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Article 8 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 5 December 2008

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Feminist Erotica and Agency @ The Love Piece Club[1]


Laura Dales

School of International Studies
University of South Australia

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The Love Piece Club is a shop devoted to sex goods for women, located in Tokyo and online at www.lovepiececlub.com. As well as online shopping, the website offers regular columns, articles and photo-essays on subjects related to sexuality and women's lives. The site and shop are managed by Kitahara Minori, a writer, businesswoman and advocate for feminist erotica.

This paper explores the Love Piece Club as a discursive site – its potential meanings and its significance as a feminist work in promoting 'active sexuality as a strategy' for enabling women (Wilkins 2004:332). Addressing the online and printed texts of the LPC, I examine the possibilities for feminist agency inherent in the creation of space(s) for feminist erotica. Operating as a virtual site, the LPC can be interpreted as a cyberfeminist space, incorporating (and contributing) to understandings of the ways that internet technology affects gender and identity (Chatterjee 2002:200). My aim here is also to tease out the concept of agency, insofar as it can be applied to the work of the LPC and advocates of feminist erotica like Kitahara.

Key Words: Sexuality; feminism; internet; agency; Japan

This paper explores the work of the Love Piece Club (LPC), and its feminist approach in promoting 'active sexuality as a strategy' for empowering women (Wilkins 2004:332). The Love Piece Club is a shop devoted to sex goods for women, located in real space in Tokyo and online at www.lovepiececlub.com. As well as online shopping, the website offers regular columns, articles and photo-essays on subjects related to sexuality, feminism and erotica. The site and shop are managed by Kitahara Minori, a writer, businesswoman and advocate for feminist erotica (Dales 2005).

The focus in this article is the foregrounding of sexuality in the feminist discourse of the Love Piece Club, and its promotion of active sexuality as central to women's empowerment.[2] I introduce the Vibe Girls magazine as one example of feminist discourse, and address LPC web-columns as exemplars of the LPC critical feminist approach. These texts are analysed with reference to feminist literature on sex, the body and sexuality. My aim here is to document the ways that the LPC challenges hegemonic constructions of female sexuality, primarily through the promotion of feminist erotica and feminist critique.

Agency and resistance

In suggesting that the LPC promotes women's agency, I draw on Ahearn's definition of agency as 'the socio-culturally mediated capacity to act' (2001: 112). Here the emphasis is on capacity as well as action, which may be variable in its impact. Participation in and promotion of open discussion of sex goods, masturbation and queer sexual activity clearly does not necessarily effect revolution, and could even be seen purely as representative of an uncritical pursuit of pleasure (Parker 2005:3). Furthermore, feminist authors have underscored the ways in which understanding of consumption as empowerment rests in a 'specific formation of contemporary (hetero)sexuality' (Sonnet 1999: 171).

However, I argue that to address agency in its multiplicity requires that the definition be seen to encompass pragmatic acts of unintentional resistance. This means discarding the view of agency as 'a synonym for resistance to relations of domination' (Mahmood 2001:5). Instead, I argue that agency can be seen as including but not limited to resistance – defined by Parker as 'actions that actors themselves describe as aiming to defer, subvert, undermine or oppose the power and repression of dominant forces' (2005b:87).

Central to my thesis in this paper is the point that The Love Piece Club, virtual and physical, is not exclusively a sex goods shop. In addition to stocking sex toys, aids and accessories, the shop also offers products such as natural (sponge) tampons, candles, badges, books and body care products. Beyond its retail function however, the shop is a site for focus on women's bodies, erotica and sexuality. The website for the shop advises that it is a women's space, and that male visitors to the Tokyo shop are to be accompanied by women.

The LPC presents information on women's sexuality, including photos, creative expression and critical commentary, challenging mainstream social constructions of women's sexuality, promulgated through mass media and widely visible on billboards, in magazine advertisements and on television shows (Burns 2004:2; Miya 1997:161). It also actively aims to subvert the depiction of women's sexuality in male pornography (or porn produced for men), such as DVDs and magazines.

The LPC online can be seen to operate parallel to the mainstream, with representations that may be visible in different types of spaces at the same time. However it can also be seen to traverse the mainstream, competing at times for attention (and yen) with women-targeted publications such as Nikkei Ūman and Elle Japon, although this competition occurs primarily online, because the LPC publications are not distributed as widely as mainstream magazines. Like other mainstream media, the LPC is a public space, and the theoretical ground covered in LPC pieces is accessible to all women who have access to the internet. Unlike mainstream media, however, discussions of queer and lesbian sexuality, sexual self-determination and the impact of hegemonic gender ideals can occur in a space explicitly designed to encourage questioning.[3] In this sense, discussions of queer and lesbian sexuality, sexual self-determination and the impact of hegemonic gender ideals, create a potential foundation for women's subversive social engagement – a critical engagement with those forces that shape their identities and life choices. It is this capacity that I consider in my discussion of agency at the LPC.

