Salaryman&Sodomia: Homosexuality & the Hegemony of Masculinity in Japan

Salaryman&Sodomia: Homosexuality & the Hegemony of Masculinity in Japan

What it means to be a ‘man’ varies to different people and different cultures. Being ‘male’ and being ‘masculine’ are not the same, and what we view as ‘masculine’ in a certain culture is not a set idea, but changeable over time. However, at a certain time and place society holds a dominant concept of what a ‘man’ is or ought to be.
The concept of ‘masculinity’ creates a certain type of identity. The complex notion of identity is often defined by stating what it is not; we need an ‘Other’ in order to give meaning to the ‘Self’. In this essay I want to explore to what extent homosexuality is the Other to the hegemonized masculinity in Japan. Does homosexuality challenge the hegemony of masculinity?

Sexuality & Society

It has not been very long since sexuality and gender relations, in the 1960s, were first recognized as academic research subjects in the West . Movements like the sexual revolution, feminism and gay liberation have all changed Western understandings of gender and sexuality. Part of this understanding is that sexual embodiment does not belong to some worldwide human nature, but is strongly interwoven with culture and society (Lancaster & Leonardo 1997).
An important insight in the new understanding of gender and sexuality is how gender is constructed through society. ‘Gender’ does not necessarily refer to the difference of sex between men and women, but how this sex-difference is formed by society. The concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ also stems from this way of thinking (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005). The use of ‘hegemony’ in this way derives from Gramsci and it is about ‘the winning and holding of power and the formation (and destruction) of social groups in that process’ (Donaldson 1993: 645). Hegemony involves a convincement of the majority of the people to set a standard on what is ‘normal’. This can happen through media, state and social institutions. Connected to masculinity it thus is an idea of what a ‘normal’ man is, or rather what a normal man is not. Donaldson (1993) states that heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity. In other words: the ‘normal’ man of Western society is definitely not homosexual.
Another important insight is the idea that homosexuality is a relatively recent invention in the West; homosexuality is not a ‘natural’ category of human beings. Although sexual acts between two people of the same sex had been illegal before, this was not categorized as ‘homosexual’. In the late 1800s a new understanding of sexuality came up, where sexual acts and sexual feelings were now considered an important part of identity (Somerville 1997).
Recent developments in gay studies have shown that this categorizing of human beings into hetero- and homosexual, where people are defined through the gender of his/her preferred sexual partner, is problematic; it is not clear who is actually included in the term ‘homosexual’. McLelland (2000a) quotes the American professor Alfred Kinsey who, in 1940, already indicated that human beings cannot simply be divided into two categories:
Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats…Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separate pigeon-holes (1948: 639).
Although academics struggle with terminology on sexuality, the division of people into certain sexual types is deeply rooted in Western society now.

Salarymen & Sodomia

The dominance of Western discourse on sexuality make it problematic to discuss other sexual modalities. It is important to note that perhaps not all human desires can be categorized in the three notions we know in the West: homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual. It is therefore essential to realise the perspective from which we speak, and to reflect on what we know we (do not) know (McLelland 2005).
An example of how hard it is to practice self-reflection can be found in the way in which societies outside of the West are often seen as less ‘liberated’ or less developed due to other ideas on sexuality; many academics see the Western ideas on sexual categories as universal, and acceptance in other countries as ‘necessary’ (2005: 5).
In this light it is noteworthy that Japan, until recently, did not consider sexuality and identity to be related at all (2000a):
Rather, from the end of the nineteenth century, the very notion of the sexual as a distinct realm of human consciousness and experience was being constituted simultaneously in different societies as modernization, including capitalism and colonialism, accelerated the movement of new ideas, cultural practices and people across borders (2005: 3).
The emergence of a resistance towards same-sex sexuality in Japan is actually something that came with modernity, and not before that time. Another thing that came with modernity was a new gender role for the Japanese male, a new model of Japanese ‘masculinity’.

The Hegemonic Masculinity

In the beginning of the twentieth century, along with urbanization and modernization, a new middle class appeared in Japanese society. Donaldson (1993) writes on how social, and in particular, economic formations in society go hand in hand with changing masculine gender roles. This is certainly true for the case of Japan around 1910, when the new term of ‘sarariiman’ emerged to give a name to the office worker in Western clothes who made his way to work with the lunchbox (bento) in his hand. Later on, ‘saraiiman’ (salary man) became the most common, or ‘normal’ label for the city man of the middle class (Gordon 2003).
In the period from 1890 to 1910 there was a rush towards a Western-focused modernity. While Japan was developing capital-intensive, higher technology industries, changes in society were accompanied by a general sense of fear of losing the Japanese identity. Part of this fear was the angst for disorder in gender roles whilst heading for modernity. To ease these feelings of discomfort, new concepts of Japanese ‘tradition’ were formed. Essential in this ‘Japanese-ness’ was an elevation and reinforcement of the imperial authority. For this, the state needed citizens who were loyal to the state, both male and female. For female, this was the role of ‘good wife, wise mother’, whilst the men turned into ‘corporate warriors’ who went outside to work to earn a living and fulfil the duties to the state. In this way the salaryman became the embodiment of the dominant discourse of heterosexual patriarchal industrial-capitalism. The values and behaviour patterns of the salaryman came to be the prescribed way of living for all men (Hastings & Nolte 1991; Dasgupta 2000).

