Race and sex in Japan

Sizing up the differences in sexual standards

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"Sizing up the differences in sexual standards" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 122(49), 8 December 1983, pages 51-52

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

When sex and race collide in a high-velocity society like Japan, the racier magazines and tabloids reveal as much about the large archipelago's political economy as a computer printout of its non-tariff barriers. A recent issue of Asahi Geino, a moderately popular entertainment weekly, suggests why Japanese want to keep the "Yamato race" but also Japan's "multinationals" pure. "Japanese are often called workaholics," observed a feature article on racially-mixed Turkish-bath girls. "But girls with veins half-filled with foreign blood seem to lose their workerbee instincts."

Sexual images of multiracial women vary from the insatiable and marginally delinquent "Mixedblood Lica" of comic book and movie fame, to leggy singers and dancers like Linda Yamamoto, and the talented Bibari Maeda who recently played Maria in a Tokyo staging of Westside Story. Many interracial male entertainers have started as fashion models, but like their female counterparts most are of white-yellow parentage. Rock musician Joe Yamanaka is the only black-yellow man to emerge and endure on the basis of both his talent and macho appeal.

Yamato bustologists went wild over the "big, soft, high, and forward-looking" charms of Agnes Lum, a petite multiracial Hawaiian who made her debut as a model and dominated Japanese magazine gravure in the late 1970s. Lum lookalikes are now standard bait on beaches in Honolulu, Guam, and Okinawan travel ads, which attract not only males, but boost sales of bikinis among female tourists who feel they must visit a plastic surgeon before they can pack their bags.

Ostensibly "pure" whites and blacks are also regarded as sexual objects for merchandising and entertainment. White and black women tend to be seen as Amazons who lust after things that yellow Yamato men have trouble providing. While blond whites are in the greatest demand as fashion models, bar hostesses, and English teachers, they are also the most vulnerable to stereotyping and abuse in commercial advertising and in public places like crowded trains and back alleys.

As though to accommodate the apparent demand for blond sex mates, some Yamato prostitutes reportedly undergo plastic surgery to "westernize" their facial and thoracic features, receive injections to lighten their skin, bleach their hair, wear blue contacts, and adopt an accent. Thus disguised as "foreign" women struggling to learn Japanese, they trade their favors with Yamato men who are thereby relieved of their curiosities, wallets, and illusions.

The pathology of such craving for white meat was most tragically seen in the 1981 case of a Japanese literature student in Paris who murdered and then ate selected cuts of a Dutch woman who he seems to have thought had jilted him. The cannibalism aside, homicidal and suicidal reactions on the part of overseas Yamato men, who have taken their relationships with white girlfriends too seriously, are widely documented in North America and Western Europe.

A pedophilic variation of this "white sex" fetish was revealed this summer when a 51-year-old Tokyo kindergarten principal was arrested for molesting girls he had invited to his home for private lessons. He reportedly lured one of his victims by telling her that she looked like a French doll, but would be even more charming if she let him make her hair blond.

Perceptions of skin and hair color often involve anticipations of sexual prowess based on stereotypes of organ size. Unlike early Chinese erotica, which shows sexual organs in natural proportion or smaller, Japanese shunga [spring pictures] tend to exaggerate organs and amplify their anatomical features. Some of the great masters of non-erotic ukiyoe [floating-world pictures] have left dramatic portrayals of Yamato males dueling each other with gigantic phalli, and bouts between sumo wrestlers in the guise of enormous male and female organs. As contacts with non-Yamato peoples but especially whites and blacks have increased, the traditional forms of inter-sexual and intra-sexual rivalry have become highly diversified by interethnic competition. While technique and mood are becoming more important, size remains the main criterion for predicting sexual gratification.

The interethnic organic hangups of many Yamato men and women are mirrored in an eight-page color feature in a recent issue of Bisho [Smile], a bi-monthly women's magazine that is edited and published (as most are) by men. The article showed many hand-drawn pictures of female genitalia labeled by race or nationality, which mean the same to most Japanese.

"Colossal white females" were shown to have "large scale" genitalia, but Italian and other "ethnically smaller" white women were said to be more like Japanese. Black women were also alleged to have somewhat larger organs compared to their Japanese sisters. Those of Chinese women were called "the smallest in the world", while Korean women were said to have slightly larger ones -- but "only the size of Japanese women two decades ago."

The article concluded that the external genitalia of Yamato women are smaller than those of whites or blacks, but are "conspicuously larger" than those of other Asians. They were also said to be growing much faster as Japanese dietary habits and living standards become increasingly "Euro-Americanized".

The next issue of the same magazine featured an article on a 24-year-old Japanese woman who claimed to have slept with 37 foreign men from 13 countries. The "short but thick and dynamic artillery" of a black Cuban student, and the "warted wonder" of a Saudi Arabian news agency employee, placed a "trance-inducing" first out of five, while a Spaniard, Frenchman, and German ranked a "climactic" second.

