Explicit, violent comics

provide release for Japanese

An elderly woman sits on a crowded train in Tokyo next to a mid-level male executive reading a comic book that portrays incidents of rape and other violence against women. The woman isn't offended, explained Anne Allison of Duke University. In fact, reading sexually explicit or violent comics is part of a leisure scenario in Japan that is relatively accepting of such practices.

"One thing that's said about Japanese popular culture increasingly is that it tends to be very violent," said Allison, a leading scholar on the anthropology of Japan. "People are always mystified because the impression they have of Japan is that it's a very peaceful country with a very peaceful people and culture." That apparent contradiction is one of the elements that defines Allison's research on gender and sexuality of modern Japan and led to the publication of her two books, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994) and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan (1996).

In her lecture at Emory on April 11, Allison talked about two particular forms of Japanese recreational mass or popular culture: sexualized adult comics, called ero manga for men and "ladies' comics" for women and children's superheroes, which frequently get "transnationalized" as they are exported, marketed and popularized in countries around the world, including the United States.

As Japanese popular culture continues to be widely exported throughout Asia and the West, said Allison, one hears more and more commentary about the level of violence it contains, many calling it "masochistic and misogynistic." For instance, she said, there has been much discussion in this country about the social efficacy of "Rape Man," a comic book series in Japan that features stories about women and rapists, or "'Adventures of the Overfiend,' an animated video of cyborg characters whose genitalic weapons penetrate, mutilate and kill others." Both of these phenomena are part of a rapidly-growing culture of what Americans refer to as "Japanamation."

One striking example of the successful exportation of Japanese superheroes is the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," one of the most popular television shows in Japan and the United States, which encodes a level of violence that both parents and teachers find disturbing, said Allison.

By contrast, in Japan the level of violence in consumer culture is seen as something to be tolerated, even promoted, as long as high productivity is maintained, said Allison, whether it's men who work hard at their jobs, women who work hard as housewives or children who work hard at school.

Allison concedes that some recent events in Japan have raised concerns. For instance, the recent abduction, rape and murder of four young girls in Japan by a 27-year-old man who was known to be a reader of sexually explicit comics about young girls has elicited discussions about those who fail to distinguish cultural fantasy from reality, she said.

But Japan's manga consumption is not about to fade. Allison points out that manga currently constitutes about 40 percent of all publishing in Japan and is used to educate, entertain and inform; the manga format is even used in textbooks for subjects such as history and economics. In the leisure realm, manga books are read during breaks in the workday as a form of cheap and harmless entertainment.

"Violence and sex are themes that pop up in many manga stories," said Allison, who has studied ero manga, of which about 10 million issues a week are sold in Japan, and ladies' comics, which became popular in the 1980s as more women entered the workforce. And although the themes and stories are clearly sexual, said Allison, these comics do not focus on pleasures of the sexual acts themselves but on themes such as dominance, arrogance and sadism by males, and submission, pain and worry by females.

"What pleasures do such formulations of sexual violence or sex as violence elicit in those who consume sex manga for daily leisure?" Allison asked. Japanese women who have written about or discussed this issue "refer to the exhilaration of sado-masochistic violence and how enjoyable this is, imagined from either position of masochist or dominant," she said. These women, mostly young professionals in their 20s and 30s, grew up with manga and see it as a titillating release from the pressures of work.

Men who discuss ero manga comics articulate its appeal in similar terms, but also hint that the gender roles reflect something of the working conditions in Japan. One critic suggested, for example, that "the image of brutish men, whose sense of sexual potency is so tirelessly dependent on pummeling women on the pages of ero manga is a reflection of the very impotent and debilitated state of its readers-men who toil endlessly at jobs where they work long hours, commute from far distances and grovel under demanding bosses."

Given that the labor market in Japan is still so masculinized, said Allison, it could be argued that the image of man as brute on the pages of sex comics is an expression that gives a male face to the unreasonable demands, authoritarian expectations and grueling disciplinary pressures of a system that can start as early as preschool and continue throughout the life of the average middle class worker. "The persistent image of beaten down women in sex comics is something, I argue, that readers identify with, albeit unconsciously," said Allison, regardless of their gender.

-Elaine Justice


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