August 1, 2015
Tokyo lies 500 miles east of Seoul, less than 600 miles from Pyongyang, 700 miles from Vladivostok, and 1,000 miles from Shanghai. In other words, you could fit all five cities with their relative distances within the U.S. east of the Mississippi.
Siberia and Russia’s centuries-old fantasies of being a player in the Pacific are just a few hours away. The Japanese and Koreans can’t stand each other, but together they are the northern guardians of the East China Sea—which is to say, part of the world’s containment of China.
It’s a rough, complicated neighborhood, one that demands both self-discipline and empathy. And so there are the two sides of Japanese culture—the tough and the refined. I’ve never been there, and I want to see it all. I’ll be in the center of Japan’s traditional culture, Kyoto, for two days, followed by four days in the world’s largest city, hyper-modern Tokyo.
I’ll be speaking about Sexual Intelligence on World Sexual Health Day. My hosts have offered to show me around some of Tokyo’s night life—the Love Hotels, the workingman’s Geisha district, the clubs where forty bucks will get you time on a cooing woman’s lap while she cleans your ears (apparently the height of sensual pleasure).
Thanks to some professional connections, I’ll be getting familiar with the Japanese manga and anime scene. As one friend put it, “what the Japanese call comic books, Americans often call porn.” There are lots of quasi-fetish scenes in Tokyo’s world of pop culture, and I’m curious about how they exist side-by-side with thousand-year-old temples, traditional family structures, and highly prescriptive norms regarding social and business relationships.
The trip will start with two days in Guangzhou, China, where I’m lecturing. Should be an interesting contrast—I’ll let you know about that, too.
I plan to write every day. It will be a short trip, but intense, I imagine. So click the subscription link under my photo to the right, and follow along.
Sex in China; Still Fighting WW II
I woke up in China this morning, and will go to sleep tonight in Japan. I spoke on sexual enhancement as part of a big conference for retailers of Chinese sexual health products.
The topic of sexuality is still far more taboo in China than in any Western country, including Ireland or even Alabama. Although no one here wears Mao jackets anymore, most Chinese women and men still don’t think of their sexuality as something to enhance, explore, or celebrate. Even mentioning the word vagina from stage (as I did, in translation) was met first by 200 pairs of averted eyes. I had to cajole those in attendance (95% of whom were women under 30) to finally get even a few uncomfortable giggles.
I discussed Sexual Intelligence as best I could, encouraging them to feel their sensory experience during sex rather than focusing on being normal and improving their technique. This message was apparently unexpected, as was my strolling around on stage while speaking. In the end, in addition to applause that may or may not have been sincere, I had over a dozen requests to pose for participants’ selfies—now the most sincere form of flattery around the world.
* * *
As it happens, today is the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Asia–or as China calls it, The War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.
The Chinese are marking the event with an enormous military parade, awards, and even the creation of a new holiday—Victory Over Japan Day. Quite a bit different than, say, “End Of War Day” or “We Won The War Day.”
You may recall that there was a horrible civil war in China in the 1920s and 1930s, which was interrupted by the unprovoked Japanese invasion and brutal occupation of China. The Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Chek took the brunt of the blows against the Japanese, enabling the Communists under Mao Tse-Tung to swoop in and emerge victorious after the Japanese were defeated by the U.S. and its allies.
To establish their legitimacy, the Communist Party of China tells of their heroism in defeating the tragic Japanese occupation. Nowadays, the Party warn that it’s all that protects China against an always-dangerous Japan—a Japan which has had no real military establishment since 1945.
The Chinese economic miracle for which the Party takes credit (always neglecting to mention how Communism created a famine that killed tens of millions of people and an economic program that retarded the country’s progress for half a century) has now stalled and for many appears to be reversing. And so nationalism is the Party’s latest gift to China.
People here somehow accept that China—with a bigger population, bigger economy, and bigger military than all its neighbors combined—is somehow under constant threat, and must be vigilant. There was no public discussion of the costs of the giant parade, much less of the unrelenting expansion of China’s military capability (they now have a rocket that can hit a building 2,000 miles away). There is also very little public questioning here about the recent disastrous crash in the government-manipulated stock market, and the simultaneous devaluation of the currency.
