Tom of Finland (1920-1991) was a pioneer in LGBQT and homoerotic art, blazing a trial in Finland and his works have been shown all over the world. From today September 18th, his work will be exhibited for the first time in Japan (ever) at Parco Shibuya. In a country where alternative sexuality is still barely recognized and some politicians spew homophobic bile, it’s a small accomplishment that the show is being held.
The exhibition will only last until October 5th.
The show has taken nearly years to put together, was delayed by COVID19, and ran into numerous obstacles along the way; thanks to the collective efforts of all involved, including the Embassy of Finland, the show is finally taking place. The whole story behind the curtains is told eloquently in this piece by Justin McCurry in The Guardian ↘
The exhibition will show that his work was a catalyst for social change and acceptance of homosexuality while celebrating sensuality and the beauty of the male body. The curator of the exhibit and director of The Container, Mr. Shai Ohayon points out that Japan is still very much behind in the recognition of gay and LGBQT rights.
The exhibit is being sponsored by: The Finnish Institute in Japan. Finnish Institute in Japan. The Container (art gallery) and PARCO.
The exhibition was designed to coincide with Tom’s 100th birthday anniversary and ｆeatures a selection of 30 historical works, ranging from 1946 to 1989. They span the artist’s entire professional career, and highlight both his artistic versatility and present his identity as an LGBTQ legend who paved the way for LGBTQ rights worldwide and helped to shape gay culture.
2020/09/18~2020/10/05 Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland at GALLERY X (B1F, Shibuya PARCO) https://art.parco.jp/
Open hours 11:00-21:00 *Last entry time 30mins before close *Close at 18:00 in 10/05 Admission is 500 yen.
*Pre-school child not allowed in
A documentary on the importance of Tom of Finland and the meaning of his art will also be shown at at two different theaters during the exhibition. “Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century gay culture: Touko Laaksonen, a decorated officer, returns home after a harrowing and heroic experience serving his country in World War II, but life in Finland during peacetime proves equally distressing. He finds postwar Helsinki rampant with homophobic persecution, and men around him even being pressured to marry women and have children. Touko finds refuge in his liberating art, specialising in homoerotic drawings of muscular men, free of inhabitations. His work – made famous by his signature ‘Tom of Finland’ – became the emblem of a generation of men and fanned the flames of a gay revolution.
by Shoko Plambeck The day my birth records were sent to a Shinto shrine my father skinned a badger and hung its coat above my crib. The tale of my birth supposedly unfolds like this: The day I was born the stars were restless and the earth was tossing a blizzard thick as cream through the Nebraskan plains. My father was on his way to work in his red Chevy when he came across a dash of brown, obscured by the snow like a fainting spell. He shot it, thinking it was a soft furred marten, but what he killed instead was a badger. The badger of the plains. Symbol of earth, grounding and consistency; finding her in such weather conditions was like the moon waxing when it should wane.
Still, he put the creature in the back of his truck. When he got to work, there was a call from my mother: It’s two months early, but I’m going into labour. My grandparents got the same call and flew in from Japan. When my obaachan first saw me she announced, This girl will be named Shoko, spirit in flight, and years later when I moved from place to place, hobby to hobby, man to man, she’d lament naming me so irresponsibly. In a shoebox, I went home.
The badger skin was nailed above my crib and my birth records were sent to the monk at the family Shinto shrine. The results came weeks later. My mother read as I drank eagerly from her; she herself was a dark star but at twenty-four she could not even imagine what that would mean. Only years later would she say that the badger had to be a mother and the unimaginable must have happened to make her split into the fatal snow.
My mother read: The child will need to seek grounding. In the moment she was born the stars were restless and they will reverberate through her blood forever. Before she could read any further, my grandmother snatched the fortune out of her hand and read: bright as Sirius, inconstant as Mercury.
This poem was originally posted in Matador Review but was reposted with permission of the author.
Shoko Plambeck is a writer, traveler, and poet. She studied English literature at Temple University in Tokyo and the University of Vermont. She currently lives in Japan but can’t wait to move back to the US to be with her cockatiel and poetry books again.
The whole world is somewhat baffled by how Japan is handling the coronavirus aka COVID19 aka Sars-CoV-2. The Diamond Princess debacle in which inept Japanese officials turned a cruise ship into a floating incubator for the virus did not bode well. Early on in the crisis, several politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expressed what was close to delight about the coronavirus disaster, stating that it would finally justify changing Japan’s constitution to a new one that gave the Prime Minister sweeping powers.
Japan has infamously under-tested, turning away most people who were not displaying already full-blown symptoms of coronavirus induced illness-–a fever over 37.5 degrees for four days, loss of sense of taste and smell, had been in contact someone diagnosed with the virus etc.– and has been extremely stingy in releasing information. Some suspect that Japan is hiding coronavirus cases and deaths in pneumonia statistics. Possible. Let’s assume that’s not true for the time being.
The Ministry of Health, which managed to get their own workers and medical staff infected on the Diamond Princess and then refused to test them, sending them back to work, where they infected others–doesn’t inspire confidence. The best they have done seems to be to warn people about the Three Cs (in Japanese 3の密. 密閉・密集・密接): closed spaces, crowds and close contact. Miraculously, avoiding an overlap of these three should keep you safe—until it doesn’t.
