Friday 24 August 2012

Slugs and Snails

Chewing the Cud, Part Three

So here’s the missing piece from parts one and two, hold on tight:

Japan is a unique country.

Weren’t expecting that now, were you?

I’m not talking about all the four seasons bollocks, but consider this: until fairly recently Japan was the only culturally non-european First World country. Even now it’s only really got South Korea for company. Maybe Taiwan too. That means there are social and economic forces at work which, for once, are actually pretty singular. There are echoes of these individual forces throughout the world, but they don’t combine exactly as they do here (of course, by that measure every country is unique).

Japan’s very much like an alternative history novel, one which turns on a single ‘what if?’ question. What if the Axis powers won WWII? What if the Jewish homeland was Alaska not Israel? What if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t collapsed?

The particular question here is ‘What if there’d been no sexual revolution in the 60’s?’

The sexual revolution saw women in The West looking at men and saying, “We’ll have some of that as well, thankyouverymuch.” Clearly it’s a little more complex than that, but that’s essentially what it boils down to. Never happened in Japan. Why that was so is definitely a question worth asking, but this little series is already far too long and rambling. I’ve got to draw a line somewhere, and here it is. Let’s just accept it and move on, shall we?

Anyway, no revolution; women and men remain pretty much confined to their traditional gender roles. Unlike the rest of the First World, but very much like the rest of the Second and Third. That’s a weight off your mind, eh?

And that’s what we’ve got here. No pressure, or at least none in the directions many of us would recognize. There’s a difference between simple and easy, and complicated and hard. Passing the tests, putting in the hours, not pissing people off; these are all hard, to be sure, but also pretty simple. The pressure is quantitative, not qualitative and showing up isn’t just half the battle, it’s all of it.

Human relationships are trickier. Sex is complicated (which is half the fun, to be honest). It’s purely qualitative, and in a society programmed to think in terms of quantity that’s hard to fathom.

Given the context, if you can't think of your own
sarcastic caption for this then I really can't help you.

Additionally, because Japan has been able to achieve the appearance of a relatively equal distribution of wealth, there is relatively little pressure, relatively little incentive to take risks for the chance of the big payout. If the USA is the archetypal High Risk, High Reward society, then Japan is the best, perhaps the only, example of a Low Risk, Moderate Reward society.

I covered the risk angle from the male point of view last time, but it extends to the female side as well, especially as regards vulnerability. Women in The West generally eschew the idea of accentuating their vulnerability because it’d fly in the face of all the progress towards equality they’ve made over the decades. Women in the Third World have far less choice in the matter, and the images of dominance or vulnerability they choose to project are governed far more by necessity. If you are genuinely vulnerable, it’s probably not a good idea to draw attention to it.

In Japan, by virtue of it being an incredibly developed, incredibly safe (relatively) country, there is that luxury of choice. There’s little incentive to be ‘strong’, because that’s still such a minority position that you’re swimming against an overwhelming tide. Equally, there’s no real drawback to seeming vulnerable due to the rule of law and safe civil society. So the majority, as ever, adopt the path of least resistance. ‘Cute’ it is, then.

But we’re meant to be discussing the men, remember? They’re trapped in the same risk/reward cycle as well. For all that Japanese society seems relatively equal (note how that always gets qualified), it’s also incredibly static. Social mobility is essentially nil.

Which is not always a bad thing.

A colleague once asked me when we introduced rules in the UK to prohibit family members ‘inheriting’ seats in Parliament. It was quite a task to explain that there weren’t any, it would just never happen. The electorate would be so suspicious of such a candidate, and the opposition parties would make such hay from it, that it just wouldn’t be feasible. You do get the occasional father/son combo, but perhaps the most famous at present are the Benns, and Benn Senior gave up a title and a seat in the House of Lords on principle, so no danger of nepotism there.

I know, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to use the word ‘principle’ in the same sentence as a politician’s name. The good old days, eh?

Well, no. This kind of knee-jerk deference is exactly what happened way back when. Inheriting ‘elected’ seats? This is what happens when a decent chunk of your electorate can actually remember a time when the Emperor was officially a living god. This is what happens when that cohort is, due to the seniority and sempai/kohai system, disproportionately influential. Japan isn’t a meritocracy (though nowhere truly is), it’s not really a democracy, or even a kelptocracy. It’s a gerontocracy, and that equals total social lockdown.

