Type the words “Japan, love” in Google and the first two entries are Lodging in Japan: Love Hotels and Love Hotels in Japan: Japan Visitor. A couple of entries down from these is Japan’s Love Affair with Sex – The Japan Times Online. Indeed, when thinking of the land of the rising sun, romantic love comes way down the list, somewhere below rope bondage, sexually explicit manga, subway groping, schoolgirl fetishism, erotic woodblock prints and, yes, love hotels.
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the written descriptions of the creation of Japan. According to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), when the first gods, the siblings Izanagi (the male who invites) and Izanami (the female who invites), arrived out of chaos, they set into motion a series of carnal events that result in Japan’s birth. Consider this excerpt:
Izanagi and Izanami stood on the floating bridge of Heaven, and held counsel together, saying: ‘Is there not a country beneath?’ Thereupon they thrust down the jewel-spear of Heaven, and, groping about, therewith found the ocean. The brine which dripped from the point of the spear coagulated and became an island which received the name Ono-goro-jima.
And later: The two Deities thereupon descended and dwelt in this island. Accordingly they wished to become husband and wife together, and to produce countries. [Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Japanese Tradition (SJT), Volume 1, Second Edition (New York Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 14.]
So, for all intents and purposes, the creation of Japan begins with celestial incest among gods, couched in some pretty explicit sexual metaphors.
Clearly behind Japan’s façade of zen-like purity there is an inner core of seething lust and depravity. This dichotomy is nowhere more evident than in the plethora of matsuri (festivals) throughout Japan, where uninhibited displays of public rowdiness belie the popularly-held view of the inscrutable Oriental. The following passage from Herbert Plutschow’s Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan paints a vivid portrait of a bacchanalian-like spectacle:
The noise and confusion, expression of hostility, and orgiastic behaviours we can still observe today in many matsuri, would be unthinkable in ordinary time. But the diety is with them, bringing forth in man such freedom from restraint. People may also sexually indulge themselves or compete with each other, show off, shriek and violently thrash about. Sexual license during the kami-oroshi sequence is well documented. A law promulgated in 798 forbade the so-called ‘Yo-matsuri’ (night festival) at the new year because of the sexual misconduct associated with them. In such a festival at Kyoto, aristocrats joined with commoners in orgies.
So once again, it comes back to the deities, who seem to have a lot to answer for.
I myself witnessed a scene of unsurpassed strangeness years ago at a festival in the town of Ogi on SadoIsland. Amidst the revelry, a man wearing a hyottoko mask suddenly appeared from the crowd clutching an enormous papier-mâché phallus. Following him was a woman, also wearing a mask, brandishing a butcher knife. She proceeded to chase him around the festival site before they both disappeared in the distance. I never did find out if she caught him, and if so, what happened. Was it a case of flirting taken to the extreme, a domestic quarrel gone too far, or perhaps something more insidious?
Apparently the legacy of Izanagi and Izanami’s amorous coupling continues to resonate to this day.
But what of romantic love? Perhaps the demands of the 70-hour workweek driven by the postwar drive to become an economic powerhouse have killed all hope of romance. Or maybe it’s the samurai ethos, with its emphasis on frugality, loyalty, and honour. I’m sure plenty of cultural stereotypes can be dredged up to explain Japan’s low ranking on the romance scale. Still, a country that celebrates the arrival of the cherry blossoms with such reverence must have a heart beating beneath its stoic outer shell. Take this haiku by poet/statesman Yakamochi (618-785):
We were together
Only a little while,
And we believed our love
Would last a thousand years.
One can almost see the forlorn poet, sitting beneath a sakura tree, brush in hand, contemplating the universal theme of love denied.
As for Valentine’s Day, the Japanese seem to have adopted it with gusto, albeit in their own unique way. Sadly, the day seems to be as much about swelling the coffers of the chocolate companies as it is about swelling the heart (or anything else) of lovers. According to a piece in www.time.com, Japan’s first Valentine’s Day sale was held Tokyo in 1958. Mary Chocolate sold a total of three chocolate bars over three days, generating 150 yen in sales.
Undaunted, the companies and marketers kept at it and today Valentine’s Day is celebrated across Japan. The twist? In Japan, unlike the west, it is the women who give chocolates to men. One theory is that the day was originally marketed the way it is in the west, but Japanese men were not crazy about adopting chocolate-giving (reinforcing the image of Japanese men as un-romantic boors), so a different psychology was brought to bear – giving gifts to men they liked was a way for women to express their feelings without resorting to words. It seems to have worked: chocolate sales in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day now account for 10%, or $400 million, of Japan’s annual chocolate sales of $3.6 billion (figures from 2005).
This being Japan, where reinvention has been elevated to a fine art, there are two kinds of gift-giving expectations for women. One, the more traditional kind, has them giving gifts of sweets, honmei-choko, to men that they like. The other, born perhaps from the innate Japanese sense of giri, or “obligation”, has women giving chocolate to their male co-workers—ALL of them, so as not to make the less-popular men feel left out. These chocolates, called giri-choco, no doubt increase the bottom line for the chocolate companies.
Playing again on the tradition of giri, in the late seventies, Japanese confectioners came up with the idea of White Day (according to some versions, it was a marshmallow company who came up with the idea). On this day, men are expected to return the favour by giving gifts (originally white chocolate or marshmallows – nowadays jewellery, watches, and handbags are the preferred gifts) to the women in their lives.
Strangely, gift card companies have not managed to cash in on the occasion and Valentine’s Day (or White Day) cards are not commonly exchanged.
It’s apparent that seeking out a definition of love in Japan is perhaps not as straightforward as it is in the west.
A visit to our first Google entry, Lodging in Japan: Love Hotels, offers perhaps some illumination on the subject: The words ‘love’ and ‘hotel’ combined in the English language conjure up romantic images of energetic weekends away, breakfast in bed, walks in the woods, dinner by candlelight with champagne – and whatever else springs to mind – by an open fire. In Japan, however, the resultant image of the same combination of words is somewhat different. The services offered by a ‘love-hotel’ result from necessity. With a population of around twice that of the UK in a similar land-size, 85% of which is mountainous, space is at a premium. Also, until recently, most people lived with their families until marriage, often with three generations under one roof, separated by only paper screens. Without a private space for the most private of acts, the streets wouldn’t be a decent place to walk.
So when you head to the shops this Valentine’s Day to pick out a special box of chocolate truffles or bouquet of flowers for that special someone, and then sit down to pen just the right words in your hand-picked card, perhaps be thankful for your western-style house, and that the obligation of mass Valentine gift-giving generally stops at elementary school.
And just a note: I myself prefer dark chocolate—no creams please. Not that there’s any obligation on your part . . .