image of book goes here
Wim Lunsing

Beyond Common Sense:
Sexuality and Gender in Contemporary Japan

London and New York: Kegan Paul International 2001,
pp. 410, $US144, ISBN 0-7103-0593-1.

reviewed by Mark McLelland

  1. Although not published until 2001, I first encountered Wim Lunsing's book Beyond Common Sense in manuscript form in 1999. Lunsing was kind enough to let me read his text on sexuality and gender in Japanese society as I was completing my own book on male homosexuality and references to many of the important ideas he develops in the book are referenced throughout my own.[1] Yet, due to incomprehensible tardiness on the part of the publisher, Lunsing's book did not appear until well after mine had been published. Unfortunately for the reader, the book appeared without the index that Lunsing assures me he prepared and is priced at a level that will make it unaffordable for most. Three years on, the book seems to have attracted only two reviews,[2] and one must wonder whether this, too, is due to the lethargy of the publisher in promoting the book. If this is the case, it would be unfortunate since Beyond Common Sense deserves to be widely reviewed—and widely read.
  2. In the Introduction, Lunsing informs us that the research project that resulted in the book was sparked by a question that he found 'disagreeable'. On his first study leave in Japan which took place in 1986 when he was just 25 years old, he found that he was frequently asked about his marital status and when he replied that he was single, enquiries were made whether he had a girlfriend. Since he was openly gay in the Netherlands, he had little practice in fielding such questions and was unsure how to do so in a manner that would not upset the inquirer. As Lunsing says, 'This made me wonder how Japanese people in comparable situations deal with such questions and, indeed, how they cope with an environment in which everyone is expected to marry' (p. 1). One of the great strengths of the book is that Lunsing does not reduce 'people in comparable situations' to the category 'gay'. Instead, he looks at how a wide range of different people including gay men and lesbians but also feminist women, men's liberationists, transsexuals, transvestites and hermaphrodites and other people who for a variety of reasons prefer to remain single—basically anyone 'whose ideas, feelings or lifestyles are at variance with Japanese constructions of marriage' (p. 2) manage their lives. In so doing, the book does not ghettoize lesbian, gay, or other sexual nonconformists by focusing on their specific problems or difficulties, but rather turns the focus onto mainstream, or in Lunsing's terms 'common-sense' (jôshiki), notions of marriage, asking the more productive question of how this lifestyle choice came to be seen as 'natural' or 'normal' in the first place.
  3. Despite the fact that attitudes toward marriage have been well studied in Japan, the lifestyles of non-conformists, of those who have for a variety of reasons refused to marry, have been overlooked. Lunsing suggests that the result of much academic writing about Japan which focuses only on the mainstream is that 'a picture of Japan has been painted that is largely coloured by "normality", which makes everything that deviates from an extremely restricted norm implicitly anomalous' (p. 6). Lunsing's book, in which discussion of marriage is central, offers a fresh new angle on a well studied theme. As he says 'The investigation of exceptions is crucial when establishing the importance of what people say is "normal" or common sense' (p. 8).
  4. The early chapters of the book provide useful historical accounts of the different communities under investigation as well as an outline of research methodology (participant observation and interviews with over 100 informants) and research ethics. However, it is Chapter 3, 'Discourses and Politics of Marriage' which is the pivotal chapter of the book. Here, Lunsing asks the seemingly simple question 'What is marriage supposed to be?' A question which, in real life, turns out to have a variety of answers. The chapter begins with a useful overview of the history of marriage in Japan, it being shown that both the form of and attitudes toward marriage are recent, postwar developments. Historically men of means could have any number of wives and divorce them with impunity since attitudes toward marriage were very instrumental. The term ren'ai or 'romantic love', now thought a necessary prerequisite of the marriage bond, was not coined in Japanese until the Meiji period (1867-1912). Also discussed here is other familiar ground, the notion that marriage is a necessary event in order for individuals to become fully responsible and adult persons (ichininmae) and that happiness for women is to be discovered in their roles as wives and mothers and that satisfaction for men is to be found in work outside the home. These are the 'common sense' (jôshiki) ideas about marriage which Lunsing discovers are still widely held.