Despite having the first cases of coronavirus in January, the number of deaths in Japan remains very low, 108 today (April 12th) out of a nation of 126 million people
This week I wrote a piece for the Asia Times–TB vaccines offers hope in Covid-19 war –about studies that show a correlation between low numbers of deaths in countries that had a universal tuberculosis vaccination program for decades–and coronavirus. The vaccine is called BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin). Infection rates also appear to be strongly impacted positively by the vaccine. The vaccine is nearly a hundred years old. It was developed by French physicians and biologists Léon Charles Albert Calmette and Jean-Marie Camille Guérin in the 1900s and first successfully tested in 1921. Some theorize that when the vaccine is given to very young children and/or infants, that it creates ‘attained immunity’ which helps the older generation (those most vulnerable) battle the virus. Personally, I sort of hope that it’s true, that BCG is the BFG (Big Fucking Gun) in the war against this pathogen, kind of like the iconic weapon in the first-person shooter DOOM. (It’s a video game). It has been suggested that the vaccine only works if given to very young children and that the strain of the vaccine matters as well. Could be.
NOTE: BCG vaccine has many strains (types). The BCG-Japan strain seems to be the one that actually works against the coronavirus. France uses the BCG-Denmark strain. If anyone reading this has access to materials about the BCG-Japan strain, please share them with me. I would like to know.
There are problems with the theory that BCG vaccine is a silver bullet (or a BFG). Correlation is not causation. France and England had a vaccination program but they have a high number of deaths. They also appeared to have inoculated their citizens when they were in their teens rather than as infant, and both countries use a different strain of the vaccine then the predominant one used in Asia. However, even if the BCG vaccination works/worked to prevent fatalities, is there any reason to believe it will work on adults? In the Netherlands and Australia clinical tests are underway. We shall see.
One of the joys of running this blog, with the help of others, since 2007, is that sometimes we are leaked good information that can be used to generate a solid news story. That is usually rare. The nature of the internet is that you tend to get lots of criticism, threats, accusations or wild conspiracy theories that can’t be verified. Comments are all read and edited before being posted. Many on-line sites have gotten rid of comments altogether. When I looked at the comments and letters today, I thought of doing the same….once again.
But then I read this letter below. It’s intriguing. The anonymous source asserts that they are a member of the medical community in Japan. I have edited it slightly for clarity and removed some possibly identifying details. Below the letter, I have added some notes and observations.
As the headline tells you, it is a conspiracy theory, of sorts. A “conspiracy” is usually defined as a secret plan by a group of people to do something harmful or illegal. If the writer of this letter is correct, the steps Japan has taken so far are not completely harmful. Indeed, it could be argued that testing everyone is not a great idea and that it overloads the health care system. Japan’s approach to the coronavirus has had its merits.
“The Japanese Society for Infection Prevention and Control (JSIPC) updated their coronavirus manual on March 10.
The tone is calm. “Japan is moving from containment measures to a period of spreading infection and we must adjust accordingly,” it says. Since March 6, Covid-19 testing won coverage under national health insurance – ergo, “as public money is being used for the coronavirus testing, it is necessary to carefully screen who gets tested.”
It gently chides anyone who seeks “needless” testing and urges medical professionals to prevent overcrowding at hospitals by instructing patients with light symptoms to stay home and avoid others.
Critically, it points out that since there is no specific treatment for Covid-19, the priority must be treating the illness via its pathogen causes.
“The foundation of treatment is symptomatic therapy,” the manual reads. When signs of pneumonia are found, it suggests using all possible methods of treatment, such as giving oxygen and vasopressors as necessary. Above all, it reminds medical staff of the top priority: “Protect the lives of seriously-ill patients, especially in cases of pneumonia.”“
This makes sense on some levels. However, if you don’t know who has the coronavirus, how can you possibly contain it? The manual does note that Japan has moved beyond containment measures (水際対策) and must conduct a sort of triage.
I don’t know if it’s true nor can I say it’s untrue. Don’t believe it. I have limited resources, so I’ve decided to crowdsource this. I would like to know what you, the readers, think. And if anyone has supporting data, I’d love to have it–links and documents appreciated. If you can refute it, please do. Sometimes, many minds are better than one.
Send all mail, thoughts, comments, evidence and refutations to japansubcultureresearchcenter @ gmail.com with the heading, BCG and Japan.
Some short notes and observations on the letter are at the end of the document.
Dear Mr. Adelstein,
I’m ●●●● and I’ve just been reading your report into BCG.
You’ve got the half the story, and while there are clinical issues with the variables and the science, you’re on the right track.
The other half is on the Japan side.
Have you noticed why Japanese aren’t talking about their immunity through BCG? There’s reasons for this.
Japan has invested a lot of capital into developing and selling Avigan as a coronavirus treatment. They’ve put the weight of Japan Inc behind this, and [Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe is their pitch man.
