The problem Perversity of Japanese Culture
Jezebel has a thought provoking article on the CNN and Rapelay cultural wars of pornographic and violent video games: In Defense Of Hentai: Is Rapelay Really Dangerous?. The most fascinating part for me is the claim that Japanese sexuality is so alien to Western morality, due to its heavily entrenched patriarchal roots, it is impossible to judge accurately, quoting from Kelleher’s article:
Perhaps more interesting was the follow-up article, written to address the question: Why would Rapelay thrive in Japan [CNN report]? Kyung Lah interviews Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor of sociology who teaches at Temple University in Japan. Cleveland argues that Rapelay is the product of a historically patriarchal society. “It’s no surprise that this is expressed in mass media and pornography. The moral entrepreneurs that are scrutinizing Japan have both a feminist history and cultural tradition that is simply not in play in Japan.” He continues, “Japan has ways of expressing sexuality that are practically indecipherable to a Western sensibility but that are so normalized in Japan that the Japanese don’t often understand or acknowledge the critiques that are made against them.”
Once again we find ourselves on the curious ground of seeking universal principles on which to apply our distinct morality, no doubt a necessary precursor to the extension of our cultural expectations to subjectivities that lie outside of our scope and domain. The claim here is the there is a decipherability limit – I suspect in the manner in which affects are to be organized – when moral limits are placed on deep current flows within traditional Asian societies.
Katy Kelleher does a more than reasonable job in giving us the landscape of the debate, not to mention calling our attention to conglomerate vs. blog/artist ethical discourse (CNN vs. Takeshi/Tsurupeta).
The otaku blog tsurupeta calls the CNN article “a cultural-essentialist explanation of why Japan is so perverted” and argues that reporters for CNN were trying to “stir up gratuitous controversy.” However, this criticism comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Just to put things in context, it is interesting to note that Tsurupeta is a blog that places “particular emphasis on the central icon of contemporary Japanese visual culture that is the cute young girl.” There is also an explanation of the name:
It is a Japanese portmanteau word combining two onomatopoeias: tsurutsuru [つるつる], which means smooth, polished, especially hairless; and petan [ぺたん], which means flat, devoid of bumps and holes. So tsurupeta [つるぺた] describes a female body that’s flat above and smooth below.
But Tsurupeta only translated the open letter, which was originally written in Japanese by a mangaka (cartoonist). Nogami Takeshi takes CNN to task for trying to “stir up fear, prejudice and misunderstanding” with their take on Rapelay and hentai in general. He defends Japan against charges of sexism:
Men and women are equals in politics and in the law. Your society and ours are no different there. Moreover, the crime rate statistics for both general crime and sex crime in Japan are, with all due respect, several times lower than in the United States. Did you, for instance, fear for your safety while walking the streets of Akihabara, or Ikebukuro (holy ground of hentai books for women)? They’re probably many times safer than the streets of New York, let alone those of the suburban housing districts around. (And guns are illegal, too.) Furthermore, in our Akihabara and Ikebukuro, there is no persecution of men or women alike, or of sexual minorities like homosexuals. We all live together in peace, expressing ourselves freely.
It also goes without saying that human trafficking and violence against women are serious crimes in Japan too. As a Japanese citizen, I am deeply offended by the insulting implications of that so-called expert who associates Japanese people at large with heinous criminals.
Unfortunately Kelleher, while grasping all the diverse strands of this question in hand – the need for CNN to trade on the normatives of behavior as a mark of their reporting honesty, the possibility that criticism of a cultural sexuality is indecipherable, the question of what is radical in the expression of tsurupeta interests as a perverse artform – Kelleher then drops all the threads so gathered and falls back upon the Western staid questioning of the “underlying problem”, ultimately a self-question: why does this turn me on?
We may not be able to control everything we find sexually exciting, but through looking at the underlying causes, we can at least better understand sexuality and the relationship between our inner world and the real world. Although fantasies are not inherently dangerous, they can reflect a social trend that is far more threatening.
It is an implication that the Japanese hentai perversity phenomena is the result of, and more importantly can be reduced to, the inadequate self-policing of what one is inclined to feel, the inability to suitably place our felt things within the grid of expectation and proportion. One can admit that within our society indeed this is the regular mode of ethical normativity, where it is fought – often with more heat than light, more blood than bone - but when exported to other worlds it is a mistake to assume it as fundamental for either communication or ethical agreement.
To be abstract about it, I suspect that the smooth and the flat of hentai has something to do with the acceleration of affects across gender fields, the way in which surface becomes the signifier of the possibility of reaching certain timed thresholds, which would mean that “why” you are turned on by this, as a psychological investigation, is less important culturally than is what is being accelerated and how, through the intensity and smoothness.
I think indeed there are very important questions raised by the extremes of Rapelay, the practice of violenced preditory excitation against social kinds and types, room for outrage and critical social analysis, but in such cases but when we wade into those wider waters there is ever the temptation to essentialize and deeply misread what is being done. The fault is to return to what is the most easy and basic to think, that these people are simply feeling what is not appropriate to feel, enjoying what should not be enjoyed, putting a limit on what we can see when we look at the problem. Are the Japanese just more perverse than all others in the commercial world? The very sense of the question reveals the perversity in our own moral instinct.
For more interesting thoughts on video game ethics see Shaviro’s review of the film Gamer, here. Not an interpretation I endorse, but worth considering.