James E. Roberson and Nobue Suzuki (eds),

Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan:
Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa

Nissan Institute/RoutledgeCurzon Japanese Studies Series, London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003,
ISBN: 0-415-27147-9, pp. 222, US$32.95

reviewed by Mark McLelland

  1. In a satirical article entitled 'The fish she let get away was big', published in the women's magazine AnAn in 1991, popular essayist Mori Yôko writes about the marriage of Yumi, a young middle-class woman who, like others of her generation, believed that 'love and marriage are different'. When looking for a husband, Yumi's main concern was that he should be 'a person one is not ashamed of in polite society' - in essence, possessed of the 'three highs'—elite education, high income and physical stature. When, through a marriage-introduction agency, she discovered a man who 'was like the embodiment of all her dreams' she married him without hesitation despite the fact she did not love him. Unfortunately, once married, Yumi realizes that the job which secures both her husband's and her own status is the centre of his life. Outside of work, he has no hobbies, no interests and no conversation— 'On the rare occasions he was at home, he would sit around watching TV while still in his pajamas'. Yumi begins to daydream about her old college boyfriend, a man who, despite being 'full of wit and humour', had limited prospects. When she hears that he has immigrated to Australia and now runs a cattle ranch, she is both fascinated and appalled by 'such a rash life plan' and comes to realize that the stability she once craved is really 'a synonym for boredom'.
  2. Mori's essay offers a nice picture of how, at the beginning of the 1990s, previously hegemonic ideals of masculinity were being questioned. Once Japan's remarkable boom years came to an end, a new generation of men and women were wondering whether the sacrifices made by their parents, in both their professional and personal lives, were really worth it, and like Yumi, were coming to the conclusion that something was missing in relationships between the sexes.
  3. Nowadays, the 'three highs' have largely been replaced by the 'three Cs'—a husband should bring home a 'comfortable' income, be 'communicative' and be 'cooperative' with housework and childcare (p.116). There has been a fundamental shift in popular discourses about masculinity—from 'salary man' to 'family man'—a shift that has left some men of the older generation feeling stranded and many younger men feeling confused about what is expected of them. Roberson and Suzuki's timely collection Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan is an excellent resource for helping understand these changes and the implications they hold for the future of Japanese men.
  4. Given the impressive number of monographs and edited collections that focus on Japanese women, it is surprising that it has taken until 2003 for this first overview of Japanese men to appear. To the extent that Japanese men have been discussed at all, it has been the figure of the corporate employee or salaryman that has been used as a synecdoche for all Japanese men, despite the fact that this is an elite category that only ever applied to about 30 percent of the workforce. Happily, Roberson and Suzuki's book lives up to its subtitle of 'dislocating the salaryman doxa' since most of the twelve chapters focus on non-professional images of masculinity. These include chapters on transgender men, male-impersonation in the theatre, masculinity as represented in popular song, working-class men, Japanese husbands in international marriages, day labourers and fatherhood. Other chapters that do discuss salarymen problematise that identity and describe the domestic violence, suicide and stress and alienation that Japan's corporate culture can engender in its elite workforce. Only one chapter seems out of place in the collection—Kazama and Kawaguchi's discussion of gay men and AIDS in Japan. While the essay offers a useful overview of Japan's (lack of ) effective policies for dealing with same-sex HIV transmission, the discussion does not really engage with the interesting question of how homosexuality and notions of masculinity might relate in Japan.
  5. However, Lunsing's chapter on transgender practices does touch upon the variety of genders performed by male-bodied persons in Japan, including the hyper-macho gay style pioneered by such magazines as G-Men as well as a range of transgender identities, the most visible of which are 'newhalf' or male-to-female transgenders who work in the sex and entertainment industry. Lunsing is incorrect though, when he writes that this term has 'nothing to do with' the designation 'half' (p. 34, n.5) used in Japan to describe persons of mixed Japanese and foreign parentage. He seems not to have heard the story attributing the term to Southern All Stars' singer Kuwata Keisuke who famously said of cabaret performer Betty that 'she's half man and half woman so she's a new half'—clearly drawing a parallel between persons of mixed race and mixed gender who are not considered 'normal' Japanese. Like the actresses who perform masculinity on stage in the all-woman Takarazuka theatre described by Nakamura and Matsuo, newhalf and other transgender persons are often relegated to a 'fantasy' space that denies them the opportunity to live and interact in the real world.
  6. Miller's chapter on male beauty is also concerned with bodily practices that expand the range of male gender, but in this case the body modifications described are contained within a 'masculine' identity. Miller notes how 'previous generations were evaluated primarily on the basis of character, social standing, earning capacity, lineage and other social criteria...[but] young men these days are increasingly concerned with their status as objects of aesthetic and sexual appraisal' (p.37). The many colourful and stylishly dressed young men with dyed hair and manicured nails that can be seen on the streets of big cities in Japan stand in stark contrast to 'old guys' [ojisan] who Matthews, in his chapter on corporate masculinity, mentions were compared to 'cockroaches' by the young women he interviewed (p. 112). This sudden loss in the desirability stakes can cut deep with some older men, one commenting that

