The perverse stereotype of the Japanese man in the British media

Perry Hinton, Warwick University [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 2 (Article 9 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 30 August 2015.


For well over a hundred years, a number of stereotypes of the Japanese have been employed in Britain and other Western countries. This paper argues, from an analysis of a number of recent British media reports, that a new stereotyped view of the Japanese man is present within them, couched in terms of inferred deviance from British normative expectations. Further, it argues that the use of this stereotype in the reports of Japan’s current social and economic situation inappropriately locates the ‘cause’ of Japan’s ‘problems’ in the Japanese man and his interests, an explanation contradicted by a more detailed consideration of the issues involved, and the socio-cultural context of modern Japan.

Keywords: Japan, masculinity, stereotype, Britain, media, economic distress.

Japan and Britain are both island nations (shimaguni) at the edge of a continental land-mass; their people are often perceived as reserved; and Japan was once even viewed as the “Britain of the East” (Conte-Helm, 2013). Yet, despite the similarities between them, the perception of Japan and the Japanese in Britain has often been of difference. For well over a hundred years, a number of stereotypes of the Japanese have been employed in Britain and other Western countries. In this paper, I will argue, from an analysis of a number of recent British media reports, that a new stereotyped view of the Japanese man is present within them, couched in terms of inferred deviance from British normative expectations. I will further argue that the use of this stereotype in the reports of Japan’s current social and economic situation inappropriately locates the ‘cause’ of Japan’s ‘problems’ in the Japanese man and his interests, an explanation contradicted by a more detailed consideration of the issues involved, and the socio-cultural context of modern Japan.

After the Meiji restoration in Japan in the mid-19th Century, there was a Western enthusiasm for many aspects of ‘exotic’ Japanese culture, often termed Japonisme, from gardens to geisha (Ono, 2003). Britain, like other Western powers, encouraged the industrialisation of Japan: for example, British engineers developed the early Japanese road and rail infrastructure. Yet this was accompanied by a Victorian colonial Orientalism: that is, a view of the advanced West bringing (rational) ‘enlightenment’ to the ‘ancient’ and ‘inscrutable’ East, including a racial stereotype of the ‘Oriental’ man as ‘weak’ or ‘degenerate’ (McLeod, 2010). The use of this stereotype asserted an inferred cultural superiority of Western men and also ‘legitimised’ Western influence and values (McLeod, 2010). The swift industrialisation of Japan made it a major world power by the early 20th century, which also led to a British anxiety about the threat of the ‘yellow peril’ in its empire (Bradshaw & Ransdell, 2011). Although an ally in the First World War, as an enemy in the Second World War Japan inflicted some shocking defeats on the British in their East Asian territories, before its eventual defeat.

Matsumoto (2002) identified seven interlinking (Western) stereotypes that have been employed during the 20th Century for the Japanese man. Matsumoto also provided research evidence to contradict them. The Japanese man has been portrayed as a member of a collective culture, subordinate to the overall needs of the wider group (be it the family, company or wider society) at the expense of personal goals (a stereotype of ‘collectivism’), with a different, more interdependent, sense of self compared to the independent Western self (a second stereotype), leading to the concept of an interpersonal consciousness (a third stereotype). The Japanesehave also been portrayed as emotionally distinct, both in their (lack of) emotionalexpression (often described as ‘inscrutable’) and in a consequent assumption of a lack of emotion. This fourth stereotype has led to the Japanese being viewed as “emotionless robots” (Matsumoto, 2002, p. 59). These stereotypes can be observed (often in an extreme way) in cinema representations of cruel and emotionless Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, such as in The Bridge on the River Kwai from 1957 (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009), or by the numerous images of the slavishly-dedicated kamikaze pilots in Western post-war comics and films. The stereotype positions the Japanese man as more (cruelly) dedicated but morally inferior to his Western counterpart. In these representations the Japanese are often portrayed as mere agents of the collective, giving up their individuality for the common cause. This is typified by the image of the Japanese soldier, Onoda Hiroo, struggling on for years in the Philippine jungle unaware that the war had ended—an event that filled the Western media when he was eventually found in 1974. Yet a close look at the evidence clearly disconfirms this view. It is argued that no serving member of the armed forces actually volunteered to be kamikaze pilots, who were almost all members of a very specific group of idealistic school and college students (Ohnuki-Tierney, 2006). Also Onoda was a curious—and almost mythical—oddity to the Japanese themselves. He was finally discovered by student and fellow countryman Suzuki Norio, who set out on a world trip to find “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order” (Onoda, 1974, p. 7).

Subsequently, with the economic growth of a demilitarised Japan, the stereotype shifted on to the Japanese company man, the sarariman, dedicated to his company and striving long hours, often at the expense of his family life, to achieve commercial success. The cohesiveness of the Japanese (male) workforce, particularly in contrast to the worker-management disputes of British industry, was viewed as one of the elements driving the growth of Japanese companies, which overtook established British producers in areas such as ship-building, car, and motorcycle manufacturing; along with the Japanese economy surpassing that of Britain during the 1960s. Japanese economic success was attributed to all the stereotypical characteristics of the Japanese man (Dale, 1986), which led to the rhetorical question of how could the Western man compete with the dedicated and cohesive Japanese with their guarantee of lifetime employment (Matsumoto’s sixth stereotype)? At home the Japanese man and woman were viewed as carrying out their highly gendered roles in a rigid and culturally structured traditional marriage (the seventh stereotype).

