Sex and sexuality over time

No study of social and cultural phenomenon would be complete without an exploration into its history. For my own study on hentai I think it pertinent to investigate changing social and cultural attitudes toward sex, sexuality and gender in Japan over time, and relate it to the emergence of sexual content within the mediascape more broadly, and anime and manga specifically.  From what I understand, Japan is historically quite paternalistic, yet there is also an intriguing blurring of the lines between a kinda of ultra-modernity and strong tradition.  Out of this context I’m interested to discover whether women in Japan are permitted or encouraged to take active ownership of their bodies and their sexuality (a concern which has emerged out of my own feminist perspective), as well as explore the culturally defined contours of masculine and feminine sexual identity.  Hentai to me appears grossly misogynistic, so I want to understand more about the lived experiences of men and women.

Luckily our own UOW professor Mark McLelland, a cultural historian/sociologist specialising in sexuality and new media with a focus on Japan (talk about serendipity), has done the hard yards for me. I will be drawing on some of his publications in this post, however the full range of his works can be found here, very comprehensive! One idea that McLellend (2012: 2) brings up in his book Love, Sex and Democracy in Japan During the American Occupation is that of habitus, or “how people’s experience of embodiment differs between genders, cultures and time periods”.  He draws on the example that in postwar Japan not only did newly imported American models of courtship radically transform dating practices and attitudes towards sex, but the volume of public discussion and discourse into sex and sexuality noticeably increased, as there was a clear need to “renegotiate and redefine male-female relationships” due to changing behaviours (Ibid.: 5).  This meant radical sexualisation within the popular press, and the proliferation of images of women’s bodies in ways that would have been inconceivable in the years prior. It is during this period that hentai culture, true to the Japanese meaning of the word, began to really develop.

“…by the early 1950s a subgenre had developed focusing on hentai seiyokuor ‘perverse desire’ which included both male and female homosexuality as well as a range of fetishistic behaviors including characteristically Japanese obsessions such as love suicides and disembowelment [seppuku]” – McLelland 2006

It seems that sexuality in Japan cannot be discussed without an appreciation of the changes that took place post-WWII. It is out of this context that the idea of the “modern woman” started to materialize. Common stereotypes of women as “gentle” and “meek” gave way to more dynamic images that “challenged the previously existing widespread mythology of a monolithic Japanese woman” (Sato 2003: 1).  This strikes a chord with me, because the female characters in hentai are generally meek, submissive and helpless.

Moreover, I find this terminology, “the modern woman”, very striking, because further research revealed that medieval Japanese culture promoted fairly liberal, open attitudes toward sexual activity, however during the Edo period militarism, paternalism and Confucian thought began to impact societal beliefs about women and sexuality (Deal 2005: 346).  Thus the idea of the modern woman, with her newfound sexual freedoms, is in fact a concept embedded within Japanese history and has taken on new forms over time.

Returning to the idea of sexual imagery, Stockins (2009) says that “images of erotica and the female form were common in Japan’s early art as they still remain today in contemporary Anime and Manga”. If I had more scope for research I think it would be a very worthy study to compare how women were portrayed then in relation to now, especially the women in hentai. As I mentioned in a previous post I think there is an incredible paradox between the freedoms the “modern day woman” is assumed to have and the way the female body is used in media.

Deal, W. E. 2005, Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, Oxford University Press: NY

McLelland, M. 2006, ‘A short history of hentai’, Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, no. 12, http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue12/mclelland.html

McLelland, M. 2012, Love,Sex, and Democracy in Japan During the American Occupation, Palgrave Macmillan: NY

Sato, B. 2003, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan, Duke University Press

Stockins, J. 2009, The popular image of Japanese femininity inside the anime and manga culture of Japan and Sydney

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2 comments

  1. Interesting post! A very different topic to what I have been reading so far. It is great to be looking into the historical of your topic.
    Social and cultural attitudes towards hentai have definitely changed over time, as well as anime and manga, as they have become more popular in places outside of Japan.

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  2. Yes, I agree, interesting post. The way America was able to impact Japan’s representation of sex reminds me of a documentary called ‘A Perverts Guide to Ideology’. It talks about how the things we valued most in the world have been turned around to become these threats to our existence. It’s a bit full-on, but it has some good insights into how our beliefs shape the way we behave, which could relate to the way American values were introduced to Japan.

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