Did you notice the abrupt change in Abe’s policy around the end of February? That’s because Japanese researchers and doctors, including my colleagues, became aware at that time that BCG vaccines were possibly also working with the immune systems of most Japanese under age 70. NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and MHLW [Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare] policies prohibit researchers and doctors from speaking publicly about this. But this is well-known in the medical community here.
What’s not understood is whether BCG is protecting children in the same way. We don’t have enough scientific or anecdotal evidence to rule out tuberculosis vaccine in Japan with confidence, especially because of the large number of foreign workers and tourists from at-risk countries, or whether BCG is working properly in tandem with other vaccinations in Japan. In layman’s terms, the younger generation of children in Japan don’t have the same immune system as the older generation. While we have decades of data about the health of the older generation, we still have insufficient clinical data about kids who haven’t been alive long enough to build up a reliable data base.
In the field of medicine, you can’t make a diagnosis or prescribe treatment based on anecdotes or hunches. We have to follow regulations and existing practices based on years worth of data and peer-reviewed studies. We simply can’t assume that BCG is protecting children from the novel coronavirus. Thus the medical community instructed Abe to protect these children as a preventive measure owing to the lack of available data on how their immune system would respond to Sars-CoV-2.
This also gave Abe and the MHLW political cover. Instead of doing nothing, they had to do something (1) . Abe couldn’t publicly announce that BCG was protecting the innoculated population of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. As you know, Abe is beholden to Keidanren (経団連・Japan Business Federation) and companies such as Fujifilm Holdings and their subsidiary Toyama Chemical, which manufactures Avigan (3). Who is going to buy Avigan if all they have to do is buy BCG? Why should Japan promote Avigan if most Japanese don’t need it? That is their reasoning. This is all about the sale of Avigan. (5)
This also explains why Japan was resisting international pressure to postpone the Summer Olympics. Abe and his panel of experts were assuming that BCG was protecting most of the population from the novel coronavirus. They had to cancel the games because of foreign pressure and the International Olympic Commission (IOC) (4), not because of any concerns about an overshoot of cases here in Japan.
There’s another issue that the media are overlooking. Japan now has millions of foreign residents and foreign tourists who didn’t get BCG shots. They are the most likely groups to acquire the novel coronavirus and spread it through the population in Japan. But Abe couldn’t say that due to policies of boosting tourist arrivals and preparing for the Olympics. Even if you think he’s a racist xenophobe, you have to credit him for respecting the rights of foreign COVID patients. Look at what China is doing with Africans, and you’ll understand Japan’s official thinking on this.
This also explains the Ministry of Health policy of keeping people away from hospitals (2). We don’t want people with colds, H1N1, ordinary coughs or sniffles to show up at hospitals demanding swabs, which also put health care workers at risk. They should stay home and rest anyway. MHLW set up a hotline for this purpose. If they didn’t, half of Japan would demand a test claiming to be sick. In most cases, patients with real COVID19 symptoms aren’t going to die anyways if they had their mandatory BCG vaccinations. Japan only wants to treat the most severe cases while protecting medical workers from infection. This is a reasonable policy. Most doctors support this, though some feel that we should be more proactive with outreach programs and advocacy on behalf of patients.
Try to see things from our perspective. We are watching more than a hundred doctors and nurses die in Italy. We saw the same thing in Wuhan. This scenario is Japan would serve nobody. It’s not selfish for us to protect ourselves. It’s good public health policy, and Japan is doing the right thing.
Please understand that the science isn’t black and white on this. Just because Japan made BCG shots mandatory doesn’t mean that every doctor gave them out, or that every parent took their kid to the doctor for the shot. Millions of people fell through the cracks and didn’t get vaccinated for TB, especially in the 1950s and 60s when Japan’s health care system was evolving. That’s why you are seeing numbers rise now, though on a much smaller level than in the U.S. or Italy. Most of the new cases now are people who didn’t get BCG shots. This is the common view of medical practitioners here.
This is especially true of patients in areas such as Taito-ku, which is the closest thing in Tokyo to Skid Row in LA. Many of these new patients are homeless, or they were born into impoverished families who didn’t vaccinate their children. You will see similar stories in impoverished areas of Osaka and other cities. Look at the data and you will find it.
(4) It would appear that after the Olympic Games were postponed that suddenly the number of Covid-19 cases jumped considerably. Correlation perhaps. Governor Yuriko Koike, who had been remarkably silent about the dangers of coronavirus, suddenly began talking about ‘a lockdown’ and the need for hyper vigilance with the pathogen only after March 23rd.
5) The Japanese government, including our friends at the Ministry Of Health, have conspired in the past to keep important medical data away from the public. The result was many innocent people being infected with AIDS and dying. Green Cross was the beneficiary and some of their executives were convicted of criminal negligence resulting in death. Government officials basically walked. See below and research more if you’re interested. Green Cross Executives receive prison terms in Yakugai (薬害エイズ) case.
