”What other pleasures shall we rediscover tonight? We’re in the right part of town for it.”
“I don’t know. How about one of those image clubs where I can play company president and screw my ‘secretary’ on the desk? Or maybe a soapland. How much would it cost to have two or three naked woman soap me up with their bodies?” The saké is clearly taking effect.
“Gion is for men,” I remind him. “Rich men.”
“Perhaps, but foreign women are the ‘third sex.’ Legend has it you possess magic powers...”
"Ukiyo" by Donna George Storey, from Best American Erotica 2006
SB: Apropos of the success of books and movies like “Memoirs of a Geisha”— What do you think Americans miss, from these portrayals of erotic traditions in Japan?
DGS: I’m by no means an expert on geisha or Japanese prostitution, but I have spent a few evenings at fine restaurants and hostess bars in Kyoto’s Gion and have read a lot on the topic both as part of my graduate work and for pleasure—the floating world plays such an important role in Japanese literature, it’s hard to avoid it.
What Geisha Means
Most people probably already know that geisha means “artist” and geisha in Kyoto and Tokyo (as opposed to the downscale hot spring variety) are not prostitutes. They may indeed have a rich patron on the side, but their professional duties include dance or musical performances and a sort of stilted flirtation that, even for those fluent in Japanese, is an acquired taste.
Westerners who’ve experienced an outrageously expensive geisha party are invariably disappointed. Yes, geisha can tie cherry stems into interesting shapes with their tongues, but the word most use to describe the games and banter is “childish.” I think the reason anything with the word “geisha” sells so well in the West is that for us it is shorthand for the floating world (“ukiyo” or the more contemporary term is the “water trade”), which includes all possible varieties of the exchange of sexual attention for money, from the expensive smiles of a lovely young hostess to a hot-towel handjob in a pink salon.
My sense is that inner reaches of this world
are mostly still off-limits to foreigners (they’re so big and hairy and
their behavior is still so unpredictable), except perhaps through the
introduction of a native with proper connections. This makes it all
the more alluring to us.
But while we Westerners keep chasing the image of the geisha, expecting to pick up some esoteric sex position or exotic, mind-blowing variation on fellatio, what a geisha really sells her clients is an illusion, the chance to be part of a bygone age for a few hours. Perhaps this is true of the sex industry everywhere, but the fantasy is more important than the actual physical act.
“The Floating World”
The floating world was also the heart of Japanese literary and artistic culture for three centuries, the only place where the Japanese could really escape from a politically repressive society. Even today, it remains a sort of parallel universe where a man who burdened with work responsibility by day can relax and be indulged, like a child.
That’s another point Westerners tend to overlook, probably because our culture has tried its best to separate the maternal and sexual natures of women, but the dynamic between a bar owner/hostess/professional dispenser of handjobs and her client very often has strong whiff of mom. While fresh, young faces and bodies are always in demand, a skilled older woman can be even more appreciated by the connoisseur (and in fact, most geisha, especially today, are middle-aged).
The Japanese Man's Sexual Persona
A lot of American men sprain their shoulders patting themselves on the back for being the most evolved and enlightened males on the planet and point to the Japanese as the most boorish. All stereotypes have some truth behind them, but the buck-toothed, tour-guide-following Japanese male of our popular imagination can be quite a different fellow on his home turf.
We have to remember that for the magic to work at all, the geisha’s performance requires the proper audience, a man of courtliness, discernment and wit. Toshiro Mifune aside, we just don’t have many models of this sort of charismatic, confident Japanese man here in America—and they definitely exist, especially habitués of the elite levels of the water trade.
To get personal for a moment, it’s hard to pass up the chance to say that I was equally surprised by my (admittedly less-than-exhaustive) experience with Japanese boyfriends. Every one had a certain gentleness and sensitivity in intimate encounters, a lack of raw ego that was so much a part of my relationships with Americans. Every one knew what a clitoris was and where it could be found--the same, alas, could not be said for my American partners!
I am married to an American, and I have no complaints at all, but I did want to point at that it’s hard to base a fascinating erotic tradition on the charm and skill of one gender alone.
(Just in case anyone is interested in further information, two of the most educational works of nonfiction I’ve read on Japan’s “night side” are Anne Allison’s Nightwork and Nicholas Bornoff’s Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. Both authors did extensive up-close and personal research and the results are entertaining as well as enlightening.)
SB: Do you think many geishas are lesbians in their private life, just as many American "courtesans" are?
DGS: Again, I don’t feel qualified to present an expert’s answer here--this is more of a conjecture on my part--but since a woman working in the floating world is playing a role, it does make sense to me that it would easier to do this night after night when your real life and your real desires are something rather different.
