Duke University Alumni Magazine

Discerning Cultural Questions
Journey Into Japan
by Bridget Booher

Illustrations: Andrea Lekberg
From notions of motherhood to popular culture signposts, a cultural anthropologist examines elements of everyday life in Japan
apanese culture is a paradox of restraint and excess. Meticulous rock gardens and flower arrangements are precise, formalized art forms that coexist alongside drunken nightlife and sexually graphic comic books. Social pressures to excel begin early and last a lifetime. Children are subject to rigorous academic testing that dictates their educational and professional paths. Men are expected to devote long hours to company life, including participation in the boozy, after-hours practice of bar-hopping with co-workers late into the night. Women, whether they work outside the home or not, are in charge of maintaining domestic stability.

     To Westerners, the seeming contradiction in social behaviors and surface appearances may appear puzzling, but a closer inspection reveals enduring priorities and values within modern Japanese society. From notions of motherhood to popular culture signposts, elements of everyday life inform a clearer understanding of the Asian archipelago.

     When Duke associate professor of cultural anthropology Anne Allison first decided in the late Seventies to focus on contemporary Japanese society for her doctoral degree, she met with resistance from her colleagues. At the time, the trend in anthropology was to study underdeveloped and developing countries. Post-industrial societies such as Japan's were considered too conventional for inquiry. But Allison, whose curiosity about the country had been sparked by an undergraduate course in the intellectual history of Japan, as well as her travels around the world, was undeterred. Rather than relying exclusively on conventional methodology, though, she decided to try something new.

     "I felt that the traditional anthropological approach of studying Japan had already been done, and it didn't strike me as very interesting. At the time, I was in a predominantly male department where issues of gender and feminism were not being taught at all. So my focus emerged out of my frustration about what had already been done in anthropology, as well as what had not been done."

     Allison went on to become fluent in Japanese, traveling back and forth to Tokyo for language training, field work, and a postdoctoral fellowship. (Her master's and doctorate are from the University of Chicago.) While searching for a dissertation project, she noticed that nothing substantive had been written about the mizu shobai, the nightlife of Japan that ranged from the seedy love hotels catering to prostitutes and their clients to the high-class clubs for corporate entertaining. A multi-billion-dollar business, the mizu shobai is such a prevailing cultural presence that it seemed an obvious subject of inquiry. With (mostly) male clients and (mostly) female service workers, the mizu shobai raised intriguing questions about male-female relationships, the clear distinctions between work and home obligations, and how individual worth and group loyalties are forged.

     Japanese friends and acquaintances couldn't fathom her curiosity. "They told me, yes, we go to these places, but that's not what constitutes Japanese culture," says Allison. "Japanese academics, in particular, did not think this was a suitable topic for scholarly research. They don't tend to think of the mizu shobai as being part of their national identity, but that's a sphere where important social interactions take place."

     Used by businesses such as brokerage firms, trading companies, and construction firms, hostess clubs are an expensive form of entertainment. It can cost upwards of $500 per person to sit, drink, and sing with colleagues. Bringing employees and clients to such places conveys that they are valuable and part of a team--and positions the host as a caring boss. Although such interactions appear to be informal and convivial, Allison contends that the setting is actually a necessary continuation of the work arena. The strict delineation of the office hierarchy is replaced with joking and self-deprecating behavior by worker and employer alike, she says. Within this carefully constructed setting, a subordinate can make fun of his boss, for example, and the boss can make a fool of himself by crooning out-of-tune karaoke songs.

     In order to conduct her field work, Allison applied for a job as a hostess in an upscale Tokyo nightclub. Her duties were ostensibly simple: Light customers' cigarettes, pour their drinks, and promote lively conversation. Although the setting in such clubs is intimate, with small private rooms and low lighting, interactions between the hostesses and the customers rarely advance to sexual exchanges. Conversation, however, can be and often is sexually provocative or suggestive. When hired, she received just basic guidance from her employer--not to smoke in front of customers or put her elbows on the table, to act like a lady, and to take off her wedding ring. It was her introduction to the illusory setting promoted in the hostess clubs: Hostesses were expected to be engaging and witty, not mind the bawdy comments aimed their way, and never reveal too much of their own lives.

     "Customers may ask you about yourself, but they don't really want to know," says Allison. "They did not want to know that I had a husband, or that another hostess had an abusive father, or that another worried about getting too old to continue working there. What I gradually learned is that Japanese men work so hard that, at the end of the day, they don't want any demands put on them at all. They want the hostess to tell them they look good in their suit, or that she can imagine having them as a patron, but in part they just want to talk about nothing at all."

