On April 30th, Emperor Akihito became the first sitting Japanese Emperor to abdicate the throne in over 200 years. Then, the following day on May 1st, his son Naruhito ascended the throne, becoming the 125th emperor thus marking the official start of the Reiwa (令和) Era.
In recognition of this momentous occasion, that PM Abe described to Trump as being “100 times bigger [than the Super Bowl],” many stores and companies released new products. Such as Reiwa branded sake and beer, a ¥100,000 truffle wagyu burger, foie gras and gold dust toped 3kg wagyu burger, gold dust seasoned potato chips and cans of Heisei Era air from Heinari in Gifu Prefecture, heisei branded bottles of water costing ¥2000. While many other stores simply opted to hold special time-limited sales.
At the same time, many Japanese consumers enjoyed an extremely long holiday (by Japanese standards) of 10 days and many went on spending sprees with some economists estimating there to be a nationwide spike in spending by tens of billions of Yen.
Meanwhile, many in China reportedly were baffled and disappointed that the new era name wasn’t based off of Chinese classics like many past era names and instead was instead allegedly derived from a collection of classical Japanese poetry from the late 7th to 8th centuries known as The Manyoshu.
One of the most odd effects of the new Reiwa era name, however, is the celebration of many Tibetans living in Japan due to the new era’s name sounding similar to the Tibetan word for “hope”. There are many people who hope and believe that the new era’s name is an auspicious sign for the Tibetan people; May 10th marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
The decades following the
end of the Second World War marked a significant period of development for
Japanese manga. The genres of manga became divided between two primary genres, shounen, and shoujo, for boys and girls respectively, and the art of telling
longer running stories became mainstream practice. As well, women began to
enter the manga industry rapidly during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which would
cause a significant shift in the stories that were told and how they were
presented within shoujo manga that
was released (Prough 2011:46-48). The stories that were produced in this new
style followed patterns of using exotic locations outside of Japan as the main
setting and expressing the emotions involved in human relationships, often love
triangles between the main character, the heroine, and two boys that she was
close to. They also employed a drawing style that remains recognized as a style
for shoujo manga. Despite the many
changes that took place, it was not until the 1970’s that female manga artists
would begin to experiment with the portrayal of kissing and sex in shoujo manga for older teenagers (Prough
2011: 53). However, these initial intimate scenes were not between two people
of the opposite sex but rather between two boys.
This new genre of shoujo manga, known as yaoi, shounen ai, and/or boys love depending on time period and context,
offered a new type of story to be consumed by the girls that were reading manga
at that time. Even though this new genre of shoujo
manga was about the love between two boys, it was not about portraying a
realistic and loving relationship between two men. Instead, the relationships
within boys love manga were symbolic of things desired and things experienced
by Japanese girls and women; they were a way for restricted individuals to
express their sexuality in text. While the genre has gone through many
stylistic changes, especially in recent years, this symbolism can still be seen
even in more recent works of boys love manga. By understanding the thematic and
stylistic origins of boys love manga and by analyzing some more recent works, it
will be possible to see how this symbolism continued on through various dynamic
changes in the genre while also developing into something new to accommodate
for continuing critic from the gay community and its allies in Japan.
Origin of Boys Love
The boys love genre saw its origins in the early 1970’s as a
type of mainstream shoujo manga. At
the time known as shounen-ai, these
stories followed the romance between two beautiful boys. The appearance of
these beautiful boys is striking because of the androgynous nature of their
appearances; with their long flowing hair and slender bodies their gender
appears as ambiguous to the untrained eye. In addition to their genderless
appearances, when engaging in intimate activity, the panels of the manga were
placed in a way that made their sexual actions even more ambiguous by never
directly showing insertion of a penis or other obviously male occurrences
(Prough 2011:53). While the appearance of these beautiful boys may bring to
question the true nature of their sex, interviews with artists of the genre
suggest that in their eyes at least, there is no doubt that these beautifully
drawn androgynous boys are male (Welker 2011: 213). None the less, it is likely
that the ambiguous appearances of the boys likely helped facilitate an
understanding of the characters for the readers.
Additionally, the early
settings of these shounen-ai manga
were placed in exotic locations just like other shoujo manga of the time. Not unlike other shoujo manga, these exotic locations were typically historical
Europe in aristocratic families, all-boys boarding schools, or both. Again like
other shoujo manga of the time, the
focus was on the emotions and connections made by the main character to others
around him.The combination of
foreign location and androgynous boys allowed for the mainstream shoujo manga readers to enjoy these
early shounen ai stories by
distancing them from the sexual content
but also by being relatable which was an overall important accomplishment for
manga because intimacy had never been expressed in such a way in manga before (Prough
the 1980’s, shounen ai had left
mainstream shoujo manga magazines and
began publishing in specialty magazines for the genre. With this new vein of
publishing the genre took on a new name courtesy of the publishing industry,
becoming the English “boys love” that is primarily used in this essay. Stories
about the love between two boys also began to thrive in another market, that of
doujinshi, or self-published
fanfiction (Prough 2011: 54). In this instance, these self-published works were
manga though doujinshi as a term
refers to all fan-published material. Within these fan-made works, the genre
was known as yaoi, an acronym that
stands for “no climax, no ending, no meaning.” This terminology represents the
way that these stories were written without much thought or plot. In this case
of boys love doujinshi they were
typically a quick and steamy after between the two main characters. These fan-made works were often much more
sexually explicit than their counterparts in shounen-ai were originally and as already stated, their sexual
encounter was overall the main point of the story. Many of these fan-made works are now often
based off stories in shounen manga,
with those released in the Weekly Shounen Jump magazine being especially
popular (Saito 2011: 180). Some of these titles include Gintama, Naruto, One Piece, and The Prince of Tennis. The
authors of these particular doujinshi
displayed and still do display a special ability to shift the friendly bonding
of shounen manga and turn it into a
romantic encounter between two teenage boys. The development of these doujinshi as separate to published boys
love is important because of the way they influenced setting and also sexual
content in commercially published works. Boys love manga was already evolving
continuously right from the start based on competition between the producers
and the consumers.
