Japan, what happened to art of seduction from the time of Genji?

Genji and Murasaki in The Tale of Genji. Source: The Japan Times

People who are following recent trends would be aware of falling birth rates and looming celibacy syndrome in Japan. For a country where adult diapers are sold more than children’s this is a grave concern indeed.

This fear that clutches the country became widespread recently after a survey by Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45 per cent of the women aged 16-24 were not interested in or despised sexual contact. More than quarter of the men felt the same way.

Somehow I find it hard to believe. I’m not saying the survey is false neither am I an expert in this field of study. Celibacy syndrome or aging population is no joke and there is obviously enough evidence to show that the issues need immediate attention. But the portrayal of Japan as a sexless country where the young are losing interest in sex is a bit exaggerated. My interest in Japan and conclusion thereby are strictly based on my knowledge from Japanese graphic novels (manga) and Japanese style television animation (anime). Disinterest in sex and relationships are not messages you get if you are reading them.

Literature, in any form be it art, fiction, comics, is a reflection of a country’s culture, its people and their way of living. That is why till date researchers and many field of studies look up at literature to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’. In a sense they are cornucopia of information about what was and what is.

Japan, in particular, holds a special interest for me due its culture that span centuries, nature, literature of course and also the way they view sexuality. Japan’s literature form, in my case manga, I’m sure is not any different.

When I began reading manga five years ago, I stuck to popular ones like Bleach and Death Note of shounen genre directed at young male audience (under 15 years of age). One of the most common features most them share is Japanese men’s obsession towards big breasts. After I graduated from shounen genre, began to pick and choose. The best thing about manga is that there is content for everyone, be it mature audience over 40, teens, men, women and even children.

I have come across some comics where there are more sex positions than any story in them. They were more prominent in yaoi genre or boys love targeted at female audience and smut genre. They contain explicit graphic sexual content, almost pornographic. I was surprised at first. I could not bring myself to read them even though some had a good story that dealt with issues like child abuse and rape. Finally I resigned myself to read one and it happened to be Mars. It follows the story of rape victim, her relationships, how it affects her psychologically and how to deal with such situations. A pretty heavy topic for comic, don’t you think.

Then there are some like Kindan no koi de Iku where all the male protagonist wants is to get laid and story takes a backseat. Most manga that chronicles life of teenage boys and girls, kissing and physical intimacy drive the plot.

If you happened to come across ancient literature like The Tale of Genji or accounts of samurai’s and priests, you will understand that they are more open to sex than most cultures. The Tale of Genji, written by a court lady Murasaki Shikibu during 11th century, is the world’s first recorded novel. It chronicles the story of handsome Genji, his shenanigans with court ladies and anyone who interested him in the least, even if it is a man. I would not go as far as to say he was bisexual but he loved beautiful things and pursued them. As a Newyorker article says The Tale of Genji could be considered a book on art of seduction. There are more accounts on how Genji seduced women through poems than about political struggles the kingdom went through during those times.

Romance with an age gap of over 20 years is not uncommon either. In The Tale of Genji, Genji was attracted to young Murasaki and brings her to his palace with every intention of making her his. In other words, he will make her his perfect bride when the time is right. This might not be an interesting aspect in ancient literature. But even contemporary manga like Usagi drop and Kore wa Koi no Hanashi, have such themes. In both the manga, female protagonists meets the guy, who is like a guardian figure when she is in elementary school (between 6 and 9 years) and falls in love with him as the story progresses.

Controversial topics like incest and homosexuality have found its space in Japanese literature and have wide readership. Incidents of incest in Japan was prevalent in ancient times where emperors married their half-sisters or some involved in sexual relationships with siblings. Similar themes are found in modern times too in manga like Koi Kaze, where a brother and sister fall in love against societal taboo. 

You will find that Japanese are more tolerant when it comes to homosexuality as well. During times when homosexuals were scorned and beaten, it is hard to find such long record of hostility in Japan. Even now there are only few laws that restrict any kind of sexual activity in Japan (Same-sex activity was legalised in 1880 after its ban in 1873).

It was widely accepted, partly because of sodomy was widely practised in ancient times. During Edo period (1603-1867), when samurais’ were one of the highest ranking social caste in Japan, they often lived far away from civilisation. During such times, when probability of finding a woman is a challenge, they engaged in sexual activity with much younger soldiers. Priests and monks, who live in isolation, take in young apprentices for training. During the course of the training they not only learn about priesthood but also about pleasing the priest. Anyone going into priesthood undergoes the training knowing what is expected of them. This was the norm, acknowledged and widely practised in those times.

Though I’m yet to find manga on homosexuality that deal with reality, the country has one of long-standing written record on homosexuality, probably next to Greek and Romans.

Most widely followed kinky sex practises like bondage that are common in the West have origins in Japan. Termed Kinbaku/shibari, in this practise people are tied up to improve orgasms. In Japan ‘love hotels’ are spread across the cities, where you can rent by hour or night to spend the night with your partner and there is no need to be discreet about it. A visit to a love hotel is plot used in most manga.

Japan, as you have witnessed, have healthy attitude and is more open when it comes to sexual practises. Since ancient times when many religious institutions equated sex with sin, seduction was an art that has to be continuously practiced and was something that stimulates. It is probably the only country that can sell porn on streets alongside daily essentials. Given its deep history, sale of hentai (porn for old men) magazines do not surprise me anymore.

It is for the same reason why I find it hard to accept that people have lost interest in sex. Few media reports suggest men find refuge in easily accessible pornography and porn anime videos in the market rather than finding a real-life contact. Maybe. But if that is the only reason, it is sad that Japan had let go of its (rich and deep-rooted) culture.


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