Friday, January 25, 2013

Japan Man


Three of my formative years (ages 10 to 13) were spent in Japan, while my father, a military man, was stationed at Yokota Air Force Base. We lived in Tokyo, and I attended school on base, where I and other military "brats" took required courses in Japanese culture.  I was friends with only a few Japanese boys my age or slightly older, who spoke little English (and I, little Japanese). I count four factors in my preadolescence that mainly influenced my present idea of "masculinity": Tarzan, the military, James Bond, and Japan.

The Japanese were and apparently still are simultaneously more reticent yet more pragmatic about gender roles and sexual behavior than North Americans and Europeans. Prostitution was fairly open in the shopping district near my home. Nobody, after a while not even we puritanical Americans, thought much about it. Everything was tolerated so long as it was invisible, cloaked in ceremony, or utilitarian. Japanese women dove for pearls topless and nursed their babies in public all the time. People pissed and shat in benjo ditches next to the roads. The only truly forbidden part of the Japanese anatomy was pubes--to show pubes was patently obscene. Soap operas and comic books were, even in the 1960s, pretty flagrantly sadomasochistic. "Male colors" (nanshoku)--the Chinese concept of male homoerotic sensuality--had been widely adopted among Buddhist monks, samurai warriors, aristocrats, and kabuki actors for centuries. No laws in Japan forbid homosexuality. Its only regulation is age of consent, which varies from prefecture to prefecture. Apart from individual municipalities, no laws protect the rights of gays and lesbians against discrimination either, homosexuality being viewed perhaps as a set of customs or practices, not a minority identity. Under the influence of Christian missionaries, Japan outlawed anal intercourse in 1873, but dropped the ban just seven years later. 

However, by American standards, Japanese gays still live "in the closet." Many still marry the opposite sex and have children. Even among cross-dressers, flamboyance is avoided (though this is relative, to be taken in the context of a society in which, on occasion, even masculine men parade openly in flowery silks that even the pope might regard as too nancy). Despite a great deal of tolerance for what one does discreetly in a designated proper place--and Japan has "proper places" and ceremonies for just about everything!--reserve, tradition, and conformity ruled almost every aspect of Japanese life as I saw it, and probably still do to a greater extent than in other capitalistic democracies.

Japanese culture supports a more rigid dichotomy between masculine and feminine than in North America or most of Europe. (I have no idea what inroads feminism has made to the culture, but based on what I remember from childhood, feminists would have had an extraordinarily tough fight.) Men have to portray strength, toughness, control, and dominance all the time, without irony. Men were stoic, reserved in their emotions, tolerant of pain and setbacks. I never met a whiny Japanese man--nor saw one portrayed on Japanese television except as an object of contempt. The modern-day corporate salaryman (like one friend's father, who was an executive at Japan Airlines--somewhere I still have the corporate pin he once presented me with) modeled himself on the samurai--universal respect, a high sense of honor, and unreserved loyalty to his lord (or CEO).

In my mind, the connection of the previous paragraphs to pro wrestling (puroresu in Japan) is obvious, but it may not be in yours. When I watch wrestlers like Atsushi Aoki, CIMA, Hiroshi Tanahashi, KENTA, Kota Ibushi, Masato Yoshino, Naomichi Marufuji, and YAMATO, I am struck by their speed, toughness, strength, well-honed skills and professionalism, and solemnity (sometimes almost comically butch to my ironized Western eyes). I'm also struck by their imperviousness to pain (except when theatrically selling an opponent's move, which on average Japanese wrestlers do more wrenchingly than U.S. wrestlers--I generalize, of course) and their reserve--even heels (some of them) appear to respond humbly to the fans' cheers and expressions of awe.

It seems to me that the Japanese take their wrestling more seriously than Westerners do (with the exception, perhaps, of Mexicans). Not as ceremonious as sumo wrestling, Japanese pro wrestling still borrows from that tradition--in the ways audiences watch the event and absorb the spectacle and drama, and in the rigor of a wrestler's preparations for a fight. Japanese wrestling is still about manly honor on a level that not even Ring of Honor or Dragon Gate USA has been able to market successfully to American fans. Noble gestures come aplenty in puroresu. Shame, not loss, is still the worst thing that can happen to a Japanese wrestler. Stiff chops and real pain dominate the "strong style" wrestling popularized in Japan, combining elements of contemporary European-style pro wrestling (for the drama) and martial arts (for authenticity)--but the result is something very much like the catch-as-catch-can wrestling popular in the West in the 1940s and 1950s, when Karl Gotch and others ruled the rings.

I can't say I understand much of what I'm seeing when I watch pro wrestling from Japan, but I like what I see. And its dramatization of manliness still inspires and moves.

Atsushi Aoki, b. 1977, 5'7", 180# 
CIMA, b. 1977, 5'8", 180#

Hiroshi Tanahashi, b. 1976, 5'11", 230#

KENTA, b. 1981, 5'8", 180#

Kota Ibushi, b. 1983, 5'11", 190#

Masato Yoshino, b. 1980, 5'8", 160#

Naomichi Marufuji, b. 1979, 5'9", 200#

YAMATO, b. 1981, 5'8", 180#

4 comments:

  1. Great post. I have always liked to watch Japanese wrestlers. Masato Yoshino is one of my favorites. For a relatively small guy he makes a big impact when he's in the ring.

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  2. cool post! i am thinking a little of a japanese archetype i've seen in several anime dating back decades of a male figure who's a bit dopey and silly, the but of everyone's jokes and usually obsessed with some snack food (it acts as a sort of kryptonite/achilles heel thing) but all in all manages to pull out some kind of victory in the end. kinnikuman and sgt frog are examples im thinking of off the type of my head though im sure theres more. is this familiar to you? im just wondering how it fits in with the type you outlined here.

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  3. im having trouble understanding commenting. i hope i didnt do it twice... anyway here goes ive seen what i think of as another japanese male archeytype ive seen in anime and manga. something like an oaf/dunce type of guy who usually has a weakness for some particular snack (it acts as a kryptonite in a way) but usually winds up being able to pull out victory in the end by acitng with a noble cause i guess?? im thinking of kinnikuman and sgt frog off the type of my head. even goku has some of this to an extent with his love of rice and naivety. as opposed to vegeta who seems to embody th more serious/stoic japanese male you describe here. just wondering about where these ideas come from and how they fit together in life and pro wrestling...

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    Replies
    1. I'm not familiar with anime and manga except for Mach Go Go Go, which was popular in Japan when I lived there decades ago--and it later came to the US as Speed Racer, introducing Japanese style cartooning and animation here. There are, I know, Japanese comics that focus on pro wrestling (I have one), but I like your idea--kind of a puroresu Popeye?

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