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The Japanese

The Japanese

The Japanese are often obsessive about defining themselves.

Who are we?

What are we?

Why are We so different from everybody else? 

A multitude of books, films, magazines and television programmes, all dedicate themselves to the Nihonjinron.

The theory of the Japanese.

Insular though the Japanese are, they encourage foreigners to take part in playing this game.

There is a certain consensus about the Japanese stereotype.

As taxi-drivers, students or ‘salary men’ will point out the Japanese are ‘wet’ and yasashii.

They stick together in mutual dependency like ‘wet’, gluttonous rice.

And they are soft meek, gentle and tender.

They express themselves by warm human emotions instead of dry, hard, rational thought.

They are also in tune with nature, in harmony with it, and not in opposition.

The question is how does this soft, meek stereotype (like most stereotypes it has some truth in it) tally with the extreme violence that is such a predominant feature of popular culture?

Sanskrit Theatre


To be sure, not every Japanese obsesses over bondage fantasies, and the acceptance of sex and violence is not universal. Indeed there are pressure groups, such as the powerful Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), who set themselves up as moral vigilantes.

Nevertheless, photographs of nude woman trussed up in ropes appear in mass circulation newspapers. Torture scenes are common on television, even in children’s programmes. Glossy poster-sized pictures of naked pre-pubescent girls are on display in the main-shopping streets. Large numbers of men peruse Sado-masochistic pornography on their way to work on the subway.

That is not to say that what is on the streets of Tokyo is any stranger than available merchandise in Times Square or Amsterdam. In fact it is less so. But what there is, is more accepted, more a part of the main-stream of life. There is no furtive huddling in dank little shops with darkened windows. People feel no need to pretend that sex and violence cater only to a sinful minority.

These fantasies are neither thought to be sinful, nor confided to a minority. They are on national television and in weekly magazines.



If the Japanese are a gentle, tender, soft and meek people with hard-core fantasies of death and bondage, few of these dreams seem to spill over to real life. The atmosphere in the streets with the disciplined crowds, the piped music, the plastic flowers, the tinkling bells, the pretty colour, is mawkish rather than menacing.

Does this mean, then, that vicarious cruelty does not lead to actual violence? That by providing an outlet it makes society safer, as those opposed to censorship in the West argue? Perhaps. But what works in Japan would not be effective elsewhere.

Still encouraging people to act out their violent impulses in fantasy, while suppressing them in real life, is an effective way of preserving order. 

Vicarious crime is after all one of the functions of theatre.

As long as the facade of hierarchy, etiquette and property is upheld, the frustrated company man can look at pictures of tied-up woman as much as he likes.

Frustration can boil over, however, and even Japanese rules do at time break down. But much resistance must be overcome before this happens, and the resulting violence is almost always hysterical and usually confined to one’s own group. Random killing are rare in Japan. Even prisoners and the Yakuza gangsters are well behaved.

Violent crime in Japan is almost non-existent. The crime rate one of the lowest in the world.

Nishizaki Sakurako and Bando Kotji in "Yoshino Mountain"


One emotional outlet variable to men is drinking. Cultural expectations influence drunken behaviour in any country. In Japan getting drunk together is the traditional after hours way of letting off steam. But is also has its own rituals.

Every section of a Japanese company has its regular night out to lubricate group relations. It tends to start of with a few beers at a local bar. Later, when at ease the men often regress into early childhood behaviour. Shame is then suspends itself for a few hours. Some, mouths open wide, are chopstick fed by their hostesses. Others dance around in their underpants. Several grow maudlin and throw their arms a round each others necks. It is even possible that one or two become aggressive and need restraining from hitting a colleague over the head.

But suddenly, usually after the most senior member has indicated his wish to leave, it is all over. Emotions vented. Play finished. Hierarchy restored. Nothing remains the next morning except a headache. Even the men who insulted each other the night before are the best of friends gain. Everyone agrees to agree.

Violence in Japanese culture is like these drinking bouts. It is an outlet. The violent fantasies of a people forced to be gentle. What one sees on the screen, on stage, or in comic-books is usually the precise reverse of normal behaviour. The morbid and sometimes grotesque taste that runs through Japanese culture – and has done for centuries – is a direct result of conforming to such a strict and limiting code of normality.

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