Anything which fails to evolve, unless it’s supremely well adapted, will eventually end up going extinct. Japan is not supremely well adapted. Even that Low Risk, Moderate Reward paradigm is coming unraveled. The lifetime employment system is tearing itself apart, and for a generation of young Japanese men brought up to follow that system – to believe that if they follow it they will be taken care of – that leaves them very few other places to turn.

Wuv me

Which brings me full circle. You’ll remember that cute=vulnerable. ‘Please take care of me.’ That’s the herbivores’ creed. The system is screwed, and they can see it’s screwed. They’re smart enough not to want to take on any extra responsibilities or complications (families, partners, even just sex), smart enough not to want the burden of caring for anyone else. But they’re so conditioned that they can see no other way to cope with that failing system other than a plaintive appeal to be taken care of by that self-same system, which has so conspicuously screwed it up for them thus far. It’s the low risk solution, because for all the decline things are still pretty comfortable.

In the UK when the youth get disaffected they at least have the get-up-and-go to burn the shit out of a few public buildings and nick a couple of flatscreen TVs. Here the deference is so ingrained that entire generations are suffering from a form of Learned Helplessness. The obsession with cute; the shut-ins; the herbivores; all these are expressions of a society that wants to be cared for, but is more and more obviously unable to care for itself. A country seemingly intent on crawling slowly but inexorably towards its demise.

The future of Japan? Imagine a Hello Kitty slipper stamping on a human face – forever. Or at least until everyone’s dead, whichever comes first.

Credit where it is due.


  1. I'm sick and my brain isn't functioning at full strength so I might come back and read this later when words sense make...

    Just a couple of things. Singapore - isn't that a non-European first world country? I could be wrong, since I know very little about Singapore.

    The sexual revolution passing Japan by - made me think of that passage in Norwegian Wood where Midori talks about joining the socialist revolutionaries and they go apeshit because the bento she makes them isn't fancy enough. Kinda sums it all up.

    Was going to say there are some successful entrepreneurial companies in Japan, then realised they are all owned by Koreans :)

    In a best case scenario, companies realise they are losing out because people are opting out of the system and working conditions will start change. But, more likely, it's only going to be those intrenched in the system that go to the companies and the system gets even worse.

    I have seriously wanted to punch people who complain about work demands then say "but it's Japanese culture..." Like we got good work conditions in Australia because some higher power shat them out his arse. If you don't fight The Man then of course he's going to screw you over. Expecting the company to look after you is for fools.

    Anyway, I think you missed the most important point about herbivores - they are hot. I'd totally go there :) Oh and the Hello Kitty slipper image - two thumbs up.

    I need to nap now.

    1. You both have just about said it all, which leaves me little to add. 'kamo', love the twist on O'Brian's prediction. And I had forgotten that scene in 'Norwegian Wood', but it's a jewel of Japanese anthropology. Also agree with the description of a nation crawling into it's shell. Birth-rate is similar: the only noticeable passive-aggressive response of Japanese women. Solves nothing for them, and makes things worse for everyone, faster. I won't listen to Japanese women complain. I simply tell them my grandmother's generation fought to get the status they envy: 'put up or shut up'.

      We are naive in 'the West' about how little liberty we have, and naive about the cost to get it, and even naive about the secondary consequences of change: greater financial freedom for women has increased the number of single-mothers (a mixed blessing, depending on parents' characters) and driven up the cost of real-estate (the 'second income' has disappeared into the banks). We believe we can change, though that is a mixed blessing. In the end, we have a 1%, and we enable them.

    2. Not just your grandmother's generation fighting either. Damn men, they'd take our power off it as soon as they get the chance. Well some of them. Worked with a manager who believed women with kids shouldn't work. That didn't end well (for him).

      The cost of real estate has gone up here for sure but also the expectations of what constitues a "basic" home - got to have a living room, a family room, a sunroom nowadays. Then renovate it every few years!

      Sometimes I think it would be nice to be a housewife and have some guy support me but that'd never work in reality. Every time I hear a Japanese woman say her husband won't "allow" her to do something, getting up to go to work on a cold Monday morning doesn't look so bad.

  2. Kathryn - I've never been, so I'm obviously far from an expert on Singapore, but I think you could make a decent case either way. It was founded pretty much ex nihilo by British traders in the 19th century, so there's a more direct influence there than in most other parts of Asia.

    It looks like I've got a couple of semi-regular readers in Singapore, so if they want to chip in on this it'd be very welcome. Come on guys, we're all friends here!

