Recently a Vietnamese-American friend was giving a talk at a local college about Asian-American sexual politics. He pointed out the commonplace that while Asian and Asian-American women from the geisha in Madame Butterfly to the bar girls in Miss Saigon are seen as sensual, exotic creatures, Asian men are typically seen as unattractive, even sexless.
The class was mainly white, with a few Asian Americans and African Americans. They protested that this was an overstatement. My friend asked if any of them had ever found an Asian man attractive.
No one raised their hand.
To me, this shouldn’t be surprising. Growing up Japanese in 1950s America, I never saw an image of an attractive Asian man, much less a Japanese-American man like me. Instead, the heroes and great lovers were all white: Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Marlon Brando. In those years, the typical image of a Japanese male was Mickey Rooney as the buck-toothed, mop-topped bespectacled photographer, screaming at Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, angry at her for constantly ringing his doorbell.
“Miss Go-rightry, Miss Gorightry, I plotest.”
“Oh quiet, you little man. If you promise to be good, I’ll let you take those pictures you asked about.”
I grew up in a white, predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. I was a sansei (third generation Japanese American); I knew no Japanese and spoke with a pronounced Midwestern accent. In high school, I only wanted to date white girls. I saw being with other Asian-American girls as something that was expected of me, and something that relegated me to a secondary status. I wanted to prove that I was as good as the white guys.
It was only after college that I began to go to Japanese movies and see images of Japanese men as heroes, lovers and sexual beings. I had little in common culturally with these figures. But, subtly, they began to alter my own feelings about myself in ways I wouldn’t be able to articulate until years later.
The first Japanese actor I discovered was Toshiro Mifune, the great Japanese star of the post-war period, known for such films as The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. The ultimate samurai, Mifune often portrayed a ronin, a wanderer without a master or
clan. He had no attachments, and his strength lay in the fact that he did not give in to emotions or desires. Always in complete
control, Mifune kept his wits honed to a razor’s edge. He might flirt with the ladies-in-waiting or the courtesans in the castle, but he never lost himself in either love or sexual desire. Such stoicism, his films implied, was the ultimate in sexual power.
In the ’60s, one of Mifune’s counterparts in Japanese cinema was Zatoichi, the blind samurai, a fat, wobbling man who miraculously fought off the hordes of ninjas who were forever ambushing him. Zatoichi ate like a pig and made love the same way, like an animal, like a beast rutting. I took from him a different message: in Japan, even ugly guys get laid.
A third image for me came from the movie In The Realm of the Senses. Released in 1976, it represented part of a sexual revolution that was taking place all across the globe, only with a Japanese twist. Based on a true story, the film depicts a sexually obsessive love affair between a Japanese man and a woman in the 1930s. In one scene, the couple watch a group of soldiers tramp across a bridge. Amid the rise of fascism and militarism in Japan, the lovers remain set apart in a silent protest of passion. In their
heightening sexual experimentation, they begin asphyxiating each other to enhance their sexual pleasure. Things escalate and finally, in a fit of lust or madness or both, the woman chokes the man to death. She then (famously) slices off his penis, clutches it to her chest and carries it through the streets of Tokyo. Watching this, I felt that her devotion arose in part from the man’s absolute willingness to put himself at her mercy. His sexuality came not from either stoicism or hyper-masculinity, but from giving in to the woman’s sexual appetites and power.
I often wonder if any real progress has been made towards a better understanding of the sexuality of Asian men. In Western eyes, are we still just stereotyped geeks and businessmen, or has the recent success of Chinese actors like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat helped re-sexualize all Asian men? I wonder how many Americans are aware of Mifune, Mishima or In the Realm of the Senses? Do attractive Caucasian women who pass me on the street register my glance? Do they register me?
My wife, who is white, grew up with little, if any, knowledge of Japanese or Asian culture. She did, though, grow up in a household with many international visitors, and her father traveled all over the globe. After years of my prodding her about her attraction to me in terms of my ethnic heritage, my wife finally said, “I think I grew up feeling that to be with a white guy would be a bit boring. But being with someone black was still taboo. You were other, but not too other.”
Yes, I told her, that’s part of it. But why Asian? Why not Latino? What does it mean to you that I’m a Japanese American?
She smiled, slightly exasperated. “Oh David, I don’t know.”
Once in a poem I referred to a traditional fertility rite I had seen in a photograph of Japan: A line of women in kimono and geta, each holding a daikon radish carved to the shape of a penis, marching through the streets of their village. Various members of my all-white graduate workshop objected to the image as sexist, even misogynist. I didn’t bother to try to explain what the ritual might hold for me. In that room, there was only one way of reading, one vision of proper sexuality, and it did not include me.
Recalling this incident, I think of the way the woman in In the Realm of the Senses worships her lover’s penis, coos to it, talks to it jealously and possessively. They make love repeatedly, drenching each other in the sweat of their bodies and their sexual emissions. They don’t let the chambermaid change their bedding or intrude on their private realm, shut off by shoji [paper doors], and their own imaginative intensity.
Wrapping a scarf around his neck, twisting it to heighten his orgasm,
she leads him further into oblivion, a blackout just this side of death. The woman murmurs that she feels him jump inside her. She is lost in her own pleasure and feels herself at one with his.
But then their climax subsides, and they are back in their bodies, no longer one but two. She calls to him. He doesn’t respond. She slides off and then cups him in her palm. It takes her several moments to realize he is dead.
After she takes her final possession, she writes her love in blood upon his chest. She wanders out in the rainy, night-stained streets. There are no gaijin [foreigners], no hakujin [whites]. There is only her gaze and the memory of his gaze. There is only night in Tokyo, as the city sleeps.
I keep these images as a talisman. Though I will never know nor enter this foreign world, I return to it in my mind because it is a picture of desire that seems familiar to me: his body resembles mine, his darkness resembles mine, his face resembles mine, his penis resembles mine.
But the other world always intrudes. My world. The one I live and love in, where I’m still trying to understand what it is I desire. And how, despite it all, she desires me.