There is no question that Japanese society in general and the geisha world in particular is more rigidly gendered, so in that sense, everyone in Japan has more experience of a homosocial nature. This is part of the foundation of the gender-bender theme of my story, “Ukiyo.”
What “Foreign” Women Get Away With.. And What They Can’t
Foreign women do occupy an interesting “in-between” position on the gender spectrum. As outsiders we have a certain freedom from the limitations of proper feminine behavior (At least at first. The longer I stayed, the more my friends tried to encourage lady-like propriety, like carrying a handkerchief and making sure my toes pointed inward when I was sitting on a chair). It’s not unusual to have a Japanese man to take a foreign woman around to bars and clubs and give her the sort honored treatment that is not much different from they way they’d treat a male foreign guest.
On the other hand, I did get to experience an intimacy with the female side of Japan that would make any Japanophile man jealous. The Japanese like cute, young things, be they Pokemon or women, and I was well spoiled. Being dressed up in kimono (as I was many times as part of my study of traditional Japanese dance) is a very sensual thing, all of these hands wrapping and binding you, pushing scarves into the sash which sits right at breast level. The ladies’ side of the public bath is a steamy world of dreams, all of those naked women languorously soaping their bodies.
Still as a woman I couldn’t experience certain things—the evening that is the basis for the first part of “Ukiyo” was spent in company of the fairly wealthy husband of one of my students. He and his colleague sent me home in a taxi around eleven and went off somewhere else—I’ll never know what they did (ah, the power of mystery again) and if I were male, I might have been invited along. Or maybe not. But it was this “pleasure crawl” that intrigued me and led me on my own journey of the imagination.
SB: What do you think contemporary Japan thinks of American sexuality? What are their stereotypes about us? How do they relate to puritanism?
DGS: American society certainly does have a glaring strain of Puritanism when it comes to sexuality (I mean this in the popular sense of the world, not the more interesting historical Puritanism of premarital “bundling” and other such customs).
Western religion reaches right inside the individual to exert a very effective form of control--take natural instinct like sex and set up all kinds of limitations, like masturbation is bad, and someone will always be breaking them and feeling guilty about it!
From personal experience however, I’d say the Japanese seemed to have the impression that Americans are more highly sexed and animalistic in physical matters, and that we’re all having the kind of gorgeous, rollicking sex you see in Hollywood movies.
It seems to be a universal that other cultures have better sex than our own. We think Europeans and Asians are more sexual and they think we, especially women, are loose and easy targets. Again, the stereotype may have some validity. People who travel abroad tend to be interested in adventure, and sex is always an adventure, if not always a happy one.
The Occupation still casts a shadow over U.S.-Japan sexual relations. One friend reported in all seriousness that the Occupation soldiers introduced homosexuality to Japan. This flies in the face of much historical and literary evidence stretching back the tenth-century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, but he seemed to believe it.
Study English, Study Sex
I’ve also noticed that many of the erotica
anthologies that include my work are listed in the catalogs of Japanese
bookstores. I know erotica is a popular way to “study” English. Back
in the eighties when I lived in Japan, you could count of a big stack
of copies of 9 1/2 Weeks in
any English language section of a bookstore. So, for what it’s worth,
a good portion of foreign fiction read in Japan is erotic fiction and
I’m sure that influences their perception of us as well.
SB: I love your description of how the Japanese don't "come," they go. I'd love to hear any more Japanese erotic expressions or slang that have captured your imagination.
DGS: I’ve always been intrigued by the reversal of “come” and “go” and I was glad to have a chance to use it in a story! This is reflected in the common usages of the verbs as well.
In Japanese you only say “come” to refer to movement toward the place where you are located right now. If you were about to visit a friend, you’d say to her, “I’ll be going right over in five minutes.” I’m not sure if this suggests the Land of Orgasm is an otherworldly, foreign visit for Japanese and a homecoming—or the end of a race—for us. It might be interesting to do a comparison of expressions of orgasm the world over in mental geographical terms (a future research project, perhaps!)
I have a couple of other favorite sexual images, one being the use of the word “momo” or peach to describe female genitals.
I’d heard the term before I went to live in Japan, but the aptness of the description didn’t strike home until I tried a fresh Japanese peach, which has pinker flesh than the yellow cling peaches of my youth, and is far softer and very juicy and messy to eat.
Another term I like is an old fashioned term for shunga, or “spring pictures,” Japanese traditional pornography, which is “laughing pictures.”
A slang term for masturbation was “laughing,” which gives the act a merry, jolly quality we don’t seem to be able to allow in our culture.
Another fascinating window into the Japanese erotic imagination are the pornographic comics. In the early nineties a subgenre called “ladies’ comics” came out, the target audience supposedly being women. A colleague interviewed a few ladies’ comics artists and was amused to find dainty housewives in Hello Kitty slippers answering the door.