Dasgupta sees the phenomenon of ‘salaryman’ as a ‘performance’. The salaryman behaves and dresses in a certain way to live up to the body he represents. However, most men cannot live up to this role or to this ideal at all. Moreover, as a consequence, this hegemonic role or ideal is in a constant flux and in a constant state of instability (Dasgupta 2000). In other words, you could see the hegemonic masculinity as a carrot-and-stick principle where the man continually moves forward to ‘play’ the ideal masculine ‘role’; a role that is almost impossible to play, and an ideal that is always just out of reach.

The Gay Identity

When discussing the hegemonic masculinity of London, Dasgupta stresses the model of ‘sober, heterosexual, married monogamy’ (2000:291). Kimmel (1994) also puts an emphasis on the homosexual as the ‘Other’; he argues that men in America are constructed to play a rigid and limiting male role where they are afraid to be ridiculed as too feminine by other men. This fear creates homophobia. According to Kimmel, the secret of American manhood is: ‘We are afraid of other men’ (1994: 147). To him, the hegemonic idea of the ‘masculine’ man is equivalent to that of a homophobe. There is an implication in this notion, namely, that the homosexual has a clear identity; clear enough to fulfil the role of ‘Other’ to the hegemonic masculinity. Is this also the case in Japan?

The idea of a certain identity starts by naming it. However, the Japanese language lacks the English equivalent of ‘homosexual’. There are many ways to refer to nonheterosexual relations in Japanese, from the postwar sodomia, to nanshoku, doseiai and to the borrowed words of homo and gei. Nonetheless, these terms do not cover the idea of homosexual as we know it in the English-speaking world (McLelland 2000a; 2005). Every different word that can be used to refer to nonheterosexuals also has another nuance in it in Japanese. A lot of homosexuals do not necessarily relate to these nuances, and therefore cannot find a good way to describe their sexualities.

The mass media in Japan present the homosexual man in terms of certain stereotype identities. In the 1990s there even was a ‘gay boom’; a sudden overflow of magazines, manga, movies and tv-series about homosexuals. Gay men were especially popular with young women who saw the homosexual as the ideal friend. In this way, these media appearances did not seem to be about gay men, but about media fantasies that pleased the consumers’ culture. A gay activist from Japan comments that nobody would find it interesting if the portrayal of homosexuals was ‘normal’ or like ‘daily-life’, since it would not be different enough from heterosexuals (McLelland 2000b; 2005).

The main question is: can we actually speak of a Japanese homosexual identity? And, if so, where is it? According to Conlan (2001), there certainly is a gay identity in Japan. The homosexuals of Japan, however, are not visible since they are too oppressed to ‘come out’, and seek to deny their feelings. In a country like Japan where Confucianist influences are highly valued, heterosexuality is practically a religion. Conlan considers the gay liberation as one of the ‘last frontiers’ of Japan. By saying that Japan in this field has hardly moved forward in the last 25 years, Conlan implies that Japan is still ‘behind’ compared to the West.

McLelland (2000b) is less certain about where or what the Japanese gay identity is. He elaborates on the fact that homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice’ or in terms of ‘sexual rights’ is very rare in Japan and even in the Japanese media (459). He does not see this as oppression at all. Through interviews with homosexual Japanese men, he finds that many men cannot identify with the idea of what being gay is according to the Western sexual concept. They often had flexible and ambivalent feelings about sexual relations with either men or women. For many men, having same-sex desires did not rule out marriage to a woman at all. In some of the cases McLelland mentions, the gay ‘identity’ is not something that the homosexuals aspire. This is probably strongly connected to a notion I mentioned before, which is the relation between sexuality and identity. One interviewee clearly states that sexuality is not the most important aspect of his personhood. Another sees being gay as a ‘personal problem’, and just wants people to know that homosexuality is not unusual but ‘just one kind of love’ (2000b: 466). McLelland also gives an example of a young man who writes: ‘I’m not “a gay” but “a person”’ (467).  This gives a very different image of what it means to be homosexual in Japan compared to the West.