A priority item on the agenda of the first Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Iyeyasu when he seized power in 1603, was to limit foreign travel to Japan. He issued several orders like the ones we’re seeing around the world at this moment: urging the Japanese to stay put in their own communities and urging all foreigners to get the hell out. By foreigners, Iyeyasu specifically meant the European missionaries who were spreading ideas – like a virus! – about an omnipotent God that transcended traditional Japanese values. They also extolled the virtues of non-violence and giving to the poor; two factors that the new Shogun viewed as particularly harmful to his authority. The ‘aliens’ had to go, and those who didn’t, were eventually executed or banished to Dejima Island, off the coast of Nagasaki. Iyeyasu’s son and grandson tightened the screws on the lockdown as they in turn, became the Shogun. Japan effectively bolted its doors to the outside world and Sakoku*・鎖国(shutting down the country)’ went into effect.
Initially, other clan lords were skeptical about this sakoku thing. Before Iyeyasu came along, Japan had a fairly robust import/export system, supported by a prosperous merchant class in Osaka. Without inbound travelers and foreign business, these merchants were sunk, as was the burgeoning currency economy. But Iyeyasu shrugged off their complaints and worries. He chose reclusive isolation over commerce and progress, and for the next 265 years, Japan became a ‘hikikomori (shut-in)’ in the global community. Everything passed us by: the Industrial Revolution and the locomotive, colonialism and corsets, Mozart and coffee, the printing press and chocolate. Everything.
*Writer’s Note – Contrary to the belief that the Tokugawa Shogunate coined the term ‘sakoku’ which literally means a ‘country in chains,’ it was actually invented by German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer in the late 17th century and later translated into Japanese.
In the meantime, the Japanese got a lot of practice on keeping calm and carrying on behind closed doors, in spite of or because of everything happening in the larger world. Sure, sakoku sucked in a hundred ways but it also created a uniquely weird culture that continues to enthrall or amuse people all over the world. Iyeyasu’s capital city of Edo – now called Tokyo, was a haven of stability and prosperity with an unparalleled ecological and recycling system.
The sakoku mind-set made all this possible – a willful and deliberate closing of the shutters to the outside world while making sure that plenty went on inside. Call it aloofness, coldness or a thick-skinned pragmatism. In times like this, such traits can come in pretty handy.
You may have heard that the Japanese aren’t very expressive – well that’s just not true. The Japanese are THE LEAST expressive people in Asia which probably makes us the most rigid people on the planet. Long before this virus thing the Japanese have been wearing masks – as a prevention against all ills including a bad skin day and questionable breath. The mask was also fashionable among teenage girls, as hiding their mouths made them feel more attractive. (Kissing with masks was a real thing in the early aughts too, because many young couples deemed it erotic.) We were also adamant about washing hands, gargling and refusing to eat off communal plates.
Smiling and laughing in public, talking to strangers, physical displays of affection – these things are normal in western cultures but they’ve never taken off here unless it became a fad. Like being friendly to foreigners and embracing diversity was a fad that many Japanese felt pressured into doing because hey, globalism and the Olympics 2020. But now COVID-19 has given the Japanese a very good reason to go back to the way we were. Unrelenting, inexpressive, rigid and distanced. It’s all cool. Show me a person with a secret stash of face masks and 30 rolls of toilet paper and I’ll show you a model Japanese citizen.
As for touching one another, it’s a whole other issue unto itself. The Japanese just don’t do this, and never had. Though many of us love the idea of casual cheek kisses a la Francaise, we just couldn’t muster the courage to try it on a Tokyo street. Now, we don’t have to pretend anymore. Social distancing may be a new and scary concept for the west but to us, it’s very familiar, like our parents to whom we pay the obligatory visit over New Year’s.
Speaking of which, I don’t ever remember being hugged by my late father, who devoted much of his life to wedging a good, 1.7 meter distance between himself and the rest of the world. It wasn’t just him of course, many Japanese males can’t bring themselves to get close to anyone they know, which paradoxically explains why there’s so much groping on the trains. But the virus has resolved that snag–what with schools closed and people ordered to work remotely, the morning trains are far less crowded and consist mostly of masked salarymen clutching phones with one hand and briefcases in the other, studiously avoiding all eye and physical contact.
You might say the Japanese are good at this. There is little of the sense of deprivation and loneliness that say, an American person might feel about the loss of casual physical contact. We’re not touching, we’re not smiling, but who’s to say we’re not having fun underneath our face masks?
Editor’s Note: And judging by the hanami crowds this weekend and in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s “Let’s go outside!” admonitions, it seems like Japan’s 鎖国（sakoku ) period may end very soon.
Just for the record, while big concerts and public events are not happening, there’s still plenty going on in Tokyo and most restaurants and department stores have stayed open. Other venues include:
1) Shinjuku Gyoen Park Located in Sendagaya, this place is heavenly for a stroll among the greenery and themed gardens.
In the children’s picture book Teach me Enma-sama, written and illustrated by Hiromi Tanaka, Enma who is the King of Hell in Buddhist mythology teaches children how to behave in a “proper” way by scaring the living shit out of them. The picture book is intended for 5 to 8-year-olds and is partly formatted as a guide for parents to discipline their children as well. The book teaches children what they shouldn’t do and how society works through at times humorous but more often horrifying descriptions about Enma and hell.