      I get upset when I see a young man with dyed hair driving around in a fancy car with a pretty girl. Fifty years ago people his age all died in the war...I want to drag that young man out of his car and put a judo hold on him, teach him a lesson! (p. 111).

  7. Resentment at their loss of status and increased pressure to present, quite literally, a more attractive face to women has, as Nakamura's chapter on domestic violence suggests, led to an increase in violence in the home where men are no longer the indisputable 'household pillar'. Many men are also self-harming—committing suicide when the demands of work and family life become overbearing. Indeed, in 1999 over twice the number of men died through suicide than died in car accidents (p. 165). Nakamura suggests that despite their continuing privilege vis-à-vis women, many men have become exhausted through trying to satisfy competing demands. Fortunately, the 1990s saw an increase in the number of non-governmental organisations and community groups that recognised the particular pressures that men faced and organised to resolve them, including seminars and support groups run by Men's Centres focusing on domestic violence and on parenting.
  8. Ishii-Kuntz' chapter on fatherhood shows how the traditional hegemonic ideal of fatherhood was 'constructed and maintained through 'salarymen's' roles as breadwinners for their families' (p. 199) but that increased public awareness of the need to involve fathers in the parenting process has seen some men take on more of the burdens of child care. Support groups now exist in many places in Japan for husbands who wish to take child-care leave upon the birth of their children or to take a few days holiday so as to attend the birth itself. Yet, as Matthews points out (p.117) corporate culture in Japan and those who adhere to old-style notions of masculinity still view everything to do with procreation as women's work—causing men who take a more active role in parenting to feel self-conscious at the office.
  9. Gill's chapter on day labourers is important in that it describes a mode of masculine identity that is constructed without reference to either the family or the workplace—and it is on this point that a chapter on gay masculinities in Japan would have been useful, too. Gill argues that 'libertarian themes' are an important element of many day-labourers' identities, the vast majority of whom are either divorced or have never married. As he says, 'day labourers liked to present themselves as uncrafted nuggets of selfhood' (p. 151). My own research on gay men in Japan has shown that 'selfhood' [jibunrashisa] is likewise an important narrative in the lives of many gay people who choose not to define themselves through participation in either work or family. Although most day labourers live in 'slum' areas that 'normal' Japanese people would generally avoid, they are often celebrated in popular culture. This 'fantasy space', described by Nakamura and Matsuo, is often home to images of marginal figures—transgender men and women and day labourers being just two examples—who would generally be avoided in the 'normal' world. Yano's chapter on masculinities and song points out that 'the salaryman, managers, landowners, politicians—in other words, those who control the large companies and upper echelons of Japan' (p. 85) are conspicuously absent in popular song about men. Instead, it is the underclass—labourers, sailors, fishermen and gangsters—who are celebrated in sentimental ballads about the harshness of a man's life. Yano argues that if the salaryman is the featureless face of modernity, it is these subaltern heroes from Japan's past that function ideologically to preserve the face of 'traditional' masculinity.
  10. Edited volumes unavoidably lack the focus and concentrated argument of monographs, but this collection is surprisingly cohesive, many of the individual chapters speaking to themes raised throughout the book. While this volume alone is unlikely to retire the figure of the salaryman as a stand-in for Japanese men as a whole, it will hopefully encourage researchers and students alike to focus on a wider range of Japanese masculinities than has so far been studied.


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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From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue9/mclelland_review.html.

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