Many outsiders bemoan the lack of masculinity in anime and other Japanese media. For a lot of anime fans or just weeaboos in general, however, they simply just accept and embrace this reality as another quirk of Nippon.
Let’s take a brief look at the visual representation of Japanese men and its underlying causes.
The quick and dirty answer to the question of this entry’s title is simply nowhere. For all the cosmetic changes on the outside, relatively little has changed in terms of social dynamics. Perhaps the common Japanese protagonist is a little broodier, sulkier than before (see: Shinji, Squall… hell, all of them), masculinity remains largely traditional, i.e. ridiculous levels of personal sacrifice to save the world, rescue and protect the damsel in distress, etc. In general, you’re still required to have a penis to “play the game,” so to speak.
So if men haven’t really changed all that much on the inside, why do they have to be so fruity looking on the outside? That’s the common complaint I always hear from non-anime fans, especially when the latest JRPG comes out.
When the hype of FFXII started to hit gamers, many were excited for the revolutionary battle system, but just as many complained about Vaan and how “gay” he looked. But he isn’t gay, and in the game, he acts just like any other typical teenage boy. So what if he “looks gay?” Do we in the West suddenly have the say on what constitutes manliness? As is often expected when cultures clash, people have a difficult time understanding that different societies have different standards. This becomes especially true when societies in general tend to assign normative values to absolutely subjective realities, i.e. there’s something wrong with you as a man if you don’t look a certain way.
But beauty standards will always change. Centuries ago, portly old men with beards got off on their plump 12 year old wives.
And just look where we are now.
So for Japan, it’s not that the burly or hunky Japanese male never existed. Masculine looks have merely been re-defined. I know a history lesson is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a necessary one to truly understand the social context that gave rise to this change. As the equality gap narrowed between men and women, you increasingly needed more than power, wealth and status to attract the desired female in modern society. In other words, men started to preen and obsess over their physical appearance. These “fruity” metrosexuals we see on TV nowadays might seem like they preen more than regular ol’ manly men, but that’s a misconception. Every person has a certain look or image they strive to maintain. Those guys that mock metrosexuals? They try their damn hardest to come off as normal, to fit within the status quo. In contemporary Japan, however, we might view men’s attention to beauty as a reaction and thus it might seem somewhat exaggerated.
We’ll start with the immediate aftermath of WW2. From the 1950s to 1970s, a “bushy Euroamerican” became the forefront of Japanese male beauty, with “[Charles] Bronson [as] one of the most popular advertising models through years of commercials for Mandom, the Japanese men’s cosmetics firm.”
Sean Connery was also another sex symbol, especially for his chest hair (more on this later).
But a change occurred in the mid 70s and this change is what the contemporary metrosexual look of Japan is largely reacting to. As always in this blog, we must understand the change alongside pop culture.
From 1975 and through the 80s, The Super Sentai Series defined heroism for a lot of Japanese young boys, whose closest male models were their dads. What is it about these costume-clad fighters that could possibly relate to Japanese dads? The answer lies in their relative lack of distinguishing features. When corporate culture started to take over Japan, male beauty standards changed even then. Starting in the 70s, which (not so) coincidentally is when Super Sentai started, there was a shift of the desired male types from “scholar types or athletes to the salaryman as the preferred marriage candidate.” Take a look again at the heroes above and the salaryman below.
It isn’t rocket science. A hero (salaryman) must shed his individuality and put on his costume (business suit) to selflessly fight against evil (be the sole breadwinner of the family). Corporate culture quickly de-eroticized men, preaching a “productivity ideology of standardization, order, control, rationality and impersonality.” Of course, nothing ever lasts forever. The recession of the late 80s and through the 90s did a number on both the salaryman’s psyche as capable providers for the family. As a result, their image took a hit and now their model of maleness is being associated with the oyaji (old men) and thus undesireable.