Some of the book can be a surprisingly thoughtful
approach for children to think about bullying, cheating, lying – things many children
tend to do without noticing or understanding the moral implications and
The book itself is
inspired by Hokku-kyo, which is the
oldest Buddhist scripture, and Buddhism itself drops many tips about raising
children. It furthermore, introduces things to teach one’s children, such as why
they shouldn’t be doing “bad” things, social codes, and etiquette.
The book covers 31
topics within three chapters, with roughly one subject per page, with a speech
from Enma-sama, following explanation for kids, a message for parents when
reading with children as well as the original untranslated sentences from
Buddhist scriptures such as the Hokku-kyo.
Bad things children tend to do without noticing is addressed in chapter 1. From not having likes and dislikes about food or leaving unfinished food, to being quiet in public places. It teaches them to become aware of others and that they are not the center of the universe.
Chapter 2 covers topics
about the evil that lives in people’s minds, such as jealousy and hatred. It
puts a great emphasis on not comparing oneself to others and recognizing that
others are not objects but human beings with feelings, just like ourselves. It
also mentions that people should stay positive.
Finally, in chapter 3, the
evil that dwells in words. Such as that one should be careful when speaking, as
once a person says something, it is impossible to unsay it. Thus is tell the
reader not to lie, verbally abuse others, as well as to stay true to oneself.
All of this is generally well good, except for the glaring fact that some of the pictures and descriptions provided in the book wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw or similar horror movie, yet are in a book that is intended for young children…………
In conclusion, the book gives a somewhat universal idea of what is good and what is bad, abet in a very black and white fashion, while accompanied by nightmare inducing depictions.
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.
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.
I shuddered while reading the first line of this email on my mobile, I remember dropping it on my bed in disbelief. This wasn’t the usual time-waster, this wasn’t the usual sex pest abusive messages that escorts usually got.
“I know your name it’s ______ and you’re a student at _____ University”.
My heart stopped. I don’t use my first legal name anywhere online, nor do I tell people it. The only person who would know my entire legal name would be someone with access to official documents about myself. Like a professor.
“If you don’t send me nudes, and whatever the hell else I might want. I’ll expose you. I’ll tell everyone at University about you. I’ll tell your talent agency about you.”
Plenty of people within the entertainment industry moonlight as sex workers, including now famous A-list Hollywood actors. The difference between myself and them was that I was an idol. An idol in Japan is a young person active as a singer, as a dancer and most importantly a talent, whose biggest attribute is Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club-esque squeaky clean nature and hopefully manga-like cute cuddly shining eyes, perpetually open wide.
“If you don’t send me nudes, and whatever the hell else I might want. I’ll expose you. I’ll tell everyone at University about you. I’ll tell your talent agency about you.”
In Japan, I had come to meet a few idols who worked jobs as hostesses, girls bar work, erotic massage and for escort services. I even knew a guy who knew a guy who claimed to be the Papa-San or “sugar daddy” of a lesser known ***48 member. As common as this tends to be, it obviously is a liability for talent agencies.
For lack of more eloquent words, I was scared shitless. Whoever this person was had leverage on me as a student, as a migrant and as someone in the entertainment industry. However, I was more afraid that if I heeded his orders it would quickly elevate to more unscrupulous demands.
So, I ignored it. I ignored it for as long as I could. Until two weeks later he sent information about fan event I would be holding with something threatening along the lines of: “It would be a shame if I came here and showed everyone your ad. You’re a dirty whore! Muahahahahah” The original email was worded differently, but the meaning was clear.
He was trying to exploit my latent feelings of shame around the sex work I was doing at the time and the stigma society has around sex workers and migrant sex workers. As dumb as this is, I ended up sending him a few recycled lewd photos. I was too afraid of the repercussions…or maybe I have a humiliation kink I can’t admit yet. Even though I can dryly laugh about the situation now, it was horrifying when it was happening to me.
He predictably took it up a notch. “Go to coordinates _____ and there’s a vending machine. Put ¥20,000 (roughly $180) under it. Don’t look around or ask questions. If you don’t want this option you can give me blowjobs every week but you will remain masked the entire time”
20,000 yen it is, I decided. I kept being urged by friends to report this to the police. Despite what I said in my twitter post in Japanese, I didn’t. Well technically I didn’t. I’ll get back to that. I couldn’t report it to the police because what I was doing to earn money was probably way outside of the kind of work my visa would allow.
Later that day I looked up the coordinates to the vending machine where I was instructed go leave the cash. I wanted to sarcastically reply, “which vending machine” because in Japan there’s a vending machine on every street corner, sometimes on every floor of a building. The coordinates were smack dab deep in Dougenzaka, Shibuya’s red light district, also known as “Love Hotel Hill’.. It’s a bit like all of Roppongi but without drunk expatriate asshole merchant bankers. It’s also a bit like the East side of Ikebukuro but without the old men holding hands with high school girls openly. It’s a bit like Ueno but Dougenzaka doesn’t reek of piss. You get the idea. Dougenzaka is a red light district. It has the neon lights, beat cops, happening bars, love hotels and all the trimmings. But it tends to be a bit quieter than the others. Somewhere nicely in between the gaudiness of Kabukicho in Shinjuku and the tawdry sleaziness of Uguisudani.
He wasn’t the most intimidating guy to bring along, however he had a penis and he was Japanese.