The Love Piece Club: Tokyo and cyberspace

The Love Piece Club shop is currently located in the Tokyo suburb of Hongō san-chōme, but relocated three times between 2003 and 2005. Kitahara explained the move from chic, well-moneyed atmosphere Omotesando to Hongō as partly motivated by her perception that LPC presence had to be kept muted in order to avoid raising the ire of neighbours (Kitahara, personal communication 12/08/2005).[4] She felt that Hongō, home of one of the Tokyo University campuses, would have a more welcoming and LPC-friendly feel, although a 2005 column on the LPC website indicates that neighbourhood reactions continue to be a problem.[5]

At the time of writing, the Love Piece Club website contained nine weekly columns, four monthly columns and one special production column, as well as the weekly Internet radio show Bababoshi.[6] Some columns feature social critique from a woman's perspective, such as Sakado Emi's 'The Path (Professional) Women Tread', which explores 'what work shows [us] about a woman's path' (Love Piece Club n.d.). Other columns consider matters of sexuality, sexual inequality and feminism in tones ranging from playful and bitingly funny to serious and sometimes moving. Column titles include: 'Women Power Unequalled', 'Dyke @ Kindergarten' (Daiku@ Yōchien), 'After Breast Cancer' (a photoessay), and 'Criticise After You've Read'.[7] Some authors, including Kitahara Minori, use their real names on columns, while others use pseudonyms, such as the columnist 'Antiru' (Until).

The LPC website is an avenue for the promotion of experientially grounded feminist critique that is generally relegated to less-accessible media such as mini-komi, informal publications and academic texts. The role of the Internet in connecting people and creating subcultures is well documented (see for example Rheingold 1992; Fernback and Thompson 1995; Harcourt (ed.) 1999; Ho, Baber and Khondker 2002; Gottlieb and McLelland 2003; Onosaka 2003).For women in Japan, the Internet offers space to create supportive relationships; to protest against discrimination; to campaign politically and to challenge or subvert dominant expectations of femininity (Onosaka 2003: 96). Similarly to the e-zines and fanzines that underpinned the riot grrrl subculture, the LPC website and 'Vibe girls' magazines access private space that other (feminist) literature may not reach, and encourage engagement with issues that straddle the public–private divide (Leonard 1998:106).[8] This is particularly significant because the issue of female sexuality and erotica is problematic for much Japanese feminist discourse. The explicit linking of the two can therefore also be read as a challenge to wider constructions of empowerment that obscure or ignore sex and active sexuality (Takeyama 2005).

Sexuality in Japanese feminism

Second-wave Japanese feminists such as Tanaka Mitsu, Funamoto Emi and Yoshizumi Kazue noted the significance of the female body as a site of tension in Japanese society (Mackie 2003: 157-161). Tanaka Kazuko (cited in Mackie 2003: 155) noted that the recovery by women of their sexual power was a central goal of Women's Liberation, in recognition of the notion that 'sex has existed as a fundamental means of human subordination'. Lesbian feminist groups in the 1970s and 1980s also drew attention to the absence of the queer or lesbian female figure both in mainstream and feminist discourses (Mackie 2003: 160).

However, the focus on sexual empowerment has not been adopted uniformly throughout Japanese feminism. One group that originated in 1975, the Women's Action Group (Kōdō suru onnatachi no kai), has taken as its cause 'liberation from all kinds of sexual discrimination through action, in areas such as labour, the law and education' (Kōdō suru onnatachi no kai 1990). Among other projects, the group has criticized the use of pornography and sexually discriminatory images in the media, and published a book with this theme, entitled Porn watching: Women's sex in media. The group advocates both organized and individual protests against the media's use of sex and more specifically objectified, female bodies, in advertising.

In contrast to the Women's Action Group, the basic aims of the LPC parallel those of the Women's Lib movement. Reacting against feminists who have worked within the system (in Lib's case, those women whose activities were subsumed by left-wing organizations), the strategies of both LPC and Women's Lib rely on disrupting sexual norms and mores to promote empowerment. Furthermore, both organizations seek to effect 'social reform based upon the reform of individuals' (Tanaka, cited in Mackie 2003: 155).

