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.
You can’t make blood from a stone but you can make ink with a stone, and beautiful artistic ink. That is, if you’re using as 硯石(suzuri-ishi), a traditional Japanese ink-stone, which in and of itself can be an art object. I went to Daigo-machi in Ibaraki Prefecture to see one be made by a traditional craftsman and try one out for myself. If you’re an amateur calligrapher (書道家）but aspire to greatness, you need one of these in your life.
Daigo-machi located in Ibaraki Prefecture is one of the few places where traditional suzuri are still made. There is a particular kind of stone that is perfect for making suzuri and the town still has a limited supply. The stones are able to grind down the solid materials used for making ink to do calligraphy, but are also resistant to being ground down as well. As far back as the Tokugawa era, the stones from Daigo and the suzuri produced there were considered natural treasures.
The stones were treasured by Japanese artists like Hoan Kosugi, noteable authors such as Saneatsu Mushanokōji (武者小路 実篤) and even Japanese Prime Minister Tsuyoshi (話せばわか) Inukai*.
Taizan Sato became fascinated with the process of making ink stones after attending a workshop conducted by the man who would later become his master, Taiseki Hoshino.
He opened his own workshop in the town in the year 2002. He has learned over time to touch a stone and know immediately whether or not it is suitable to be an ink-stone. It can’t be too hard and it is helpful if it has some claylike qualities, but not to the point of being absorbent.
In an effort to combine the town’s traditional lacquerware with the ink stones, he uses only lacquer painstakingly handscraped from the urushi trees to paint the outside edges of the stone, and ads design, to turn them into works of art on their own. Many of Japan’s living national treasures use his stones in their artwork and calligraphy.
Sato-san has one disciple (弟子) to follow in his footsteps.
As an amateur calligrapher, I can tell you that the feel of the one of his hand-made stones compared to the cheap ones sold in stationary stores is a world apart. The smoothnesss of his hand-made suzuri are extraordinary and yet the part of the stone used to grind down the ink is so subtly raised that you can barely feel it with your finger. The ink has to be ground very slowly, almost as if you were gently rubbing the ink stick against a bare nipple—-a bare nipple with razor stubble. The right amount of water and delicate friction produces a finite level of ink which pools in the “ocean” of the ink-stone (suzuri).
The detailed structure of the ink-stone makes it possible to vary the lightness and thickness of the ink; the results are brush strokes that are not uniform and subtle on the paper. For Sumi-e paintings, it is also a wonderful tool to have. Admittedly, such a majestic tool is slightly wasted on a person like myself who as my calligraphy teacher points out, “Lacks all delicacy and does not follow the proper stroke order” but maybe someday…..
I purchased one of the stones for someone much more qualified than me to make use of it (list price 30,000 yen but I only had 23,000 yen in cash so he generously cut me a deal). I gave it to a curator at the Met who is an expert on calligraphy. In another decade, I may be worthy of owning one myself. Which means another trip to Daigo…..a town with many charms.
As long as you’re in town…..
Japan is a famous for lacquerware known as urushi, and to make it the authentic way, you need organic sap from the urushi tree. Daigo provides much of the quality organic urushi needed for Japan’s traditional crafts.
Due to the cold climate and soil composition Daigo produces what some say is the finest raw urushi in Japan. It is clear, dries quickly, and has a fragrance reminiscent of Japanese cypress. If you make arrangements in advance, you can go to the serene Urushi tree forest and see how the sap is extracted. The master urushikaki (person who scrapes urushi) is Yuzo Tobita, who is 84. There used to be a hundred people doing the work. Now there are, including Tobita, five or six people continuing the tradition. It’s hard work. It takes up to ten years to grow an urushi tree and from one tree, at best you can extract 200 milliliters, basically a small bottle of Shiso Pepsi Cola.
Fortunately for the tradition, there are young apprentices like Yuma Watanabe who is 26 and now learning the art. If he sticks with it, traditional urushi may last another few generations.
After you’ve seen the urushi drawn from the sap, and maybe tried your hand at the work yourself—take a visit to Kijian, where you can see lacquerware being made and buy some souvenirs. The master , Toru Tsuji, has his own style of creating lacquerware, Yamizonuri, which results in elegant and zen-like austere utensils.
