-Anne Allison

ISBN 0-520-21990-2
First published 1996 (Westview Press), current (2000) edition by 1st University of California Paperback.

Based on five years experience in Tokyo, Allison seeks to illustrate the influences of gender and sexuality on contemporary (1980's) Japan, with particular emphasis placed on the status of women in the home, and their impact on the post-war economic success of the country. This is achieved through a consideration of a number of features of Japanese culture, such as manga, media censorship, and the pressures of the gakureki shakai- a society organised along lines of academic pedigree.

Further, she examines the extent to which western psychoanalytic theories of social structure and the nature of desire can be applied to non-western culture such as that of Japan, and particular reference is made to the work of Marx, Freud and Lacan. This issue has proven somewhat problematic for anthropology- to what extent is modern psychoanalysis western or eurocentric, and can it therefore be applied to other cultures at all? On the one hand, a subject shaped around western values may be of little value (or possibly even counterproductive) in explaining factors in Japanese (and other non-western, non third-world) culture; yet on the other these inaccuracies cannot be resolved into a theory that generalises without broadening the point of view to contradictory sources.

A central argument advanced within Allison's book is that of Japanese social values, family relationships and sense of self are shaped by a maternal principle. Whilst Freud's assumption that children become adults through the adoption of a place within a social order shaped by the psychological desires of the self is accepted, the universal model of the nature of those desires is questioned. According to Freud's Oedipal model, it is the presence of the father (and the castration threat he symbolises) that requires a child to form an identity and love life outside of the family. However, a model more suited to Japanese culture known as the Ajase complex was first advocated by a key figure of Japanese Psychoanalysis, Kosawa Heisaku, in 1932. This model, drawing on a buddhist legend of a woman who kills a sage so that he may be reincarnated as her son, and the subsequent fear, guilt and murderous intent developed in both mother and child before being reconciled in mutual forgiveness, suggests that the father's role is minimal in the maturation of a Japanese child. Instead, family life centers on the mother-child relationship, and rather than this bond being disrupted at adolescence, it evolves into a recognition of the mother as a person rather than an ideal.

In the context of this model of a society dominated by a dyadic mother-child (with a particular focus on mother-son) relationship, Allison considers the effects this has on shaping cultural attitudes to male/female roles and how they correspond to a highly separated perception of work (the male role) and the home (the female role, especially with a view to raising children).

These issues, and a statement of purpose, are set out comprehensively in the first chapter. The analysis begins in chapter 2, which considers the male gaze theory as it applies to Japanese children's cartoons, aiming to resolve the issue of whether naked female bodies always carry a sexual overtone in this medium. The contrast is drawn between ero manga (topic of the following chapter) where the emphasis lies on exposing naked flesh, and children's manga, where the portrayal of nudity tends to be of 'accidental' events, leading to embarrassment for the female and a voyeuristic male reaction before the clothing is restored: rarely is there any further action, sexual or not. This male gaze is generally associated with inaction- literally staring transfixed, be it by partial nudity, an upskirt view of underwear or contour-suggestive clothing.

This divorce of the act of looking from subsequent sexual acts (either in terms of the narrative itself or sexual gratification of the reader/viewer) and its common status as a device in children's entertainment leads Allison to the conclusion that traditional male gaze theories cannot so readily be applied here. The mere act of looking does not carry the psychological or social significance that it would in the west, where looking at naked women is a result of psychic/social change at the onset of adolesence. Hence within the context of children's manga/anime, the male viewer is not necessarily empowered by the act of viewing naked females, due to the continual nature of exposure through childhood both before and after the start of puberty.

Moving on to the subject matter of ero manga, Allison attempts to explain the overwhelming themes of dominance and female victimization and also the unusual status manga holds within the sex industry- namely, that unlike other erotic media, manga are sold and read in everyday places such as train stations and are not necessarily used for sexual release so much as release from the rules and regulations that shape life both at work and at home. Japanese working culture revolves heavily around loyalty and attachment to a a group identity 24 hours a day: an identity that often only gives way to anonymity during long commutes between work and home. Thus the practice of picking up a manga for the start of a journey and discarding it at the end, incorporating leisure activity into a busy schedule, becomes an everyday part of life.

Displaced from the normal expectations of a working or social life, it is perhaps unsurprising that the subject material will stray towards sexual fantasy even in a public environment. The key themes of ero manga- fleeting encounters and obscured identities; superficial sex concerned more with the assertion of power over others than orgasmic release; a notable fixation on penetration by assorted objects- are at odds with standard social expectation, and in fact further the perception of sex as dirty or evil in nature. It is not despite, but because of, this contrast with normal interpersonal relations that Allison argues they become the primary form of escapist fantasy- although there is the worrying blurring of fantasy and reality with illicit groping (chikan) on commuter trains, an enaction of these themes of anonymous sexual gratification through the suffering of another. She also points out that the issues of sex and power are divorced from male genitalia (in a similar way to depictions of naked women are divorced from sexual meaning in children's manga) and could be feminised by, for example, an increasing number of women in the workplace. Allison argues that the chauvinism reinforced by manga will be undermined by such a transfer of women from the traditional realm of the home and into the workplace (and at a slower rate, by men accepting a greater share of the domestic workload). Although the violence is directed at women (in ero manga for women as well as those read by men), it is a reaction against the submission required by Japanese systems of work and school, which place relentless pressure on men and women alike.

