Porn in Japan

The best houses do not exhibit the women in cages.
The Nightless City or the History
of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku, 1899 report
on a red-light district in Japan (Dworkin, Pornography)

Something has happened to the women of Japan.

I am not Japanese,  but having lived in Japan for nine years now, I do find myself asking questions.

What is their unwritten herstory?

In Europe and America, the witch craze has kept women silent and cowering for centuries until the present day. In China, it was foot binding. In other countries it has been FGM. In India it is widow-burning. Western psychiatry (lobotomies), gynecology (sexual torture and hysterectomies, and clitoridectomies), have been exported abroad. I don’t need to keep listing the atrocities against women.

What has happened to the women of Japan? I caught myself wondering one day as I looked around. Something has happened here. What is it?

The women of Japan, especially the women of Okinawa, were hit hard during the second world war when local governments set up brothels to serve the American soldiers. (by 1945 there were 70,000 women in brothels designated specifically for soldiers) And let’s not forget the mass suicide of women at the Cliffs of Marpi, who all jumped to their deaths upon hearing that Japan had been defeated and they were being invaded. So there is a history of colonization that can’t be ignored.

I don’t mean to draw attention away from the crimes that Japanese men have committed against women in China, Korea and elsewhere– but today I just want to talk about Japanese women.

I believe it’s the pornography that has killed the spirit here. Japanese porn.

While Japan has no monopoly on porn, the porn produced here seems to be… how can I put it…? Well, read on…

When I was attacked in Japan three years ago, it was the strangest, most bizarre sadistic incident, that I literally don’t have the words for. I’ve talked and written a lot in a general sense about what took place, but I haven’t told anyone what really went on. And I don’t think I ever will. It was based on pain and torture. It tipped me over the edge. I began searching on the internet for clues of what had happened to me. I wanted to know what was behind the attack for it to have happened in that particular way, to have taken that particular form.

I found Japanese porn. Seeing some photographic images brought a few things to light and answered some questions. I found Japanese porn to be very specific. I don’t watch porn, but I was shown it in college. I have an idea of what is out there today. But when Andrea Dworkin speaks of “that Asian woman hanging from a tree”, I know now that she’s talking about Japanese women. She’s talking about a form of BDSM porn that originated in Japan and involves rope bondage.

There is something specific, definitive, identifiable and chilling about Japanese porn.

Japanese women have managed to organize against pornography politically. An organization called the “Women’s Action Group” began a protest against sports papers in 1987:

‘…using the slogan, “Rush Hour is Porno Hour,” referring to the fact that on crowded trains during rush hours male commuters often read sports newspapers, which contain explicitly pornographic images.’ (Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future

edited by Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow)

Another organization of Japanese housewives  fought successfully against the vending machines which sold porn on the streets during the 1980s.

Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow, the Japanese editor of Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future, draws a clear “second-wave feminist” link between pornography and violence against women. I admire her work. The example she cites is interesting from a radfem point of view, because it involves a prostitute killing a john:

The theme of pornography in comics, videos and advertising is the use of the nude or partly nude female body or disassociated parts of female bodies. Depictions of women bound, beaten and raped are crude and highly suggestive. Apologists for pornography emphasize that it is not reality but, rather, fantasy, not fact but fiction. …


The death of a john during a struggle with a prostitute in a hotel room in the Ikebukuro section of Tokyo in 1987, after he filmed her with his video camera, exemplifies the link between pornography and sexual crimes, the symbiosis of prostitution and pornography, and the difficulty of drawing a clear line between fiction and fact. While verbally abusing and physically torturing the woman, the man forced her to repeat after him like a parrot. “A woman’s vagina is a man’s public toilet.” Fearing for her life, the woman tried to break loose. They fought, and, as a result, he died. The film and tape recording made by the dead man were proof enough of the unequal power between the prostitute and the man who paid for her, yet the woman was arrested on charges of murder. Although the charges were later reduced to “excessive defense,” that she was prosecuted at all is  a clear indication of society’s insistence that all women fulfill the passive, objectified role presented in pornography and advertising.

The incident is notable for several recurring characteristics: one, in most instances of prostitution there is coercion; two, pornography, claimed to be harmless fantasy, is based on the negation of women’s existence as human beings; three, the mass media that report such incidents are owned by men. Had the incident resulted in the death of the prostitute, the pornographic film and tape would have been enjoyed, and judged by men to have been a fabrication, and the newspapers would simply have reported that a woman had been found dead in a hotel room.”

She then goes on to describe recorded incidences of men and high school boys, who acted out their pornographic fantasies of killing women in real life (resulting in real, dead women).

None of the above is new, or surprising to radfems. Radical feminists are now able to articulate the extent to which the pornography phenomenon exists and we know, thanks to Mary Daly, that women needed to find the words to name what was happening. Dworkin used the tool of naming to describe what porn was and feminists began seriously critiquing it. I am grateful to Gail Dines for writing “Pornland” because it brought me up to date on the kind of porn being produced in the US and UK. But what I am trying to say, I think, is that the Japanese have taken the creativity of patriarchal necrophilia to another level, because there is just so much  of the shit here.

