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Japan in The Great Railway Bazaar

In 1973 famed writer and novelist Paul Theroux made an ambitious jaunt across Europe and Asia almost exclusively by train. His account was published in 1975 as The Great Railway Bazaar — now one of the great classics of the travel writing genre.

With trains as the central theme, Theroux could not resist paying Japan and its shinkansen a visit, so he ends up using the island nation as his furthest point East before heading back to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express. Coming from a stint in the deep jungles of war-stricken Vietnam, Theroux flies to Japan in late 1973 to ostensibly give a few lectures on English literature. These engagements at universities in Hokkaido and the Kansai region are just excuses, however, for him to take the bullet trains up and down Japan.

While Theroux boasts no expertise on Asia or Japan in particular, what is fascinating about his account is the degree to which he is already able to summon the most classic stereotypes of post-war Japan by the early Seventies.

First and foremost, everything is incredibly expensive — even to this American living in the U.K. Theroux writes, “It is with a kind of perverse pride that the Japanese point out how expensive their country has become.” Clothes “cost the earth,” and he hears rumors of a $40 cup of coffee. Yet he quickly realizes something that is still true today, that Tokyo can be cheap if you stay in inns rather than hotels, eat ramen and other Japanese dishes, and take commuter trains instead of taxis.

(There are some differences from the present, however. Theroux’s account claims that fruit, mostly imported from South Africa, comes cheap and plentiful. Judging by the insane fruit prices of my local supermarket in 2011, this was either an observational mistake or has completely disappeared over the last few decades.)

Further stereotypical scenes: drunk Japanese salarymen passed out on the streets, women greeters at department stores, a “Japanese taste for gadgetry,” the lack of guilt towards consumerism, men and women in surgical masks, and highly ordered behavior that Theroux calls “a people programmed.”

During his short time in Japan, Theroux ends up doing a lot of things and talking to a lot of people, yet he focuses his write up on what he finds to be the culture’s peculiar forms of sexuality.

Looking for something to do at night, Theroux ends up at a performance called “Red Flowers Fall on Fair Skin” playing at the Nishigeki Music Hall. The newspaper ad — “commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon” — tricks him into believing it is a culturally important show. Hence he acts disappointed to ultimately discover it is, as he puts it, a “tit show.” Resignation turns to abject horror as the stage performance slowly transforms into first, a minstrel show, and then bouts of incredibly violent and sadistic sex. In a segment called “Ten no Amishima,” a man kills a woman right as he orgasms, and in the final piece “Onna Harakiri,” a naked woman slowly commits suicide with a blade, splattering blood everywhere. Theroux is even more weirded out by this “savage eroticism” when the male audience shuffles out in orderly fashion and then they all bow goodnight to colleagues with utmost protocol.

While Theroux’s account reads like a satirical fictionalization of Japanese entertainment, this particular show did actually exist. “Red Flowers Fall on Fair Skin” 『白い肌に赤い花が散った』played at the Nishigeki from November to December 1973, written by playwright and failed LDP candidate Takechi Tetsuji. Theroux does not catch, however, that this kind of performance was far from “mainstream”: Takechi was a highly controversial figure who had been prosecuted routinely for obscenity.

Yet after that show Theroux seems to find sex and violent art everywhere he looks. He tries reading Edogawa Rampo and finds it implausibly perverted. He flips through a young woman’s manga as she’s in the train bathroom and discovers “bloody stories.” He hears an anecdote about a teacher and her students’ mothers all getting together to giggle over a pornographic Buddhist scroll. Even when he meets a Kyoto professor obsessed with Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, the discussion quickly descends into the Japanese scholar’s specific proclivities for sex shows. (We alsp learn in this discussion that Saul Bellow had a boring time in Japan until they figured out to take him to a strip club.)

Theroux is no prude, but he is never quite able to laugh off the encounters with sex throughout his time in Japan. He had even seen the darker sides of the Asian sex trade throughout his travels in places like India and Bangkok, but he seems traumatized by the sheer banality of “blood-thirsty” sexual voyeurism in Japan.

The Great Railway Bazaar’s brief Japan episodes put forward familiar views of Japanese sexuality that would later become stereotypical. That being said, was the author’s special attention to Japanese sex culture a fair topic for exploration? Or was it intentionally exploitative, meant to shock his English-language readers and draw moral lines of which Theroux was clearly on the right side?

While in Japan, Theroux does not once comment upon Japanese sexual services intended for the individual, nor does he seek them out. No one stops him on the street to offer him girls. Yet his social experiences keep bringing him back to the subject of sexual voyeurism, and you can feel his frustration and slight digust. Compare that to his experiences in the rest of Asia, where he treats prostitution with little shock, and his reportage just ends up layering a creepy veneer on something he finds to be generally inevitable.

