Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Put your clothes on, David

The town fathers discuss the newcomer to town
One of the first things I ever heard about Japan was from the minister of my church back in the 1950s, when I was growing up.  It was during a Pilgrim Fellowship outing.  The pastor stayed in a cabin with all the boys and there were a couple women along to chaperone the girls in another cabin.

The pastor used the occasion to give us boys a sermon on the importance of modesty.  It’s perfectly all right, he said, to disrobe in front of other boys, illustrating the point by splashing his naughty parts with talcum power after we had all showered together – I had never seen anybody do that before.  We didn’t have genitals in our house growing up.

But one must be extremely careful to show respect for girls by never letting them see you with your shirt off unless you were swimming or something like that.  He then told us about his days as a chaplain in occupied Japan right after the war.  “We had to teach the Japanese modesty,” he said, almost as an aside.   “They used to take baths together, men and women, and when they travelled overnight on the train, they’d strip down in the aisles before climbing into bed.  No shame at all!”

I thought that was weird, and I knew instantly it was terribly wrong.  What primitive people.   It must have been difficult after the war, teaching them about democracy and decency and so much else.  Thank God I live in a country with such wonderful values.  The Marshall Plan.  Lessons in decency.  So much we have to offer the world.

The Japanese learned their lessons well.   Mixed bathing is no more, although I have heard there are some outposts where it still occurs when nobody outside the region is around.  And I remember sitting in an onsen in Northern Japan once where the men were bathing and the women had to pass through to get to the women’s section.  The convention was they had to shield their eyes.

In public restrooms women come in all the time to clean the urinals without worrying that there are dozens of men doing their business.   The fact that these are always older women, and never sweet young things, defines the limits.

I remember how surprised I was the first time I went into the history of homosexuality in Japan to learn how open it once was, given that when I first went to live there in 1970 homosexuality was even more taboo than it was here.  There was a time, though, not so long ago, when it was anything but taboo.  The ancient samurai had their boyfriends much as the ancient Greeks did.  Now that fact tends to get flushed out of the history books, homosexuality being a modern-day no-no.

How did it get to be a no-no?  The same missionaries teaching the people not to get into their jammies on the train in front of others, I suspect.  Today, Japan has a huge porno industry, male sexuality being what it is.  But for some bizarre reason, while you can see all sorts of quite explicit kinky stuff in the manga, the comic book, the salary man is reading on the subway next to you, if it’s not in manga form, but actual photos, the genitals must be pixelated.  You can see an erect penis.  But you are required to see it blurred.

Modesty, or lack of it, is a curious thing.  In some places women are expected to hide their ankles.  In others their hair.  In Japan, a woman in a kimono is covered with tons of wrapping, but her collar emphasizes her bare neck, all the more erotic for being the only flesh you see.

I haven’t thought about this in a while, but all these thoughts came rushing back this morning when I read that in the town of Okuizumo, near the Sea of Japan, folks have their you-know-whats in a knot because one of their local boys made good and decided to gift his home town with some art.  He decided on two of his favorite statues – the Venus di Milo and Michelangelo’s David.  Had a Chinese artist make copies and planted them in the public square. 

Problem is, David isn’t wearing any underpants, and some parents think it just isn’t appropriate for children to see what makes it Michelangelo’s David and not Michelangelo’s Mary Lou, although she would probably not get a free pass, either.

Don’t you love it how people use children as an excuse to run from their own sexual hang-ups?  Even today, Japanese families sleep with their small children and they take baths with them as well.  There may actually be a Japanese child of five somewhere who has never seen the body of a naked adult, but I wouldn’t bet on it.   This complaint has got to be coming from an adult – or a number of adults – who learned his or her lesson from the American occupation all too well.

Prudes have always been around.  In the west, the problem was solved by putting fig leaves over the naughty parts.

It would appear the good folk of Okuizumo have never heard of fig leaves.   I can hear the debate in the city council now.  “I suppose we could put fig leaves over the you know…that place.”

“But then the backside would still be showing.”


Underpants it is.

“Dovunque al mondo…” sings Captain Pinkerton, Madame Butterfly’s American lover.  “Everywhere in the world the American Yankee travels…sinks his anchor at random….”  And takes what he wants.  That was Puccini showing a disdain for American imperialism, spreading American ways for the dubious benefit of the rest of the world.

Wonder what Puccini would have said had he lived to see Pinkerton replaced by American missionaries. 

Same spreading of American values.

Only this time it’s all about underpants.

photo credit

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