As a dainty housewife who just got a Hello Kitty thong for Christmas, I’m not so shocked. Anyway, I was struck by a number of fantasies that just never showed up in American erotica.
One “telling” example that I’ve seen several times involves a man overpowering a woman in a vulnerable position—for example hearing his co-worker peeing in a coed restroom gives him license to enjoy her sexual favors—then after some foreplay, forcing her to describe her aroused genitals. The act of speaking the unspeakable in a culture which prizes wordless communication, forcing a woman to describe the pink color and soft texture and the fact her vulva is wet with desire, etc, engages a powerful taboo.
The implicit acknowledgment is that the woman has examined herself and knows herself sexually to that degree. Not that such a scene has never appeared in American erotica, but the repetition in Japanese porn is an interesting window into the culture.
SB: You're studied erotic writing, and writing in general. What have you gained from those experiences, whether intentional or inadvertent, good or bad?
DGS: I’ve been writing for about eight years now and there’ve been times when working with a teacher has been just the right thing for me to be doing and times when I’ve needed to be off on my own to listen to the voices in my head without the interference of any “shoulds” no matter how helpful.
In my erotica writing class, we had an assignment to write about the last time we had sex, and I was surprised at how powerful it was for me, a fiction writer, to try creative nonfiction.
I also took away a nice collection of tools for working at the basic level of language. Vivid, specific descriptions are always preferred, but erotic writing is one place where you have to be judicious. In my early work I was always mentioning that it was the fingers of his left hand squeezing her right nipple. Since the class, I’ve realized that “fingers” and “nipple” alone will give the necessary effect far more elegantly.
But a class can’t do the deep work for you. In looking back, I realize that the stories I’ve written that have been most successful in terms of publication and audience reaction are those that draw on memories and obsessions that have been with me for a long time.
The Beginnings of This Story
“Ukiyo” began to take shape twenty years ago on a magical evening in 1984. I copied the menu from my journal, but I didn’t need any notes to remember the hostess in the red bar touching all of her orifices for the benefit of the drunken client. It’s also interesting to see that my Japanese stories all have a similar theme, the foreigner’s inability to connect with the culture as intimately as she desires. This makes writing better than therapy, in my opinion, and based on my less inspiring classes in college, I could see where a workshop environment with the wrong set of critics could crush the life out of your fiction.
A class or two helps a lot along the way but the only opinion that matters is the writer’s own, and she has to keep her fingers crossed an editor and/or publisher will see the merit of a piece.
SB: In my intro to this BAE edition, I noted that I turned in my manuscript the day the Andrea Dworkin died. With hindsight, what, if anything, of Dworkin's influence made a difference with you?
DGS: I’m forty-four now, which puts me at the end of the baby boom generation, old enough to remember the excitement of “women’s liberation,” but not lucky enough to have been in the thick of it. I consider myself a feminist, but I always felt a little behind the curve.
I picked up a copy of Dworkin’s Intercourse in Japan in the mid-eighties (which was stocked for English conversation study and I’m sure most of the guys who bought it were pretty disappointed!) I remember being impressed at her boldness, although I did not agree with all of her points, as I was just learning to appreciate the enjoyable parts of intercourse. But I agree that Dworkin and Kate Millet and Robin Morgan and all feminist writers who pushed the envelope gave the rest of us an exciting sense of possibility of what we could think and say.
The repressive anti-porn phase, where Dworkin climbed into bed with moral majority right wing types, was useful in a different way because it helped me to articulate, at least to myself, why I wanted to be part of an open dialogue on the erotic. I believe that the only way for women to become empowered sexually is for them to take an active role in creating the images and the fantasies that express our desires and experiences—that is, talking back to the traditional porn industry.
The Perils of Erotic Writing
The other day at a holiday party I was telling someone about my forthcoming story in Best American Erotica 2006 and he said, “Well, I hope you don’t get type-cast as an erotica writer.”
I was dumbstruck because this seems like such an outdated response. The existence of BAE, going strong after more than a decade, is itself proof that erotica is taken seriously as literature.
But to be realistic, I’m sure many more people out there still consider sex as unworthy of intelligent and serious (which can also be playful) attention.
I disagree, and that’s why a nerdy, voted most-likely-in-the-class-to-become-a-librarian, good girl like me feels inspired and compelled to write on sexual themes. Whether Dworkin’s ghost would allow it or not, I believe any man or woman who “speaks the unspeakable” and tests taboos is carrying on the spirit of feminism and helping women claim their power. Really.
Donna George Storey’s website
Ukiyo-E images from Jim Breen's Gallery, with much annotation.