Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 26, August 2011
Ayelet Zohar (Editor)

Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture

Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009,
ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-0990-0; ISBN: 1-4438-0990-X; lvi + 285 pp.

reviewed by Emerald King

  1. A brief flick through the pages of PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture reveals a catalogue of images that range from classical paintings of Greek mythology, photos of Japanese temples and shrines, straw phalluses, portraits of artists in various guises and disguises, to smiling pregnant males, ukiyo-e paintings and anime style depictions of young girls. These, sometimes quite disturbing, images are as eclectic as the essays included in the volume. PostGender comprises work that was presented at a 2005 conference of the same name with essays from invited scholars. Fitting with the vast array of images, the conference took place as part of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art (Haifa, Isreal) 2005–2006 exhibition, also entitled PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture, curated by editor Ayelot Zohar. This exhibition was warmly received by gay circles who ‘found a new voice for their concerns in the show.’[1]
  2. PostGender advances inquiries drawn by postmodern and postcolonial critiques while creating new research possibilities that may expand the language of gender, sexuality or even Freudian psychoanalysis. The essays in the volume comprise a multifaceted look at issues including the representation of gender and sexuality, and the sexualised body and gender performance. These concerns are examined over a wide field that includes film studies, visual arts, theatre, literature, graphic design, anthropology, medical sciences, manga and anime studies, psychoanalysis and history. There are thirteen chapters and an introduction: ‘Introduction’ (Ayelet Zohar); 1–‘Relentless Presentism: Life and Art in the Superflat Dimension’ (Jennifer Robertson); 2– ‘Images of Onnagata: Complicating the Binarisms, Unraveling the Labyrinth’ (Maki Isaka); 3–‘Gender Issues in Contemporary Japanese Art’ (Michiko Kasahara); 4–‘Rewriting History: The Intoxicating Hierachies of Kachikujin yapū’ (Jason Herlands); 5–‘Performing the Hermaphrodite: Counter-Discourse to Gender Dimorphism in Tokuda Shūei’s Arakure’ (Rough Living, 1915) (Leslie Winston); 6–‘Vagina Dialogues: The Love Mother Earth Advertisement by Makoto Saito, 2001’ (Ory Bartal); 7–‘The Multiplicity of the Phallus: Becoming and Repetition’ (Ayelet Zohar); 8–’The Asymmetry of Masculine/Feminine Otaku Sexuality: Moe, Yaoi and Phallic Girls’ (Tamaki Saito); 9–‘The Pregnant Man: Fiction or Future Reality?’ (Michiko Kasahara and Ayelet Zohar); 10–‘Transcending Bodies: Dancing Gender(s) in Butoh’ (Kanneret Noy); 11–‘Yoko Ono and the Poetics of the Vanishing Gift’ (Sayumi Takahashi Harb); 12–‘Art, Politics and Prostitution in Occupied/Contemporary Japan: The Voice of a Sex Worker’ (Ayala Klemperer-Markman); 13–‘Affectuous Encounters: Feminine-Matrixial Encounters in Duras/Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour’ (Bracha Ettinger and Kyoko Gardiner). The book is further separated into four sections: ‘Imagined Histories, Genders and Representations;’ ‘Re-Gendered Fantasies;’ ‘Intricating Sexualities;’ and ‘Gender Performativity and Performing Arts.’
  3. The subject matter covered in this edition is so disparate that it must be reviewed chapter by chapter in relation to the over-reaching themes of gender, performance and sexuality in Japan. The first section includes the first two chapters both of which investigate the representation of gender ideals throughout (imagined) history. Robertson’s work considers timelines, historicity and temporality in the context of Japan. In particular, the representation and consequences of ‘history-as-dehistorisation in Japan’ as displayed in the Mori Museum’s 2003 Happiness Exhibition and the ‘superflat’ works of Takashi Murakami, Yasumasa Morimura and the all-female Takarazuka review. Isaka’s text examines the gender performance undertaken by onnagata in Kabuki theatre. Onnagata (men who play female roles) became indispensable in 1629 when women were banned from performing on stage. Isaka traces the changing qualities of onnagata through time while giving an overview of the ways in which onnagata have been conceptualised and understood.