Experiencing Sex in Boys Love
The boys love manga that was produced from the 1990’s until
today has been able to become much more sexually explicit in part due to the
influence of the market of self-published manga (McLelland 2000: 19). While not
all boys love manga has sexually explicit content it is very common and much
more common than it was in the past. The role of the beautiful boy has also
changed. While most of the boys shown in boys love manga, there is less
emphasis on androgynous features than there was before; there is little doubt
by anyone that the characters are male, even without clear display of a penis.
A result of this is a division between roles that have become more clearly
visible to the readers, a division of roles that is essential to understand current
boys love narratives about sex more clearly.
In the vast majority of boys love manga, the
relationship between the two boys is understood in terms of their individual
roles as either the uke or the seme. The seme is recognized as the dominant, aggressive, male role in the
relationship and the uke is seen as
the passive feminine role (Saito 2011: 184). In this dichotomy, while both boys
are more clearly masculine in their features, the uke typically has more feminine features such as longer hair and
larger eyes as well as being more emotional while the seme shows more masculine traits. The manga The World’s Greatest First Love, by Shingiku Nakamura, is a good
example of this type of character description. The story follows two men that
reconnect ten years after a high school love gone wrong in the editing
department of a publishing company where they are now both employed. The seme, Masamune, has a squared chin and
always remains relatively expressionless even in some of their more steamy
On the other hand, the uke, Ritsu,has a more triangular chin and easily blushes in romantic
situations because of embarrassment (Nakamura 2015). While not all boys love
manga change the appearance between the two roles to such an extent, it is
usual for the features of the uke to
be more cute and feminine than those of the seme
both in appearance, mannerisms, and even personal skills and interests. These
personality traits as assigned by role are prominent in most boys love manga that
has been published in recent years by commercial publishers.
These appearances and
personality traits also translate to what sexual role each character performs. The
more masculine and dominant seme
plays the role of the penetrator, and the more passive and feminine uke plays the role of the penetrated
(Saito 2011: 184). By framing the relationship between the two boys is this
way, the authors of the manga are placing them within a very stereotypical
heterosexual relationship structure. The more masculine and dominant seme is almost exclusively the character
that initiates a relationship and then sexual contact, sometimes initiated by
platonic teasing or despite his insecurities about his sexuality. When the two
boys inevitably have sex, the uke will
be on the bottom, usually facing the seme
and laying underneath him. The story No
Touching At All by Kou Yoneda is an example of a story that follows this format.
The main character Shima is a closeted gay man that has moved from his old
company to a new company after a relationship with a straight man gone sour. He
is therefore timid and shy because of his past experiences and catches the
attention of the laid back and apparently straight section chief Togawa. Togawa
is initially interested in Shima platonically because of his cute behavior but
eventually falls in love with him (Yoneda 2011). The first time they have sex
is somewhat of an accident and uses sexual actions that are stereotypical to
heterosexual sex. The seme, in this
case, Togawa, is the dominant role in the relationship that is leading on the
relationship despite Shima’s hesitations. None the less it is clear that even
though their first sexual experience happens largely by mistake, the experience
was still pleasurable for both people involved.
By placing boys love
relationships into the frame of a heteronormative relationship, the readers are
able to understand what is happening between the two characters on an emotional
level, but in a sense, the couple is not understood within traditional
heterosexual relationship values. Instead, the boys love couple is seen as
functioning within a loving and equal relationship that cannot be experienced
outside of their world (Saito 2011: 180). While the roles between the uke and the seme may seem to be quite strict for determining character
personality and sex roles, the fact that they are both able to feel immense
pleasure from sex is an important aspect of sex that is presented in boys love
manga. As a genre that is directed to straight women, the perceived equality
portrayed within the boys love genre is said to be a response to traditional
sexual restrictions for Japanese women (Welker 2014: 267). Therefore the
narratives in boys love manga became a place for both the authors and readers
to express their sexuality freely. In a society that there is still great
pressure for women get married and have children within a certain time frame
which puts a heavy restriction the sexual liberty of women who are expected to
be primarily mothers and wives within a limited frame of time.
In comparison, men have
more freedom sexually in Japan even though they are also expected to get
married (McLelland 2000: 14). In this sense, the boy becomes the perfect canvas
for describing the ideal sexual situation, that of mutual pleasure, for women
because men traditionally have more sexual freedom than women. While it is true
that the appearances of the boys have become less ambiguous, the placement of
the panels in the manga still leaves a lot to the imagination. That with the
combination of the more feminine features of the uke makes it easy to imagine how a woman could relate to and desire
what this character may experience. A sexual experience between the two
partners as portrayed in many boys love manga is, therefore, able to illustrate
the possibility of giving and receiving pleasure without fear of shame. This
sex acts as an extension of love as well as a confirmation of feelings and is a
very important aspect of sexuality in boys love manga.
