Negotiating the fetishisation of youth in the gay male media of Japan

Baudinette

by Thomas Baudinette (PhD Candidate, Monash University)
thomas.baudinette@monash.edu

Like many gay* male subcultures around the world, Japan’s is highly stratified by class, body type, age and gendered identity. This is particularly true of Shinjuku Ni-chōme, a district in central Tokyo with a small area of 400m2 which estimates suggest contains approximately 300 gay bars (Suganuma, 2011). Ni-chōme, as it is commonly known, contains a variety of businesses catering to gay men including bars, pornography shops, saunas, brothels (known euphemistically as “host clubs”) and massage parlours. The district is also the source of most Japanese gay male media, including gay magazines, pornographic videos and online dating agencies. These media play an important role in rendering gay male desire as a commodity (Moriyama, 2012: 160), reducing gay men’s identities to patterns of consumer behaviour. These identities have become codified into a sub-cultural system of knowledge known as Typing (taipu), which refers to the alignment of one’s subjectivity to a stereotypical identity category based upon ideas of an idealised body type and modes of consumption (Moriyama, 2012: 170). Types are intimately linked to specific norms of consumption, with each Type expected to participate within certain “scenes” in Ni-chōme (McLelland, 2000). My study aims to investigate both how media presents certain Types as being “normatively” desirable and how consumption of media has affected young Japanese gay men’s conceptualisations of their gay identities and desires.

Whilst conducting fieldwork in Ni-chōme and discursive analyses of various gay media (including Badi magazine, Japan’s most popular gay magazine), it has become apparent that “youth” (wakasa) represents an important trope which is drawn upon in Japan’s gay media to construct a Type known as the ikanimo-kei (literally, “the obviously gay Type”). Ikanimo-kei refers to an identity based in patterns of material consumption of certain brands of clothing (such as fashion labels Abercrombie and Fitch and Calvin Klein) and activities such as visiting large gay night clubs marking men as being “obviously” gay (Moriyama, 2012: 170). The ikanimo-kei is an identity category which is fiercely linked to normative images of youth and heteronormative masculinity, including highly gym-trained bodies, constant late night partying and a carefree attitude to gay relationships which prioritises casual sex and an apolitical attitude). An advertisement for a Japanese “hook-up app” similar to Grindr, called 9 Monsters, which contains models who are highly representative of the ikanimo-kei ideal is presented below. Japanese gay media, in particular the highly popular magazine Badi and the Japanese gay pornographic industry, have promoted the ikanimo-kei as being highly desirable, and it is for this reason that “youth” and “masculinity” have become markers of being “obviously gay.”

The images of youth presented in Japanese gay media are naturally highly idealised and draw upon stereotypes of young male youth culture which circulate throughout the global gay community. During my fieldwork, I became increasingly interested in how Japanese gay men of all age groups negotiate the fetishisation of youth and the promotion of the ikanimo-kei as the ideal, most desirable Type. Whilst at a large circuit party in Ni-chōme, one gay man in his 40s explained to me that he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with visiting Ni-chōme due to the fact that the district was becoming increasingly youth-orientated. He explained to me that young gay men in their 20s used their youth as a “weapon” (buki), dominating the district. He believed that young gay men, or at least those who subscribed to the ikanimo-kei identity, militantly and deliberately discriminated against older men and that they had a facile relationship with Ni-chōme, failing to recognise the district’s importance as a “queer space” and safe haven from heteronormative society (cf. Sunagawa 1998). Many men in their 30s and 40s with whom I spoke felt similarly, and were afraid that the influx of young gay men to Ni-chōme for the purposes of wild partying would bring attention to the district from authorities and potentially lead to the dissolution of Ni-chōme. Indeed, this threat is all too real, as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has sporadically used the raucous partying which occurs in Ni-chōme as an excuse to crack down on the district in ways which do not occur to “straight” red light districts such as Kabukicho to the north of Ni-chōme. Ultimately, gay men in their 30s and 40s expressed their concern that they no longer felt “attractive” due to the production of a normative desirability founded in the youth of the ikanimo-kei.

