Containing AIDS in Japan (Part 3)

Mass media: Teaching through panic and humor

By William Wetherall

This article was commissioned but not published by The Japan Times as Part 3 of a four part series on AIDS in Japan filed 25 March 1987.

Parts 1 and 2 were published, but Parts 3 and 4 were cancelled after a hemophilia patient support group called the editor and protested that the remarks made about hemophiliacs in Part 2 either were not true or were a matter of opinion, and should not have been published on the National page, which is a news page.

Seen through Japan's mass media, AIDS became a small problem about 1983, a bigger one in 1985, and a real one only from 17 January this year, when it was reported that a Kobe woman was dying of the disease, or rather from the infections that AIDS permits by disabling the body's immune system.

The woman, who had become a prostitute after she had lived with a bisexual Greek sailor, died on the 20th.

Shohei Yonemoto, a specialist on the ethical problems that arise between society and the life sciences, has criticized the sensational reaction of the mass media, and the strong measures in the AIDS bill (Chuo Koron, April 1987).

For example, in a 19 January editorial entitled "Let's seriously worry about AIDS", the highly regarded Asahi Shinbun used the word "osoroshisa" three times in urging that the people of Japan be quickly informed about the "horror" of AIDS. It also referred to AIDS as "more vicious than any infectious disease yet known."

The title was certainly intended to grab the attention of readers who otherwise might have skipped an article on AIDS. But the dramatics of such first-crack reports in the daily press and on television were nothing compared to the conventional tactics the weekly magazines have used to exploit the AIDS scare.

Yet most of the essential facts about AIDS, such as they are known, are conveyed in even the most sensational articles. The space the men's pulps give to AIDS may only be a ploy to boost newsstand sales. Or it may reflect concern for the alleged risk that men face in seeking solace in soapland baths and other forms of commercial sex.

Sex-for-sale is the most likely way to get a venereal disease in Japan, so why not AIDS? Especially when the entertainment quarters are aprowl with foreigners who may have AIDS but not know it.

Some Kobe proprietors put up signs reading GAIZIN OFF LIMITS, as though the alien was supposed to know the local slur for himself. This unconventional spelling of gaijin, meaning "foreigner" in appearance, was infectiously spread to Chiba and other cities by an NHK AIDS documentary which showed the Kobe signs going up, without comment.

A popular young men's weekly magazine coated its palatable prophylactic advice with tasteless racist humor: "When in a disco, beware of men with bows and arrows, green monkeys, and women who come with foreigners. And don't forget your condoms." An crude sketch shows a naked black man with a bow but no arrow, an oriental woman tagging behind a white man, a monkey, and an oriental man with an unrolled condom in his pocket. (Shukan Pureibooi, 10 March 1987)

The same article warned its readers: "Casually ask your date if she's ever had sex with whites, blacks, Central Americans, East Africans, merchant marines, American military personnel, people with weak bodies [alluding to hemophiliacs], and homosexuals. Also inquire if she's had sex with [Japanese] men who have been abroad on business. Be wary of women who like reggae, Prince, Michael Jackson, African music, and black contemporary. Special caution is needed with women who like soul and frequent discos where blacks hang out."

Fortunately, few AIDS articles have singled out "blacks" or "foreigners" in Japan as risky. Of course, this does not mean that all "Japanese" are willing to share a bath or a beer with an alien.

Most articles simply point out that more Japanese are becoming AIDS carriers, that AIDS is being transmitted even among Japanese, and that caution is needed by everyone.

The butt of most AIDS humor has been the horny Japanese man.

A Japanese wife warns her husband not to get AIDS overseas. She gives him a box of condoms just in case he cannot remain faithful, and for extra insurance she packs some rubber gloves and a wet suit.

An ignored Japanese wife who has neglected her figure takes up aerobics when her husband, after reading about AIDS, starts coming home early instead of patronizing massage parlors and date clubs.

A husband returning to Tokyo after working in Kobe must slip the results of a blood test under the door before his wife will open it.

A Japanese man breaks a leg when his plump mistress sits on him while making love at a ski lodge. He thinks he has fooled his wife. But visiting the hospital, she says how fortunate it wasn't AIDS.

A straight Japanese man who wants more elbow room in a crowded public bath goes drag.

Many soapland baths have folded despite their no-gaijin signs and no-AIDS certificates for the girls. One survives by welcoming gaijin, and raising the prices for Japanese men turned on by the risk.

A Japanese mother scolds her son for risking AIDS by getting the autograph of a Japanese baseball player training in Japan, not Guam.