While many interactions in
boys love manga are focused on the mutual development of feelings between the seme and the uke through normal means, there are also works that are much more
violent in nature that seem to work in contrast to this image of pure and
mutual love. These aggressive sexual situations occur within a variety of
different scenarios that usually involve the negative emotions of the seme or an outside individual that has
enacted some type of violent act, psychological and/or physical towards the uke. For example, in No Touching At All, Shima’s initial fear
of being in a relationship with Togawa and people discovering that he is gay
stems from the sour relationship that he experienced at his previous workplace
because of his love for a straight man. There is also a point in the manga
where this fear does not allow him to trust Togawa’s love and the two have
rather aggressive sex for the “last time” in which they do not face each other
in mutual pleasure but instead Shima is used as a release for frustration and
violently taken from behind (Yoneda 2011). Another much more graphic and
violent example of aggression in boys love manga can be seen in the series that
in English known as Caste Heaven by
Chise Ogawa. As the title of the manga alludes to, the main characters of the
series attend a Japanese high school that the students run using a caste
system. The main character Azusa has always been the King of the caste but when
the next caste game begins he is tricked by the Jack, Karino, and plummets to
the lowest level of the caste after being pulled from the game by a situation
where he is gang-raped by a group of boys at the school. His subjugation
continues as he is targeted by students who could not go against him when he
was King. Karino, who has become the King, promises to protect him on the
condition that Azusa will become his personal sex slave (Ogawa 2015). Put into
this role Azusa is subjugated over and over again to the whims of Karino who
simultaneously protects him and sexually abuses him as his own personal public
toilet. In this type of situation, the dominance of the seme towards the uke is
exaggerated and intensified, but they still fit into the general guidelines of
the roles, even though Azusa is originally portrayed as being dominant.
Albeit disturbing to
certain readers, this type of story is also essential in understanding sexual
narratives in boys love manga. Unlike the example of Shima and Togawa who
symbolized sex that was desired, the type of violence experienced by Azusa acts
as a way for readers to become spectators of violence rather than be victimized
by such an incident (McLelland 2000: 20). The acts committed against Azusa by
Karino can be seen as a method of revenge as well as a way to subjugate an
inferior to elevate status. While Azusa begins by appearing more dominant, he
gradually gains more and more characteristics that are associated with women, and
his new status as subjugated may reflect the way that certain Japanese women
feel about the possibility of their position. By being the viewer instead of
the victim, reading about these actions becoming committed against a boy in the
story may provide the readers with comfort or some type of twisted empowerment
by acting as a fictionalized revenge against a system that works against them
in cases of sexual violence. As Caste
Heaven is an ongoing series, it is hard to say how the story will end, but
if using other manga of this style and by this author as a guide, the story
will end in either a mutual love or it may really just be a case of sexual
abuse with no alternative motive by Karino. These options bring to question the
feelings of the authors as they write these types of stories; are they merely a
kink or is there some deeper and darker frustration that fuels their creation?
Regardless of what the answer may be, the portrayals of aggressive sex in boys
love manga as violent, and abuse can be seen as symbolic of the suppression
felt by many Japanese women in Japan.
Love Moving Forward
With increasing popularity and stories that reach out to
many types of female readers, the boys love genre has been able to expand far
beyond being a subgenre of shoujo manga.
While unstable, the market has expanded to include many different forms of boys
love narratives including anime adaptations, novels, PC and video games,
voice-only drama CD’s, live action movies, and other boys love related
character merchandise as sold in stores such as Animate in Ikebukuro. As already explained, sexually explicit
content as also moved out of doujinshi
and into publisher released boys love manga.
While boys love films are not new, there has been a great about of
recent success, especially with the release of the movie adaptation of No Touching At All last year that this
year was rereleased for additional screening (Taiyou Garden 2015). This level
of success has likely contributed to an increased released of live-action
adaptations of manga such as Seven Days and
Wait for Me at Udagawachō. With the
release of live action films that are more popular, the fans and genre of boys
love will only become more visible from now on. None the less, these fans
remain to stigmatize in Japanese society until today because they are
essentially seen as consuming gay pornography. This stigmatization makes a full
evaluation of the boys love market impossible because many fans consume boys
love in secret as not to be shamed by their acquaintances that are also not
fans (Saito 2011: 176). This expansion also represents an increased importance
of the symbolism and representations of perceived equality in boys love manga
as well as approaching issues of gender fluidity.
increased attention has also affected the types of narratives that are seen
within boys love manga today. It was already shown how the development of doujinshi influenced the amount of
explicit sexual activities shown in boys love manga, but the exposure to
critics also affected the narratives that were being told. These types of criticisms
can be cited as far back as the early 1990’s to both gay men in Japan and their
supporters criticizing what they claimed as completely fictional and
unrealistic representations of homosexual relationships (Nagaike 2015: 65).
More and more often, the main characters of boys love manga are openly gay from
the start, such as Shima who was previously described. Shima’s situation also
shows an increased representation of some of the problems and fears that gay
men in Japan may have to face such as alienation at the workplace (Yoneda
2011). Previously published stories often diminished or ignored the seriousness
of these issues real life and important issues. While No Touching At All displays some of these improvements, other works
have taken it a step further, perhaps as the pioneers of something completely
new. One such work is called Koi
Monogatari, meaning “love story” in English. This story is told through the
perspective of Hasegawa, a high school student who discovers that one of his
classmates, Yamato, is gay when he catches him stroking the hair of one of his
friends. Given his carefree personality, Hasegawa is initially shocked because
his friend is the subject of interest but gradually gets to know Yamato and
starts to wish for his happiness (Tagura 2015). In becoming friends with
Yamato, Hasegawa is able to learn more about some very real struggles and
insecurities that gay young men have and comes to realize that there is nothing
wrong with being gay because that is just the way they are; they cannot do
anything to change it even if they want to. This narrative suggests that there
are authors in the boys love community that are starting to take the lived
experiences of gay men very seriously and are being to incorporate that
narrative into the genre through an understandable shoujo manga style lens.
