Review: Pink Samurai
(1/28/03)

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Review: Pink Samurai, by Nicholas Bornoff

Although the passage of time has dulled its edge somewhat, Pink Samurai is still an interesting journalistic look at Japanese sexuality. It's also an interesting social history of Japan for the sex-positive and those whose ideas of sex in Japan come from watching too much anime (for example, it explains what's up with guys scratching the backs of their heads all the time. On the other hand, it doesn’t touch on the whole nosebleed issue).

On the most basic level, it's an extremely entertaining collection of wacky bits of foreign culture, from the Shinto Metal Phallus Deity shrine to love hotels decorated like the Space Shuttle to the no-panties coffee shop. The fine distinctions of the Japanese strip show alone are worth the price of admission; such features as the author's conversation with a dildo saleslady and the relative merits of her wares are pure bonus.

However, Bornoff offers more than a simple collection of the antics of those wacky Japanese folks. The book discusses the role of sexuality in Japan over time, from the symbolic exploits of the gods through the stylized affairs of the Heian and the hypermasculine homoeroticism of the Edo period to the foibles of the modern era and the interaction of traditional mores with Western values. Besides a simple historical treatment, each period discusses the underlying ideals, and how the tension between an essentially non-moralistic approach to sex and a strict adherence to communal obligations and public appearances creates customs that are bizarre to a Western observer.

It's this last element that really makes the book worth reading. Sex-oriented though the book is, its cultural analysis makes it valuable on its merits as a social history. Understanding the sexual and family attitudes of a culture goes a long way toward understanding the culture. Plus, the sheer earthiness of the subject keeps the discussion from devolving into the detached lists of values to which anthropological texts are sadly prone.

Unfortunately, Pink Samurai was published in 1991 from observations made throughout the 80's and even earlier, and its age shows. It documents the Japan of the economic miracle, and its assumptions about family life -- about everyone's life -- are rooted in the salaryman system which has been steadily falling apart for the last decade. It's also not particularly rigorous; Bornoff's conclusions about the modern day seem to be based mostly on his own experiences and conversations, and may well be slanted.

Even so, though I wouldn't use it as an academic resource, it's a good read: intellectually stimulating on the one hand, a good smutty laugh on the other.

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© 2003 Michael Suileabhain-Wilson. All rights reserved.