*Prime Minister Inukai was assassinated on May 15, 1932 starting the dark age of Japanese Imperialism
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.
In Japan, the convenience store “baito” or part time job, is a rite of passage. Teenagers work at their neighborhood ‘conbini’ after school as a way of padding their allowances and college students work graveyard shifts to pay for living expenses. I did it, my friends did it. Most every Japanese person I know has worked at a conbini at one point or another. And in 2016, Sayaka Murata won the prestigious Akutagawa Literary Award with her autobiographical novel “Conbini Ningen,” in which the protagonist woman is addicted to her conbini job, to the point that she can’t think about anything else.
“I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m hyper sensitive but honestly, I feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with porn, especially in a convenience store. It’s sexual harassment.”
In case you think conbini work is boring and easy, let me tell you right now that the job calls for brains, guts and ace reflexes. For women, it’s often a test of mental endurance as well. A woman I know, in her late 30s, has been working the 9 to 7 shift at her local Family Mart for the past 5 years. She says the job is fine, except for one thing: she hates handling the porn magazines that comprise a “not insignificant chunk” of the store’s revenue. “I hate touching those things,” said this woman who has been diagnosed as an HSP. “I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m hyper sensitive but honestly, I feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with porn, especially in a convenience store. It’s sexual harassment.” Twenty-seven year old Reina, who quit an office job to work at a Seven Eleven run by her mother, says she feels “slightly sick” every time she has to ring up a porn mag for a male customer. “I’ve been at the job 3 years and I still can’t get used to it,” says Reina. “I don’t lose my cool or anything but I get really uncomfortable. I don’t talk to my mother about it but I call tell she knows how I feel.”
But Reina and thousands of conbini workers like her are about to get a break. In deference to the Tokyo Olympics and the expected soar in foreign tourists including families and minors, major convenience stores Seven Eleven and Lawson have announced the decision to abolish all porn magazines from their outlets by August 31st. The third member of the conbini triumvirate Family Mart, has announced that the company has “no intentions of following suit.” Bad news for my HSP friend (who wants to remain anonymous). At her place of work, the porn stays.
Reina says that the announcement gave her much “relief,” though there are some months to go before she’s free from the unpleasantness of handling porn for work. “That stuff is always about rape,” she says. “The covers show women being tied up and the headlines are violent. Frankly, they’re scary.”
In Japan, the public display of porn – rape or otherwise – has long been a sore point. In 2004, then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara issued a law that required convenience store porn magazines to be partially bound in cellophane, to prevent casual riffing. “If anyone wants to look at those things, they’re going to have to show some courage, go up to the register and pay for them, right in front of everyone else.” This was a statement Ishihara apparently made to an aide, and later picked up by Japan’s sports tabloids, infamous for their own abundant porn content.
For some weeks afterwards, “show some courage” was a popular, mirth-filled punch line among Japanese men. Whether Ishihara really said those words isn’t the point – the move was classic ex-Governor. Always a gung-ho macho, one of Ishihara’s pet laments was the “pathetic-ness” of the slinky, under-confident Japanese male. He didn’t need to trot out the Olympics to turn the screws on their source of fun.
Unfortunately, his cellophane law simply gave rise to another problem: “harmless porn.” Instead of riffing through X-rated content, men turned to “gurabia,” magazines that featured bikini-ed young women on the covers in provocative poses and more of the same inside the pages. Since the women weren’t nude, the magazines couldn’t be described as hard porn. And the blurbs were all about how “beautiful” or “cute” the girls were so how could it be offensive, right? (Though their cup sizes were loudly touted along with their prettiness) Emboldened by this new wave of accessible and ‘kawaii’ porn, salarimen took to visiting the conbini on their lunch hours and picking up the magazines along with their bento and canned coffees. The early naughts were also about “tosatsu,” or shooting voyeuristic pictures of random young women on the streets, or catching them unawares through open windows. And these photos often found their way into – you guessed it, “harmless porn” magazines, stacked on conbini shelves.