I decided, that I would pay him once but no more after that I told myself. Going with me was a male friend. By friend, I meant a guy who was a part-time host at a host club and part time nursery school teacher who I had friend-zoned. I don’t like host clubs or hosts, both are painfully boring to me. I’ve never understood the appeal to the host system. I’ve had this theory, since most of the women patrons of host clubs are also sex workers, who have to deal with assholes all day, hosts allow them to try their hands at the dynamic themselves. Something like “reverse sexism”. As I said, I don’t like hosts but this guy was different. He was a total geek.
He was a Kaiju (怪獣） and Kamen Rider （仮面ライダー) nerd, totally into the world of Japan’s superheroes and super monsters, and quite small in stature. He wasn’t the most intimidating guy to bring along, however he had a penis and he was Japanese. If the situation became out of hand, those two important factors would be all that would matter with having an ally on my side.
As we toddled down the dark Dougenzaka alley trying to find the exact location of the vending machine from the email, Kaiju-host told me “I don’t feel so well about this.” Well no shit Sherlock. Neither did I, but in my mind if I gave this guy money he’d lay off for enough time for me to figure something clever out.
“I think this is it!” We walked near a vending machine similar to one I had seen on Google maps. The location was a far cry from the neon lights and drunks bumbling out of Izakayas. The only illumination about was from that vending machine; the neon glow lit the alley like a lighthouse far in the distance. I wish I could say something more meaningful or prolific about that, but I can’t. Just know the place was really damn dark and the only light was from a metal box with drinks inside of it. I would definitely feel more afraid being alone there. I remembered the line from the email: “Don’t look around or hang about too long!” I wondered whether or not this idiot was hiding somewhere in the darkness with a trench coat on and a seventies porn mustache ready to pounce.
I slid the envelope containing the ¥20,000 under the vending machine.
“Man! T–t-this is crazy!!!”
As Kaiju Host whimpered I wondered to myself why I brought him, of all people, as some sort of security. Then I quickly reminded myself he was Japanese with a penis, and the professor harassing me was most likely American or Canadian, based on his writings. In my mind if the police had any questions, providing this idiot actually did pounce in a trench coat, me being a whore was cancelled out by having a Japanese person with me and maybe I would have a fair chance.
I went home that night and emailed the idiot professor who somehow thought 20,000 yen was a lot of money to blackmail someone for.
“I’ve given you the money. Please leave me alone”
I stupidly assumed all was well the next day when he responded, “Great. I’ve got it. I won’t bother you anymore.”
And then silence. I assumed silence was great in this case, until two weeks later when I was contacted again. I know the readers are probably wondering where this story ends, if it’s fake or if I’m really all that stupid for continuously giving into his demands. I’d say a bit of the latter is true.
“You know…I’m starting to think you should um, come to a love hotel once a week or so and give me a free blow job, while wearing an eye mask so you won’t know who I am.”
And I ignored them. The emails got more and more harassing with every day, with about fifty or so emails sent every single day over a week’s time.At this point, I confided with a few friends about what I should do. Whether Japanese or not they all had a theme
“Go to the police. He will lose his job, everything. It’s illegal!”
“Dude this is how people get killed. You need to tell the police or I will!”
As much as I wanted to, as much as I told myself to do so- I couldn’t. I knew the score. Women are stalked in Japan all of the time and police often do nothing until it’s far too late for the woman. Women have been stalked, beaten and even murdered with the Japanese police and media blaming her post-mortem for “leading him on”. It wasn’t until 2014 that Japan’s stalking laws drastically changed, society will take longer however. So to say I was hesitant on contacting authorities at all in an understatement.
So I did the best next thing.
I impersonated a police officer. This guy seemed like an idiot, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to fool him. I searched online for Japan’s laws on stalking and internet harassment. “Bingo!” I found a long bill of text and decided to use it. There was a lot of complicated wording in it, but it didn’t matter as long as it looked official to scare him.
I took time to translate the text, because I imagined this guy as one of those Western men in Japan who took zero time to learn anything beyond “Areegatoe” and broken pick up lines to use on obviously resisting Japanese women.
“Haha” it was so funny how official the penal code looked. I even added in Japanese and English: THIS IS AN OPEN POLICE INVESTIGATION. LAW ENFORCEMENT ARE LOOKING INTO YOUR ACTIVITIES AND HAVE TAKEN CONTROL OF THIS ACCOUNT.
He responded almost instantaneously, “I’m sorry can we reverse this somehow? I was just kidding.”
Thankfully, I never heard from him ever again. But it still haunts me. My legal name isn’t public knowledge and it isn’t something I even used within university. This was someone with access to my legal documents, my Instagram, my twitter and was most likely a lecturer, as he claimed himself. Everyday at University from that point, I wondered, “Is it him?”
The university I went to wasn’t renowned for having a great administration or anything. There were so many strange people there. I had far too many theories on who it might have been and far too many unusual suspects. Maybe you don’t have sympathy for me because you don’t like sex-workers and don’t believe people should have the right to full autonomy of their bodies. But the sin of having consensual sex, for money shouldn’t be one that has so much shame attached that it could lead to someone in authority blackmailing a student.