Theroux likely had little background to understand the degree of institutionalization of sexual commerce within Japan, especially for a nation that has moved far beyond its pre-war poverty-driven prostitution industry. There is no single “red light district” but a widely distributed network of establishments across the country, employing hundreds of thousands of workers. As scholar Anne Allison and others have shown, Japan’s gigantic “mizu-shobai” industry of sexual services — ranging from paying to drink with women to strip clubs and full-out prostitution — relies quite heavily upon on its integration with the corporate world. Sexual voyeurism and gender hierarchy have not been regrettable acts of desperate men: Top male bosses fraternize and companies “build bonds” through the help of these services. In the 1970s, Thereoux was likely to run into the activity as soon as he entered a male-exclusive world, such as university faculties of Western literature.

And it is this very framework of male fraternization that pushes sex towards being a voyeuristic activity. Heterosexual sex for male bonding must be rebuilt and reconfigured — from its original conception as a private act between individuals — for the purposes of group male entertainment. Hence violence and sadism are likely to become core thematic principles, as alternatives like romance, love, and tenderness directly project man’s private bonds to women — thus creating a conflict with its new context. In other words, “savage eroticism” is likely a functional product of sex’s role in male fraternization rather than merely a cultural quirk.

Interestingly the socialized voyeurism of Japanese sex culture that Theroux encountered has faded in recent years, and his travels mark the final days of an era when the “sex show” had a special place in society. These days sex services are split between the faux relationships of hostess clubs and kyabakura, meant to provide psychological support for men, and the full-out physical gratification of pink salons, delivery health, soaplands, and other fuzoku parlors. While corporate money still keeps the hostess club world afloat, younger men — who are now less likely to be full-time company employees with access to entertainment accounts — have moved away from sex services as social bonding. When they rent naughty DVDs at Tsutaya, they’d rather not run into anyone they know.

Today legal and gray market sexual services still make up a significant portion of the Japanese economy and employ a large number of women. In this sense the book’s observations — while now certainly clichéd — came plausibly from a place without malicious intent. Theroux may have been one of the first Western writers to call disproportionate attention to the socialized aspect of sex in Japan, but he certainly was not exaggerating for effect.

W. David MARX
November 21, 2011

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

18 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    “but he certainly was not exaggerating for effect.”

    Maybe not in terms of what he is describing, but he certainly should be taken to task for what he chooses to describe in the first place – the longstanding “gaze on Asia”.

    If a contemporary Japanese writer went to Europe and obsessed about redlight peep shows and the scat porn scene, or the type of thing described in “Diary of a Porn Store Clerk” on Salon yesterday, he’d no doubt be accused of having some serious hangups. There has been an industry of white men going to Asia to bring back transgressive sex stories for over 400 years and I don’t think that it is a stretch to suggest that Theroux may have asked to be introduced to these “surprises at cultural events” by local (paid) informants. He certainly gives way too much info about the ad and names of acts to be a lone blundering innocent abroad (and everything else playing in Tokyo was Noh or Kabuki!?). Also, he just happens to sit next to an English-speaking prof who took Saul Bellow to a strip show on a train? Strange things happen, but this strange?

    “Theroux does not catch, however, that this kind of performance was far from “mainstream””

    I’m betting that he told one of his minders to take him to the most perverse thing they could find. Just like he doesn’t report asking anyone to give him Rampo, he just HAPPENS to be reading it. Either he got it from a mediator or read it during the later writing process. It doesn’t seem credible that he keeps randomly bumbling into the most perverse things possible.

    There was prolific street solicitation by prostitutes and pimps in Japan in this period and for him to totally miss this while just happening to blunder into a notorious sex show stretches belief. He found a context of sex that makes Japan look offbeat because that’s what he was looking for. Nobody wants to hear about how brothels in the exotic East are just like home.

  2. MattA Says:

    “It doesn’t seem credible that he keeps randomly bumbling into the most perverse things possible.”

    I don’t have anything to add to your analysis, but the idea of Theroux randomly happening into the worst Tokyo has to offer, like a sleazy Forrest Gump, made me chuckle.

    The piece really reads like a bookend to the classic “Tokyo After Dark”:

  3. M-Bone Says:

    I was quite entertained by the idea of a newspaper advertising nothing but Noh, Kabuki, and the rape and gore show.

    Fitzpatrick was refreshingly honest – he was there to knock boots and thus broke the 400 year tradition of foreign observers being closet sex-obsessives by being an open sex-obsessive.

    Theroux’s bit reminds me more of “Speed Tribes” – everything there is mostly credible (expect the author knowing a both a random pornstar and a rightwing youth who disembowels himself after losing a fight with a yakuza), but the combination just doesn’t add up.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Whoa, Speed Tribes is way more sinister, and Greenfeld has basically admitted that it’s massively fictionalized.