  4. Section two also presents two essays both of which question the familial structures in Japanese society. The Kasahara article looks in depth at Japanese artists who critically look at the social pressures that regulate Japanese feminine identity, love relations, and family constructions: Miyako Ishiuchi plays with representations of frustrated housewives, while Mako Idemitsu explores the presence of wartime constructs of motherhood and family and Tomoko Sawada’s repeated reinvention of herself in portraits of young Japanese woman as student/bride/female. The projects that Kasahara examines critically look at social procedures in Japanese society that regulate feminine identity. In the second essay in this section Herlands introduces Shōzō Numa’s novel Domesticated Yapoo (Kachikujin yapū c 1950s). Domesticated Yapoo is a futuristic tale in which society has been recreated into an Arian supremacist, matriarchal society founded on the enslavement of ‘blacks’ and the breeding of yapoo (the Japanese). Yapoo are multi-functional tools that serve as everything from furniture and décor to sex toys and food. Herlands examines the text in terms of the historical, scientific and masochistic discourses that it distorts and rewrites.
  5. In the third section the focus shifts to the possibility of intricate sexualities and gender multiplicities. This is the largest section in the text and spans five chapters. Winston examines the protagonist of Shūsei Tokuda’s Rough Living (Arakure 1915) through the lens of the intersexual. This text functions as an introduction to a series of articles that subverts common tropes of gender roles and dichotomies. The next essay in this section examines Makoto Saito’s poster, Love Mother Earth (2001). Bartal investigates this image, a sideways view of female genitalia topped by a grass covered mound that resembles pubic hair, in relation to female nudes in both European and Japanese art. The issue at stake is whether this is the old ‘sex sells’ or if something more sophisticated is at play. Zohar’s second entry in this volume (Zohar’s contributions include an introduction that questions Freud’s Oedipal structure and two chapters in addition to editing PostGender) further engages with Freudian psychoanalysis in a study of the phallus. In particular, Zohar concentrates on the inability to separate the phallus from the penis by putting forward the notion of the ‘phani’ (an amalgamation of the phallus and penis). Saito’s text moves from Freud to Lacan in order to understand the sexuality of the otaku—the Japanese cartoon/comic/sub-culture geek or nerd. The final essay in this section combines the views of Kasahara and Zohar in a discussion of representations of male pregnancy. This possibility is presented as a possibility for future arenas of gender equality.
  6. The fourth and final section in PostGender opens with Noy’s examination of butoh, a form of Japanese avant-garde dance, as a theatre for cross-gender experimentation. Butoh’s main interests, such as the marginal and the irrational, have led many male dancers to take on female personas in their performance pieces. Contrasting this is Harb’s re-reading of Yoko Ono’s influential work Cut Piece (1964). Harb uses Cut Piece to discuss the Buddhist notion of the Gift. Klemperer-Markman considers the history of prostitution in Japan by using an art project, Made in Occupied Japan (1998), created by Yoshiko Shimida and sex-worker Bubu de la Madeleine. Through video and photographic works the two artists explore Japanese history, women, violence, nationalism and concepts of memory. The volume concludes with Ettinger and Gardiner’s essay on Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). The film explores the relationship between a French woman and a Japanese man in postwar Hiroshima. In this co-authored commentary Ettinger and Gardiner mirror the two protagonists in their intertwined commentary. This essay, like that of Klemperer-Markman, plays with memory and history.
  7. As a collection of articles by leading researchers in the fields of gender, visual culture and performance studies in Japan PostGender is a valuable addition to the existing literature due to the array of subject matter covered. Of particular note for literary and manga scholars is Herlands’ ‘Rewriting History: The Intoxicating Hierachies of Kachikujin yapū. Ettinger and Gardiner’s ‘Affectuous Encounters: Feminine-Matrixial Encounters in Duras/Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour’ comes at a time when the museum dedicated to the film in the rural area of Okayama where some of the Japanese scenes were filmed has been converted in an abandoned looking storage shed.[1] The supporting images included in PostGender are also of particular interest however the placing of some images is confusing at times. Unfortunately the volume is let down by poor editing and formatting in parts while the shift from author to author and subject to subject is jarring in some sections. Most distracting of all is the format chosen to present Ettinger and Gardiner’s two separate essays side by side. Formatting issues notwithstanding, PostGender is an at times challenging read that pushes the boundaries of psychoanalytic thought while questioning the presentation and performance of gender and sexuality in Japan and Japanese culture.


    [1] Ayelet Zohar ‘Preamble,’ in PostGender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture, ed. Ayelet Zohar, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009, p. xxi, note 3.

    [2] From personal observation, Okayama, January 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 02 August 2011 1320