Games of leather and rubber. Not video games, but real games with impossible heels and spankings. Those might be the trappings of S&M, but in Japan, S&M isn't only about trappings or artifice. It's something deeper.
Take this week's news that Kansai's JR West punished train drivers and staff by forcing them to clean toilets after train delays. Japanese trains are notoriously punctual, and being late is measured in seconds. The toilet cleaning was part of "dayshift education" and meted out as punishment for digressions like being three minutes late to work. An Osaka district court ruled that forcing train drivers to clean toilets or cut weeds was illegal and infringed on person rights.
Cleaning toilets is military punishment. It also factors into BDSM in both the West and Japan. It's dirty. It's power. Forcing train drivers to clean the loo was as much about humiliating them as punishing them. It's a tradition, of sorts. There's a scene in the excellent 1997 flick Bounce Ko Gals in which schoolgirl prostitutes are hired, not for sex, but to clean urinals.
Sexual gratification from public humiliation is universal, which is why you sometimes see people licking boots in a park in Brooklyn in the good old USA. But what is uniquely Japanese?
"I think, generally speaking, that Japanese people are kind of masochistic," Metal Gear cosplayer Omi Gibson told Kotaku. "That might be one reason why Japan has taken to S&M." Another reason, she said, is that elements of it exist in Japan's distant past. "That's why you see it popping up in manga and anime—and have been for years."
There's a long history of S&M in Japan that exists outside the Western BDSM subculture. That history starts with Japanese torture hundreds of years ago during the medieval days of the Sengoku Period. (You thought the Sengoku Period was just handsome heroes like in Sengoku Basara? Wrong.) By the 18th century, the Tokugawa government instituted seven kinds of torture: whipping, weighing stone stabs on thighs, shrimp binding, and rope suspension. These continue to be used in Japanese S&M today.
"In Japan, a lot of people take S&M as one type of art. I think so, too."
"I think one of the major differences between Japanese and Western S&M is asanawa, which wasn't used in America or Europe until somewhat recently," Yuka Kamijyou recently told Kotaku. Asanawa is an expensive type of rope that's treated with specific oils. And Kamijyou is tied up with it for her job, working professionally as a masochist. "In Japan, a lot of people take S&M as one type of art," said Kamijyou. "I think so, too."
During the late 19th century, S&M began finding its way into Japanese bedrooms, with the Japanese artist Seiu Ito perfecting the art of his paintings, but also the art of kinbaku or "tight binding". According to Kamijyou, learning the complex knots takes time and practice. Making a mistake can injure your partner. "Rope is very dangerous," a predominant rope artist told Tokyo Journal, adding that it can paralyze.
M (masochistic) girls like Kamijyou might dress in more traditional clothing for rope art, drawing upon Japanese history. Rope artists are usually men; however, as Kamijyou pointed out, there are females who bind other women or men. They usually dress as Western-style dominatrixes, but there are a handful of female rope sensei who dress in traditional Japanese garb. In the years following World War II, America did help expand the rights of women; however, Japan has been progressive about empowering women on things, such as education (the first novel in the world was written by a Japanese woman!), so simply equating female dominance and female submission with Western and Japanese clothing is an oversimplification.
Clothing does make for an easy separation. For example, a character like Bayonetta is quickly identified as an S (sadistic) character. Her glasses, her high heels, and even the way she speaks are all visual tropes for sadistic types in Japan. Western-game loving porn star Noa stars exclusively as a dominant female in Japanese adult videos. In many ways, she also incorporates many of the same visual cues, whether that be glasses, a frosty demeanor, and Western-style fetish wear. Of course, glasses do not simply equate sadomasochism in Japan and are wrapped with multiple meanings.
When the 20-something-year-old Kamijyou isn't working, she's frequenting the countless S&M bars and salons in Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya. It might be a bar, but participants aren't drinking, for safety reasons. "No drugs of course," she added, "and not even sex." For Kamijyou and others, it's all about the performance.
A lot of people also see S&M, especially Japanese S&M, as violence against women, but not Kamijyou. "As far as I know, most M girls prefer to be M girls, and are not forced to be so—including myself," said Kamijyou. "A lot of M-girls feel better and confident when they think of themselves as a M-girl, so, it is hard to say they are actually victims." It's people being comfortable with their sexuality—judge them all you want. But just as Japan has professional slaves, there are endless professional dominatrix, dishing out pain for pleasure to their subservient males. "Some people might misunderstand S&M as violence, but it's not," said Kamijyou. According to her it requires sensitivity and deep trust.
And it's become increasingly normal. That isn't to say the entire nation of Japan is explicitly practicing S&M (it isn't!), but Japanese television has increasingly become aware of S&M archetypes. It's not uncommon for popular male actors to admit they are ドM (masochistic) or beautiful female singers to say they are ドS (sadistic). In a recent interview, Aya Ueto, one of Japan's most popular stars admitted that she got along with the director of a recent film because she's masochistic, and he's sadistic. Ueto wasn't talking explicitly about S&M, but rather, about being dominant and passive in a working relationship. The terms can have even broader meanings, completely non sexual ones, such as, for example, being mischievous or mean for ドM.
Japan likes to divide people into categories and subcategories or "kei" (系). Japanese variety shows are a pastiche of different types, whether that be male or female: there are dumb types, cool types, funny types, and usually fat or ugly types. Increasingly, the terms "S" and "M" are used as personality markers. Fans chatter online about which members of boy band (and Nintendo pitchmen) Arashi are S-types and which ones are M. Two-person comedy acts like Ninety-Nine are divided into the straight man and the funny man, but in a world where Japanese comedy is often physically painful and embarrassing. Thank comedian Beat Takeshi, whose Famicom game Takeshi's Challenge is the most sadistic game ever made, for that.
Japanese television can be both incredibly sadistic and masochistic, with famous celebrities (both male and female) being forced to wear embarrassing outfits and being forced to do humiliating things. More often than not, it's for comedy, because cruelty is one element of great comedy. But sometimes programs can come as off as too cruel—such as when overweight comedian Naomi Watanabe appeared on one reality show that had her eat a lot of food to gain more weight.
This is perhaps the masochistic streak Omi was talking about. But as the viewer, we become sadistic consumers watching as the scene plays out. Or when popular fighting game characters like Mai Shiranui appear in PSP title Queen's Blade covered in white goo, the viewer once again, virtual or not, plays a part in the dominance and degradation. It's a powerplay, and with so much of sexuality in the media, the viewers play a central role. Gaming gives players control that passive media does not, empowering them. But as difficult Japanese games like Demon's Souls have proven, video games can also bend players to their will.
"I have strong masochistic tendencies," Omi told Kotaku. That's why, as a gamer, she's drawn to characters who have elements she doesn't. "As an M, I like M characters, too, but M characters who can be S when they need to be," said Omi. "I guess that's why I like Metal Gear Solid's Cyborg Ninja—he's the ultimate M, who is also S." And at times, so is Japan.