Of course not all young gay men ascribe to the ikanimo-kei ideal, and indeed many young men in their 20s with whom I spoke expressed their concern that the images of youth presented in Japan’s gay media were incredibly damaging. For example, young gay men who chose not to participate in parties, who were involved in political activism and who were unable or unwilling to build up highly muscular ikanimo-kei bodies also stated that they have experienced discrimination as “undesirable.” Furthermore, the images of youth depicted in Japan’s gay media are inherently classed, privileging a middle-class lifestyle of leisure and a high disposable income. Japan has been in recession for the past 20 years, and life is precarious for young men and women, with many lacking full time employment and access to steady income (Driscoll, 2007). Thus, for some men, the lifestyle promoted in Ni-chōme is economically unfeasible and these men too feel great anxiety about their future lives, and worry that they will be unable to attract partners with whom to share their lives. Even those men who self-identified as ikanimo-kei occasionally expressed to me their concerns that as they age they would be unable to maintain their lifestyles and would be trapped in limbo as men younger than them came to increasingly dominate the scene in Ni-chōme. Needless to say, I also met many young men who saw no problem with the system of Typing and its valorisation of the ikanimo-kei, with many arguing that they didn’t ascribe much importance to gay identity and were merely visiting Ni-chōme for a good time.

Much work still needs to be done to understand the complicated nexus between class, gender and youth in the context of Japan’s gay male sub-culture. However, it is clear that although a hegemonic discourse of youth which is tied to the promotion of a normatively desirable identity is in evidence within Japan’s gay media, young and older men alike actively resist and subvert this discourse. Through my PhD project I hope to continue to elucidate these issues and to determine how Japanese gay men negotiate the complicated system of Typing in order to construct their various identities.

Notes:

*In Japan, the politics of same-sex labelling are varied and complex. The term “gay” (localised as gei) is typically understood to refer exclusively to same-sex attracted men, and is only very rarely applied to same-sex attracted women (who are usually called rezubian). As such, all references to “gay media” in this post refer to media created for consumption by same-sex attracted men.

References:

Driscoll, Mark. “Debt and Denunciation in Post-Bubble Japan:  On the Two Freeters.” Cultural Critique 65 (2007): 164-187.

McLelland, Mark (2000). Male homosexuality in modern Japan: Cultural myths and social realities. London & New York: Routledge.

Moriyama, Noritaka (2012). “Gei comyuniti” no shakaigaku (Sociology of the Japanese “gay community”). Tokyo: Keisō Shobō.

Suganuma, K. (2011). Ways of speaking about queer space in Tokyo: Disorientated knowledge and counter-public space. Japanese Studies, 31(3), 345-358.

Sunagawa, H. (1998). Sekushuaritii no saiteigi ni mukete (Towards the redefinition of sexuality). Unpublished MA thesis, University of Tokyo, Tokyo

Advertisements

About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Negotiating the fetishisation of youth in the gay male media of Japan

  1. Very interesting research Thomas. I’m interested that one of the features of not being considered sexually attractive is being “involved in political activism.” What types of political activism? Does this refer to non-LGBTQIA related activism or other forms? I’m also wondering if your research has been able to focus on racial or ethnic dynamics in the fetishisation of gay men? Thanks for sharing your work!

    • tbaudinette says:

      Thank you for your questions Dr Zevallos. Both of your questions allow me to expand a little bit more on Typing as it is understood by young gay men in Japan.

      With regards to being “involved in political activism,” although this certainly includes LGBTQIA activism, the identity category of the “ikanimo-kei” is founded in a sort of “party boy” lifestyle which precludes interest in political issues and current affairs in toto. Thus, for those young gay men who identify as “ikanimo-kei,” political activism of any sort is an indicator of a “too serious” (in Japanese, “majime sugiru”) approach to life which they do not find attractive. I would never suggest that political activism, especially LGBTQIA activism, is not visible in Japan (quite the contrary, many young gay men and women are becoming increasingly politicised and seeking for greater rights for same-sex couples etc.). However, from the perspective of the creation of a “desirable” identity category, engaging in any kinds of political activism is not often promoted in the gay male media of Japan (except, perhaps, on certain LGBTQIA websites).

      I am very glad you have touched on race/ethnicity (in Japan, the term “minzoku” is used to refer to both categories). “Minzoku” is an important aspect of Typing, an individual’s desire for men of specific “minzoku” being an important locus for identity construction. Although I cannot really go into detail here, the gay male community of Japan loosely divides itself into three categories: “nai-sen” (those who prefer other Japanese men, representing the majority), “gai-sen” (those who prefer white foreign men) and “ajia-sen” (those who prefer East or South-East Asian). I would also point out here that Latino and Black ethnicities, as well as South and Central Asian, are rather invisible. There are complicated racial politics involved, which my colleague Katsuhiko Suganuma has written about wonderfully in his book “Contact Moments: The Politics of Intercultural Desire in Japanese Male-Queer Cultures.” Broadly speaking, there is an uneasy fetishisation of the white male in the gay male media of Japan, but this is not to say that white men are conceived of as more physically attractive than Japanese men (far from it, Japanese and white men are understood to both be desirable in relation to an undesirable East/South-East Asian subject). I am in the process of drafting a paper on this, and will be presenting aspects of it at the International Convention of Asian Scholars in Adelaide this July.