From the beginnings of shoujo
manga following the Second World War and the introduction to shounen ai narratives in the early 1970’s,
boys love as a genre has gone through many dynamic changes since its creation.
The genre that began sexual expression in shoujo
manga developed over the years from ambiguously gendered boys that
participated in equally ambiguous sex, to some less ambiguous and much more
sexually explicit. Even with that level of change, boys love as a genre was
still able to maintain the symbolism that it originated with, the narratives of
expressing restricted female sexually and subjugation. These narratives have
remained relatively unchanged as since through Shima and Togawa, Ritsu and
Masamune, and Karino and Azusa. Boys love has always been a way for women to
voice their dissatisfaction and also a way for them to experience their desire
through fiction. More recently, the genre has expanded the way that it has
reached its audience, making boys love have even more influence over the way in
which participants express their sexuality through fiction. However, the
dynamic changes of the boys love genre are not stopping with just increased
styles of expression but also increasing the type of narratives that are being
told. While the genre may not be and may never be able to be completely
embraced by gay men in Japan given its shoujo
feeling, this does not discount the fact that more and more narratives that
express the sexuality of gay men in Japan are being released such as the story
of Yamato by Tohru Tagura. All of these narratives, regardless of homophobic
tones or not, are an important representation and expression of realities and
desires of sexual equality in Japan. While it cannot be understood now how far
the influence of boys love will expand, the genre is without a doubt an
important place for those that are restricted to express sexuality without worry
McLelland, Mark J.
2000 The Love Between ‘Beautiful Boys’ in Japanese Women’s Comics. Journal of Gender Studies 9(1): 13-25. EBSCOhost. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.library.smu.ca
2015 The World’s Greatest First Love. Adrienne Beck, trans. San Francisco: SuBLime.
2015 Kasuto hevun. Tokyo: Libre Shuppan.
Prough, Jennifer S.
2011 Straight from the Heart. United States of America: University of Hawai’i Press.
2011 Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women’s Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan. Mechademia 6: 171-191. Project Muse. http://muse.jhu.edu/
2015 Koi monogatari. Tokyo: Gentosha Comics.
2015 News. http://www.doushitemo.com/news.html
2011 Flower Tribes and Female Desire: Complicating Early Female Consumption of Male Homosexuality in Shōjo Manga. Mechademia 6: 211-228. Project Muse. http://muse.jdu.edu/
2014 Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: “Boys’ love” as girls’ love in shōjo manga. In Gender and Japanese Society: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies Volume IV. Dolores P. Martinez, eds. Pp. 256-281. New York: Routledge.
2011 No Touching At All. Jocelyn Allen, trans. California: Digital Manga Distribution.
Text & video by Phoebe Amoroso, cover image courtesy of Kanamara Shrine
Our roving reporter, Pheebz, visited the annual Kanamara Festival on April 7th, which involves a lot of phalluses. The Kanamara Shrine (literally, “Metal Penis Shrine”) is where people pray for sexual health and fertility.
What’s the story behind this upstanding event? Watch the video below to peel back the mythological foreskin and get to the root of the matter.
The festival has its roots in local sex workers praying
for protection against sexually-transmitted infections, but in recent years, it
has come to represent LGBTQ and diversity with profits going towards HIV
Quite rightly, however, many have pointed out the hypocrisy inherent
in a country, which made international headlines for condemning vagina art by Megumi
Igarashi, better known as Rokudenashiko. Who was arrested on obscenity charges
for distributing 3D data of her vagina that she used to 3D print a vagina canoe
as part of her work.
Yet the obscenity of the flagrant double standards
provokes discussion, and an event that promotes inclusivity is worth
celebrating in a notoriously conservative society.
Many festival attendees are likely satisfied with pure spectatorship and sucking on phallic-shaped candy, and that’s fine too. But for maximum enjoyment, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the legend of a SAVAGE VAGINA DEMON (you read that right).
One legend has it that a beautiful woman was plagued by a jealous demon, who hid in her vagina and killed Husband Number 1 by biting off his penis. Husband Number 2 met a similar fate. Dismayed, she enlisted the help of a local blacksmith who seems to have been really chill about dealing with vagina demons. He made her a metal phallus, which she inserted. The demon, of course, bit it, but he broke his teeth and fled. Presumably she lived happily ever after, especially since she had her own personal metal phallus.
Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.
“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we
consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the
goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English
speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get
Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”
The book begins with an introduction to
the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all
the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some
reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided
into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in
irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different
motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the
end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There
are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the
content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high
quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the
What I found extremely impressive about
this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not
only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors
have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The
reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style.
Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various
photographs of irezumi for the book.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book
though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at
the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an
extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life
into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given
the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors.
These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the
tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and
what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these
sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.
That being said, the large amount of
information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain
sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of
information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away
from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop
midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go
back and read them again. Such as,
“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)
I found sections like this rather
disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem
for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little
better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single
Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.
Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats.
Everyone knows there is a dark side to journalism. If they don’t, they just haven’t worked the job long enough. It’s even darker when you work for a Japanese newspaper that still has morning and evening editions. That means six deadlines a day, since each regional version has its own deadline. I don’t miss those days.