In some sense changing tack, in the next three chapters the primary subject of discussion shifts from media portrayal / reinforcement of gender roles, to the effect of existing social structure, in particular the education system. In Japan it is particularly true that the school you go to determines the career you have; and the school you go to is determined by your performance in entrance exams. Given the emphasis placed on the importance of work, the pressure to perform exists even at a very early age and has given rise to a desire for 'education mothers' (kyōiku mama)- women who dedicate their energies to getting their children through school successfully. Thus although the financial success of Japan can be attributed to the work of its men, with fathers so preoccupied with their employment it falls entirely to mothers to ensure that the next generation of workers is as effective.

Considerable discussion is given to the Obentō, elaborate meals consisting of multiple small courses which mothers prepare for their children when they attend nursery. This is given as an example of how the mother and child must work together to ease the transition from home to the group environment of school- something as basic as food takes on ideological meaning, and subsequently a (to western eyes) disproportionate amount of time and energy is dedicated to the creation of Obentōs. Allison suggests that although the education system can be seen as lacking an 'agenda of gender differentiation' at the level of what is taught, practices such as the Obentōs reinforce a state ideology of appropriate roles for women-namely motherhood- at an indirect level- the home:

"Children depend to a high degree on the labour women devote to their mothering, and women are pressured to perform as well as take pleasure in such routine maternal tasks as making the Obentō. Both effects are encouraged and promoted by institutional features of the education system, heavily state run and at least ideologically guided at even the nursery school level."

From this specific example, Allison supplies a study of the broader challenges of being a dutiful education mother, through her experience of having a child attend a buddhist nursery school in Tokyo in the 1980s, and discussions with other mothers of children at that nursery. The extent to which school becomes integrated with everyday routines and life even during holiday time, is considered as a programming of children to adopt a level of productivity that will be required of them further in life- and a programming of mothers 'into and by the same model'. This leads to anxiety and conflict within mothers torn between wanting their child to succeed within this system, yet also to alleviate the burden placed upon them so early on in their development. This conflict is taken to an extreme in the next chapter which retains the theme of roles for women whilst picking up the earlier one of media portrayal of those roles, as the author considers a popular press phenomenon of the 1980s: stories of mother-son incest.

Several examples of such stories are given, and the standard form outlined- a boy becomes distracted by sexual desire at a crucial stage of exam study and to prevent his work from suffering, his dutiful mother offers herself as his lover. The resultant relationship is pleasurable for both parties, leads to the boy becoming a model student and passing his exams- and then the story is left unresolved. It is argued that such stories tended to receive a disproportionate level of interest because they simultaneously shocked and offended whilst tapping these core ideas of gender role- the mother who will give anything to see her son succeed, and the son totally dedicated to success through study. In connection with this, some analysis of the 'coin locker baby' syndrome and its handling by the media is given.

Finally, the nature of censorship of media as pertaining to sexual imagery is highlighted. A detailed explanation of the legal stipulations, the reasons for their implementation and subsequent attempts to push the boundaries and work around the seemingly arbitrary regulations- at the time, no realistic depiction of pubic hair or genitalia- is given. These rules are portrayed as indicative of the attempt to distinguish fantasy or recreational sex from reproduction and the subsequent family structure so vital to maintaining Japanese cultural norms as outlined earlier in the book. Hence whilst challenges are being made to the letter of the law- such as the emergence of hea nūdo (nudes with exposed pubic hair), ultimately the interest in shōjo (young girls) will decline only with a change in the roles given to and accepted by mothers in Japan- with a corresponding shift from a mother-centered family life. Whether this will lead to the feared emergence of western problems - high crime, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse- through erosion of family values will remain to be seen.


I don't profess any kind of expertise in psychoanalysis or Japanese culture; nonetheless Permitted and Prohibited Desires was an extremely interesting read. If you're just looking for information about manga/anime or hentai in particular, look elsewhere: the level of analysis is quite formidable for someone outside the field and I don't claim to have much more of an understanding than what I've set out above. Whilst the book seems to be pulling in two different directions, with the transition from media to mothers and back again, both of these directions seem worth pursuing. The oversight offered into Japanese culture as it stood at the time has helped explain some of the differences I've picked up on through my dabblings with anime, and the psychoanalysis was an unexpected but fascinating bonus, even if I'm not entirely sold on Freudian theories even as they apply to the West. Not sure if I'd read it on the train though :)

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