  5. Yet, as the chapter goes on to describe, despite the rather monolithic manner in which marriage is portrayed in both Japanese and English studies, 'marriage as expressed by the word kekkon does not necessarily mean anything more than two persons whose involvement with each other has an element of permanence in intention or reality' (p. 96). Japanese work practices, for instance, mean that it is quite common for married couples not to live together. The tanshin funin system in which mid-management executives are frequently moved around different branches of the same company (without their families) is widespread as are kayoi kekkon or 'commuting marriages' where one or another partner who has had to move to another city for work commutes to see the other at the weekend. The number of kateinai rikon or 'divorce within the household' relationships are also on the rise as couples who do not wish to face the problems caused by official divorce simply live separate lives under the same roof.
  6. Lunsing also notes that many people may say they are married when technically they are not. In order to be legally married in Japan, one partner must 'enter the household register' (nyûseki) of the other. This means that one partner must change her or his registered abode and also their surname to accord with that of the other partner. Statistically speaking it is still overwhelmingly the bride who enters the register of her husband's family, although in families where there are no sons to inherit it is possible to adopt a son-in-law and bring him into the wife's family register (muko yôshi kekkon) in which case he adopts his wife's family name.
  7. The koseki or family register is a left-over from the previous ie seido or household system founded in the Meiji era and which subordinated all family members to a single patriarchal head. It is still the main form of identification in Japan that must be produced in a variety of situations, when signing a mortgage or rental lease, applying for a new job, or contracting a loan. However, Lunsing points out that many people in Japan, particularly those with left-leaning political views and women with feminist interests are opposed to the koseki system. Lunsing notes that the koseki system is viewed as a remnant of the patriarchy (kafuchôsei) of the prewar period and is particularly opposed by groups in Osaka where broad alliances between discriminated communities such as resident Koreans and the disabled actively resist the paternalism of the Japanese state.
  8. However, given the difficulties faced by unmarried couples in Japan, some partners present themselves as married but do not actually follow through all the necessary steps to make their relationships official. For instance, some couples may hold a marriage ceremony and one partner may transfer her or his address to that of the other, or they may set up a new joint abode but the wife will not enter the register (nyûseki) of her husband's family—meaning that she may retain her own family name. Such marriages, where couples share a common official address (jûminhô) but have not adopted a common koseki or performed kekkon todoke (marriage registration) are known as jijitsukon or 'common-law marriages' and actually qualify for most of the benefits that accrue to properly registered married couples. Although, as Lunsing points out, many couples in these relationships do not apply for the benefits they are due since their refusal to complete the marriage process in the first place is a rejection of the role that the state seeks to play in married life (p. 98). Intriguingly, Lunsing suggests that the quality of life in common-law marriages may actually be greater than that in many officially recorded unions since 'jijitsukon is typically based on the wish to share each other's lives, more than on the wish to improve one's status by marriage or to follow jôshiki. Partners living in jijitsukon are, unlike those in legal marriage, necessarily interested in each other as people, otherwise they would not have started to live together' (p. 102). Lunsing's discussion of the varieties of marriage style in Japan is the most useful and succinct that I have come across in English.
  9. Chapter 4 on 'Trying to Fit: Homosexuality and Feminism in Marriage' provides an interesting discussion of how gay men, lesbian women and feminists try to negotiate a place for both their physical desires and intellectual commitments in the context of conventional marriage. Lunsing discovers that homosexual men are usually the group most content to marry (or remain married) since common-sense ideas about marriage roles benefit husbands more than wives. Lesbian and feminist women were the groups which most often expressed ideological opposition to marriage itself as well as irritation at the roles they were expected to take up in the marriage relationship—a theme taken up in the next chapter.
  10. Chapter 5, on 'Alternative Lifestyles' offers an important look at how people who resist societal and family demands to marry organize their lives. Again, rather than treating 'lesbians' or 'gay men' as specific categories who can be expected to have problems with marriage, Lunsing looks at a wide range of people who, for various reasons, find that they do not want to or cannot get married. These include people for whom the 'koseki seido [family register system] may make marriage impossible' (p. 168). The koseki can be used both by unscrupulous bureaucrats and private detectives to discover details about a family's past, including records of mental illness, illegitimacy, bankruptcy and criminal records. Whether or not an individual is descended from a Buraku family [traditional outcast class] can also be deduced from the koseki by looking to see if any previous generations hail from specific areas where Buraku villages were situated. As Lunsing points out, some people feel that they cannot marry for fear that the marriage-registration process itself may reveal aspects of their family's past which they prefer to keep secret from their partners.