When you’re on the police beat, you essentially live within the police press club. There’s at least one 24-hour shift a week, in which you may or may not catch a couple hours of sleep between 2 and 5:30 a.m., when you have to check the papers to see if the team has been scooped and notify the boss and the reporter in charge of the division.
You’re never home. You’re never not on call. Most of us end up divorced or legally separated. You will not be able to avoid hounding the friends, families and victims of a horrible crime for their statements and photos of the deceased. It’s a hyena-like task that I still do and will always dislike.
The darker side of the police beat or investigative journalism in Japan, especially when covering the yakuza, or as the police call them boryokudan (暴力団), or violent groups, is that eventually you’ll meet with violence. And I have several times. It’s left me with a litany of injuries – a weekly regimen of physical therapy, chronic post-traumatic stress and some brain damage.
As it stands, the head injury I suffered in 2010 has been both a blessing and a curse. It has resulted in temporal lobe seizures, less frequent as time goes on. I have a lesion in my brain, located around the temporal lobe – the product of a two-story fall, I suppose that was the initial injury (1986). In January 2010, an angry source – an ex-yakuza high as a kite on some very good crystal meth – kicked me in the head after I set him off and what was a conversation turned into a knock-down brawl. I believe he was in the midst of meth psychosis so it was hard to hold it against him.
It took a few days to realize that I wasn’t quite the same after that. I think that’s when things started going wrong on the temporal level; time was out of joint.
You might think that being able to relive the greatest moments of your life would a wonderful thing. You would be wrong. A few times a week, I have the displeasure, usually at random, but sometimes triggered by a sound or scent, of re-experiencing a past event in my life. Often they are very mundane. I wouldn’t call them memories, they’re stronger than that – they’re more than flashbacks. For me, they constitute a temporal dislocation; a disruption in the chronology of life; identity; of who I am and how I feel.
These re-experiences are things like laying down on a futon, beside a window on a rainy day. A woman I used to love, putting her hand on my neck and whispering something into my ear about the growth of oak trees in the summer. I lose myself for a minute, maybe just a few seconds. When I sleep, it’s worse. Sometimes, I relive violent events in my life—with all the fear, adrenaline, anger and pain that came with it. I feel the glass in my feet and I can’t stand up. When I calm down and check the soles and see that there’s nothing there–then I’m fine. It feels just as real as it did back then. I know that there’s no threat but my body doesn’t listen, so going back to sleep isn’t really much of an option. I could take a sleeping pill but that’s also another world of troubles.
I write a lot at night. I know many cafes and bars that are open at 3am; it’s good to have a place to go when it happens.
Generally, I’m very good at covering up my temporal disorder. I slip up now and then. I used to buy picture books for my children and then realize it has been years since they read books without words. My daughter when she was ten once horrified me by telling me that she was going to need a sports bra. Because in my head, I can remember reading to her Alice in Wonderland, the pop-up book, just last night. That was probably six years ago at the time. Everything seems like yesterday.
At least I’m blessed with faculties that tell me my sense of time and chronology is out of whack. But when I’m tired or sleep- deprived, it’s much harder to remember what was past and what is present. After a flashback, I have this strange feeling that time should have stopped where it was; that I should be walking into work at The Yomiuri Shimbun and filing an article on the latest hit- and-run. Right after one ends, I feel myself right back where I was at the time. It’s as if the world had been rebooted and put back to factory-shipped state.
After my temporal clock resets, I find myself feeling about a person I once loved exactly as I did – at what were wonderful little moments in the relationship. Weren’t we dancing together last night in a seedy bar in New York? Why can’t we just start at that point in time again? Because what happened after that doesn’t feel like it happened. It feels for a few moments as if that’s where time stopped.
I feel like I could go back to any point in time and pick up where things were. The rest of the world doesn’t function like that.
I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. My mentor and sort of second father, Detective Chiaki Sekiguchi died of cancer in 2008. A colleague at the newspaper killed herself. People who were good friends and sources have gone missing. In 2010, lawyer and mentor, Toshiro Igari, was probably killed in the Philippines after taking on my case against the publisher of a yakuza boss’ biography. After obtaining the autopsy report from the Manila police, it’s clear that suicide was not the cause of death. A source, but not a friend, was shot to death in Thailand in April of 2011. I miss him as well, despite myself. My BFF, Michiel Brandt, passed away due to complications from leukemia in 2012. She was 30. I’m now 50. I keep waiting for the pain of that loss to be a little less but it stays. Even when you are well aware that life is impermanent and death comes to us all, sometimes it just seems too soon. There’s a part of you that doesn’t expect you to outlive your friends, especially when they are so much younger than you. Sometimes, I see her in dreams as well.
Sometimes, I have flashbacks to moments where I was a total jerk. Where I was rude or insensitive and I feel the same pangs of regret in the present that I felt in the past. I relive the mistake with no possibility of correcting it.
I have keys to apartments to where I can never go back in the physical universe. But in my own mindscape, I was just there and will be there again. Everything should be just where it was. The peanut butter in the cupboard, my toothbrush in a drawer, the balcony door open. The computer would be on the desk where I used to keep it. My desk in the Metro Police Headquarters should still have my stack of yakuza fanzines on top, stuffed into a cheap cardboard box. I wish I could throw away the old keys but I have this irrational belief that I will need them—even though the locks must have been changed and there is no reason to go back and no one there I know anymore.
Some of the memories are horrific. And they come with all the pain and horror of the time: photos casually shown to me that I never wanted to see; the smell of rusty iron from a bloody body, laying cut to shreds on a train track; or the sensation of burning, when a thug stubbed out his cigarette on my shoulder.