      I hope this has at least partially answered your questions. Please feel free to get in touch with me if you have any more questions or comments!

      • Hi Thomas. Thanks very much for this rich information! Very interesting that the LGBTQIA political activism is not desirable within this context. I wonder if there is some analogy to Raewyn Connell’s discussion of counter-hegemonic masculinities amongst heterosexual men in the green movement. I wonder whether countercultural movements in Japanese cities have different constructions and expressions of desire. Would gay activists find the ikanimo-kei ideal desirable? Do they have different icons of desire? Just wondering aloud!

        I also wonder if there are any similarities with Peter Robinson’s research “The Changing World of Gay Men,” which focused on changing relationship norms amongst three different generations. Robinson finds that the desire for a long-term relationship was the norm, but he notes this is likely the outcome of being middle class and having less social pressures than working class men. I understand your research is focused on urban constructions of the ikanimo-kei identity, not on relationships per se, but I also wonder about how these constructions of desire impact on long-term relationship norms.

        I’m especially fascinated by the ethnic-racial typology you discuss. I’m very much looking forward to hearing about your next paper (I hope it’s being published). Good luck at the conference and your PhD!

  2. mbuitron says:

    It seems to me that architectural space plays a large role in the age-related apartheid in Ni-chōme. If a small club that caters to a specific body type or age group allows too many “others,” then very quickly stops being what it claims to be. I would expect that there would be economic advantages to appeal to youth who may consume more alcohol than men in their 40’s, and this kind of enforced homogeneity would spill out into the streets and the surrounding community.
    It would be interesting to see some comparisons to gay ghettos in other cities. I would expect age-related marketing and social discrimination to be fairly common, yet manifest in distinctive ways. Because gay youth usually come from straight families, gay cultural, political histories, and norms aren’t passed along from one generation to the next in the same way that cultural norms, religion, and the like are passed along from one generation to the next.
    Perhaps if there were spaces for mentoring and cross-generational communication, a more diverse menu of gay identities could be made available to younger men; I expect that the highly sexualized environment of Ni-chōme may not be the best space for that to happen.

    • tbaudinette says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      Architecture most certainly does play a major role in creating these “age-restricted” spaces. The example I gave in this post is somewhat atypical: a large circuit party in a large club. Most gay bars in Ni-chome have a maximum occupancy of 10 people or so, so the owner of a bar (known affectionately as the mama) usually refuse service to men who do not “fit” the bar’s Type. Thus, a small bar which focuses on attracting ikanimo-kei youth would make an older man very uncomfortable (as they would, say, a chubby man or a working class gentleman etc.).

      Comparing Ni-chome to other “gaybourhoods” is something I am planning to do in the future- possibly comparing it to “gaybourhoods” in Euro-American contexts and in other Asian contexts (Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand etc.)

      There are some spaces in Ni-chome, such as the gay community centre called akta, which are involved in HIV awareness raising and mentoring of young gay men. However, as it is located in Ni-chome (a highly sexualised environment as you rightfully call it), I don’t believe that it is effective at challenging these stereotypes. Indeed, akta tends to use ikanimo-kei models in its advertising and one could argue that they are also involved in the business of “selling youth” in order to better “sell” their message.

  3. tbaudinette says:

    Answering Dr Zevallos:
    It is most certainly the case that those involved in LGBTQIA activism in Japan have different standards of desirability. Indeed, on their media we can see a totally different discourse of desirability being promoted which focusses less on physical appearance and more on participation in gay community and activist projects. Thus, there are definite parallels with Raewyn Connell’s work on counter-hegemonic masculinity in the green/environmentalist movement. I am afraid I am not qualified to discuss other cities, as my fieldwork has focused on Tokyo, but I would believe that Osaka (which prides itself on its “difference” compared to the “centre” of Tokyo) would indeed promote a different “image” of the gay male as desirable.
    As for generational change, I have only really focussed on speaking with men in their 20s, and although I have also conducted a little fieldwork (quoted above) with men in older age brackets, I am once again not able to say anything conclusive. I think the major difference is that older men tend to think more about relationships and the future, whereas younger men tend to be more interested in having a good time (this is hardly a new finding though!). I think its definitely something I want to look into further.
    As for my work on race- I am most certainly planning to publish and am preparing a paper as we speak!

  4. Pingback: How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect” | The Other Sociologist - Analysis of Difference... By Dr Zuleyka Zevallos

  5. Pingback: Negotiating the fetishisation of youth in the gay male media of Japan | Thomas Baudinette

  6. Pingback: Expat and Gay in Japan: Dating A Japanese Guy | Takurei's Room

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s