Erin Jory | East Asia Fellow
The role of media has been central to the dismantling of Japan’s conservative depiction of masculinity and the promotion of more fluid interpretations of sexuality and gender expectations.
Historically, it was widely accepted that Japanese aristocrats pursued intimate relations with both males and females. Notable figures from the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868), such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Toyotomi Hidetsugu, famously participated in homosexual interactions.
As Japanese culture commentator Koichi notes “pre-modern Japan was exceptionally accepting, even encouraging, of male homosexuality and bisexuality.”
Since the Meiji restoration in 1868, however, Japan’s depiction of men came to be dominated by the image of the salaryman and the concept of hegemonic masculinity.
Salarymen are the bread winners of the household, or in Japanese 大黒柱 or daikokubashira which literally translates to “the large black pillar of traditional Japanese houses.” They are typically white-collar workers who commute longs hours to work, spend evenings drinking with clients and co-workers, and rarely see their own families.
Western ideas of masculinity also came to influence Japan’s depiction of men and understanding of homosexuality, especially after the end of Japan’s isolationist foreign policy in the final years of the Edo period (1867).
The accepted understanding of homosexuality from pre-modern Japan as a 'way' (通 – doo) of enjoying sex, for instance, began to be replaced by western sexological terms such as 同性愛者 or dooseiaisha (the Chinese-character translation of 'homosexual,' literally 'same-sex-love person').
These rigid frameworks and understanding of masculinity have been particularly damaging towards the acceptance of more fluid interpretations of gender roles, and in particular homosexual interactions, despite the historical roots.
Unsurprisingly, same-sex acts became discouraged and homosexual acts became a taboo—for a decade from 1872 to 1882, sodomy among men was even criminalised.
The socioeconomic impacts of globalisation which saw Japan facing economic stagnation and corporate restructuring, however, have led to a decline of hegemonic masculinity and the image of the salaryman.
In response to the widespread loss of direction and confidence in Japan’s male dominated leadership, more and more younger men have found it difficult to establish themselves as breadwinners and to conform to existing gender role expectations, giving rise to new types of masculinity.
Central to the rise and acceptance of more fluid depictions of masculinity in Japanese society has been the role of the media.
While masculinity has typically been associated with strength and aggression, major media outlets in Japan in recent years have been reinforcing the image of the 草食 or soushoku (herbivore)—a man with ‘softer qualities’—epitomised by male actors and celebrities. This movement has been reinforced by the aggressive marketing of Korean beauty and cosmetics products, which has resulted in the emerging preference for a more effeminate look.
Japan’s changing societal attitudes, particularly towards homosexual men, have been driven by the increasingly globalised social media and entertainment platforms.
Japan’s Netflix phenomenon Terrace House for instance aired a controversial episode about a young bisexual man and his journey towards sexual discovery.
The arrival of dating apps has also allowed queer communities to solidify their presence in Japanese society, whilst the proliferation of ‘Coming Out’ videos, which receive widespread viewership on platforms like YouTube, have contributed to the normalisation and acceptance of homosexual relationships.
Though same-sex marriages are not yet legally recognised within Japan, more and more Japanese people are reportedly in favour of accepting homosexuality and Japanese companies are starting to recognise and provide the same benefits to homosexual couples as they do to heterosexual couples.
Ultimately, the influence of contemporary trends in media, driven by the changing socioeconomic demands and failure of the male-dominated society, have led to a paradigm shift in the way Japanese society portrays masculinity.
The growing momentum of gay rights and changing gender role expectations presents an opportunity for Japanese society to foster more fluid interpretations of masculinity, sexuality, and gender roles going forward.
As the notion of hegemonic masculinity continues to decline, Japan should seek to leverage its media influence to further shift public opinion away from rigid representations of men, sexuality, and gender roles.
Erin Jory is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
This piece was commissioned for YAIA's International Women's Day series.