     While the actual physical requirements of the job were minimal, Allison found that the work took a psychological and emotional toll. During her engagement, she was routinely subject to comments about her looks, both praising and disparaging. The undercurrent of sexual misogyny was palpable, but hostesses were expected to laugh at such remarks. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," she says. "At the beginning of each night, there was an incredible sense of heaviness. Hostesses arrived an hour before the club opened, and everyone was always very quiet and reserved. But once the customers started coming in, there was a remarkable transformation. We were on. It really was a performance."

fter four months on the job, Allison recognized that the sexual innuendo and put-downs were not directed at her or her work mates as individuals, but as hostesses (and women) in general. The degrading talk, she says, puts the men in a pleasurable position of dominance and power, a feeling that's usually lacking in corporate drudgery. Of course, the fact that customers were well aware that the hostesses were paid to praise them--and to endure their insults--didn't dampen the orchestrated interaction. Like American men who attend strip clubs, Japanese businessmen can be aroused by the (hired) woman's presence and then shun her as not worthy of his concern.

     "There were times when I felt angry about how I was treated, but I found that being an anthropologist was my saving grace," she says. "I could step back and say, okay, what is going on? Why is this person suddenly making another breast remark when we were just talking about Japanese food? Is it because his buddy showed up? Probably. Or it's that he has to remind me that I'm just a hostess and that's what he's supposed to do. So it was incredibly interesting but also very draining."

Allison: author of Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club and Permitted & Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan.
Photo: Jim Wallace

     Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, published by the University of Chicago Press, is Allison's fascinating account of that study. Among other themes, the book addresses the meaning and place of work in Japan; male bonding rituals; and the needs and desires of Japanese women with regard to work, marriage, and motherhood. The latter topic took on a more personal dimension when Allison became pregnant while working in the hostess club. She had her first son toward the end of her Tokyo stay, returned to Chicago to write her dissertation, had a second son, and returned to Japan in 1987 for a postdoctoral fellowship through the Japan Foundation.

     Expanding on her earlier research, Allison delved into a broader investigation of the distinct social delineations between private (home) and public (work) spheres. In addition to the exhaustive research and interviewing she conducted during her fifteen-month stay, she also used her own experiences as a mother to supplement her deepening understanding of Japanese domesticity. When her eldest son entered nursery school, she discovered that something as simple as packing lunches was infused with larger social implications.

ecause Japanese education is centralized through the Ministry of Education, there is uniformity throughout the educational process, from lesson plans to uniforms. Teachers closely monitor how students conform to expectations. Nursery school, which teaches children how to interact with their peers and become obedient students, is the first separation from their parents, and particularly their mothers. One ritual that provides comfort and continuity to home is the obento, or boxed lunch that mothers put together.

     An edible art form, obento are amazingly elaborate productions. There are obento cookbooks and stores that sell a dizzying assortment of obento paraphernalia, including tiny containers, toothpicks with paper flags, and aluminum tins. Serving suggestions are endless and intricate: sausages cut into the shape of crabs, tulip flowers made from cut wieners with spinach stem and leaves, lemon pieces shaped into butterfly forms, apple pieces cut into leaf shapes, and hard-boiled eggs decorated as babies or bunnies. Under the careful gaze of the teacher, children are required to finish all of their obento, so mothers must make the meal appetizing as well as visually stunning.

     As taxing and time-consuming as obento preparations are, Allison says she grew to appreciate the beauty and precision of the four-days-a-week ritual. "Even though I occasionally found it burdensome to adapt to this rigidity and expectation, I also found it to be a wonderfully creative enterprise. I mean, I could make these beautiful things! I think that's a side of Japan that sometimes gets overlooked. Yes, it's a place where you have to work hard and perform at a high level, but there's also a playfulness and an incredible pride in doing things to a level of perfection. Women I spoke to never said they hated doing obento. They executed it with great resilience and creativity."

     Successfully preparing obento is one of many steps a woman takes in fulfilling her duties as a mother. Given the national emphasis on academic accomplishments, and the sanctioned absence of the father from the home, mothers are charged with making sure their child thrives in the school system. Allison's nursery-school encounters begin to explain the phenomenon of the kyoiku mama, or "education mother," who is "so committed to furthering the education of her child that she does everything from sharpening pencils, making midnight oya shoku (snacks), and pouring tea for a studying child to consulting with teachers; investigating the range of schools, tutors, and juku (cram schools) available; and boning up on subjects where her child is deficient."

     As she writes in her latest book, Permitted & Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Westview Press, 1996), the notion of productivity applies equally, if somewhat differently, to both mother and child. If a child fails or does poorly, the mother carries the burden of blame. The all-important entrance exams, for example, determine if and where a child will go to high school and college and are, therefore, primary indicators of future job and social status. For the two years leading up to exams, mothers may cancel or curb social involvements and, if they work, quit their jobs.