However, since the bursting of the Japanese economic ‘bubble’ in the early 1990s and the subsequent years of limited growth, the view of Japan has switched from a model of commercial success to the opposite, with the Japanese economy described in the British media, such as by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in terms of “lost decades” (BBC, 2009) and “economic crisis” (BBC, 2001); with its developing population decline a “time bomb” (BBC, 2007). In the 21st Century the British media discourse on Japan has contained three key elements: first, the assumption that Japan is experiencing some form of crisis; second, an explicit attempt to explain ‘what has gone wrong’ with Japan; and, thirdly, an implicit question of whether such a crisis could occur in other developed economies (i.e., in Britain).

At the same time, a new image of Japan has emerged—referred to as ‘Cool Japan’ (Sugiyama, 2006)—as a producer of cultural products appealing to global youth: computer games and gaming machines, animated movies (anime) and comics (manga), toys, innovative and colourful fashion, often linked to cosplay (costume play—the dressing up as popular anime characters). Japanese music (J-pop) has gained significant popularity in a range of East Asian countries (although only remains of cult interest in Western countries). Cool Japan has been promoted and supported by the government. With global sales of two trillion yen in 2012 and predictions of rapid increases, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has sponsored Cool Japan projects in a variety of countries from Brazil to the United States of America (Nagata, 2012).

Yet in Britain, due to specific media representations of these products, the promotion of Cool Japan has potential problems. Whilst manga and anime have been popular amongst British fans, anime has also been the subject of media concern. In the 1980s, with the advent of the video cassette, there was national media reporting of public concern in Britain about certain American and European horror movies with violent, and sexually violent, content, referred to as “video nasties,” with the risk highlighted that they might be viewed by children in the home (Barker, 1984). The government responded with a new, strict video censorship law in 1984. When anime began to be imported in the 1980s and early 1990s, alongside classics such as Akira and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta), British distributors also sought certification for films such as LA Blue Girl and Legend of the Overfiend (Choujin Densetsu Urotsukidouji), which became the subject of widespread media attention, evoking the concerns of an already sensitised public. The former was banned outright and the latter became “the bête noire of the early British anime market” (McCarthy, 1996, p. 66), with sensationalist press reports and reviews making little distinction between filmic imagery and cartoon fantasy, and showing “no understanding of its source manga, background or content” (McCarthy, 1996, p. 66). The distributed version was so highly censored that it made the story almost impossible to follow. Consequently, despite its increasing popularity, and the availability of a wide diversity of anime for British adult fans on the high street and via the internet, the image of ‘sex and tentacles’ created by this early media attention has persisted into the 21st century as a British stereotype of anime “as weird, sexual and violent” (Spall, 2009) and continued to be perceived as only a cult interest.

Computer games have also been subject to frequent British media attention, in their concern about ‘video violence’ in certain games (such as Mortal Kombat) and the potential negative effects on young players (e.g. McVeigh, 2000b). Thus, issues of ‘sex and violence’ have often dominated British news media in the reporting of anime and computer games. Japan as a ‘cool’ source of manga, anime and computer games as received in Britain may have widespread appeal amongst fans, yet Cool Japan may also be interpreted (indeed misinterpreted) in the British media as a transgressive cultural ‘Other’ (Hinton, 2014).

In the current analysis, I have selected four recent outputs from major British media organisations, covering print, radio, television and online journalism, which present a British perspective on modern Japanese men and their interests: an article from the national newspaper The Guardian called “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” (Haworth, 2013); the hour-long BBC television broadcast No sex, please. We’re Japanese (BBC, 2013) and its accompanying Website article called “The Japanese men who prefer virtual girlfriends to sex” (Rani, 2013); the online BBC news magazine article “Why are so many Japanese men refusing to leave their rooms?” (Kremer and Hammond, 2013); and the BBC radio broadcast Should comics be crimes? (BBC, 2015) and its accompanying article on the BBC Website “Why has Japan not banned child-porn comics?” (Fletcher, 2015). I am adopting a cultural approach to discourse in the analysis of these “texts” (Shi-xu, 2005), in particular examining where the author engages in “exploiting the unexpected” (Shi-xu, 1995, p. 315), that is, rhetorically employing surprise or shock in the discourse. Shi-xu (1995) argues, from his research into travel writing, that in perceiving the unexpected in another culture—often something viewed negatively—the author does not challenge his or her own cultural assumptions, or consider the cultural context of the action, but presents it as “deviant” and, in proposing an explanation, rhetorically positions the cultural Other as (rationally or morally) inferior. I am arguing here that this approach will identify where a stereotype, and a stereotypical explanation, are being employed. Prior to this analysis, I will first establish the Japanese cultural context to the issues discussed in the British reports, allowing a comparison between the explanations provided in the British media with those available from the perspective of recent Japanese culture. From this comparison, I will consider whether the Japanese man is viewed stereotypically in the British media reports.

