Japan: Sexual identity isn’t as simple as it once was

Author Michael Hoffman, writer of two columns for the Sunday edition of the Japan Times: Big in Japan, on current issues; and The Living Past – tales if you like, essays if you prefer, articles on the soberest assessment, on Japanese history. 

All societies are repressive — some brutally, others benignly, more or less. No society allows us to fully express our true selves. Some societies squash our true selves. Even those that don’t will at least keep them in check to some degree. Society could hardly function otherwise.

Liberation is a great theme of the past 50 years. Whatever can be free should be free — so goes the prevailing thinking, and most of the postwar, postindustrial democracies have made enormous strides in that direction. Others, Japan among them, have stridden less rapidly.

That civilization requires a compromise between absolutely unfettered individuality and absolutely rigid conformity is generally acknowledged. Some behavior is acceptable, some not. So far we can all agree. Then comes the hard question: What behavior? If general precepts were all, humanity would be one harmonious, happy family. We founder on the rock of specifics.

A hallmark of modern liberal thinking is the notion that whatever does no harm is OK. That’s the principle underlying, for example, the worldwide surge of acceptance of same-sex coupling, either in the form of marriage (legal as of now in 17 countries and 37 U.S. states) or of a sub-marital “partnership” arrangement.

Japan’s absence from the list of countries advancing in that direction is surprising, given an anciently rooted tolerance (and even, among warriors, encouragement) of homosexuality. But Japan jettisoned most of its past in the late 19th century, when emulating and catching up to the West was what drove it. The native trait it retained, paradoxically, was its conservative instinct. Change comes late, in revolutionary surges, then stops dead. The Christian sexual prudery that once straitjacketed the Christian West still largely straitjackets non-Christian Japan — official Japan, anyway. “Cool Japan” — the Japan of manga, anime and cosplay — is way ahead. Here is another paradox, given official Japan’s fervent promotion of cool Japan as a cultural export. Still, somebody — so officialdom must think — must defend “values” and “standards.” But what values, what standards?

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