    As for finding herbivores hot, well, each to their own. But it's kind of moot, isn't it? You may well go there, but by definition you're never going to get the chance. Not that I want to rain on your parade or anything.

    Ant - My readership ain't huge, but I love the fact I can reference stuff like this and be confident people will get it. I'll take that over the lowest common denominator every time.

    "We believe we can change, though that is a mixed blessing."

    Ain't that the truth. The 'American Dream', to take one example, leads to people acting directly counter to their own interests because they believe that they too will eventually get into that 1%, regardless of how flat-out unrealistic that belief is.

    Still, I'd prefer an unrealistically optimistic belief in the possibility of change to the resigned acceptance of the status quo so prevalent over here.

    Looks like I'll be rereading Norwegian Wood in the near future, too :)

    1. I know little about Singapore either. It came to mind because I was reading an article about the "4 Asian Tigers" the other day and Singapore was mentioned.

      The "no sex" part of the herbivore definition, I'm not so sure about that. I know it comes up a lot in surveys but it's hard to find info about how and when the surveys are conducted and what questions are asked.

      It'd be interesting to see the results if it was broken down into 'sex that is part of a long term relationship with a woman who expects gifts, expensive dates and maybe a lifetime commitment' vs 'a quick in a love hotel with no strings attached'. Also I think the line between herbivores and otaku gets pretty blurred. There are nerd boys in all countries that are more interested in gaming or other hobbies than sex (eg my son).

      But then I have heard that Japanese couples will date for 6 months before sex. If I went out with an Aussie guy for 6 days without him trying, I'd assume he was gay/not interested/couldn't get it up.

    2. I am very unsure about what generalizations I can make about Japanese sexuality anymore. Both because I have not dated in Japan since '97, and because I don't think my anecdotal evidence reflected the country properly even then. I have come to think that since the late nineties Japan has, if you can treat a nation as an individual, been in a psychological depression: 'the Bubble' is never coming back. I came after that party, but people had not internalized that the party was over, for good. Depression kills sex drive.

      My fellow male 'teachers' and I used to joke that you had sex on the second date in Japan (sometimes the first) or never at all - there was a Japanese rule. At the time, I thought it was a great rule. It saved both parties a great deal of trouble. I have always known by then that I wanted to... or sooner. We also believed that we were universally attractive here, and that women who did not like us were racist or simple. Yes, we were cocks. It is more likely that we knew the dating patterns of 'Gaijin-hunters', as they knew the dating patterns of 'Western' Gaijin, and that the women who did not like us, just didn't like us - often for good reason. That there was an even stronger sex-industry at the time, and awful books like 'Pictures from the Water Trade' and better but misleading books like 'Pink Samurai', did colour our expectations Orientalist.

    3. "I love the fact I can reference stuff like this and be confident people will get it."

      Yes. In the end, that may be the reason I blog.

    4. It is hard to make generalisations. If I went on my experience only, I'd say all Japanese men had deep mental issues but really that would only be Japanese men with a high level of English that are comfortable about approaching a Western woman. Actually you could break that sub-group down even further.

      I know someone who is testing that 6 month theory with a Japanese guy she likes but, so far, it's been over a year and nothing has happened. Maybe a case of 'he's just not that into you'. Personally, at my age, I don't have a spare 6 months invest in a relationship that might just end in bad sex.

    5. Do you know Black Books? Everyone should know Black Books.

      You should watch the entire episode, but these two scenes in particular -

      One, then two.

    6. God, I haven't watched Black Books in ages :)

  3. Lots of random thoughts, first being, I never even should've mentioned my doubts about the common foreign misconceptions foreigners have about "herbivores" in connection with this blog. For the record, I was talking about the ones who think the uber-metrosexual, hair-and-make-up J-boys ARE said herbivores. There was never any chance of you saying anything like that, was there? I see that now. I'm so sorry.

    Next on the list: I often felt this about things I posted on the yo-ji as well, but, man, it would be nice if there were some real Japanese people participating in the discourse. I'd like to know what they'd have to say about the "no-sexual revolution" (which I can mostly get on board with) and the 6 months thing (which I can't). I've never heard anything like that, first or second hand, so my inclination is to wonder what your sources are. Not that I doubt them. There are tons of Japan things I have yet to come across.

    (BTW, I asked my wife about it and she said "Yeah, maybe for some women." Then she added "On TV.")

