japanese female pearl divers.” Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 310.

Photos are by Yoshiyuki Iwase unless otherwise noted.