The Japanese cultural context

The phenomenal success of the Japanese post-war economic development had, by the final quarter of the 20th Century, brought about great wealth to the nation and to individual workers and their families. The source of this success was viewed as arising from the hard work and dedication of the Japanese people, often characterised by the word ‘endurance’ (gaman), implying a stoical ability to persevere with dignity in the face of enormous difficulties. An example of the can be seen in the very popular Japanese television drama Oshin (1983-84) that charted the life of a woman from her humble birth through the traumas of the 20th Century to wealthy old age (Harvey, 1995). Oshin’s endurance represented that of her compatriots, recovering and rebuilding Japan from the rubble of war through their dedication and hard graft. In this sense she represented Japan. However, the program also noted a generation gap, with well-off young people in the late 20th Century questioning this life of constant work. In a survey of high school students in the late 1980s, White (1993) showed that, unlike Western teenagers who viewed adulthood as a time of independence and personal freedom (in contrast to the dependence of childhood), Japanese teenagers viewed adulthood as an unappealing time of duty, responsibility and hard work. The high school and university years were perceived as a time of relative personal freedom—with good allowances from parents funding consumer spending—which only too rapidly passed. More broadly in the culture, questions began to be asked about the relationship between Japanese financial success and individual fulfilment, essentially: why has this wealth not brought happiness?The popular television program Endurance (Za Gaman) of the 1980s gently poked fun at the cultural concept of endurance, with university students undertaking a range of student-rag-style ‘endurance’ tasks (climbing slippery slopes, sitting in ice). Ironically, clips from this show were used on British television in Clive James on Television (1982-1989) and the follow up show Chris Tarrant on TV (1990-2006), as examples of Japanese kookiness for the amusement of British viewers. Neither the Japanese cultural context nor the cultural meaning of the word ‘endurance’ was explained (Hinton, 2014).

Also, in the late 20th Century high school girls developed a counter-culture to all things harsh and grown-up, as a reaction to a perceived future of hard work, duty and the gender inequality of adulthood. This was termed kawaii (loosely translated into English as ‘cute’). People and objects could be kawaii (Kinsella, 1995). The teenage girls themselves could act and dress kawaii: with kawaii fashion as colourful, bold and child-like. However, their high school uniform, the seira-fuku (sailor-style uniform), as an identification of the shoujo (the young unmarried woman who is not yet engaging in adult life), became iconic of kawaii culture. The appeal of young singers, actors and models (termed idoru) was influenced by how kawaii they appeared. Kittens and puppies were kawaii, as were a range of soft toys, such as the Hello Kitty cat. Manga and anime characters became cuter, with exaggerated kawaii features (such as large, doe eyes and small noses). The consumer power of these well-off high school girls meant that kawaii became a major influence in many aspects of popular culture, and symbolically represented youthful pleasure in contrast to adult duty and hard work. Kawaii culture was a rebellion against, and a reaction to, their perception of conventional adulthood (Kinsella, 2014). Yet to Western observers, where cuteness is associated with infants, and comics with childhood, the style and kawaii interests of Japanese high school girls led to them being presented in the Western media as either younger than their years, with their ordinary teenage sexual interests misinterpreted (and problematised) as precocious sexuality, or presented somewhat pruriently in terms of a Madame Butterfly stereotype—a Western male erotic interest in the apparently naïve and submissive, child-like Japanese girl—named after central character of the eponymous Puccini opera (Hinton, 2013a).

As a way of representing a respite from drudgery, duty and unhappiness, kawaii culture had an impact on both Japanese adult and (teenage) boys’ culture. High school girls’ culture and the life of the shoujo (typified by the high school girl), became a locus of how to gain a more pleasurable life. The consumerism of the shoujo, in terms of fashion and popular culture, became a model of achieving some degree of personal enjoyment; and kawaii entered adult culture (as symbolic of personal pleasure) with everyday objects made ‘friendlier’ and ‘warmer’ by making them cuter, such as road signs or credit cards (McVeigh, 2000a). By engaging in kawaii culture, adults were able temporarily to throw off their responsibilities and gain some element of shoujo enjoyment. Treat (1996, p. 282) quoted critic Horikiri Naoto: “I wonder if we men shouldn’t now think of ourselves as ‘shoujo’, given our compulsive and excessive consumerism…”

In the lae 20th Century comics (manga) were ubiquitous in Japan. Unlike in the West, comics were for everyone, not simply children. Manga was produced on all sorts of topics from education (learning a new language, for example) through to comics about golf, mah-jong or baseball. Commuters (both adults and children) could purchase comics readily at station kiosks or convenience stores to read whilst travelling home from work or school. Not surprisingly boys’ comics (shonen manga) often involved adventure stories, sports and stories of school life. Given the broad range of manga content it was not surprising that a small minority would contain erotic material, which sometimes was labelled as ‘pornographic’ by Western observers (Fukuzawa and LeTendre, 2001)—although Japan has consistently had strict censorship laws. With the import of Japanese manga into the West, these comics were often foregrounded in the British press in terms of concerns about British youth being exposed to such material (Hinton, 2014). However, Allison (1996) argued for a cultural explanation for such erotic manga for the Japanese teenage boy. She pointed out that in Japanese society at the time there was a particular pressure on boys to do well at school. In the sociological structure of Japan, boys were viewed as the future workforce, with school examination performance strongly influencing later occupational success. Boys often undertook a considerable amount of homework after school and even attended cramming schools (juku) to improve their grades. This led to little free time for the teenage high school boy, and manga offered a way of enjoying these brief moments of leisure. As Allison notes, erotic content in their manga offered these young men, who had little time to date a girlfriend, a brief frisson of erotic pleasure before they were required to return to their studies. Thus, shonen manga served a cultural function of supporting the young man in his role of hard-working student and dedicated future worker (Allison, 1996).