If the homosexuals of Japan want to, they are free to use the Western categories of sexual identity to define their same-sex desire. From a Western perspective, however, we should not judge homosexuals who have a different experience on what it means to be gay.

Homo & Hegemony

There are many contradictions in Japanese society when it comes down to the connection between the hegemonic masculinity and gay men. According to some, like Conlan, Ito and Yanase (2001;2001), the hegemonic masculinity uses the superiority of heterosexuality to shape the attitude of society towards homosexuality. From their point of view, the gay man is the ‘Other’ to the Japanese salaryman. Homosexuality is treated as a ‘challenge to the system’ (Conlan 2001: xvi). The Japanese response to this challenge is a negative or stereotypical imagery to homosexuality in mass media and a support for maintaining a culture of ignorance when it comes down to same-sex relations.

However, the terms and categories used by academics or gay activists like Yanase and Ito all derive from a Western discourse, which is not necessarily the right discourse for Japan. There are even many voices that argue that the sexual system is not right for the West either; by labelling people as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, there are limits on what it means to have this sexuality. In this way, the gay movement in the West has not necessarily brought liberation (McLelland 2000b).

Moreover, the voices of Japanese gay activists are also at odds with the many voices of those homosexual men who say they do not want to live the homosexual lifestyle we know in the West. As one interviewee argues: “If you’re gay, you can do anything you want with regard to love and sex, so is it really necessary to go on about gay lib?” (2000b: 466). From this perspective, homosexuality is not a confrontation to hegemonic masculinity, since it does not have a clear identity and does necessarily require one. If there is not a distinct identity, homosexuals do not form an ‘Other’ to the masculine hegemony and therefore cannot be a challenge at all.

At this point in time, homosexuality does not pose a serious challenge for the Japanese masculine hegemony. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, ‘sexuality’ and ‘identity’ are not as strongly connected to each other as they are in the West. A Japanese man might be gay but live the life of an ordinary salaryman, since his homosexuality is considered as one part of his personal life and not as a big part of his identity. In this case, the identity as ‘corporate warrior’ rules over the identity as ‘gay man’.
Secondly, there is not a politicized sense of ‘gay identity’ in Japan yet. Discussions of homosexuality in terms of sexual rights or lifestyle choices are still extremely rare in society. The ones who do follow this track, like Yanase and Ito, are so uncommon that they do not challenge the hegemonic masculinity.

The only real challenge to hegemonic masculinity then, is the hegemony itself. The concept of masculinity is in constant flow while men and society try to find the ever-changing perfect roles for men. The hegemony of one type of masculinity is highly instable. What the exact sexuality of the hegemonic man has to be, is something that Japan eventually will figure out by herself. There could be (and already is) a development of new identities, unknown to Western sexual divisions.
The future of Japanese homosexual and masculine ‘identities’ cannot be properly explained through Western discourse and can neither be predicted by looking at the past of Western development of sexual categories.



Conlan, F. (2000). ‘Translator’s Note’, In Yanase, R. and Ito, S. Coming Out in     Japan. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J. (2005). ‘Hegemonic Masculinity, Rethinking    the Concept’, Gender & Society, vol. 19, December, pp. 829-859.

Dasgupta, R. (2000). ‘Performing masculinities? The “Salaryman” at Work and Play’,    Japanese Studies, vol. 20, September, pp. 189-200.

Donaldson, M.(1993). ‘What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?’ Theory and Society, vol.     22, October, pp. 643-657

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Hastings, Sally Ann and Sharon H. Nolte. (1991). ‘The Meiji’s State Policy Toward    Women, 1890-1910’, Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945. Ed.        Gail Lee Bernstein. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kimmel, M. (1994). ‘Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame and Silence in the     Construction of Gender Identity’, In Brod, H. and Kaufman M. eds.        Theorizing Masculinities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kinsey, A.C. (1948) Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia, Pa: W.B.         Saunders.

Lancaster, R.N. and Leonardo, M. di. eds.(1997) The Gender Sexuality Reader. New     York: Routledge.

McLelland, M.J. (2000a). Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan. Richmond: Curzon     Press.

McLelland, M.J. (2000b). ‘Is There a Japanese ‘Gay Identity?’ Culture, Health &         Sexuality, Vol. 2, October-December, pp. 459-472.

McLelland, M.J. (2005). Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age.         Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Somerville, Siobhan. (1997). ‘Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual     Body.’ In Lancaster, R.N. and Leonardo, M. di. eds. The Gender Sexuality     Reader. New York: Routledge. Ch. 2.

Yanase, R. and Ito, S. (2001). Coming Out in Japan. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

((Manya. NOV 2009))


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