A part of me laughs a bit though, at the entire experience and wondering if he was scared shitless for a few months worrying if it was the day law enforcement would come question him. Or maybe he didn’t care at all.
“We don’t need Parliamentarians who ignore human rights” (人権無視する議員はいらない)
“Mio Sugita, resign now” （杉田水脈は今すぐ辞めろ）
“Silence is death” ˆ(沈黙は死）
These were just some of the statements protesters were chanting in unity, in front of the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on July 27th, demanding for the resignation of the parliamentarian, Mio Sugita. On July 24th, in the monthly magazine, Shukan Shincho, Sugita published an essay in which she said, among many other offensive things, that no tax money should be spent on lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) individuals because “they can’t reproduce and are therefore not valuable to society.” At first, the protests were confined to the internet, but in a short time, they spilt out into real life–an actual protest, and that was pivotal in getting the Japanese media to pay attention and finally force the LDP to address the issue.
Individuals- active citizens, representatives of NGOs as well as some politicians all gathered together in front of the LDP, angered by Mio Sugita’s comments clearly dissing the LGBTQ+ community.
It seems to be that an eclectic variety of individuals gathered. Those who identify to be LGBTQ+, those who do not, students and surprisingly (in the context of Japan,) a few people seemingly salarymen who came after work in their suits. To me, it seemed like there was an equal ratio of women to men. The crowd was mostly Japanese but there were a handful of foreigners who came to show support too. There were young women angered, who came alone, university students who came with their friends including myself. I believe there were a lot of men who seemed to be in their thirties to forties too. The crowd was very diverse.
There were all kinds of posters and signs held. There were many posters available online and they spread through social platforms such as Twitter. There was an identification number for the posters one could then input in a machine at a convenience store and get printed out. There were rainbow flags held up and most of the posters advocated for acceptance of diversity, lgbtq+. Some of these signs had statements like 生産性で価値を図るな which translates to something like Don’t measure our worth by “productivity.” Many of them criticised Sugita’s comment un “unproductiveness” and how it discriminates against many other groups of people in society. One thing which came a little of a shock to me were some other posters which came off as more aggressive. It wasn’t a majority but there were a handful of people with posters with Sugita’s face on it, however with a little twist. Some of them had a target on her face or one which made her look like a zombie, strongly demonizing her. I personally think this is going a little far and it’s better to argue against her comments and advocating for diversity but various perspectives were apparent.
There were countless numbers of policemen trying to control the people so that the participants were not standing over the studded part of the pedestrian road which is an aid for the blind. The police were trying to control the number of people in the main street and restricted participants from going onto the main street. The police were making some people stand against streets going around other blocks to limit the demonstration, but eventually, people overflowed onto the main street.
This issue may have caught a lot of people’s attention because many individuals saw this not only as an attack on the LGBTQ+ community but as one to all citizens, one to women, men, disabled people or the elderly. Sugita’s comments about how LGBTQ+ individuals are “unproductive” (生産性がない) as “they cannot have children” is inaccurate and extremely discriminatory to everyone as childbearing is an autonomous choice of an individual, not an obligation a citizen has to its government.
So, what exactly happened at the demonstration?
Apart from trying to get the attention of the LDP, the media and the rest of the public by simply being there and protesting, some participants, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, a few university professors, and some politicians delivered speeches explaining how hurtful Sugita’s comments were personally, how they could not sleep for days, illuminating how backwards Japan still is. Some participants also went up to the LDP to hand in a sort of a request for the resignation of Mio Sugita. Even though the few individuals who went up to the LDP headquarters seemed to contain their composure, they were denied a chance to even simply hand in the documents.
This demonstration was certainly not one the LDP could simply dismiss and move on with as they often do. There has been a lot of backlash to Sugita’s discriminatory comments on various social platforms and many other demonstrations have popped up in other parts of Japan. Recently, there was one on August 5th in Shibuya, Osaka and Fukuoka. There was also one on August 6th in Mie prefecture.
The LDP did acknowledge Sugita’s comments but have not condemned her, except for Shigeta Ishiba, who is running against Abe in the LDP internal party elections. Although modern Japanese governments prior to the current one have certainly not been the most transparent and democratic, the current one under Prime Minister Abe has continuously been moving far and far away from democracy, with its powerful members pulling strings in their favour, ultimately guiding the government away from democratic rule. It is does not bode well that since Abe took office Japan has dropped to 67 in World Press Freedom (it was ranked 11 in 2011) and not surprisingly Japan ranks lower than ever in the annual gender equality rankings, 114 out of 144 countries.
Erika Bulach is a university student in Tokyo majoring in social sciences.
Oh Lucy! has been doing so well in it’s Japan release, that the distributors, for one night only, will be showing the English subtitled version. May 17th, from 18:50 at the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya.
Shinobu Terashima is one of the few Japanese actresses who plays hardball, consistently choosing roles that blow holes in the cardboard stereotype of the Japanese woman. We all know this woman: saintly, supportive, long-suffering AND a wildcat in bed. Yawn.