High school boys, like the girls, also viewed adult life as a time of work, duty and responsibility (White, 1993), and kawaii influenced boys’ culture (shonen bunka). Traditionally heroes in shonen manga had been macho warriors or powerful sport stars. But by the 1980s, as Schodt (1983) noted, manga for boys had subtly changed: male characters tended to be less macho and more kawaii—appearing more feminine and less dynamic than previously. The adult life of the salary man was questioned, along with new models of masculinity and femininity emerging in manga and anime. However, the new dynamism of young women (driving popular culture and seeking their personal enjoyment), along with the idea of a more uncertain masculinity, presented a threat to traditional gender relations. Whilst the high school boy might wish to avoid the life of his father, the alternative appeared to be one of female emancipation. This led the feelings of the high school boy towards the shoujo to be one of both ‘desire’ and ‘fear’ (Kinsella, 2000). These anxieties were played out in fantasy manga stories, which sometimes involved the destruction of the adult world (often in an apocalyptic cataclysm) with teenage boys and girls having to create new worlds and develop new gender relationships: an extremely cute character might be discovered to have a secret power (necessary to save the world), or is found out to be an alien being or an android, or even changes gender. At the same time an amateur manga movement began to emerge allowing young men and women to create and distribute their own manga stories unrestricted by the story choices of the established publishers (Kinsella, 2000).

Also in the mid-1980s a group of young men were identified and labelled as otaku. The term is literally a polite form of address and might have an echo of the British ‘my good fellow’. The current use of the term is normally seen as arising from articles by Nakamori Akio in a 1983 column in the manga magazine Manga Burikko, although Azuma (2009) argues that its use as a nickname could go back as far as science fiction fans of the 1960s. Whilst otaku were dedicated fans of manga, anime and computer games the otaku subculture was much more than simply analogous to Western geeks or fanboys. In the cultural context of later 20th Century Japan, these young men sought an escape from a perceived unappealing adult life into an alternative virtual world—with its potential for playing out their desires and anxieties. Modern technology combined with manga and anime (written by themselves or for them) offered that alternative world, sometimes referred to as the two-dimensional world (as they are all visual media), in contrast to the three-dimensional ‘real’ world, and labelled ‘superflat’ by artist Murakami Takashi.

Otaku culture, like shoujo culture, was not a regression to childhood, but a reaction to, and a rebellion again, traditional lifestyles (Azuma, 2009). Otaku, like shoujo, were young adults engaging with issues of gender, identity and sexuality—like other young adults in modern capitalist societies around the globe. Whilst the kawaii high school girl—the shoujo—had an erotic appeal for the otaku, engaging with real girls might involve anxiety: on a personal level due to shoujo emancipation and her potential greater sophistication, and on a more general level in that this might be the first step on the ladder to the conventional adult world of work and family responsibility that they wished to avoid. Within the virtual world, characters could be created that avoided these anxieties. Virtual characters representing otaku desire were described as moe (Galbraith, 2009). A female character was moe if she was kawaii but also non-threatening and unsophisticated. But in the virtual world these female characters did not have to be like real girls at all: they could be unrealistically super-cute and not even human. A moe character might be a kawaii android or a robot ‘girl’ or even an animal-human hybrid, such as a cat-girl with a tail and pointed furry cat ears. Indeed, such characters potentially had greater appeal as they could be constructed in ways that avoided the anxieties associated with real or even virtual human girls (Galbraith, 2009). These moe characters are often represented erotically in a manga sub-genre targeted at otaku referred to as rorikon. The term rorikon (or lolicon) is a Japanese corruption of the English phrase ‘Lolita complex’ (from the eponymous book by Vladimir Nabokov)—a term open to misunderstanding by Western observers due to the differences in the meaning of Lolita in English-speaking countries compared to Japan (Hinton, 2013b). In Britain and North America the term evokes the image of either precocious sexuality or a middle-aged paedophile sexually abusing his 12 year old step-daughter, whereas in Japan the term refers more to a plucky girl struggling to cope with a hostile adult world (and this latter meaning of the term appears in the Japanese teenage fashion styles labelled Lolita). Critic Azuma Hiroki is clear: rorikon is not indicative of paedophilia but represents otaku rebellion against a traditional adult lifestyle (Azuma, 2009). A more appropriate English term for rorikon might be ‘Peter Pan complex’—as the otaku seek to inhabit a fantasy world, outside of the traditional adult world, where their erotic desires are expressed within the virtual world of moe characters. This otaku virtual universe could not be more different from the character and life of Humbert Humbert, the paedophile in Nabokov’s novel.