Now, 15 years later, porn magazines (whether hard or harmless) comprise a dismally shrinking market. In the late 1990s, the conbini magazine market sold to the tune of 500 billion yen a year and the adult genre made up nearly 50% of that revenue. Retail analyst Hiroaki Watanabe says that those heydays are long over, and the market has been reduced by almost 70%. “These days, the main clientele of adult-only magazines are seniors, who don’t have smartphones or Internet access,” he says. Indeed, the aforementioned Reina says that porn mag buyers are nearly always “older men, who never make eye contact and have an air of shame.”
Indeed, the aforementioned Reina says that porn mag buyers are nearly always “older men, who never make eye contact and have an air of shame.”
At this point, Mini Stop is the only major convenience store that has completely cleared theirs shelves of adult mags. This is understandable, as Mini Stop is owned by retail conglomerate AEON known for a squeaky clean, family-oriented image. As for the conbini triumvirate, about one-third of their outlets don’t carry adult magazines, according to the companies’ PR.
The PR for Family Mart stated that ultimately, the company leaves the choice to stock porn up to the individual outlet owners. “Some of our outlets don’t carry magazines at all, regardless of content,” said the PR spokesman. “Anyway, we’re heading toward an era where customers can purchase and download magazine content right at the cash register. Paper magazines will be obsolete.”
Ex-Gov Ishihara probably didn’t see that coming. If a tap on a smartphone is all it takes to buy porn at the local conbini, what’s going to happen to male courage?
Journey beyond Roppongi (old), Shibuya (teenyboppers) to XEX Nihonbashi this Sunday starting at 6:30 for dance, music, entertainment and booze. It’s DME NIGHT
3 hours of music, dance, DJs and drinks. Also featuring special guests, The Dream Team, with a singer alleged to be the second-coming of Whitney Houston. Features live performances by Jai, Zenon, Miku, and a dance showcase (starting at 8pm) featuring our favorite cosplayer/peformer Fenix (“Storm) and others.
There’s speculation that The Dream Team might include Tokyo’s favorite siren, Zoe. But you’ll have to go to know.
The argument that “It’s worse in XXX (China,North Korea, US) so it’s okay to have XXX (sexism/racism/fascism/wage slavery/death by overwork) in Japan” is silly. It’s like the accused in a murder trail arguing, “I should be declared innocent because I only killed one person in the robbery but my partner killed three.” Some things are never okay. Whataboutism is the last resort of the intellectually dishonest weasel. (Sorry kids).
I don’t think that the work we do is shouting to the wind. Every effort matters. Sometimes sarcasm is an effective tool. We try to be polite in our response to the comments but rudeness is sometimes met with rudeness. 親しき仲にも礼儀あり
Does any of our work make a difference? Yes.
Actually, in my time as a reporter, me being “Jake Adelstein”, on editing duty today–criticism of huge problems in Japan, via articles that I have written and written with others, resulted in better laws against human trafficking, comprehensive measures to deal with dioxin pollution, and the Japanese government recently admitting that there is a huge problem with exploitation of underage girls that needs to be dealt with.
I and many of the writers on this blog who live in Japan, love this country, and loving a country doesn’t mean remaining silent; it means speaking up about what is wrong, and correcting it. The effort doesn’t always work but sometimes it yields results. And people who can’t see any fault or social problems in their country or refuse to do anything about it or just as complicit in the rise “dark corporations,” greedy nationalists, death by overwork, exploitive enterprises, corrupt politicians, and the nuclear industrial complex that have done so much harm to the nation. For decades many warned of the dangers that TEPCO and its poorly managed nuclear power plants held. They were ignored. It doesn’t make them any less correct.
The battle to protect human rights, worker rights, equal rights, the environment, democracy, the public right to know, justice, gender equality and to fight poverty and end corruption are important struggles. All over the world. Japan is no exception.
I’m a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in training, which is a part of Japanese culture–surprise! I wouldn’t argue the metaphysics of Buddhism are true, but there are universal truths and there is a motto that I have as an editor and journalist and try to keep in my own personal life. Pardon the idealism but I believe this creed applies everywhere in the world.
So below is a modified version of our editorial policy, adapted from the Dhammapada (法句経）. Thank you for your consideration.
Jake Adelstein, Japan Subculture Research Center, editor in chief
Conquer anger with compassion. Conquer evil with goodness. Conquer trolls with humour & sarcasm Conquer ignorance with knowledge Conquer stinginess with generosity. Conquer lies with truth