In general, maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Japan, I try to take a stoic approach to things. The idea of seeing a psychotherapist to resolve mental issues seemed like a waste of time. But I finally went to see one in 2010, to try and do something about my insomnia. After a couple of sessions, the diagnosis was chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He recommended anti- depressants to deal with the hyper-vigilance issues. I didn’t take them. I stopped going. I need to be hyper vigilant at times. It’s a survival mechanism.
I don’t want to turn it off; I just want to control it better. Meditation helps. Sleep helps. Exercise helps.
I thought that diagnosis would explain the strange flashbacks that were happening, but all I could find in the literature were references to people having flashbacks to traumatic events, not mundane or pleasant moments. It took a scan of my head and a visit to a neurologist to finally get diagnosed correctly.
There has to be a reason why we forget things. If we could recall the past too vividly, the present might pale in comparison. If we can’t forget, we can’t move on. Maybe our minds would explode with the complications of retaining memories of the past and awareness of the present at the same time.
I have anxiety about sleeping. I never know what time of my life I’ll wake up in. The persistence of the past both helps and hinders my relationships in the present. It helps because I get to relive mistakes and am thus reminded not do them again. It hinders because I’m able to forgive and then forget I’ve forgiven someone in the first place. Or forgive myself.
I’d like to walk on; I just keep treading water.
There’s a weariness that comes with covering violent crime, fraud, and human trafficking. There’s a sense of futility. You keep covering the same story, over and over – only the characters change. The narrative remains the same. In recent years, I’ve moved away from crime reporting and covering the yakuza. Bitcoin, politics, social issues, corruption, financial news. There’s a whole other world of things to report on–and just as important to know as well.
These days I’m in a good place mentally and physically. I am, if not happy, quite content with where I am and what I’m doing. But sometimes when I wake up, especially after having a disorienting flashback, I find myself strangely detached from life itself. I can only explain it by borrowing the words of Qoheleth, in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been is still happening now
What has been will be again and be as it is
just as it was
There is nothing new under the (Iand of the rising) sun.
Note: Theories abound as to how mahjong originated in China. Some say the inventor was Confucius who played it, was hooked and ultimately abandoned it because of its addictive nature, some time in the 6th century B.C. In its present state, mahjong is played with 136 to 144 rectangular tiles, over a table seating 3 to 4 players. All the tiles are marked with Chinese characters and symbols.The goal of the game, simplified, is to get a mahjong, which consists of getting all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. A pair is two identical tiles. A set can either be a “pung,” which is three identical tiles, or a “chow,” which is a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit. A single tile cannot be used in two sets at once. In the west, the closest thing is gin rummy. In Japan, mahjong has been around since the 1900s and is a semi-legitimized form of gambling, provided the stakes are low. It used to be the favorite past-time of college students and bored reporters in the police press club.
On March 17, the day that character actor and performer Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) was arrested for possession of cocaine, the producers of the film Mahjong Horoki (Mahjong Chronicles) inwhich Taki appears in a significant role, held an emergency meeting. First item on the agenda: to open the film on the slated date of April 5, or to scrap it? Already the Japanese media was moving to make Taki disappear – all his endorsements, events and TV appearances were cancelled. A concert scheduled for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, evaporated. NHK even rubbed out all of Taki’s scenes in their prime time Sunday night drama Idaten, (including those already aired), making preparations to shoot everything all over again.
Taki had never sold on a nice-guy image but this scandal was huge, packing enough explosives to rock Mahjong Horoki 2020’s distributor company Toei, from its very foundations. After much discussion, the makers of the film – in particular director Kazuya Shiraishi, Taki’s long-time friend, pushed for a go. Letters were sent out to the press explaining the move, and why Shiraishi decided not to slash any of Taki’s scenes before opening. “Taki’s arrest is not the movie’s fault,” said the letter. Fair enough and a good thing, too. “Mahjong Horoki 2020” is weird, gross and ultimately appealing – it’s a celebration, among other things, of the sheer, raging wonders of the Showa era (1926 – 1989). So much, that the last 31 years of the Heisei era start to look like a bland, blah wasteland. As a line in the movie aptly describes it, “the only thing anyone does around here is to live a long, long time.” Ouch.
Still, the Heisei era should be given credit for supplying Shiraishi with the iPhone 8, (eight of them to be exact) that he deploys in shooting the film. The colors schemes are too lurid, and the jittery, hand-held effect doesn’t really work in scenes with open spaces but the device is brilliant for close-ups, of which there is plenty, including Taki’s scary, deadpan visage.
Taki plays a man called Mori – and he’s the kind of snide, rude, power-hungry asshole that Pierre Taki portrays to perfection. Mori is the director of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is abruptly cancelled with the breakout of WWIII. A very pissed off Mori vows to hold an Olympics of something, and as the story progresses that something turns out to be mahjong. On the Friday that the movie opened, Pierre Taki was released on bail and director Shiraishi announced in a press conference that he hoped the Japanese public would “laud and encourage” Taki, once he was rehabilitated and reinstated as a media figure.
Speaking of reinstated, another intriguing presence in the movie is Becky, the half-British, half-Japanese comedienne whose career was all but obliterated following a noisily publicized affair with a married musician. In Japan, infidelity is a serious offense among celebrities, perhaps more so than drug use. Becky was benched for over 2 years while her partner in crime came out relatively unscathed (which is another can of worms labelled gender discrimination). In “Mahong…,” she stars in a double role – first as a mysterious club hostess with incredible mahjong skills, and next as the android “AI Yuki,” programmed to win against the most talented mahjong player.
