Friday, September 12, 2008

Robots, anime culture, and Japanese masculinity

Japan is - as many people have come to appreciate - a nation of odd extremes. At the same time having a very low violent crime rate, while also publishing many (usually sexually) violence-against-women fantasies and having serious problems with public groping; being very traditional while also pushing the boundaries of technology; and madly incorporating Western influences into culture while also being rather societally xenophobic to name a few.

Some of this weird dissonance can be found at Danny Choo's blog where he depicts (almost daily) via a series of well-photographed entries on topics like anime-character action-figures, downtown weekend street culture in Tokyo, and some of the oddities of Japanese modern culture. I personally like his blog, with its wide variety of stories, as well as the occasional poll related to the blog topic. What I take from it (having lived in Japan for seven years) is that the interesting cultural mixing pot that defines what is Japan today continues to bubble and spurt forth some interesting gestalt.

A narrative that runs parallel in time with the brilliance of the anime culture Danny writes about is the (perhaps merely perceived) emasculation of  the Japanese man. This storyline is a common one in Japanese anime and movies, portrayed in various ways, including how the man's whole worth to his family and society is via the corporative identity as a "salaryman". During the economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the position of a salaryman (denigrated as some possibly were) was a highly prized one: a white-collar job that would bring wealth and status to the family (irregardless of the fact that so many other people were in the same position, and thus watering down any "gains in status" one might achieve). There were many anecdotal stories of how the man (in such an heroic image) would sacrifice everything - including family time - in order to provide for his family (there are even some anecdotes of men dying soon after retirement, unable to cope with a life devoid of work). In the economic downturn and ensuing doldrums of the 1990s and 2000s, the "former salaryman" image morphed into that of the unemployed man who sends his wife and children to the country - to his or her parents' house - while he remains in the city (homeless) to look for a job. The counterpoint to the old-man-in-the-park image was that of a rebellious youth who sees little reason to join the large corporate world, little incentive to start his own business, and the allure of living off his parents' savings. What all three images have, though, is the subservience of the man to some outside force (the company, perceived social demands, the parents). One of the messages derived from Japan's economic story line (one which I would argue has a fertile future) is how Japanese men are not really self-deterministic, and therefore symbolically emasculated. (Of course, I could also be way off the mark here.)

However, an interesting insight into the juxtaposition of Japanese love of technology (robots, especially, thanks to anime blockbusters like Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross, Appleseed, etc.) with perceptions of Japanese male sexualized desires has just emerged. Sega has developed a new table-top robot: EMA, which stands (in all its "Engrish" glory) for "Eternal, Maiden, Actualization" [sic].

What I find funny (and sad) is the statement (hopefully it is a small sound-bite of a larger piece) by the Sega spokesperson (via translation): "She's very loveable, and though she's  not a human, she can act like a real girlfriend." WHAT? So, a real girlfriend's actions are merely to stand around looking curvaceous, dance haltingly on a tabletop, and is programmed to kiss any face that comes near it? Hmmm.... It is a worrisome statement about the condition of Japanese men, women, and perceptions of male desires.

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