    Theroux chooses to focus on certain parts of his trips rather than others but I don’t think he fictionalized much of it. The question is whether he even had “handlers” at that point in his career or on the trip. He certainly doesn’t give clues to their existence.

    With the professor reading The Golden Bowl, it seems plausible that he just saw the guying reading James and decided to strike up a conversation.

  5. M-Bone Says:

    Speed Tribes is indeed far more sinister. I saw it recently described as a collection of short stories, so the message is getting out.

    I don’t think that Theroux fictionalized much, but he does tend to magically appear on trains without having to deal with much, has very few misunderstanding anecdotes (Donald Richie, fluent in speaking but not reading, has lots in his virtually contemporary work; Roland Barthes played this for effect, but his work does give a sense of bewilderment as well), has no problem with brief conversations with people around him in many cases where it seems unlikely that he would find much English in 2011, let alone 1973, easily understands the gross out show titles, etc. All of this makes me suspicious.

    I do think that he had a perversion agenda and found an avant garde show, had Rampo (very obscure at the time) recommended to him by someone in the know, and so on. Given how perfectly the Kyoto prof’s story fits with his earlier comments, does it sound more likely that he just happened to meet a guy who took Saul Bellow to a live sex show or that he sought him out after having heard the story that Saul Bellow apparently told frequently and wrote up in a later novel “More Die of Heartbreak” (which I unfortunately could not find and snip online)?

    Just about the only things that he talks about in detail that isn’t about perverse sex are prices (briefly at the beginning, almost as if getting an obligation out of the way) and Mishima and I can imagine his end having been on the minds of early 70s literati when thinking about Japan. And then Theroux just happens to stumble into the shadow world of blood and eroticism where Mishima lived (although making it hetero-normative for easy consumption), even witnessing a timely art grotesque seppuku no doubt inspired by the master himself?

    Besides, his overall interpretation of the sex shows doesn’t even come close to the sophistication of what Marxy writes – he merely says that Japanese men are too tired (this is a class thing in 1973) and like to watch what they don’t have the energy to do.

    Come to think of it, I find it highly implausible that someone actually finished a Henry James novel, let alone reread one.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    The joke of course is that the professor teaches a 2 year class just on The Golden Bowl, and that late James is basically unreadable for even native speakers.

  7. MattA Says:

    If for no other reason than I believe Theroux actually DID the stuff he’s writing about, the comparison is less “Speed Tribes” than it is “Wrong About Japan.” The big difference being Theroux didn’t need to invent a fictional friend to explain the coincidences.

    Another contemporary book with a less sleazy but definite sex slant is Ray Mungo’s Seventies-vintage “Return to Sender,” based around a visit he later described as being driven by his “yellow fever of lust for Japanese guys.” (A common enough hobby, I gather, among a lot of early postwar Japan scholars and Japanophiles.)

    The really interesting thing is how this view of Japan has almost totally evaporated: today, “Japan” and “sex” are most often conflated abroad in those (deeply flawed) surveys about how often — or rather little — Japanese couples are supposedly getting it on. The image seems to have shifted from an uninhibited sexual paradise to an uninhibited masturbatory paradise.

  8. M-Bone Says:

    Yeah, “Wrong About Japan” is a much better comparison than “Speed Tribes” – it all happened, but not quite like that.

    “A common enough hobby, I gather, among a lot of early postwar Japan scholars and Japanophiles.”

    As I understand it, this was the thing for most of the lit and film guys (including the “big three”). Unfortunately, most have not been as open about it as Mungo, as it would make for fascinating historio-cultural reading.

    “The image seems to have shifted from an uninhibited sexual paradise to an uninhibited masturbatory paradise.”

    There is something of the occupation era discourse in current writing, at least online – Japanese men are narrated as limp wristed wankers (and closet sadists), women as crazy for the United Colors of Benetton. This is crying out for a West Fear Neon style confessional where a white Japan critic / scholar / blogger / whatever actually writes critically about how he has fit in Japan’s sexual economy. I don’t have the guts to do it and I doubt anyone else does either.

  9. Anymouse Says:

    I think this was probably exaggerated, but I would have to read it to see. A distinct opposite of this sex obsessed view of Japan is a photo book I have seen called “Gentle Ways in Japan”. It seems to mandate shelf space at every College or University library I have been to (A sum total of two). It describes almost every aspect of middle class Japanese society in a positive light. It even suggests in a caption to a photo of cheerful High School girls clutching little branded purses that they (paraphrasing) bode well for the future psychological health of Japan because they are all eager to become wives and mothers.

    It is understandable considering it was published in the 80’s, but is still an example of wishful thinking and naiveté.

    “Come to think of it, I find it highly implausible that someone actually finished a Henry James novel, let alone reread one.”