As you may have guessed, Mahjong...is defined by and obsessed with, the titular game. Based on the first of the 4-part novel series by Tetsuya Asada (aka Takehiro Irokawa) published in 1969, Mahjong…recreates the blood, sweat and tears backdrop of Tokyo’s immediate postwar years as well as highlight the dark grotesqueness that often accompanies the game. Unlike pachinko, mahjong comes under illegal gambling and liable for prosecution, as in the case of a mayor who was arrested in the middle of a game in Fukuoka prefecture 3 years ago. Like pachinko however, the police turn a blind eye to most mahjong players and the “jyanso,” or mahjong houses that host them. As long as the stakes are low, the cops won’t come bursting in – theoretically. The crossover line is 200 yen at 1000 points, which roughly adds up to about 30,000 yen an hour for the winner.
In Japan, one hears of fantastic mahjong stories, like the woman who won 550,000 yen on a single night and then lost double that amount in her next game. Or the guy who put up his home as collateral and how his wife and kids found themselves on the street even as he holed up in a jyanso to turn his luck. When it comes to addiction and self-destruction, mahjong players are in a league of their own and the tumble into the mud sludge of debt generally comes quicker than anyone bargains for. The consequences (since most jyanso are owned and operated by the yakuza) can be severe. Tetsuya Asada’s novel series laid it all out, tracing the life of the protagonist “Boya (which means little boy) Tetsu.” At first, Tetsu was a fresh-faced 16-year old mahjong rookie, being groomed for the game by the pros in Tokyo in 1945, when the city was nothing but ash and rubble. In the last volume, Tetsu is a salariman in his his early 30s, struggling to break free of his addiction (and failing) as Japan gears up to become the world’s number one economy.
Mahjong Horoki was adapted to the screen once before, in 1984 by Makoto Wada. A young and perky Hiroyuki Sanada played Tetsu, and Mariko Kaga played his benefactor and the story’s mahjong goddess. Now in 2020, those roles have gone to Takumi Saito and Becky, respectively. Saito is best known for having cornering the market on degenerate, sexy dude roles but now in his late 30s, the role of Little Boy Tetsu may be a stretch (in the story, he’s also supposed to be a virgin. No way.). But to Saito’s credit, Tetsu’s addiction to the game oozes out of his every pore. The guy can only think of one thing: to sit at the mahjong table and play for the kind of stakes that, even if he wins, would destroy his soul forever.
Japan has changed beyond recognition since Asada penned the original novel series, but addiction – as this movie abundantly illustrates – is a monster that never dies.
Today’s Asahi Newspaper, NHK and other media ran a story about an appalling ruling handed down in Nagoya Court on March 26th.
The father of a woman, who was 19 at the time of the alleged sexual assault, was tried on charges of quasi-rape (準強制性交等罪）after having non-consensual sexual intercourse with his daughter at their home in Aichi Prefecture in August and September of 2017.
Quasi-rape in Japan is defined as sexual intercourse taking place when the victim is unable to give their consent or say not. You may remember that a prominent friend of Prime Minister Abe, and also his biographer, was supposed to be arrested on charges of quasi-rape for an alleged attack on journalist Shiori Ito. In Ms. Ito’s case, she claimed to have been drugged and sexually assaulted. A high-ranking police office who was formerly the secretary to cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga, intervened to stop the arrest and later scuttled the investigation.
In situations where the victim is drugged or unable to refuse to have sex with an assailant, due to threats or danger to their life, charges of quasi-rape can apply.
The prosecutors argued that because of repeated violence and threats leveled against the daughter, that she was unable to say no to her father’s sexual demands. The defense argued that the sex was consensual—and even if she wasn’t able to resist, she still consented.
The court, in his verdict, recognized that the daughter had not consented. The judge even noted, “Because of the many years of sexual abuse [and other abuse], that she was mentally under the control of her father.” The court also recognized that she had been compelled have sex with her father since her second year of junior high. However, the final judgement was that she wasn’t completely under his control, “Therefore, there is a reasonable doubt as to whether she was really unable to resist.” Thus, her father was found not guilty of the charges. In other words, she could’ve resisted and she didn’t so Dad goes free.
Incest is not a criminal offense in Japan, although it was once in the past.
Masako Chiku*, the Nagoya Prosecutor, said they would consider appealing the case. Public reaction in Japan was of out rage and disappointment. In Japan, police are reluctant to pursue sexual assault charges; prosecutors routinely drop 50% of cases of sexual assault. According to one survey, 90% of Japanese women feel that Japan is easy on sexual offenders. In a country, where the Prime Minister’s pals get away with having quasi-rape investigations stopped before prosecution can even happen, you can kind of see where they are coming from.
What a different Japan it would be if the man accused of sexually assaulting Shiori Ito had been arrested, as was planned, and thrown into jail for 23 days, like Carlos Ghosn, and interrogated eight hours every day. But of course, this didn’t happen. He’s a friend of the Prime Minister. And he’s a Japanese man.
*The name of the prosecutor may be phonetically incorrect. In Japanese 築雅子次席検事
The March 12 arrest of Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) for possession and usage of cocaine sent shock waves through the Japanese media. Now that April and the new Reiwa era has kicked in, the hew and cry over Taki’s fiasco has died down somewhat. And he is out on bail. And of course, he did a 30 second bow, after his release to show he was very very contrite. And yes, there is someone out there who actually counts the length of an apology bow. By the end of the Reina era, the average “bow of apology” is expected to stretch to 75 seconds.