Oyaji always got the same haircut, always had the same flabby build, always never really bothered with their body hair (legs, chests, arms, you name it). In general, the oyaji are seen as those who really don’t give a damn about their looks. Cause, at the end of the day, the paycheck is all that matters, right? Unfortunately for them, women have changed. More and more women are choosing to abandon the common housewife future for a career, postponing marriage years and years after college. These young women with power their mothers never wielded don’t want to date salarymen because of their conservative “good wife, wise mother” ideal for mates. As a result of this change, aesthetic values followed suit. Look at a ranking of detestable physical attribute according to a magazine poll:
- Chest hair
- Body hair
- Leg hair
- Fat body
- Long hair (on the head)
- Skinny body
- Body odors
- No muscles
- Small penises
Imagine that–the penis, perhaps the epitome of American imagination of manliness, hardly garners any attention. What Japanese women dislike most of all is body hair.
Kimura Takuya (also known as Kimutaku) above is the poster-child of contemporary manliness in Japan: “…female readers of An An magazine have consistently voted Kimutaku the celebrity they like most… In 2004, he captured this honor for the eleventh year in a row. Every year, Kimutaku heads the list of ‘guys we want to have sex with.'” In fact, 72% of women prefer “smooth men” versus the 2% who don’t. Recall the picture of Vaan earlier in the entry with his chest-baring vest. It should now make perfect sense why he’s baring his skinny, hairless chest for the world to see and it isn’t because he’s outrageously fabulous: “The new focus on the slim and smooth male body means that entertainers take every opportunity to flash their bare, oiled torsos in concerts, television dramas, and advertising.” FFXII needed to capture the success of its predecessor, FFX, which starred the equally chest-baring metrosexual Tidus.
Here’s another humorous anecdote for the doubters too (try to get past the “hurr dumb American” implications).
An episode that highlighted the contrast between American and Japanese attitudes toward male body hair happened at the building where I was housed with other foreigners associated with a Japanese university. Japanese students frequently came by to hang out on an upstairs balcony. One day I went up to talk to a small group of them about male beauty work. This school had been an all-male university until only a few years prior, when it began admitting women. There are still very few female students, and the ones who are there have entered by virtue of superior math and science skills, which enabled them to beat out male competitors. All the women I met were highly intelligent, straightforward, serious and unpretentious. As I talked with them on the balcony, an American male student came up and, not understanding, asked for a translation. When I explained that many Japanese women find body hair on men unattractive, which has led to the development of new products and services for male body hair removal, he was incredulous. He refused to believe me, claiming that chest hair in particular indicates that one is a “real man” and that women universally “dig it.” I suggested that different aesthetic sensibilities were in operation, but he continued to protest such an idea. Just then “Naoko,” a female student as bright as any I met, came up to join our group. The American chap, deciding to simply test my theory empirically, lifted his shirt to display his hairy chest, asking her what she thought. Naoko screamed, “How hateful!” (Iya da!) in a shrill voice and ran to hide behind a door, periodically peeking out to whimper at the unspeakable sight.
I hope the conclusion is starting to settle in. After two decades, the salaryman ideal has been thrown out the window. Now associated with oyaji, the natural reaction is the opposite end of the spectrum. Skinny (but still muscular) and smooth bodies now dominate male aesthetics in Japan because they’re all some form of neotiny, a “penchant for youth and downy innocence.” We criticize the male obsession with young girls in Japanese pop culture, but women who fawn over Kimutaku are somewhat guilty of the same idea (though one could hardly compare Kimutaku to say… Kodomo no Jikan).
What does this all ultimately mean? I earlier alluded to the economic recession and the upward status of women as possible causes to the shift in male beauty. In a large part, consumer culture is also the culprit. The salaryman defined himself by his unsung, selfless devotion to work. Self-definition in a consumer age includes the “commodified selfhood,” where men feel the female (or male too) gaze. This entry follows the one on androgyny because one can see the trend in metrosexuality in men as “an outcome of ‘aesthetic communication’ in which men have acquired female sensibilities and bodily sensuality as an aspect of self-expression.”
So really, increased attention in male beauty is just another way of deconstructing and breaking down rigid gender roles and expectations. If you deny that masculinity could include an attention to one’s own looks, you’re denying that men can change. In essence, such critics maintain one universal definition of manliness in which beauty does not belong. But if beauty doesn’t belong with masculinity, it must necessarily be feminine, which would be an antiquated conclusion to make in our post (post?) modern times.