Attitudes to sex
Historically, Japanese society exhibited an open attitude to sex, viewing it generally as being just one of a number of normal bodily functions, like eating and drinking, and a natural part of everyday life. The most sought after women as wives were those with sturdy bodies, best suited to child-bearing as well as working in the fields. Physical beauty wasn’t a major consideration. Procreation was an important reason for couples to have sex, and with communal bathing being common, there was no prudishness or shamefulness about the human body.
Although the Jesuits and Christian missionaries who entered the country via Nagasaki from the 16th century, about 3,000 of whom were subsequently martyred for their efforts, sought to change this attitude by introducing notions of Christian modesty and morality, it remained the norm until the great tidal wave of imported ideas of the latter 19th century caused people to acquire a more conscious awareness of their bodies, and the physical differences between the sexes.
Perceived physical beauty and sexual attributes of the female form started to become more sought after by wife-seekers then too, especially in the cities where physical strength of women wasn’t as important.
For centuries Japanese cities have had the equivalent of red light districts. These were known as floating world entertainment quarters, referred to as mizu shobai (water trade), where entertainment ranged through the singing, playing of instruments and dancing by highly trained and skilled geisha at expensive restaurants, to other forms of singing and cabarets, to bars, and to straight prostitution, probably provided by young country women sold into servitude.
Geisha were frequented only by the wealthy, some of whom paid a regular fee to their favourite to secure her services as a performer exclusively from time to time. This fee may or may not have included her exclusive services as a lover, but if this was part of the arrangement the fee would be noticeably more. Other town dwellers with a little spare cash availed themselves of the straight sexual services of the untrained girls, although rural dwellers seem to have had little opportunity for sexual liaison outside marriage.
Before and during World War II there were government-run brothels for men to satisfy that aspect of their bodily needs, rather than bother their wives, who the government considered were better left to run the household and look after the children. A cause of ongoing friction between Japan and some of the Asian nations it colonised in the first half of the 20th century is the subject of so-called comfort women, young Asian women allegedly forced into sexual service to Japanese soldiers during the war.
Red light districts continue to operate, usually without police interference. There can be a strong yakuza influence in some of these areas, and the use of young women from elsewhere in Asia is common. Occasionally Caucasian women can also be seen at strip clubs, often university students doing holiday jobs. A common term for massage parlours is soap land, derived from the use of baths where male customers are washed by female staff as part of the total service.
There is usually no spruiking for customers by door attendants (certainly nothing more than a polite greeting to a male passerby), who are as likely to be elderly women as young men. However this attitude can change once a person steps inside and becomes a customer – as with bars in these areas, which might provide a hostess service, people who are unable to speak or read Japanese should take care when entering a soap land, as some proprietors are quite prepared to use physical force to extract payment, however outrageous the amount might be.
Possibly reflecting the long history of eroticism in Japanese art, as noted above sex is a dominant theme in a large percentage of manga, with many of these including bondage and subjugation of women. These depictions obviously cater to the sexual fetishes of manga readers.
Yet for the average Japanese, sex is likely to play a lesser role in his or her life than of people in other industrialised countries. Recent surveys indicate almost half of women aged between 18 and 34 are unmarried or don’t have a boyfriend, while around 60% of men are single. In the 16 to 25 age sector, 45% of women indicate they aren’t interested in sex or don’t like it, and close to 30% of men similarly.
Regarding married couples aged between 25 and 45, in over 40% sex rarely or never occurs. There are known and understood sociological reasons for these trends, which revolve around the changing roles of men and women in society. The stark reality is that one quarter of all women in their twenties might never marry, and of course have children. The inevitable end result can only be that Japan’s population will steadily decline.
In earlier centuries, along with an open attitude to sex also was a more open and tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, which when expressed between young samurais was treated as being a pure form of love. In kabuki theatre, all roles are played by men, so cross-dressing has for long been a common theme in Japanese theatre. Still today, a small number of the country’s most popular entertainers are men who wear female costumes.
Whilst there’s little police and other harassment of openly homosexual behaviour, there’s greater society pressure for conformity, so except for large metropolitan areas where anonymity can be found, it’s more common for homosexual men to marry and have children, and to pursue their natural inclinations as part of their lives outside the home, as most men do anyway. All Japanese cities have gay bars and variations on the theme.