The repercussions however, are far from over. Pierre Taki went from being the frontman of synthpop/techno band Denki Groove to one of the most visible actors in Japanese film and television. Taki was never a lead man but with his deadpan humor and weighty presence, he had carved out a John Malkovich-like position and as such, the man is not easily replaceable. At the time of his arrest Taki had been working on a number of TV dramas including NHK’s prestigious Sunday night series Idaten. NHK has announced that they have deleted all of Taki’s scenes including the ones already aired. Apparently, NHK is shooting everything again from scratch, tripling the workload for cast and crew members while other major networks scrambled to cancel Taki’s scenes and appearances. All of Taki’s product endorsements were pulled out. Sales of Sega’s video game JudgementJapan in which Taki appears as a key character, has been stopped.
JudgementJapan was a spin-off of Sega’s popular yakuza games series (龍が如く in Japan) and coincidentally, the series also had another actor retroactively removed from the a game after allegations of cocaine use were published. Even in a game about yakuza, it’s not acceptable for the actors playing the characters, who use drugs, to actually use drugs. In a show of moral consternation, Denki Groove’s music was subsequently yanked off the Net.
Adhering to the Japanese custom in such cases, Taki’s elderly father has appeared in the media to apologize for the wrongdoings of his 51-year old son. The rest of Taki’s family (his wife for instance) has not been seen.
According to news reports, Taki’s arrest cost the Japanese media over 3 billion yen in losses. That bill will be sent to Taki and it remains to be seen how he’ll deal with it.
In the meantime, Taki seems resigned to his fate. The prosecution has released part of his statement attesting to a coke habit going back 30 years. “When I was in my twenties, I was doing cocaine and marijuana whenever I went abroad. After that, the habit stuck with me,” Taki reportedly said. Rumor has it that Taki in the full-statement added “I’m not the only one,” which sounds ominous.
Speculations abound as to who’s next in-line to be busted for drug use. Japan has a reputation of being relatively drug-free, with the exception of amphetamines known as “kakuseizai (覚せい剤）” which has been around since the 1920s. Kakuseizai was and continues to be, a picker-upper used by many segments of the populace—especially yakuza and media celebrities. Interestingly enough, the drug is considered relatively harmless compared to the big baddies: cocaine and heroin. It’s also easy to lay hands on some of it, provided you have the cash and the right friends with tattoos.
Cliched as it sounds, most clubs in Roppongi have V.I.P. rooms where people like Taki can stroll in, sit down and start inhaling shabu—the other name for the drug—referring to the dry mouth and thirst that comes with usage, as well as the tendency of habitual use to suck the life out of the addict. Street prices are now fixed at 70,000 yen per 1 gram, which is a third of the price of cocaine. Five years ago, kakuseizai peaked at 90,000 yen to the gram but the word on the street is that the suppliers have come to outnumber the users.
Japan’s notoriously slow (or thorough, depending on how you look at it) narcotics investigators usually take 18 or so months to gather the evidence for a viable case, and another few months before actually making an arrest. A media analyst who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “I know of a case where the narcotics team spent three years trying to nab the president of a major ‘talent’ agency. They made sure the evidence was air-tight, went in and made the arrest. After all that, the president went free on a suspended sentence. The next year, he was back in business.”
Indeed, kakuseizai can tarnish a public image but not irrevocably. Former baseball superstar Kazuhiro Kiyohara is a case in point. In 2016 he was arrested for using and possessing kakuseizai but after the hullabaloo died down, Kiyohara reinvented himself as a rehab guru. His heavily confessional self-help books continue to sell and he makes frequent appearances on comedy shows. He has turned his misfortune into a second fortune.
The aforementioned analyst explained: “If a celebrity is going to slip, he or she better make sure they’re big enough to withstand the fall. The bigger the name, the more lenient the sentence and the faster the comeback. Everyone in the entertainment industry understands this, which is partially why it takes so long for prosecutors to make an arrest. Everyone crowds around the golden goose, to protect and nurture. A lot of peoples’ livelihoods depend on the survival of that goose. The goose called Pierre Taki kept going for 30 years.”
So is getting caught using drugs a by-product of this super-aged society? It’s sure starting to sound like it. Mega -stars like Aska, (of the music duo Chage and Aska) was arrested for kakuseizai abuse twice, but in his sixties he’s back on stage, touring the archipelago as a one-man show.
Pierre Taki may not be so lucky. Compared to kakuseizai, cocaine constitutes a serious offense and it’s much more difficult to buy in Japan. Taki has never cultivated a squeaky clean image but the overall verdict is that it will take him some time to bounce back from this one. Other celebrities arrested for coke include Shintaro Katsu, an iconic actor from the Showa era whose booze and womanizing lifestyle was in perfect sync with his yakuza roles. In 1990, Katsu (then in his late 50s) was arrested in Hawaii for possession of cocaine which he hid in his underwear. He was promptly deported back to Japan and arrested in Narita Airport but he never admitted where he got the drug and seasoned his trial with bawdy jokes. Katsu’s career and health deteriorated after that but when he died 7 years later at the age of 65–11,000 fans turned up for his funeral.
“I know this is a bad thing to say, but many in the entertainment industry tend to view cocaine as a glamor drug,” said the journalist. “Being arrested for kakuseizai is pretty much run of the mill but a coke habit suggests money, connections and status.”
If this is true, we’ll surely be seeing Pierre Taki again. He may need the money, after all.