A Chinese who was "small like a Japanese but could hold out longer", and a Mexican who "made up for his moderate endurance with confidence in his technique", placed an "ordinary" third. Sharing a "deficient" fourth was a "small, soft Italian" who failed to compare with a Yamato man, and a Filipino who was "bigger than a Japanese but finished too fast and was slovenly." On the very "unsatisfactory" bottom was a lone American white who the informant castigated for being "expectedly big but semi-impotent; small, hard Japanese penes feel better."

Most Yamato hangups about skin color are indigenous to majority Japanese culture. Whiteness has traditionally been associated with things like life and purity, while black has connoted death and pollution. Uichiro Sakamoto, an "international" Japanese businessman who has written a book about Japanese facial features, has criticized artists for depicting the Japanese masses as a crowd of yellow faces. In his opinion, artists should emphasize the "smooth, lustrous, onion-like skins, and the beautiful, translucent skins that faintly transmit the red tones of capillaries . . . which differ little from the skins of northern Europeans."

University of Tsukuba anthropologist Hiroshi Wagatsuma, however, has observed that the quality of white skin, particularly its texture, is considered "ugly" by Yamato standards of beauty. And a recent "Fuji Santaro" cartoon strip by Sanpei Sato, featured every morning in the prestigious Asahi Shimbun, depicted the body hair of white women as repulsive.

A 1980 survey showed that 4 percent of the Japanese polled were then associating with foreigners, while 21 percent would have liked to have had foreign friends. But 64 percent did not want to associate with foreigners, while the rest expressed no opinion. Earlier surveys have put white Americans on top of the list of outsiders most acceptable as friends or marriage partners, but Russians, Koreans, and Blacks on the bottom. But more black men are appearing in lurid interracial films.

Aiju, karu! [Captured love beast], a current Nikkatsu "romance porn" production, peeks at the promiscuous exhibitions of several milky-complexioned Yamato lasses who hunt black studs with big sticks. A Japanese woman is divorced by her Yamato husband when he learns that she has had an affair with a black American sailor and is pregnant. But the child, the protagonist, turns out to a "pure Japanese" girl who is named Lui and somehow grows up with a desire to be black. Abandoned by a black swabby who has skipped ship, she is "raped" by another black who "smells the same" as her former lover.

The Japan Afro-American Friendship Association in Tokyo objects to such stereotypes of black men as super-endowed womanizers, and holds meetings to help promote more positive images. Individually in letters to editors, but in feminist groups as well, white women also protest how majority Japanese media degrade them both sexually and racially. In English-language newspapers in Japan, foreign reviewers of Japanese visual entertainment regularly criticize the manner in which Japanese movie and TV foreigners, usually played by amateurs who are flattered by the opportunity to appear, tend to be one-dimensional, dimwitted, clumsy, insensitive, and obnoxious -- in other words, inferior.

Across the Pacific in North America, the NBC production of James Clavell's Shogun underscored the image of Japanese women as delicate, diminutive, demurring damsels distressed by delusions of duty, discipline, and death. Japanese women are also "delicious" in the words of at least one foreign rock star who survived a nocturnal visit by a group of Tokyo groupies who thought that "foreign musicians are also better in bed."

Such stereotypes have made life difficult for some Asian-ancestry American and Canadian women who object to the manner in which Hollywood, pornography, and popular fiction continue to stereotype the "Oriental doll" as a sexually submissive slave. The many Asian American women who are anchoring major national and local news programs are among the most talented of their profession. But their disproportionately high representation probably reflects the tendency for yellow women to be more acceptable in highly visible jobs in a predominately white society where their ethnic brothers are considered unattractive.

Whatever her proverbial merits, Yamato femininity has also come to be seen outside Japan as something not to take for granted, thanks to the case of Abe Sada, arrested in 1936 with her lover's genitals in her purse. The story was retold 40 years later in the French-Japanese production of Nagisa Oshima's L'Empire des sens [The Realm of the Senses], known in Japanese as Ai no koriida (1973). Abe Sada's act has precipitated a number of similar, some possibly copycat, incidents.

Japanese men are also depicted in contrasting lights, as uncouth rapists and torturers in California pornography, but as competent and considerate lovers in films like Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a 1959 French production. But Asian-male characterization in recent American and even British popular fiction, and intermarriage trends around the world, suggest that yellow men are becoming humanly and therefore sexually more acceptable outside their own ethnic groups.

Since the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, an increasing number of articles in Japanese men's magazines have reported that white blonds and other non-Yamato women think Yamato men attractive as mates. And contemporary pulp fiction commonly features Yamato protagonists who challenge and conquer their caucasian complexes. So the "number-one economic animal" has sported a new suit of sexual self-confidence, perhaps to warm its pride in a national achievement that is facing increasingly chillier alien winds.

Even at their clinical worst, the pulps reveal the "real Japan" that the editors of the "national image" slicks are commissioned to ignore. But the lurid stories read in the privacy of super-crowded rush-hour trains by millions of Japanese businessmen, but also women and a few horny foreign journalist, are not to be taken lightly.

Those left-over parts of the Japanese puzzle all fall into place when you pick of a copy of Nikkan Gendai, an evening tabloid widely read by Tokyo commuters, and read an advice column in which a Yamato man (if one can believe that such columns are real) has wondered if he would have trouble satisfying a white woman when he goes to the United States. The doctor's advice: quality goes further than quantity.