Nonetheless, a comparison of the critical approaches of the LPC and Women's Action Group does show some overlap, most significantly in their critical engagement with mass media constructions and (mis)appropriations of women's sexuality. Both the LPC and Women's Action Group encourage contextualization of these constructions, viewing the image as embedded in a broader discourse of (hetero)sexism and hegemony. While the Women's Action Group argues for censorship or erasure of these images, the LPC encourages subversion of the images, promoting female bodies as sexual for their own sake and enjoyment.

Vibe Girls, manko-mochi and sexual agency

Knowledge and enjoyment of one's own body is a key theme in the printed texts produced by the Love Piece Club, namely the zine Vibe Girls. The first edition of Vibe Girls, entitled 'Masturbation! Masturbation! (Onani! Onani!') was published in 1999, and the four subsequent editions focus on specific themes related to contemporary women's lives: 'Women's sex industry' (Onna no fūzoku) (February 2000), 'Violence' (Baiorensu) (June 2000), 'Pregnancy' (Ninshin) (2001), and 'Marriage' (Kekkon) (2003). The magazines feature articles that explore, explain and critique issues central to the theme. In contrast with mass media publications, these magazines are sold exclusively at the LPC shop and through the website, and are therefore able to contravene social and legal proscriptions surrounding sexually explicit images. For example, the 'Pregnancy' edition features a photo-essay entitled 'Womb Fantasy' (Shikyū gensō), which explores women's perceptions of the womb. The article begins with an introductory passage, describing inter alia a study group where women used speculums to examine their vagina and cervical entrance (Vibe Girls 2001:10). This is followed by eight frames of an image of a naked female torso, from neck to pubis. On each torso is a hand-drawn picture indicating the perceived shape and location of the womb, with typed words describing the womb, such as 'A place that only ever gets hurt. But a place that regenerates (saisei suru tokoro)' (Vibe Girls 2001:11-13). The non-sexualised (re)presentation of a naked female torso and its reflections on women's (lack of) knowledge of their bodies feeds into the magazine's deconstructive discourse on contraception and pregnancy. The introductory passage critiques constructions of the vagina as 'the world's power-point' (sekai no konsento) and of the womb as 'women's mystery' (Vibe Girls 2001:10). This de-mystification and celebration of female sexual organs evokes feminist texts such as 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', stimulating critical attention to the ways that women's bodies and sexuality are constructed (Boston Women's Health Collective 2005). In this way, Vibe Girls typifies the LPC's critical engagement with heterosexism and phallocentric social constructions of women's bodies and sexuality. While the promotion of sex goods for women in itself questions constructions of female sexuality as passive, the Love Piece Club extends its enquiry with written and visual challenges to heterosexist norms, often using the body as a starting point.

For example, LPC writers including Kitahara freely and frequently describe women – themselves included – as yariman (sluts) and manko-mochi (those-with-cunts) and men as chinko-mochi (those-with-dicks).[9] The term manko is explained in the English-version of the LPC website: 'Manco, as you know, is a 'dirty word' like a 'cunt'. We always respect our 'cunt' as a part of women's body'.[10] The appropriation of the term manko in Japanese is comparable to the reclamation of the word 'cunt' by feminists writing in English, such as Muscio (2002).[11]

In Japanese, the conflation of individuals – and genders – with sexual organs has several effects. In discussing women, the label manko-mochi implies the re-appropriation of a word (manko) generally confined to the world of porn movies (Kitahara, interview 20/01/2003).[12] While use by men may not be polite, the contexts in which usage may be forgiven are more numerous for men than for women. Thus a woman's (public) use of words such as yariman, manko and chinko can be seen as transgressing social constructions of femininity in a way that a man's use cannot. The criticality with which chinko-mochi is applied can be seen as reflecting the differing standards by which Japanese women and men are tied to their language. It can also be seen as a play on the mainstream phallocentric reduction of woman to her sexual function.[13] Mizushima identifies LPC as an informative site, observing that women's access to 'neutral knowledge' of their sex organs (specifically manko) is limited, with available information either heterosexist or idealised– 'as if separating them into prostitute's pussies and mothers' pussies' (manko wo shōfu no manko to hahaoya no manko ni wakeru) (2007:10).

