Museum of Sex


Museum of Sex

Reviewed by Alexei Esikoff (Fukushima-ken, 2001-02)

(Spring 2006 Issue)

Overcrowded Tokyo, teeming with people living atop one another, made for a dream weekend getaway from my mountainous inaka town. As with all escapes, however, there was a downside. When wedged onto the subway next to a salaryman openly reading a rape comic, I felt a bit queasy and wrong. The graphic nature of the manga was the first problem: even if I couldn’t read the kanji, there was no mistaking the images of a schoolgirl overpowered by people or creatures with exaggerated sexual organs. Two, it would often be the most innocuous-looking person reading it, and my interest in him made me a voyeur. A nagging thought in the back of my head repeated itself: There’s nothing wrong in reading a pornographic cartoon, right? If he doesn’t mind reading it in public, why should I?

I felt the same unease walking into the Museum of Sex. I was there to review their exhibit Peeping, Probing, and Porn: Four Centuries of Graphic Sex in Japan, and I was taking it very seriously. Poised with a little notebook and pen, I took notes diligently. This was my mistake. Halfway through, I read back what I had written and it was almost silly: “two women play with black dildo,” or “French-kissing and fingering.” Enough, I thought. Time to toss off my Western shackles and enjoy.

Walking into the exhibit, the mood is immediate. Twangy, old-fashioned music is softly playing. The walls are black, the lights red. Cut into the wall are three postcard-size slots; peering in, I see a samurai and a kimono-clad lady doing it doggy-style. Ahead is a large cloth screen of another man being serviced by two prostitutes.

The first part of the exhibit concentrates on the Edo period (1603-1867). Tokyo, then Edo, was known as the “City of Bachelors.” The Yoshiwara area, a licensed brothel quarter, kept men satisfied. Everyone entered the “floating world” through the Great Gate, pictures depict even randy monks sneaking in for a fix. Oirans were the most wanted women, prostitutes with the power to reject customers. Yujo, or playgirls, filled in the gaps. Vendors sold graphic drawings to help people get in the mood (or to pleasure themselves); the dirtiest of those were called shunga, or spring pictures.

“Cherry-viewing” was a euphenism for visiting the brothels (make what you will of that). Many of the shunga depict such visits. Generally, the pictures have a man on top, with a woman (or women) serving. His penis features a throbbing neon blue vein and is out-of-proportionally large compared to the rest of his body. Idealized women had buds for mouths, far too small to handle the member. To compromise, in some of the shunga they are shown licking it with tiny tongues.

Interestingly, anal sex between a man and boy is also present. There were no social qualms against homosexuality in the Yoshiwara. The exhibit theorized that this was linked to Kabuki, and the new laws that only men could participate.

In the 1800s rape pictures became common. To coincide with Commodore Perry opening Japan, the rapists are hairy, fat, and Western. However, in an unexpected twist, one of the most reproduced of these shunga depict an octopus performing cunnilingus on a lucky lady. Men were more frequently drawn in Western clothing (women remained in kimono) until 1872, when brothels were made illegal altogther.

The exhibit skips in time to the 1930s and the beginning of manga. Tezuka Osamu, known for his saucer-eyed kawaii characters, is often considered the founder. He changed the “gaze” of pornography-instead of voyeurism, his drawings invite participation. It makes a difference when looking at his cartoon of a woman masturbating (which, incidentally, was known as “laughing”); the viewer is with the woman. Even with the earliest manga, the bubbly Japanese drawing we know today is evident. Unlike the pictures of the Edo period, women wear modern clothing, have eyebrows, simple hairstyles, and mouths wide enough to take in the (still-exaggerated) penises.

As visitors to Japan know, vaginas were censored, fuzzed out, until only very recently. Even contemporary examples of vaginas prove they are not the most important parts of the body. More prized are gargantuan breasts. The unearthly sizes of penises and breasts are the main theme highlighted by the exhibit. Also recurring are unfaithful wives (punish them!), resistant girls (you know they really want it!), and horny aliens (for the more creative fantasizer). All of these are given example in “Peeping, Probing and Porn.”

A fun side category is shonen-ai, or Boy’s Love. Created by and for women, these comics feature exclusively men kissing, holding hands, and having dramatic relationships. The exhibit stresses that this genre is very successful. In comparison to the other porn, it seems to be a reaction: Perhaps women are threatened by what the mainstream offers.

A wall of four monitors, each showing different manga movie, lead to the exit. Taken together, it was a barrage of shrieky, unwatchable pornography. Whereas I grew more comfortable midway through the exhibit and started to see some of it as artful, this was not. A barrage of porn merely reminds you that it’s time to move on to something more important.

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