  11. In looking at different lifestyle options for those who remain unmarried, Lunsing focuses on group living, male same-sex relationships, promiscuous gay men, female same-sex relationships, promiscuous women, alternative female-male relationships and relationships which defy gender boundaries (such as between persons who are inter-sex [hermaphrodite] or to varying degrees transgendered). These case studies pick up on a theme which runs throughout the book—men are, on the whole, ideologically less opposed to the marriage system than are women and are more conventional in their views about relationships than women. Lunsing discovers that it is lesbian women even more than heterosexual feminists who 'have a more liberal attitude towards developing alternative lifestyles' (p. 206). Men, on the other hand are 'less successful at achieving their ideals and have less inclination to discover personal alternatives and to experiment' (p. 207). Since he does not reify lesbians and gay men, treating them as discrete groups somehow different from single people of the same gender but of heterosexual tastes, Lunsing's approach in this chapter, as throughout the book, enables him to deduce broad similarities based on gender which would be obscured by a narrower focus on sexual orientation. It is therefore unfortunate that in the two reviews published so far, both reviewers have treated Beyond Common Sense as a 'gay' book—that is they have focused on Lunsing's treatment of gay men, largely overlooking his discussion of lesbianism, and failing to acknowledge the extensive discussion of non-conformist heterosexual relationships.
  12. The book's final chapter 'Circles: Discussing Gender, Sex, and the Other and the Self' is another useful overview of a complex and diverse area—how are gender and sexuality understood in Japan both in terms of 'common sense' and by a variety of nonconformists? This discussion is based upon Lunsing's participation in a range of 'circles' that is discussion groups catering to diverse groups set up for purposes of personal support and community activism of which Japan has very many, particularly in the Osaka region. Once more the impression is of diversity—there are no uniform attitudes toward gender and sexuality held by gay men, lesbians or transgender individuals. Indeed, such general terms as 'gay' or gei in Japanese have limited provenance since there is such diversity in the manner in which they are used. Here, as elsewhere in the book, further historical detail would have been useful to contextualize the problem that many Japanese sexual and gender nonconformists have in agreeing on terminology to describe themselves and others.
  13. There are problems with Beyond Common Sense, particularly when read from a conservative academic perspective. Old-school anthropologists, for instance, will no doubt be critical of how many of Lunsing's examples of sexual and gender nonconformism rely upon single case studies or the lack of tabulation of interview data. While very many individuals and their lifestyles are introduced, we get to know none of them well and little background information is supplied to help us understand why they made the choices they did. The discussion is very general—perhaps understandable given the book's focus on diversity—but a little more thick description would have been useful.
  14. Eyebrows will no doubt also be raised at the confessional tone adopted by Lunsing in relation to his own feelings toward his informants and theirs toward him. He tells us 'Love is supposed to make one blind and vulnerable. That did not happen with me and therefore I saw no reason to avoid falling in love with informants' (p. 61). Lunsing came to the conclusion that the 'local values' in the world he was investigating 'meant freedom from values concerning constrictions on sexual activity' (p. 62) and that western sexual ethics were 'too constrictive' in this circumstance. That Lunsing is so present in his text and so candid in sharing both the highs and the lows of fieldwork is refreshing. He tells us, for instance, that when discussing traumatic incidents such as sexual harassment with informants 'I could communicate that I knew how it feels when a man stronger than you with alcohol on his breath in smelly clothes restrains your movements and fondles your crotch in a train where everyone tries not to notice' (p. 63). In sharing such a moment with the reader, some will, no doubt, assume that Lunsing himself has little common sense. But it is precisely Lunsing's failure to conform to the mores of an academic establishment overburdened with conformity which makes this book such a refreshing and enjoyable read.


    [1] Mark McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2000.

    [2] Stephen O. Murray, 'Striving to de-exoticize Japanese marriage avoiders,' in The Journal of Sex Research, February 2003, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 111-12; Jonathan M. Hall, 'Area studies at the bedroom door: queer theory, Japan, and the case of the missing fantasy,' in Japanese Studies, September 2003, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 205-212.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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