In embracing and employing words such as manko and chinko, LPC writers tread emphatically on constructions of women's sexuality as delicate, and significantly, as essentially different from that of men, for whom the words are less taboo. Yariman are not simply women who want sex – they are women who defy male expectations of female sexual subjectivity, and whose sexual behaviour is underpinned by a critical reflexiveness. Like Sakai's 'loser dogs' (make inu) (2003), Kitahara's yariman acknowledges her social construction mockingly. While appropriating language that draws on 'good girl–bad girl' categories, the location of the yariman within the critical, non-heterosexist context of the Love Piece Club supports Harris' call for new and creative engagements with women's sexual subjectivities (1998).

This engagement both acknowledges and challenges the social context of discourse on sex and sexuality. Rosenberger's conceptualization of women's magazines as simultaneously socially grounding and liberating can also be extended to apply to the LPC website (1995: 146). Engagement with ideas of queer and active sexuality, through the perusal and consumption of erotica and sex goods, can disengage young women from the gendered norms that shape social being. Women are encouraged to embrace and explore (sexual) aspects of their self that are otherwise diminished, taboo or rendered invisible in the general public performance of everyday life. Furthermore, the virtual component of the LPC, including the bulletin board (BBS), magnifies the potential level of engagement of women with of sex and sexuality, while also providing space for connection and community with other women that simply reading may not allow (see for example: Wilkins 2004; Munt, Bassett and O'Riordan 2002; Wilson and Atkinson 2005).

At the same time, however, women are engaged to interact within the discourse of sexuality as presented. Active sexuality is constructed on the website as a significant strategy for women's empowerment, particularly when it involves conscious critical engagement with gender norms (Wilkins 2004: 341).[14] This promotion of sexuality and social critique serves to unite the women who view and use the site. As a public space, the ground covered in LPC is accessible to all women who have access to the Internet. In this sense, the promotion of queer and lesbian sexuality, masturbation and sexual self-determination creates a potential foundation for women's subversive social engagement—a critical engagement with those forces that shape their identities and life choices.[15]

The consuming (feminist) body

Promoting the (sexual) body as a site for feminist engagement can be a double-edged sword: while explicitly aiming to challenge and transgress popular constructions, a focus on the female body is nonetheless a historically and socially situated act. Outside its critical feminist context, LPC celebrations of the female body (sexual or otherwise) can be misconstrued, or oversimplified, and 'the potentially subversive and symbolic meaning of the 'body' …reduced to meaning something literal' (Zhong 2007: 227). The LPC's focus on the female body as a site of resistance is bound to its context as a website (i.e., not mass media) and non-mainstream (i.e., female-only) shop. Consumption – of goods, images and text – within this context both underscores the mainstream representations of women as consumers, and challenges notions of appropriate femininity as nurturing, selfless and male-oriented (Assmann 2003). The fact that this consumption occurs in private – in the shop, where customers generally shop alone, and in the home, where sex goods are ordered and used – may reflect the intentional marginality of the LPC activities. It also suggests that feminist movements can occur in diverse sites, in private and public spheres, as well as in the liminal spaces opened by the world wide web (Harris 2001: 132).

Miller (2006) observed that the consumption of beauty products and services (or esute) can be presented as an act of care and responsibility, without which the female body is inadequate and potentially embarrassing or repugnant to others. In this construction, wives and other female carers can be encouraged to spend money on their bodies, to wax, colour and beautify, while avoiding accusations of self-indulgence (Miller 2006: 203). Similar to the esute industry, the LPC promotes products for use on and by the female body, including massage oils, tampons, and introduces 'woman-friendly sex goods'. Unlike Miller's subjects, the LPC markets its wares as products for the self: 'we want to think about sex in a positive and fun way' (Love Piece Club n.d.i) . This approach reflects an awareness of the broader context of female consumption, as explored by Miller. Kitahara and the LPC thus elucidate the tension between the female body as experienced by women and the body as constructed by a male-centred society.

Sexuality, sex and sexual norms are frequently covered in mainstream women's magazines such as teen-oriented Cawaii and Egg, as well those that attract an older audience (Rosenberger 1995: 152). Articles and cartoons covering oral sexual techniques, favourite sexual positions and experiences and sexual fantasies are standard in these magazines, though generally buried in the back of the magazine amid advertisements for cosmetic surgery and weight loss products (Rosenberger 1995: 152). In these contexts women's sexuality shares space with the other discourses of the body, such as beauty and health, and the commodification of the body can be seen to flow over into sexuality (Frühstück 2000: 153). Like the LPC shop, these magazines approach sexuality via consumerism, tapping into taboo areas and curiosity as well as fashion. However, the LPC website and shop differ from the mass media in their scope and explicitness. Without the advertising obligations and funds of mass-produced magazines, the LPC can be self-reflexive in its discussions of the female body and sex and as openly critical of sexism as the editors choose. Unlike mass media publications, the LPC maintains an explicit focus on exploring and celebrating female sexuality and sex, depicting women as sexual actors and linking sex with wider issues of gendered inequality.