By the identification of a category of young men as ‘otaku’ they became subject to media interest, first in Japan and then abroad. And this labelling could be used to specify deviance. In 1989 when 26 year old Miyazaki Tsutomu murdered four small girls and was identified as an otaku, it generated a moral panic around otaku as a perverse subculture, and focused the interest on manga and anime fans through this lens of deviance (Kinsella, 2000). However, later, particularly after the popular film Densha Otoko (Train Man) in 2005 which presented an otaku favourably (who rescues a young woman from an attacker and shyly develops a relationship with her), the otaku gained a more positive image. In the new millennium, with the image of Cool Japan—viewed by Western youth as a dynamic place of innovation in fashion, manga, anime, toys, computer games and robotic technology—many people both in Japan and elsewhere were happy to identify themselves as otaku. Now, people can be labelled otaku (and choose to label themselves as such) solely on the basis of their consumer choices. In the United States of America, for example, many anime clubs relabelled themselves as otaku clubs and certain Western anime distributors added the word otaku to their names. Books became available in the West for fans on being an otaku (e.g. Marcias and Machiyama, 2004). A person could be labelled as an otaku in terms of his or her consumer demographics: thus boys and girls and older men and women could identify with otaku popular culture. Thus, the Nomura Research Institute’s (2005) identification of 1.72 million Japanese otaku is simply a measure of the widespread consumer market for anime, manga, computer games, idol products and so forth in Japan and not an indication that these people live an alternative lifestyle. Yet, with nearly forty million men of working age in Japan (and an unemployment rate averaging 3-4 percent during the 21st Century), the ‘typical’ Japanese man is unlikely to be an otaku, and probably not even watching anime.

As the image of otaku culture began to shift from deviance to a dynamic element in consumer culture, another group emerged as a focus of media concern in Japan. There has been much reporting both in Japan and the West of a subgroup of Japanese young people termed hikikomori who have sought literally to escape from the social world by isolating themselves in their rooms and withdrawing from social relations. This lifestyle is often only possible due to the supportive family structure in Japan where young people often remain in the family home with their parents even after graduation. Emerging as an issue of public concern in Japan in the mid-1990s it was described by psychiatrist Saito Tamaki in a key work of 1998, in which he estimated that there were as many as a million hikikomori in Japan (Horiguchi, 2012). However, it is interesting to note that after a twelve-month survey by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Labour, only 6,151 hikikomori were known to health professionals in 2001. Whilst this figure may be an underestimate, with other authors suggesting half Saito’s number (Horiguchi, 2012), “the missing million,” the title of a BBC news report (Rees, 2002), has often been reported in the Western media. In Japan there has been a debate about whether hikikomori is a psychiatric problem or a cultural phenomenon, with the moral panic of the early 2000s (associating violence and mental illness with the hikikomori) subsiding during the following ten years, replaced by new concerns about young people not in education, employment and training (referred to by the acronym NEET). Whereas it was argued that hikikomori need (psychiatric) support, the solution to young people not engaging in the workforce (NEETs)—sometimes portrayed in the Japanese media as lazy—is more youth employment (Horiguchi, 2012). Also the issue of social isolation has been widened out across both age and gender (e.g. Koyama et al., 2010) and considered as an issue in Western countries too (Kremer and Hammond, 2013). Yet, as with the otaku, Western media have tended to present the hikikomori phenomenon as a peculiarity of the Japanese, sometimes arguing that the hikikomori “stand for the entire Japanese nation” (Horiguchi, 2012, p. 1221).

The British media reports of contemporary Japanese issues

Apart from the issues mentioned earlier, there is only limited information about Japanese popular culture in the British mainstream media. The BBC late evening television series Japanorama 2002-2007 presented aspects of Japanese popular culture but focused on the unusual, including not surprisingly, an item on otaku, with the Japanese often presented humorously as kooky. Yet this view of Japanese Other-ness has also been employed in news media reports of certain social issues, as if these are uniquely Japanese problems, rather than prevalent in many developed countries. This is characterised by the heading of an article in the British Guardian newspaper: “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” (Haworth, 2013). It proposes that celibacy is a “looming national catastrophe” and links this to the statement that “Japan already has one of the world’s lowest birth rates,” along with survey figures for the number of people in relationships. Yet these are not given in any context: for example, South Korea and Germany have very similar birth rates to Japan (CIA, 2014). Even though the number of Japanese births was at a record low in 2013 (Kyoda, 2014), the figure of well over a million births does not indicate that the Japanese are giving up sex. Also frequency of sexual activity is not synonymous with population numbers. The key point is that economically a population crisis occurs when the working population is not going to be adequately replaced over time—and this is the issue facing Japan—but not just Japan, also countries such as South Korea, Hungary, Italy and Ukraine. It is less of an issue with Germany due to its positive attitude to immigration. Morgan (2003) argued that at the turn of the millennium half the countries of the world are facing a replacement problem. Yet the Guardian article for its evidence almost exclusively relies on Aoyama Ai, a Tokyo sex and relationship counsellor and her attempts “to cure what Japan’s media calls sekkusu shinai shokogun, or ‘celibacy syndrome’.” Aoyama is quoted as saying that “Relationships have become too hard,” yet “many people are turning to what she terms ‘Pot Noodle love’—easy or instant gratification” which includes casual sex (which is clearly not giving up on having sex). Highlighted amongst her clients is a hikikomori “who can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers.” Further clients were briefly noted, with their unusual or non-existent sex lives, emphasising these few ‘unexpected’ examples as if they are typical of ‘young people in Japan’, and the cause of a national population crisis.