China is now firmly in bed with Russia, has bought most of Africa’s natural resources, and continues to create new islands off the coasts of its neighbors, complete with military airfields and claims to the “offshore” waters. Japanese Prime Minister Abe has played into Chinese hands by giving a tepid acknowledgement of Japanese wartime crimes rather than a robust apology. And so China can continue to use the bullying Japan of the 20th century as an excuse for becoming the bullying China of this century.
Meanwhile, most Chinese learn even less about contraception, masturbation, and orgasm than their peers in Ireland and Alabama.
Tokyo—World Class, And Very Japanese
I can see why people love Tokyo, the world’s largest city. The subway system is enormous, comfortable, and efficient. The parks are enormous and serene. Public toilets are clean, modern, and virtually everywhere. The taxis are comfortable and efficient. There are excellent small restaurants everywhere (three times as many as New York, per capita), while at the same time, locals eat the world’s best street food every day. There are dozens of world-class universities.
Service people take their jobs seriously, whether they are waiters, drivers, janitors, or clerks. There’s no tipping, which means people learn to take pride in the performance of their job.
Two things about the city’s streets are eerie to a gaijin (outsider) like me: there’s absolutely no horn-honking, and there’s virtually no litter or graffiti.
There’s almost no street crime here. There’s almost no private ownership of guns. Life expectancy is the highest in the world.
So there’s a lot to love about Tokyo.
Oh, there are a few drawbacks. A huge percentage of men here smoke, even in bars and restaurants. Women are respected but not considered entirely equal in many parts of society (work, child-care, and sex, to name a few). The city is so big that a daily commute can easily top an hour in each direction. Japanese apartments are famously small, so most people have to entertain in public rather than at home. And forget having pets.
I’ll be lecturing tonight on Sexual Intelligence. While I’m happy to share what I know with my Japanese colleagues and the local public, I’m much more eager to learn what I can about Japanese sexuality.
The Japanese have their own unique style of pornography, a popular youth-oriented erotic imagery, an enormous sex work industry with many specialties, and the lowest birth rate in the industrial world.
And it isn’t just babies that they aren’t having—they’re not having much sex, either. Experts speculate, but no one knows why.
Maybe it’s the clean quiet streets, clean quiet subways, and clean quiet parks. It all sounds so efficient—but not so sexy, perhaps?
I hope to find out more.
Naked In Tokyo
I’m here in Tokyo as the last speaker of World Sexual Health Day. Coordinated by the World Association for Sexology, the Japanese Society for Sex Education, and others, the program has featured an impressive array of national and international speakers. Some are now new friends.
My event is in a separate location and requires a separate ticket, as it involves a dinner buffet. My host (whom I’ve met) and my sexologist-translator (whom I’ve not) pick me up at my hotel, and after a short taxi ride we arrive at a sort-of nightclub, which has been booked for the evening. There are dozens of cocktail tables, at which most of the chairs are already filled. As my host had predicted, it’s a pretty well-behaved crowd with very little drinking (I’d been concerned about the latter, not the former).
After several short welcomes (including one from the nationally-famous gynecologist who has written a forward to the Japanese edition of my current book—which my Japanese publisher didn’t tell me about, but don’t get me started on that), my translator Daisuke and I are brought up to the little stage, and just like that we start. Miraculously, the guy is fantastic, the crowd responds to my/our jokes, and we’re off and running. My theme is Sexual Intelligence—don’t look for perfect functioning, perfect bodies, or perfect sex. Decide how you want to feel, communicate that with your partner, relax, and together create an experience that simply feels good.
Or something like that. Who knows what the talk was like in Japanese. In any case, I give lots of examples involving food and sports, which seem to resonate. I note that this talk isn’t going to be perfect, and knowing that I can just relax and be present. If I expected to give a perfect talk, I might be nervous, and I certainly would enjoy the experience less. Get the analogy?
Ninety minutes later, people are still attentive, and still smiling or nodding or obviously thinking. Virtually no one is looking at a mobile phone, and a dozen people are taking notes. We come to a close, get way more than polite applause, and I call for a short break. Upon resuming, we have a lively question period.
When it’s over, drinks are poured, mobile phones are checked, books are purchased, and people crowd around wanting autographs, photographs, or advice. One young couple sort of surrounds me, clearly concerned about something. The guy asks in perfect English, “We have a problem. She’s obsessed with condoms and I don’t want to use them. What should we do?”