    And last but not least: I really enjoyed every thing you had to say about about the idea of a society that wants to be taken care of, and I even agree that you could extend that idea to the idea of a young generation of men not wanting to have to take care of women. Kathryn raises a good point though about the difference between not wanting a relationship, and not having an interest in sex. I've always seen the herbivores defined not only as guys who don't have the traditional red-blooded tendencies for nanpa and holding down a "dame dame" girl, but one who was, what one could call, asexual. I'm not sure how wanting to be cared for equates to asexuality, nor how it's herbivores specifically who have become the men who want to be cared for by the system that has cared for all Japanese men.

    The line about coping with the failure of the system that they were conditioned to believe would care for them by appealing to it to care for them struck me as less than conclusive. Maybe because it seems kind of like a natural reaction? Like saying, "Hey this soda machine that always gave my dad a soda when he put a dollar in it isn't giving me any soda! Can't I get some soda?"

    So are they herbivores because they never move past that point, knock the machine over, and fuck it?

    I'm probably making this more complicated than you intended, but in case I'm not, someone needs to warn this lady:

    1. The 6 month thing came from the friend I mentioned who was trying it who said it came from discussions with some of her female English students. I'd never heard it from students myself but then I never really discuss their sex lives. I did have a few female students who talked about how hard dating was in Tokyou but they were looking for non-traditional Japanese men because they didn't want to be stay at home mums themselves.

      As to being looked after - the herbivore guys I've met seem to more interested in starting their own businesses, usually in a creative area rather than being looked after. But that isn't a very big sample group and I guess the NEETs can't afford to out places where I'd been meeting them anyway.

    2. Oh I mean to say about the 6 month thing - remember that a lot of women like to think there are rules about dating and relationships and, if they follow those rules, they'll get the man. It's a lot easier than looking at yourself or the type of man you are dating.

    3. Bobby- Glad I could restore a little of your faith in me :)

      I'd totally agree with the desirability of some native input into these discussions. As I said in one of my micro aggression posts, they're the one group conspicuous by their absence in all these discussions.

      "...struck me as less than conclusive..."

      Good lord yes. This whole little series is totally inconclusive, as far as I can tell, so feel free to poke holes in it as you like.

      I think (maybe) that wanting to be cared for goes hand in hand with not wanting to 'care for' others, by which I mean expend the effort necessary to maintain certain types of relationships. Sex usually complicates things on that front. I know 'playas' with half a dozen mobile phones, for example, and their lives certainly aren't effortless.

      And look at the relatively high rate numbers of arranged and/or sexless marriages. It's farming out that effort on the one hand, and an abdication of it on the other. 'OK, I'll make this much effort for appearances' sake, but no more.' Herbivores can't even be bothered to go through that rigmarole (which actually makes them look quite good, in comparison).

      But as I say, I'm more than happy for you or anyone else to disagree.

  4. Japan is still a very rich country and the family tradition of looking after people, harmony in small houses, and so on, means that a lot of the social pressures of gradual economic sliding, are being soaked up or suppressed within family units. The hikikomori are one expression of this.

    1. I probably shouldn't have made that passing reference to the hikikomori at the end there. I think they're of a piece, but it clouds the issue somewhat.

      There's a fine line between 'soaked up' and 'suppressed'. Can't help but feel that in general it's veering towards the latter, which ain't all that healthy.

  5. Hang on, sorry if this sounds like nit-picking, but maybe your colleague was asking about the House of Lords? A google search told me "membership was once a right of birth to hereditary peers", but that got changed in 1999, and now the government appoints members. I guess they can't initiate new laws, but they're still considered one level of parliament. The electorate just gets an indirect say in who is there now, through the House of Commons politicians they actually did elect... Sorry, the Politics 101 student in me just couldn't let that go. But, anyway, hereditary peerage or no, it's interesting how many political families there are all over the world.

    The comment about sex on the second date is interesting to read too. Maybe I unintentionally snared my Japanese hub by having sex on our first date. If I could turn back time... Anyway, he often tells me that Japanese folk were much more liberal about sex until the American occupation. They brought in their Christian hang ups, according to his theory.

    1. Not nit-picking at all. For brevity I missed a load of preamble to that conversation, but she definitely wasn't talking about the House of Lords. It's not that there's no ability to change it, just a lack of political will. One of the many things obscured by the Olympics this summer was the scuppering of the best chance of reform for a long time -

      As for the hang ups; if in doubt, blame the Americans, eh?

  6. Yes, blame the Americans or the Christians. That's the rule.