The hour-long BBC television report No Sex, Please. We’re Japanese in the same year, presented an analysis of Japanese’s problem of population decline. As well as sections on industrial decline, the economic issues of population decline, the retired population and immigration, the reporter spoke to four Japanese women and two Japanese men of the working-age population. The two men were only identified as otaku with no mention of their employment. They were introduced by the reporter as follows: “It appears that relationships between Japanese men and women are becoming increasingly dysfunctional. And I was about to discover a truly strange aspect of romance—Japanese style;” thus juxtaposing problems (population decline, dysfunctional relationships) at the outset with something ‘strange’ (i.e. ‘unexpected’) about the Japanese men. The sole topic of the interview concerned the men’s interest in a Nintendo simulation game called Love+. A ‘sim’ game, such as the globally popular Tamagotchi, involves keying in appropriate responses to maintain the simulated activity, such as ‘feeding’ or ‘exercising’ a simulated pet, so that it does not ‘die’ (which results in a game over). Players often get very dedicated when they have maintained the sim for a long period. Love+ simulates a high school friendship between a teenage boy (the player) and a teenage girl (the sim), who appears as a manga character on the small screen. The player is required to make the appropriate key presses to ‘go on a date’ or ‘give a present’ to avoid the sim ‘ending the relationship’ (and terminating the game). The reporter began with “They’d invited me to meet their girlfriends… both of whom come in a box,” stating that these otaku “have been dating their virtual girlfriends for several years in a role-playing game called Love+.” The men, who turned out to be 38 and 39 years old, expressed their devotion to their virtual ‘girlfriends’, but one crucially stated: “it’s the kind of relationship we wish we’d had at high school.” And later: “I think I was most passionate about love when I was at high school.” This expression of nostalgia for an idealised high school youth—with the implication it was not what they actually had—clearly fits aspects of Japanese otaku culture (described above) but was not taken up in the interview. Whilst globally people of all ages play computer games as characters of different ages, gender or even degree of humanity (such as an Italian plumber or an elf), the reporter presents the Japanese men’s actual ages as ‘deviant’ in the following interchange:

Reporter: How old are you?
First otaku: I’m 39… But 17 in the game.
Reporter: So she thinks she’s going out with a 17 year old but you are actually 39. And how about you…? How old are you?
Second otaku: I’m 38 but in the game I’m 15.
Reporter: She thinks you are 15… OK (pauses and smiles awkwardly, puts her hand to her mouth, and laughs apparently nervously) OK, so you’re… when you’re with them you’re a teenage boy.
Second otaku: Of course.

Despite the first otaku making the distinction clear about his actual age and his (character’s) age “in the game” the reporter twice uses the phrase “she thinks you are…” as if the computer simulated character is somehow a ‘thinking person’ as in the phrase “she thinks she’s going out with a 17 year old but you are actually 39,” evoking the idea of an older man disturbingly duping a young girl by disguising his actual age. This is then almost immediately followed by the reporter asking: “Are they sexy? I mean do you find these things attractive? Yeah, are you sexually aroused by them? Is that what’s going on here?” to which the otaku reacts: “Oooh. I like the girls in the game too much. I don’t think I should have those kind of feelings. It’s platonic.” When asked if he wants to meet “a real woman” the first otaku answers “Yes, of course I do,” and the reporter notes with emphasis that the second otaku is married. Rather than asking about his home life, desire to have children and employment, the reporter asks about his wife’s view of him playing the game, to which he admits he hasn’t told her. After the interview, the reporter concludes “I can’t quite believe the conversation I’ve just had with the Love+ guys… men… boys, whatever they are. They are 39 and 38… 40 year old men who are going out with virtual girlfriends.” From the initial “truly strange” to the final “can’t quite believe,” the reporter has presented the otaku as a distinctly ‘unexpected’ cultural Other (even claiming: “whatever they are”), with the discussion topic and specific questions presenting them in terms of ‘deviant’ erotic interests.

The reporter then spoke to cultural commentator Roland Kelt whilst walking in Akihabara in Tokyo (an area associated with otaku culture) with the camera switching between them and the billboards and shops displaying manga characters. Kelt commented on new technologies and the experience of the virtual world. Then the reporter, referring to the imagery of otaku culture, asked if “all this school girl business” is “a bit kinky?” Kelt replied that “It depends on how you define kinky,” and then explained that “A lot of Japanese men remember childhood as… particularly school days …. as a time of relative freedom… and the schoolgirl look is comforting.” Yet the questioning focused on otaku sexual interest. After Kelt described the imagery as cute, wholesome and pure, the reporter commented in voice-over: “The manga cartoons extend to soft porn fantasies which can make uncomfortable viewing,” followed by a short clip from the anime Ikki Tousen: Dragon Destiny. (It was not mentioned that this anime was available, with legal certification, for adult viewers in Britain too.) Despite Kelt’s responses in terms of socio-cultural factors (such as the pessimism of young Japanese about their futures in a mature economy), the visual focus remained on the distinctive imagery of the Akihabara stores and the male shoppers.