Obsessed? Yes (I am not making this up), she has decorated her apartment with them, they’re everywhere. Why? Because they’re so colorful and they help so many people (did I mention I’m not making this up?). And why won’t he use them? “Because sex should be done naked.”
Now I’ve heard a lot of reasons for not using condoms, but I admit this one is unusual—a philosophical/ontological objection. So I say to the guy, “I see we both wear beards. I guess you don’t have sex naked, since you wear a beard.” No, he says, a beard doesn’t count because it’s natural, it’s part of who he is. OK, “What about the winter time—what if your feet or her feet are cold, do you have sex wearing sox?” No, he says, feeling their bodies in their various states of warmth and coldness is part of intimacy. Ah, I see our young philosopher is no amateur.
So I ask, “Don’t you ever have sex under a blanket?” He says Gee Doc, you’re really focused on this naked thing. I point out that much of my talk has just been about the constructed nature of sexuality; how ideas about “normal sex,” “sexy,” “undignified positions,” “men,” etc. are a big part of how people complicate sex and undermine their enjoyment. I note that “naked” is just another arbitrary construction, which he’s carefully designed to rule out condom use.
He measures me carefully, then breaks into a big smile. “Well, you got me Doc,” he says. “I just use that “naked” thing as a justification. I hate how sex feels with condoms, but that wasn’t getting me anywhere. The “naked” thing sounded much better. You busted me, Doc.”
And with that he shook my hand, she thanked me, and they left.
Can someone get me a drink please?
A Buddhist Says To A Hot Dog Vendor, “Make Me One With Everything…”
Japan is one of the oldest countries on earth, but its capitol, Tokyo, is a newcomer to the world scene.
Before the Meiji Restoration ended Japan’s feudal system in 1868, Kyoto was its capital for a thousand years. And so I found myself on a bullet train yesterday. Now THIS is what train travel should be like—150 mph, with virtually no sensation of movement. And of course it comes with the standard Japanese amenties: sparkling clean bathrooms, snacks, and smiling attendants who actually know what they need to know. My two hours and eleven minutes (for a 300-mile run) passed in just moments.
Kyoto is a city of over a million people, which often feels smaller than that. There are two reasons for that: One, there are enormous sections of commercial space underground, surrounding the central city’s subway stations. Not just a few cafes and shops—high-end restaurants, office complexes, chic clothing and jewelry stores. Imagine an office park, shopping mall, and foodie restaurant district combined into a sleek compound whose entrance is beneath your favorite subway stop. And imagine a dozen of those beneath, say, Denver or Boston or San Antonio.
The other reason Kyoto can feel so small is the way it is somehow extra-modern and extra-traditional at the same time—with enormous open spaces everywhere. The city is filled with temples and shrines—primarily Buddhist and Shinto, respectively. Shinto is a collection of practices that have accumulated for almost two millennia, involving worshipping at public shrines; observing rituals regarding one’s ancestors; and a belief in spirits embodied in natural phenomena. It has been more or less Japan’s state religion for a century and a half.
Buddhism came to Japan from North India via China and Korea a touch later, around the 4th or 5th century. Buddhism was much involved with the country’s political shift from an aristocracy to the Samurai and Shogun system, and by around 1200 it was becoming a strong political and military force. That power eventually peaked, and then declined during Japan’s 250 years of peace under the Tokugawa Shogun (a sprawling, clever, nasty-when-necessary art-oriented family rather like the Medicis in Italy). Today Buddhism’s influence in Japan is spiritual and cultural rather than political or military.
And so my time in Kyoto centered on temples and shrines—500, 800, 1200 years old. Wow, these places are huge. And they are as beautiful as they are grand.
The Buddhist temples looked somewhat familiar, as I’ve seen in Burma, Vietnam, and China. Every one features a pavilion with restful décor, large Buddhas in various materials, an altar for offerings, and plenty of incense both indoors and out. There are also places to write down one’s appeals to the Buddha to grant good fortune, respite from disease, etc.. The Kyoto temples followed these traditions, as well as the Buddhist tradition of, well, anything goes. So there was the usual hodge-podge of modern and old objects, pictures, plastic knick-knacks, etc.. This being Japan, the temples featured beautiful gardens. In one, there were ceremonial objects that were apparently over a thousand years old. In another, there was a lovely cemetery holding the remains of the medieval founders.