     "The very ideology of marriage and family, particularly when encased in the rhetoric of Japanese cultural values with their demand for extreme self-sacrifice on the part of mothers, appears to embed women in an economy in which their value remains forever subordinate," she writes. "Even as 'education mothers,' the role assigned to women is to oversee the movement of a child, particularly a boy, into a labor market to which full access is denied to women themselves."

hy would anyone choose motherhood over the presumably easier life of an independent, single, working woman? For one thing, says Allison, even though women are becoming a larger part of the Japanese work force, they still lag far behind men in terms of pay and promotions. Having a husband, even one who's rarely there, means a guaranteed source of income. There is also incredible pressure to marry and procreate, and having a child outside of marriage is socially proscribed. Finally, the institution of motherhood, so necessary for ensuring a productive labor force, is truly honored in Japan.

     In part, says, Allison, that is why the hostesses and other mizu shobai workers are easily dismissed by the men who nonetheless rely on them. Whereas men assume many roles--father, husband, employee, sukebe ("dirty old man")--women can be mothers or they can be sexual, but they can't be both (rumors of mother-son incest to the contrary). Nowhere is this more graphically evident than in the content of a subgenre of manga, the animated cartoons and comics that are widely distributed throughout Japan. In Permitted & Prohibited Desires, Allison notes that as of 1993, nearly 40 percent of all printed publications in Japan were manga, making it the "national language of mass culture." From televised cartoons for young children to magazines consumed by men commuting to work on the subway, manga is favored by all ages and is even used by the government for educational purposes. With thematic content ranging from samurai to mahjong, there is a show or publication to appeal to everyone.

Illustrations: Andrea Lekberg

     Most vexing, though, is the recurrent use of sexual imagery. Children's cartoons matter-of-factly include images of breasts, show glimpses of young girls' underwear, or render scenes where a girl or woman is caught revealing her body unwittingly. This early education in voyeurism leads to a later desire for ero manga, the erotic genre sold on every street corner and purchased primarily by high-school boys and men on their way to school or work. In these cartoons, women are routinely depicted as victims of sadism, rape, and humiliation. At the same time, the men are typically shown as cruel conquerors or leering voyeurs.

     As disturbing as these images are, Allison contends that the misogyny and fleeting sexual encounters provide readers with a certain release from the sexual and social status quo. "The characteristics of interpersonal relations here--disengagement, distance, and disguise --are virtually opposite of those ideologized as being essential to the 'Japaneseness' of group membership: loyalty, attachment, and mutual self-exposure," she writes. Significantly, ero manga are read in virtually every arena except those deemed most culturally valuable--school, work, and home. And the action depicted in the cartoons also takes place away from home, reinforcing, says Allison, the profound importance and sanctity of the domestic sphere.

     "One of the rationales is that manga helps to dissipate what otherwise might explode into hostility, rage, and frustration," she says. "That in a society where there is so much expectation and pressure, this is what you turn to for that momentary escape. But it's also understood that this is how it's bracketed. So in a sense, the way it operates is really quite conservative. To us, it seems radical and perverse and wild, but it is so conventionalized and relegated to these particular media that it hasn't really triggered radical acts. The question, of course, is what will happen as Japanese society changes. What will happen as more women enter the work force and occupy a traditionally male-dominated domain? Or what would happen if, instead of reading these manga on the subway or in coffee shops, people started taking them home?" As economic and social developments slowly begin to erode the clear distinctions between public and private spheres, she says, it is conceivable that incidents of actual violence would increase, particularly against women and mothers.

     Some shifts are already noticeable. The most popular cartoon in Japan right now is Sailor Moon, a cartoon about a school girl who transforms or "morphs" into a superhero. Unlike her illustrated predecessors, Sailor Moon is a lazy, sometimes unreliable girl who hates to study and lacks self-discipline. "In the context of Japanese culture, Sailor Moon is really anti-type," says Allison. "She is not a good student and she's really into pleasure. As it turns out, boys are watching the show surreptitiously and liking it, because she is a very human hero. For children, and boys in particular, who are expected to study constantly and be perfect, she is someone who has flaws and faults but who also has a hero inside of her. And she has a close circle of girl friends, so it's promoting the idea that friendships might actually be more important than academics."

     Allison says she is interested in studying the increasing globalization of such Japanese cartoons as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Sailor Moon, which have been exported to the United States, Europe, and other parts of Asia. In the next year or so, she intends to return to Japan to continue her work on motherhood and to interview producers, marketers, and consumers of manga. Despite the exacting academic methods she brings to her research, Allison is aware that her subject matter--the many dimensions of Japanese pop culture--may seem as strange to her Western readers today as it was to her professional colleagues two decades ago. But in her books and essays, she takes a thorough and careful approach to understanding and explaining a world that has as many culturally revealing qualities as it does curiosities.

     "I'm always aware of walking a fine line," she says. "I want to study Japan sympathetically but I don't want to be uncritical. I'm not Japanese, so I can never condemn what goes on there. At the same time, I think it's worthwhile to question that culture from feminist and anthropological perspectives. I don't want to foster a negative image of Japan. On the contrary, I hope people come away from my work by saying, Anne Allison helped me understand Japanese culture better."                  

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