The section of the broadcast about the otaku took up sixteen minutes, a quarter of the total and five times longer than the following interview with four Japanese women. The smartly-dressed women were identified as “professional,” “working,” “single” and “successful,” with the interview taking place across a shared restaurant meal involving the four women and the reporter (compared to the interview with the two casually-dressed otaku in what appeared to be a hotel room). The questioning, revealing the women’s ‘ordinary’ or ‘expected’ interests—in finding a partner and having children—also contrasted with the awkward discussion of a sim game with the men. Thus, the implication was that it is Japanese men (and not the women) who were “strange” (i.e. ‘the problem’). Yet, with a Japanese male labour force of over thirty million, this specific selection of two otaku is likely to be a highly atypical sample. By taking up such a large proportion of the broadcast about Japan’s population crisis, the impression given is quite the reverse; an implication explicitly expressed at the conclusion of the Website article: “… is it time for Japanese men to grow up, have more sex and make more babies?” (Rani, 2013).

In the same year the BBC presented a report on hikikomori: “Why are so many Japanese men refusing to leave their rooms?” (Kremer and Hammond, 2013). Whilst the article begins with the statement that “as many as a million young people,” the headline highlights ‘men’. The article quotes Saito (see above), from whom it gets the one million figure, and argues that social pressure (and perceived failure) can lead to social withdrawal. It also considers parent-child relationships in modern Japan, arguing that within the family the expectations of parents concerning their children, and the children’s responses, can lead to withdrawal and isolation. The article also considers female hikikomori, and, in a separate paragraph, posits whether there are hikikomori in Britain too, allowing for the possibility that this is not a specific Japanese phenomenon. However, and this is a key point being made here, attached to the article but not referenced within it are four bullet points. The first point states that hikikomori is an overlapping group with otaku (thus conflating the two); the second point states that “otaku are known for their obsessions, especially manga and anime”; the third point explains that the word ‘otaku’ means ‘you’; but the fourth point states: “In press coverage, both otaku and hikikomori have been linked with serious sex crimes.” Thus, attached to an article ostensibly about the phenomenon of social isolation, is an addition associating otaku with hikikomori, highlighting their “obsessions” and linking them to “serious sex crimes.”

This association of Japanese men—or at least a subset of them—and perverse sexuality can be most clearly seen in the BBC radio broadcast Should Comics Be Crimes? (BBC, 2015) and the accompanying website article Why hasn’t Japan banned child-porn comics? (Fletcher, 2015). The reporter presents his subject-position by arguing that the Japanese comics he is focusing on are “controversial, and possibly illegal, in the UK, Australia and Canada,” thus taking a perspective from a very specific cultural location; with the particular selection of countries comprising those with some of the most restrictive cartoon censorship regulations amongst democratic nations. The reporter also implies an ignorance of the aspect of the Japanese culture being examined, thus emphasising the ‘unexpected’ in constructing the Other (Shi-xu, 1995). On a visit to a manga fair in Tokyo where the “[t]housands of manga fans” are described as “mostly men,” when commenting on manga characters, he states “to my eyes they look to be in their early or pre-teens.” Also, when talking to an organiser of the manga fair: “[h]is candour takes me by surprise. He then introduces me to ‘Lolicon,’ short for ‘Lolita Complex’—the word for manga featuring young girls engaged in sexually explicit scenarios” [my italics]. Throughout the report, manga characters are described unambiguously as being human children: “manga involving very young children,” “sexual material involving adolescents.” This type of manga is then explicitly linked by the reporter to sexual abuse: “… even if no-one is harmed in the creation of sexually explicit manga, it might normalise, facilitate, or lead to an increased risk of sexual abuse;” leading to the implication contained in the title that it should be banned. Yet this inferred “increased risk” is not contextualised in terms of what are the significant risk factors in sexual abuse. For example, in a recent report by the International Business Times (Iaccino, 2014), the United Kingdom (where this manga is banned) featured in the top five nations with the highest rates of child sexual abuse but Japan did not.

The distinctive unrealistic comic imagery of rorikon is not acknowledged by the reporter, nor is the distinction between fantasy manga and pictures of actual children. Whilst there is a debate in Japan about the acceptability of certain rorikon manga, the appeal of rorikon for the otaku is that it is specifically not ‘real’, existing as fantasy in an alternative virtual world. The only Japanese perspective in the BBC broadcast came from Lily, a Japanese “popular writer of books for young women,” who stated that the Japanese “fascination for youth” is due to “men who are tired of strong independent women,” placing the focus on ‘men’. The article concludes by stating that, as the 2020 Olympics in Japan approaches, “outside eyes will turn to Japan, exerting a powerful pressure for manga and anime to be part of what people see as ‘cool Japan’ rather than ‘weird Japan,’” thus rhetorically constructing a “weird Japan” with ‘outside eyes’ and ‘people’ employed to imply a consensus around the reporter’s position (of disapproving of it). This type of ‘particularisation’ between the ‘good’ (‘cool Japan’) and the ‘bad’ (‘weird Japan’) within a social category (Japan) has been shown by Billig (1996) to be a rhetorical technique employed in discourse to support a discriminatory position against a social group, whilst endeavouring to appear unprejudiced.


