Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Anne Allison

Permitted and Prohibited Desires:
Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000,
originally published: Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.
ISBN: 0-520-21990-2, paperback, 225pp.,
bibliography, index, illustrations.

reviewed by Vera Mackie

  1. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a media panic in Japan about the supposed prevalence of mother-son incest. A prurient interest in this topic was also transmitted to the English-language media. At this time, a representative from the most sensational newspaper in Melbourne called my university department for a comment on this issue. Needless to say, I refused to comment for such a notorious scandal sheet.
  2. On reading Anne Allison's latest book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires, I was reminded of this incident, and paused to reflect on why the Australian media was so interested in this issue, and why I was so irritated at the time. There is a history to English-language representations of sexuality in Japan. Ever since Europeans re-established contact with Japan in the 1850s, there has been an interest in documenting the sexual practices of this country. European writers have written salacious accounts of the Yoshiwara licensed prostitution district, and the postwar mizushôbai, or 'water trade'. Too often, these studies said more about European projections of 'the Orient' than about actual practices in Japan.
  3. Late twentieth century stories about mother-son incest were ready-made for this genre of writings. These stories provided an opportunity for fantasising about the exotic practices of a country still seen through an Orientalist lens. Furthermore, a country where mother-son incest was the focus of anxiety, while our own Anglophone societies were dealing with a moral panic about father-daughter incest, seemed to reinforce the idea that everything in 'the Orient' was somehow topsy-turvy.
  4. This media focus on mother-son incest also raised issues about the proper forums for particular kinds of discussion. Issues such as incest are certainly worthy of serious discussion, but we need to be able to employ the proper theoretical and conceptual vocabulary. Many of us would be reluctant to engage with such discussions in the popular media, through a fear of trivialisation. It has also, however, been difficult to bring sexuality into the arenas of serious academic discussion. To some, sexuality seems too private to be made the subject of academic discourse, while others are wary of the association with the sensationalism and voyeurism which marks the treatment of sexuality in the popular media.
  5. In the case of the media panic described above, we need to frame our discussion in terms of theories of cultural production and reception. In the case of the reporting of a media panic from Japan in the Anglophone media of Australia, we need theories of cross-cultural communication. If, however, we turn to the production of such a media panic within Japan, then we need to be well-informed about the place of sexuality in cultural discourses in that country. This takes us into the realms of ethnography, social and cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary and cultural studies. This is the territory of Anne Allison's work. Her first book, Nightwork, was an ethnography of the night-time entertainment districts frequented by male white-collar workers in Japan.[1] Her latest book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires, looks at the representation of sexuality in a range of contemporary cultural products. Once again, Allison has tackled, in a courageous and rigorous manner, topics which many academics have been reluctant to consider.
  6. Allison, however, is not so much interested in looking at 'western' projections of orientalised sexual fantasies. Rather, she is interested in analysing the workings of sexual desire within Japan. One of her chapters does, indeed, focus on the abovementioned media panic about mother-son incest in Japan. This is contextualised within a wide-ranging discussion about the social construction and production of desires in contemporary Japan.
  7. The sites of Allison's analysis may at first seem to have little connection with each other: lunchboxes, children's cartoons, adult comic books, mother-son incest, and the removal of restrictions on photographic representations of pubic hair. Allison, however, demonstrates that each of these sites involves the socialisation of individuals into the habits of productive workers and national subjects, and that the production and policing of desires commences very early in the life cycle of the individual.
  8. Allison argues that the worlds of play and the worlds of work are intimately connected. The sexualised entertainment industry, for example, provides the male white-collar citizen with a temporary sexual outlet which does not interfere with his ability to commit to his daily work. Indeed, Allison argues that desire is produced 'in forms that co-ordinate with the habits demanded of productive subjects'. These desires 'make the habitual desirable as well as making escape from the habits of labor seem possible through everyday practices of consumptive pleasure' (p.xv). This diagnosis of the relationship between working life and commodified sexuality is convincing, and could be extended to a consideration of the connections between tourism and prostitution, and the creation of spaces like 'Filipina pubs' within the Tokyo metropolis. The desires of the salaryman may be even more effectively managed if the exoticised objects of his fantasies are geographically and conceptually displaced. I would suggest, then, that the cultural products analysed by Allison are not only about the production of gendered and sexualised difference. They are also concerned with the production of ethnicised difference: in the production of consumers' identities as Japanese men and women, in opposition to a series of 'others'.[2]
  9. Allison also suggests connections with the 'state'. However, when Allison states that 'in this educated and disciplined body of the child are rooted the labor force and consumer population of the Japanese state' (p. xiv), it is not clear to what 'the state' refers. Does she mean the nation-state? Does she mean the government, particular elements of the bureaucracy, or a coalition of business and government interests? Her study could be further developed with the addition of a theory of the state and a theory of the relationship between the state, private industry, the media industry and the education system. Such a theory would consider whether cultural production is always congruent with state and industry needs. Is there ever a mismatch? Can cultural production also be linked with resistance to the needs of state and industry? In asking these questions, I wish to make the point that her theories about sexuality and cultural production are highly productive, and could be extended in various ways.
  10. Allison's exposition of her arguments about the production of sexual desires in contemporary Japan is exemplary. Each chapter opens with an anecdote which draws the reader into a particular site of cultural production. This is followed by a discussion of the work of relevant theorists from the English-language and Japanese language scholarly literature. These theoretical tools are then deployed in the analysis of a particular body of material. The book would thus make an excellent textbook in courses on Japanese studies, gender and sexuality studies, anthropology, and cultural studies, and should be required reading for journalists before they venture into the description of the sexual preoccupations of other societies.


    [1] Anne Allison, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994.

    [2] For an adaptation of Allison's theories to the production of ethnicised difference, see Vera Mackie, 'The Metropolitan Gaze: Travellers, Bodies, Spaces', Intersections, issue 4, 2000.


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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