It’s hard to put into words the way that Japanese porn draws an parallel, and a link, between female sexuality and female death. I need more words. I don’t have the necessary ones. I know Sade’s women ended up dead in his novels. But I feel that porn, and popular culture in the West goes out of its way to show that sex and rape, although degrading, although painful, do not cause death. Correct me if I’m being naive here.

Radical feminists have pointed out that intercourse (PIV) is dangerous to women because pregnancy, under patriarchy, is dangerous to women. Women lose their lives to pregnancy and childbirth all the time. So “sex” is not a benign activity. It also causes women to catch, and die of, diseases. Western (American/British/German) porn seems to try to attempt to minimize and invisibilize the harm. However, the message you get from Japanese porn is that female death is a beautiful and erotic thing to behold. I can’t explain it. It’s as though they go one step further. They’re showing that the killing of a woman is poetry itself. Pure art.

The killing, therefore, should be done in a properly artistic way, as is fitting with the intellectual posturing that seems to go on in Japanese porn. We have the similar posturing from politicians and writers in the West who define porn as radical, edgy and sometimes revolutionary.

Dear men: there is nothing radical about hurting and degrading a politically and economically disenfranchised group of people.

I have since learned that prestigious and famous Japanese artists, those who are celebrated in the public eye and who are shown in galleries around the world, have drawn pornographic pictures of women nearing death, or dead. They date from the 19th century, but the artistic and creative practice of binding criminals  with rope in order to torture them to death dates back further. Women, remember, have been regarded as criminals under the flimsiest of pretexts. Prostitutes are criminals, by default.

I went into the home of a man (European) who was involved in Japanese pornography. He had all kinds of paintings on the walls of his house, but there is one that I remember well because I just couldn’t quite believe what I was looking at. The setting was Japan. It was a Japanese painter. Women were being brought on a ship, by men, to an island, where the victims– all women– were stripped naked, tortured, beheaded, and their heads were put on stakes. I kept staring at this painting because I just couldn’t believe that such a huge and glorified piece of art, from a renowned painter, was showing what my eyes were telling me it was. Women being lead to their death.

But the hanging women are the worst.  Artistic depictions of pregnant women, hanging upside down, one dying while an old hag presides over her. Women hanging, slowly dying, while men smoke, drink and play cards in the corner of the room. Old women, hanging. Women of ideal beauty, hanging with their genitals on show. Women orgasming while hanging, with a particular look on their faces that I now realize is supposed to depict the shame of being exposed coupled with sexual pleasure. And another one that stood out for me: a woman in a kimono with autumn leaves falling about her, Autumn leaves representing the beauty of her death. All the women are intricately bound into varying contortions and positions by rope (the tying and binding itself being classed as an “art” in its own right.)

These images are the inspiration for Japanese pornographers today. A popular image is women in snow. Seasons are important in Japan. I have seen images of women, real women, whose hands and feet are so cold that they are blue. Not only from the cold, but from the ropes which cut off their circulation. Photographers proudly take pictures of the damage the rope has caused on flesh. The images are easily googleable. Real women. Real rope. Real trees. Real snow.

The genre has spread. It is popular now in the US, the UK and Germany, as well as Eastern Europe. It is almost exclusively white women who are used in these countries, and the pornography niche is driven by white men. In case anyone tries to romanticize this, I should mention that the degradation of the women is absolute. Faeces and enemas, designed to be as humiliating and disgusting as possible, are part and parcel of this “style” of pornography, both in the West and in Japan.

There is nowhere left for this post to go because it’s not an analysis, it’s just a description of what I’ve seen, and a pondering on to what extent Japanese pornography affects Japanese women today. If I was to attempt to draw a conclusion, it might be that the clear link between female sexuality and death is absolutely terrifying for any woman who beholds the images commonly shown in Japanese porn.  These images infer that no woman matters. A woman’s death is less than meaningless, less than incidental. Daly talked of the banality of death under patriarchy. Death becomes banal when it happens too often, when life has been devalued too much, making it easily expendable. But you get another feeling when you see Japanese porn. Her death is banal, yes. Inevitable, yes. But you realize in the way the image lingers on the eroticism of her death that the slow death is there to be enjoyed, in a sexual sense, in all its beauty. Dworkin wrote of how the photographs of Jewish women in the death camps upped the antes in terms of pornography, that they surpassed Sade’s greatest dreams and expectations. But they are almost rivaled by Japanese porn.  There is no sense of her childhood dreams having turned to dust. Or that she is completely alone and in pain. Or that somebody might be waiting for her to come home. Because her death has surpassed even banality. On the contrary, she will remain pornography until her body finally decomposes in the ice.