Sunday, April 5, 2009

Japan... they're crazy over there!

by Josh Franklin

Over on Feministing I found this, about a bizarre Japanese breast vending machine. I think that we're somewhat used to seeing these kinds of sexual objectification from Japan, which invite responses varying from outrage to puzzled amusement. But what's interesting is the fact that we are so aware of this bit of sexism as uniquely Japanese.

At Feministing one commenter, selidor, brought this point up:

I'm really tired of the way every time someone posts an example of sexism in Japan, somebody comments on how sexist Japan is, or 'only in Japan' or something. There's sexism in every country - just because it comes in a slightly different package in Japan doesn't make it inherently worse or more perverted than the rest of the world. This is no different to all the American disembodied boob products, and Japan has vending machines for many things, so it's no surprise that sexism would be found in that area as well.

This was challenged on the grounds that Japanese culture is unique, and it's important to think about cultural idiosyncrasy when we examine sexism. It was pointed out that sexism manifests in different forms in different places: a breast vending machine is it's form in Japan, whereas the burqa can be it's form in the Middle East. Another commenter, nightingale, responded:

The fact that we go, "Only in Japan" when this kind of sexism pops up is racist. We don't do it for anything else. Imagine if we went, "Only in the Middle East" every time a burkah issue came up. It's not that it's not accurate (although this stuff does happen in America and Europe, even if we don't have vending machines we've still got plenty of disembodied female body parts), it's that it's racist to see sexism in Japan and immediately other Japanese people by elevating their sexism above everyone else's.

And, note, I'm not talking about this one case, but the fact that it's *every* time. The only time anyone mentions Japan on this blog is to imply that it's the most sexist place you can find.

I don't know if 'racist' is the appropriate term for these kinds of comments, but I think that there is clear evidence that Japan is constituted as the Other in terms of it's apparently incomprehensible culture of sexual objectification. The truth is that, although I am very aware of Japan's 'absurd' culture, I can't really explain in clear terms why Japan deserves its unique reputation. As far as I can tell, the ubiquitous understanding of Japan as the home of sexual oddity is merely an internet meme, a discursively produced truth, rather than a reasoned analysis of sexism in Japan.

But if our ideas about Japan are really more perception than reality, who is served by them? Or to put it differently, how does interpreting Japanese phenomena as bizarre affect our analysis of sexism in general? What I think is clear is that criticism of objects like the breast vending machine is invaded by our conception of what is 'normal' sexism. If we think of Japanese gender relations as especially crazy, which I take to be a pejorative interpretation, then I think it makes non-Japanese objectification seem normal or milder in comparison. By identifying Japanese sexism as absurd or bizarre, we invite a complacency about all other sexualization and gender discrimination. It seems to me that what's bizarre is not a breast vending machine in Japan, but that we've allowed ourselves to no longer speak of the sexism that surrounds us as bizarre or absurd. Singling out Japan isn't so much racist, as it is laziness; we focus on a legitimate, though superficial, cultural observation, to the exclusion of a strong and coherent analysis of sexism.


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