  10. M-Bone Says:

    Just to clarify – I don’t mean “economy” in terms of paid transactions (although that no doubt applies in more than a few cases) but in supply and demand and the range of other stuff from Tsutaya to strip shows.

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    For the record, I read The Ambassadors in 2008. I did not enjoy it and will not recommend it, but it can plausibly be done if you have enough willpower.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    I’ve actually read “The Turn of the Screw” – which is technically a novella, I think.

    I’ve read plenty of stuff with a similarly excruciating reputation such as Mann, Dickens’ less famous work, Hardy, Eliot, the Brontes, not to mention “Being and Time”, “Being and Nothingness”, “Critique of Pure Reason”, Hegel, Foucault, all of “Capital”, Proust, “Ulysses”, and I can’t think of anything canonical that even comes close to the pure monotony of slogging through James.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    The latest translation of “The Magic Mountain” is really readable. You just have to want to read about a guy who stays in a single place for 7 years.

  14. Aceface Says:

    The Japanese translator of TGRB(and Old Patagonian Express)is literati big shot and train mania,Agawa Hiroyuki阿川弘之.Kodansha also made a 対談本 by two which as I understand is not on the official bibliography of Paul Theroux,or so it was the last time I checked,hence it was translated by someone else.

    Considering Agawa’s conservative politics and stance on China,I’d imagine he didn’t enjoyed “Riding the Iron Rooster”of which Theroux used common anti-Japan sentiment to socialize with Chinese.Hence it was translated by someone else.

  15. Jeffrey Says:

    “First and foremost, everything is incredibly expensive — even to this American living in the U.K. Theroux writes, “It is with a kind of perverse pride that the Japanese point out how expensive their country has become.” Clothes “cost the earth,” and he hears rumors of a $40 cup of coffee.”

    Theroux – it seems you either love him or hate. His reporting here, though, seems off. I first visited Japan in the summer of 1979; six years after Theroux, but well before the Bubble began. Japan was not expensive for someone spending anything other than yen. The fixed dollar exchange rate then, if I remember correctly, was around 280 yen.

    Otherwise, supply, demand and, as of that time, a still growing population dictated that an overpopulated country with almost no resources would be expensive, for someone living on the local currency. Oh, and then there were all those massive tariff barriers.

    Maybe Theroux was just a cheapskate in those days?

  16. MattA Says:

    I was intrigued to see that Theroux penned a recent (2006) sequel called “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.” I haven’t read it, but found this tidbit quoted from it online:

    “Manga and the graphic novel seemed to represent a dumb, defiant anti-intellectualism, though there were plenty of people who argued that they were on a par with ukiyo-e. But however well drawn, modern manga were banal or silly or sheer fantasy, hasty and crude compared with the work of the great printmakers. I found Hokusai’s erotic prints much more powerful, indeed sexier, than these ludicrous comics… a sugar high like junk food… they spell the end of the traditional novel, perhaps the end of writing itself.”

    Thank god the ol’ mystery train got Paul out of Tokyo before he stumbled on a keitai novel…

  17. Chuckles Says:

    Here’s why I am not enthusiastic about Theroux’s stuff.

    1. Not as journalistic as Robert D Kaplan – he of “The Coming Anarchy”.

    2. Not as dismissive and literary as V.S. Naipaul, Conrad, Burton, etc.

    I didnt like “Dark Star Safari” and I dont like TGRB either. But how does Theroux redeem himself? He actually writes about people. I find it hard to credit Theroux with the same complexes that I find in Naipual, or the occidental supremacism that I see in Kaplan. Conrad had issues of his own: his civilized savagery was mirrored in the Negroes he regarded ever so slightly. Burton faced Asia seeing in the East, a sexuality denied the occident only by the occident. Naipaul basically wishes he was thoroughly, thoroughly, white. But Theroux is just a guy. A guy out there writing about humans, even when he faces Japan with the gaze on the East, the gaze is so unoriginal and so simulatory of prior narratives that it is hard to imagine Theroux possessing a complex of his own generation, out of his own cultural milieu, as opposed to refracting the look passed down many generations by his superiors and precursors.

    Its basically a “So far So Yawn hum dee dee dum” affair to those very familiar with Asia narratives. Safe enough to bring in the money in an age when the sort of cultural figuration he traffics in, is a return to a more ancient voyeurism now close to being considered declasse by most of his target consumers.

  18. Colin Doyle Says:

    Theroux was right about the inexpensive fruit, c. 1973. Individually wrapped melons and the like have always been costly (and not as universal as the stereotypes make them out to be), but in those days,South African fruit was cheap and good. Don’t forget that Japan was late in getting on the “Boycott Apartheid” bandwagon (well into the 1980s, I think),and the South African government rewarded them accordingly. It was only after the Japanese government bowed to international pressure and joined the boycott that fruit prices shot up.