While Terashima (the thoroughbred scion of veteran actress Junko Fuji and the late Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro) can probably do sexy wildcat with both her hands in cuffs and wearing a straitjacket (wait a minute, maybe this is TOO sexy) she’s far less accommodating when it comes to the saintly and long-suffering bit.
Shinobu Terajima is a perfect fit for the role of Setsuko aka “Lucy,” in a funny, sardonic and ultimately warm-hearted film called “Oh Lucy!” Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi who first penned the screenplay as a graduation project for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, said she was actually taken aback by the movie’s success. “Oh Lucy!” was nominated for two awards in last year’s Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director – besides winning the NHK award at the Sundance Film Festival. “I was never really interested in portraying a heroic woman, or a beautiful woman or any of that. I guess I was really tired of seeing those types up there on the screen,” said Hirayanagi. “I needed to see someone different, and came up with the idea of Lucy. She’s not young or cute but she’s really, really watchable.”
Indeed, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from Terashima as Setsuko, a 43 year old Tokyo OL (Office Lady) with just the right amount of inner venom and outward politeness, neatly balanced on the scale of Japanese womanhood. Setsuko, whose name means restraint and saving money, divides her time between a dreary office in a small company and an apartment packed to the gills with her stuff. Tokyo media has stories galore about single Japanese women of a certain age who can’t stop hoarding, and Setsuko’s little room is straight out of this urban folklore. Then one day Setsuko gets a call from her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna), and invited to attend an English conversation class. “The teacher is friendly and very nice,” assures Mika and Setsuko decides to go, not least because she had witnessed a suicide on the train tracks that morning. For a few minutes she had felt the chill hand of death on her shoulder, and well, life is too short to spend it being miserable, right? She may as well try something new. And new it is, with a vengeance. The drop-dead handsome English teacher, John (Josh Hartnett), makes her wear a blonde wig, pushes a ping pong ball in her mouth to correct her pronunciation, and tells Setsuko that from that moment on, her name is Lucy. Then John gives Lucy a big, tight hug. Cue, Setsuko, I mean Lucy’s swooning face.
Unfortunately, her new-found happiness is destroyed overnight. The next day she goes to class and John has left for LA, accompanied by Mika who it turns out, is his girlfriend. Setsuko/Lucy PTSDs for awhile before springing to action and books a flight to LA. That she ends up boarding the plane with her prim, correct sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) who is Mika’s mom and direly worried about her daughter – can only be described as a typically Japanese female predicament. Every time one wants to do something totally crazy, a prim correct female relative appears to drag you back to sanity. No wonder so many women remain single in this country.
Every time one wants to do something totally crazy, a prim correct female relative appears to drag you back to sanity. No wonder so many women remain single in this country.
Hirayanagi’s understanding of this particular terrain (English conversation classes, being a single woman in Tokyo, the uniformity and blandness that come with being Japanese) is frighteningly accurate. “I think being able to speak English will change a Japanese person in the most unexpected ways,” she said. “The Japanese language is just not conducive to self-expression, whereas English is all about expressing yourself, your needs, your emotions. Setsuko discovers after landing in LA that in the US, life isn’t about getting by and being right, it’s all about survival. You have to speak up, you have to make your needs known and you have to convince people of your worth. Otherwise, it’s over. It’s as simple as that.” Hirayanagi herself has been living the sink-or-swim scenario since the age of 17 when she first went to LA as a language student. After this stint, she wrangled a student visa, enrolled in San Francisco State University and launched an acting career in LA while waitressing at “Nobu” in Malibu. “Back then, I loved the anything-goes mentality of LA,” she said. “I went to every audition I could get, hustled and worked and generally lived the life of an almost-actor in LA. There are thousands and thousands of people like me. But in the end, I knew that I wasn’t really cut out for acting. I would much rather stand behind the camera, work on screenplays and make something on my own.”
Josh Hartnett even shows up playing a modern-day Charisma Man
Looking back, Hirayanagi added that her experience as an actor has proved invaluable to her filmmaking career.
“I know what actors go through, what they’re up against, their joys and struggles. I also know my way around a film set, so I could establish a rapport with the actor and crew right away.” Indeed, Hirayanagi has a reputation for being wonderful to work with – no less a personage than Kaori Momoi starred pro bono, in the short film version of “Oh Lucy!” and Josh Hartnett consented to play John because he loved the vibe of her screenplay. “They say that a director loses a limb every time s/he makes a film,” laughed Hirayanagi. “I believe that. But I think this space is where I want to be. It’s never going to get easy but at least I have the conviction that I belong here.”
Setsuko/Lucy isn’t so lucky. The trip to LA turns out to be a journey of self-discovery as she learns some unsavory aspects of her personality and forced to admit that John – stripped of the Charisma-man status he enjoyed in Tokyo – is actually a loser. Mika had dumped him in short order and is nowhere to be found. Toxic animosity with her sister comes bubbling up to the surface. Unwanted and unhappy, Setsuko must dig deep in her heart to unearth what it is she really wants. Her life may be banal but her pain and struggle is real, and sure to strike a chord with women everywhere. More importantly, in the end she’s a different woman from the one she left behind in that monstrously cluttered apartment. Maybe learning English IS the cure-all antidote. Hey, I’m sold.