The key point argued here is that, in these media reports, deliberately chosen examples of Japanese men and their interests are rhetorically constructed in terms of perversity through the exploitation of the ‘unexpected’ (Shi-xu, 1995) and associated with words such as “truly strange,” “kinky,” “uncomfortable,” and obliquely with sex crimes and child abuse. There is no attempt to question the British cultural perspective, with very little consideration of the Japanese cultural context. As a consequence, these reports imply that the ‘cause’ of Japan’s ‘problems’ lies in the ‘nature’ and interests of the modern Japanese man.

This representation of the Japanese man in the British media reports contains all the elements of a stereotype (e.g. Hinton, 2000). Certain behaviour is identified in individual members of a social group and attributed to a psychological quality, rather than to social or cultural factors. Thus, the otaku interest in computer games, manga and anime is not examined in terms of the Japanese socio-cultural context in any detail, or the world-wide enjoyment of these products, but attributed to ‘perverse sexual interests’ (“giving up sex,” “virtual girlfriends,” “weird”). The inference is then generalised to all members of the category (‘Japanese men’) who are now all assumed to have the same characteristic. As a result the stereotype of Japanese male ‘perversity’ is employed to ‘explain’ their social circumstances (implying ‘they are suffering a population crisis because they are not having sex’). This stereotypical explanation is highlighted, even when alternative explanations are available—such as the low birth rate across the developed nations or the approach to immigration. The use of the stereotype further allows the author to offer ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ (defined stereotypically). In the media reports examined here, this stereotype is employed not only to ‘explain’ Japan’s ‘problems’ but also offer solutions to them (“is it time for Japanese men to grow up …?”; ban ‘criminal’ comics). Just as Matsumoto (2002) demonstrated the inaccuracy of seven stereotypes of the Japanese, in this analysis, as well as identifying this new stereotype, the examination of the Japanese cultural context has also shown it to be inaccurate.

As explanations, stereotypes serve a purpose. When under threat from the Japanese, militarily or commercially, the Western stereotype of the ‘dedicated collective’ provided an explanation for Japanese success and a way of maintaining Western self-esteem. It ‘explained’ Japanese achievement (‘they all work dedicatedly together’) but also maintained the perception that they were inherently different (to Westerners), with inferior moral values (‘emotionless’, ‘cruel’) and lacking other cherished qualities such as independence of thought. In the 21st Century much of the Western reporting about Japan has been couched in terms of economic ‘crisis’ and a demographic ‘time bomb’. From this perspective, the transition from Japan as a model of economic success (to be emulated) to economic stagnation required explanation, along with the anxiety that this economic ‘collapse’ could happen in other developed countries (including Britain). An explanation that proposes that the ‘crisis’ is unique to Japan provides reassurance to people in other developed economies that it could not happen to them. This new stereotype of the Japanese man provides such an explanation. Presenting male perversity as a ‘cause’ of Japan’s ‘problems’ both distinguishes those problems from British culture, and constructs moral superiority (echoing the 19th Century view of the Oriental man), implying that ‘they’ should listen to ‘our’ advice for their own good.

Yet each step in the construction of this stereotype can be challenged. First, the assumptions about Japan’s economic ‘crisis’ have been questioned. British Financial Times journalist David Pilling (2014) argues that Japan’s economic difficulties are not unique, but may have arisen earlier than in other developed economies, and that it has dealt with them innovatively and with some success in remaining the third largest economy in the world. He quotes a British politician on a visit to Japan, seeing the vibrancy of Tokyo, claiming: “If this is a recession, I want one” (Pilling, 2014, p. 252, Figure 19). Second, Japan’s otaku and hikikomori have emerged within the socio-cultural context of Japan, yet the interests of these sub-groups do not reflect the lives of the majority of men of working-age in a Japan of continued economic power and high employment. Furthermore, the social issues facing Japan are not unique to that country: the problems of a modern industrialised economy, population decline, questions of work-life balance, social isolation, female emancipation, developments in gender relationships, and indeed the enjoyment of anime, manga and computer games, exist within many other countries.

I have argued that, when viewed through the lens of British culture, a distorted image of the otaku has emerged, with the critical distinction between the virtual and ‘real’ world blurred, or ignored. Otaku engagement with the fantasy realm of computer games, anime and manga, has been misinterpreted as (simply) reflecting perverse sexual interests. This interpretation has been generalised to a stereotype of all Japanese men and employed in media reports in their interpretation of aspects of Japanese society. These British media reports have achieved wide circulation outside Britain via other media organisations and across the Internet. As a consequence, rather than reflecting life in contemporary Japan these media reports may be promoting a modern British stereotype.


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[1] Horiguchi is referring to the 2006 work Shutting out the sun: how Japan created its own lost generation by American journalist Michael Zielenziger.

About the Author

Perry Hinton has worked for many years as an academic in four British Universities since receiving his doctorate from the University of Oxford. He has often been a member of an interdisciplinary team in the field of Communication, Culture and Media, primarily at Coventry University and Oxford Brookes University. He is currently working as a freelance academic author, researcher, and part-time tutor on the Language, Culture and Communication degree at Warwick University. He has written five books, published by Routledge, including The Perception of People (in press) and Stereotypes, Cognition & Culture (2000). His research is on the cultural context of media interpretation (particularly the interpretation of Japanese popular culture in Western media).

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