Shinto shrines are similar but different. Each features an enormous tori gate at the entrance, in a shape familiar to all westerners.
I did see the Fushimi Inari shrine, with a two-mile pathway leading up a hill. The pathway itself is flanked by some 3,000 vermillion torii gates. This sounded cool while I was planning the trip. In reality, it was jammed with tourists and locals chatting and taking selfies, and each of the gates was inscribed with the name of a local company that had “donated” the gate. The larger the donation, the larger the gate; in fact, there was a price list at the bottom of the hill by the information booth for those who want to get on the waiting list to be a donor. It was a gentle, culturally and environmentally appropriate, completely crass form of advertising. All in support of religion, of course.
Both Buddhism and Shinto share a belief in intercessionary prayer—that is, prayer that can intervene in and change destiny. Contrast that, for example, to prayer that gives thanks or serves as a meditation. Christians today are very big on this kind of prayer, particularly if they’re pro athletes or politicians.
But Japanese Buddhists and Shintoists take this idea a step further. To my, well, disappointment, the Japanese—the clean, scientific, well-organized Japanese—are incredibly superstitious. No one I asked denied it. And so people at these temples and shrines throw an ancient form of dice to help direct their romantic and business decisions. Seriously (remember how we laughed at Nancy & Ron Reagan for using astrology to help run America?).
Both religions also focus on respect for one’s ancestors, although they do so in different ways. At a Shinto shrine one actually claps in a ritual way to get the ancestors’ attention, and then rings a large bell so they know you’re there. Toss in a coin, and then give thanks, or remembrance, or a request. Any time, day or night. So much better than getting up early on Sunday and sitting in uncomfortable seats listening to some old guy make a vaguely threatening speech.
I love Kyoto. It’s so well-known, and so unique, that the Allies spared it during the incendiary and carpet bombing that levelled Tokyo and other cities. It was similarly spared in the choice of target for America’s two atomic bombs.
Some people say Kyoto was spared because of all the positive spiritual energy there. I think it was spared because some smart people knew that the war would be over sooner or later—and that when it was, participants would be judged by how they had behaved during the war. The Japanese learned this as both victim and victimizer. And although America enacted some brutal war behavior, we can proudly point to Kyoto as evidence that we could behave honorably even in time of war.
Japan—Admiring The Gardens, And What I Still Don’t Understand
My second day in Kyoto was as charming as the first. When I think of “gardens” I think of flowers and possibly trees—nice, but hardly thought-provoking. In Japan, a “garden” is more like a miniature park-cum-meditation retreat. Rocks, wood, and water are elements in every one. And paths always feature dozens of turns, so that the entire garden is never visible at one time. Even the most casual stroll is filled with surprises, and reminds one that everything depends on one’s perspective.
That’s a radically subjective philosophy. At the same time, the Japan is a fairly regimented society. People really do follow the rules—no bounding up the down staircase, no matter how late you are for the train. No jaywalking. It makes sense—you have a society that’s fairly homogeneous in language, religion, and ethnicity. The two major religions stress a personal, ongoing relationship to one’s ancestors. There’s a strong emphasis on family and duty, defined hierarchically.
So it was hard for me to figure out—when were people merely being polite to me, and when did they actually like me? When were they being generous, and when were they fulfilling obligations? Even as I enjoyed unending hospitality and thoughtfulness, it was a little disorienting.
The other thing I had hoped to understand—but still don’t—is the Japanese culture of adolescence. Whereas Western teens aspire to be seen as adults and to enjoy adult privileges, Japanese teens, especially females, aspire to seem younger than they are. There’s a real cult of looking cute here, complete with lots of pink everything, childlike posture and voice, and pre-teen (to Westerners), figure-hiding clothes. Many young men cultivate an androgynous or youngish look as well.
Not surprisingly, Japanese teens and young adults start sex later than their Western peers, have fewer partners, and have less sex.
Although everyone I met here was charming and cooperative, Japan did not disclose its secrets to me on my little whirlwind tour this week. Memo to self: must return soon, and stay longer.