Aug 012011

Japanese videogame blog Kotaku has an article on S&M in Japanese culture. It’s a bit more substantial than this kind of article usually is.

And it’s become increasingly normal. That isn’t to say the entire nation of Japan is explicitly practicing S&M (it isn’t!), but Japanese television has increasingly become aware of S&M archetypes. It’s not uncommon for popular male actors to admit they are M (masochistic) or beautiful female singers to say they are S(sadistic). In a recent interview, Aya Ueto, one of Japan’s most popular stars admitted that she got along with the director of a recent film because she’s masochistic, and he’s sadistic. Ueto wasn’t talking explicitly about S&M, but rather, about being dominant and passive in a working relationship. The terms can have even broader meanings, completely non sexual ones, such as, for example, being mischievous or mean for M.

Japan likes to divide people into categories and subcategories or “kei” (系;). Japanese variety shows are a pastiche of different types, whether that be male or female: there are dumb types, cool types, funny types, and usually fat or ugly types. Increasingly, the terms “S” and “M” are used as personality markers. Fans chatter online about which members of boy band (and Nintendo pitchmen) Arashi are S-types and which ones are M. Two-person comedy acts like Ninety-Nine are divided into the straight man and the funny man, but in a world where Japanese comedy is often physically painful and embarrassing. Thank comedian Beat Takeshi, whose Famicom game Takeshi’s Challenge is the most sadistic game ever made, for that.

Dec 202010

Fetish Diva Midori enlightens us with a brief lexicon of Japanese sexual slang, with the caveat that “Japanese slang changes at a pace that would leave the hippest American gasping for words not yet invented.” Samples:

Esu Emu SM — SM. Yes that’s the actual word used for sadomasochism in Japan. Before dead white guys in 19th Century Europe decided to make a separate category, folks didn’t have a name for the odd stuff that some folks did behind closed doors.

Goshujinsama or Uesama — Male dominant. This one is pretty tricky. Direct translation from the common English use of “Master” to mean “male dominant” really isn’t applicable in Japan. Men who top in Japan don’t use a self-appointed title. They don’t insist on others calling them any special names. The term “goshujinsama” is sometimes met with a snicker as it literally means “Husband” in the high honorific form. “Uesama” is a gender-neutral term used in feudal Japan for the highest ranking of that clan. When Americans ask for the translation for “Master”, they’re likely to get some hemming and hawing or a quick brush-off with the word “Goshujinsama.”

Jo oh sama — Dominant woman (Literal meaning: Queen). Often used for professional dominants but not limited to the pros.

Midori’s post highlights that language influences social categories, and how it can be misleading to directly map one language’s word-concept onto another. For instance, among North American English-speakers, “femme” connotes a particular sexual and gender identity (i.e. a feminine-gendered lesbian woman). In French, however, it just denotes “woman.” Do Francophones and other non-English speakers have their own word that connotes that gender-sexual identity, or is there a separate set of identity categories?

When I try to get a grip on the divergent/parallel evolution of BDSM in Japan, I feel like I hit a brick wall. The primary sources are located far away and furthermore are in a language I don’t understand. I also get the strong impression that the Japanese in general don’t like to discuss this sort of thing with outsiders. What does get out is highly suspect, often more the product of Westerners’ Orientalist fantasies than sober observation. This is why I am so hesitant to theorize about Japanese BDSM now or in the past.

Nov 202010

Pleasure Dome, by Megumu Minami, is a collection of 5 yaoi manga stories. There is a lot of non-consent, bondage and “ravishment” in these stories, plus an absinthe enema. There’s also a strong theme of role reversal, switching back and forth between who is on top and who is one the bottom.

Of the five stories in this collection, two use real-world historical conflicts as settings.

“Desire on Fire” is set during the British colonization of India. A British officer attempts conquer an Indian prince, but ends up captured instead. Ultimately, the prince, torn between his duty to his people and his love for the officer, exiles himself and chains himself to a rock, waiting to die, where the officer finds him, out for vengeance.

In the afterward, the author says this is very loosely based on the Buddhist story of Angulimala, a bandit who reformed under the influence of Buddha.

The Japanese are not strict and devout Buddhists, but there is something very dramatic and attractive about various characters that appear in Buddhism. I’m sure Christians feel something similar when they hear about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the Crucifixion, and other biblical stories.

To other people around me, I may have looked like a very devout Buddhist that was touched by the religious significance of the location. However, I must confess. When I closed my eyes, I was thinking more of the bare feet of Angulimala dashing about.

I wonder if I’ll ever be punished for my blasphemy.

The second story, “Hell for a Fallen Angel”, refers to the persecution of Catholics in feudal Japan. The male owner of a brothel is tasked to torment a male Christian and get him to give up his faith.

Christianity has a definite foreign feeling. Some of the words uttered by Japanese Christians back in the day like “Biruzen Santa Maria”, “Rusanchiman” and others end me into a dreamy state.

Of the remaining three stories, one is set in Medieval Europe and loosely adapts “The Song of Roland”, while the other two are set in Europe in some Edwardian or late Victorian period. The settings seem to be mainly there for variation in costume and character design.

So, we have various historical settings and religious myth used as backdrops for male-male erotica. From a Japanese perspective, none of these are set in the here and now, and arguably their settings are fair game for use as background.

I’m not sure an Indian person or a devout Buddhist would be too pleased with “Desire on Fire,” but I think this is an example of using real world settings, even controversial ones, as inspirations for sexual fantasy. It is not only the West using the East for its own imaginative purposes; Japanese may indulge their own “Occidentalism” by reading these stories. The author herself (?) seems only slightly concerned about the shift between the reality of atrocity and the fantasy of sadomasochistic, homoerotic romance.

At a certain remove in time and space, atrocity and injustice become fantasy material.

Nov 272009

Graydancer’s Ropecast has another interview with Master K (starting about 24 minutes in), with some recently uncovered skinny on Nikkatsu, a Japanese film studio that, faced with financial difficulties in the 1970s, turned to big budget, high production value, softcore porn features. These “roman porn” movies were a contrast to the small budget, independently-made “pinku eiga” movies.

Naomi Tani, portraying tattooed Asian woman in bondage


Many of these films were BDSM-themed, and Nikkatsu recruited pinku eiga star Naomi Tani, bringing her to a much bigger audience.

Apr 122008

Graydancer’s Ropecast includes part one of an interview with Master K, who provides the most plausible account I’ve found so far of the history of Japanese bondage (shibari or kinbaku) and its relationship to the Western/American BDSM tradition. K says there was a cross-pollination between John Willie, of Bizarre fame, and the Japanese bondage subculture in the early 1950s, with Willie’s books being distributed in Japan (legally or by piracy?) and Willie having access to books and magazines from Japan. He also says the modern Japanese bondage culture grew out of several influences: kabuki theatre, the military tying technique of hojojutsu, the use of tying as a form of physical and psychosocial torture, the use of tying in many other aspects of Japanese culture, including religion. It makes more sense to me that it would come from multiple sources, and go through an evolution that parallels the Western sadomasochistic tradition.

When non-Japanese talk Japanese rope bondage, the discourse often revolves around issues of authenticity, and there’s a certain jockeying for status in who has the most access and understanding of the “real” thing, complicated by the distance, language barrier and general insularity of Japan. It’s hard to separate this from Orientalist discourse of the erotic, exotic Far East. Graydancer makes a point of sidestepping this issue by calling what he does “Japanese-style rope bondage”

Addendum: Part 2 of the Master K interview

Addendum: Now the complete Master K interview has been posted.