Disclaimer: I am a girl who, upon accepting this position as an English teacher in Tokyo, knew absolutely nothing about the culture I was quickly going to immerse myself in. Like, really nothing, except maybe the food. Anyway, the point is that I was as clueless as I could possibly be about Japanese culture! So, as many people do, I turned to books in an attempt to be a little less lost and ignorant and, dare I say, stereotypically American.
The book that intrigued me the most was Modern Romance: An Investigation by American actor and comedian Aziz Ansari and NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg. This book is essentially an ethnographic study on the dating and sex culture across many places and many times, and present-day Tokyo is one of the areas this study chose to focus on. So, how does this relate to my trip to Akihabara, or the anime capital of Japan? I’m getting there! I promise, just bear with me a little longer. So, the findings of this book revealed that Japan is a country of mostly “herbivorous men,” or guys who are fairly shy and reserved around women and typically do not even date until their late twenties or early thirties. According to Ansari, “approximately 60% of single Japanese males in their 20s and 30s identify themselves as herbivores, and apparently show zero interest in having sex.” Now here’s where things get interesting: Japan is also known for having a very low stigma attached to things that would absolutely not fly in America, like sex robots, love hotels, and even pay-for-intimacy relationships. Instead of pursuing a romantic relationship with a woman, herbivore men turn to relationship replacements for their sexual and intimacy fixes.
These findings were verified, in my very not educated opinion, upon coming to Japan. In the training seminars and Q&A sessions with Bill Gear, a man (I don’t know what Bill does!!) who has lived in Japan for the last 23 years, the theme of conservative Japanese culture is strong: schools are mostly segregated based on gender; women’s clothing, for the most part, are not revealing; and the culture on the whole is very respectful and polite. This was why, despite the preparation I underwent in reading Modern Romance, I was shocked at the stores in Akihabara. Yes! I finally got to my trip! Our first stop in Akihabara was a 6-story anime store, with each floor focused on a different facet of anime. Not very different from the stores found in the United States, apart from the fact that it was significantly larger than anything you would find there and that one floor was dedicated entirely to slightly pornographic figurines, models, and playing cards of women. This is to say that you could theoretically enter this store and walk out 20 minutes later and 4000 yen poorer with a foot-tall figure of an anime character with larger-than-life breasts, a barely-there thong, and even a dildo.
Likewise, across the street from this store sat a 5-story sex shop, complete with two floors that only men could enter. Being the ever-curious anthropologist that I am, I wandered through the 3-floors I was allowed to view and surveyed the items for sale. The first floor was pretty tame and included much of what you could find in an American sex shop, but the fetish floor and couple’s floor came with consumer goods unlike anything I had ever seen or heard of before, including an entire section dedicated to animal dildos (like a dildo based off a whale penis! Trust me, I tried to figure what this looked like (since it was boxed) and I still cannot for the life of me figure out what it is).
It really baffles me that a culture that, from the outside, seems so conservative, put-together, and polite can also have such a booming industry based on sex, which is anything but those qualities. It seems paradoxical that Japan would even have a market for this, let alone a thriving one. Even in the United States, a country known for the widespread use of Tinder and our now shifting cultural emphasis on sex positivity, things like sex shops and relationship replacements are incredibly taboo. The juxtaposition between the conservative social culture and the overtly sexual consumer culture begs questions like why and how and what does this say about Japanese culture, or any other culture for that matter? In the next 5 weeks that I have remaining here, I hope to gain more clarity on this perplexing cultural contradiction.
By Annie Pinto