Complicating sexuality

More recently, the LPC has incorporated work by transgender and queer columnists, extending its focus on active sexuality as empowerment beyond the 'mainstream' female audience. Columnist Antiru is a staff member at the Love Piece Club, and identifies as FTM (female to male transsexual). Antiru felt 'unladylike' among lesbians in Shinjuku ni-chōme and underwent gender realignment surgery, but has recently started to think that 'maybe it was ok to be a lesbian'. Antiru's profile asserts that 'even without defining what I am, I am myself. That's how I feel' (Antiru n.d). Chaya Hiroshi is a worker in the Shinjuku Ni-chōme district, and author of the column 'Discarding self' (Sutete Yuku Watashi).[16] Her profile lists describes her as 'not gay so much as okama',[17] and her column aims to 'put into words the sense of strangeness (she) feels working Shinjuku Ni-chōme' (Chaya n.d). This 'strangeness' relates to her disillusionment with the gay district and its image and engagement with diverse sexualities. Chaya's debut column articulates this disillusionment:

Two years ago I came to work in Tokyo and for the first time worked with gay people. And what I realised after a while was that this sense of sex-seeking was not because they're gay, but because they're men.

Chaya suggests that her expectations of working in the district were based on stereotypes about gay sexuality (2006).

For how long have we had this idea that gays are free-spirited with sex? And I wonder what that means. Maybe that they are nymphos?...Ugh. ...Certainly you get a real sense that there are many people who come straight to this town looking for sex. But you can't then say that all gays are like that, surely. If you think they're all like that, its kind of disgusting. But maybe that's because I don't have much sex. Come to think of it, I haven't for some years. Maybe that's why, I don't know.

Chaya describes a scene she has witnessed on the street outside the shop where she works, in which a young man is chatted up by a male passer-by who loudly states 'It's ok if you're like me and you don't want to have sex!', before being rejected by the young man. She ponders why this exchange occurred.

A gay (man) is a man who wants to have sex with men. He wasn't mistaken there, but before that you need a little thing called communication, don't you? His pick-up (effort) showed the same sexual view as that of perverts and men who sexually harass women and justify it by saying that all women want men. Is that what they mean by 'free-spirited' then? (Chaya 2006)

Chaya is critical of the sexual mores and practices of the men she sees frequenting Ni-chōme. This criticism echoes the arguments of Women's Liberation feminists as well as Kitahara, placing sexual subordination at the core of gendered inequality. However Chaya's perspective diverges from more 'mainstream' feminists because she is not biologically female. She also identifies herself as someone who 'doesn't have sex', thereby distancing herself from the hypersexual stereotypes of the gay man, as well as from other actively sexual women contributors to the LPC.

Complicating the feminist focus of the LPC, these authors and their works demonstrate the potential implications of the LPC's agenda. The benefits of an active, critical sexuality are accessible both to the traditional feminist subject (biologically-defined women) and to others whose sexuality is similarly proscribed or marginalised by heterosexist norms. In this way the LPC contributes to a broader discourse of sexuality that problematises heterosexist norms, connecting sex to the myriad gender (in)equalities of everyday life. In so doing, the LPC presents sex and sexuality as sites for the negotiation of gender inequalities, and active critical sexuality as a source of agency for women and others marginalised by sexism and heterosexism.

Agency and erotica: possibilities and limitations

The discourse of sexuality in the Love Piece Club can be understood as agentive because it provides material with which construct new ways of being a woman in Japan. In consuming LPC texts and goods, women also potentially acquire the 'socio-culturally mediated capacity to act' in ways contrary to mainstream feminine ideals (Ahearn 2001: 112). In this case to 'act' might simply be to understand, to consider or to question: through reading the 'Womb Fantasy' article in Vibe Girls, a woman might consider her own understanding of her uterus and its functions. She might then question her friends on their perceptions and knowledge of female sexual organs. She might extend this questioning to her partner(s), encouraging a conversation on sexuality informed by feminist criticality. The ultimate impact of this criticality, either individually or on a broad-scale, may be impossible to gauge, but it nonetheless reflects the connective process by which engagement with the LPC can further develop feminist agency.

To advocate feminist erotica in a context where power need not be negotiated – because it is already obtained – or where successful performance need not involve application of individual power or effort – because it is naturalised – does not express resistance or agency. However, for women in contemporary urban Japanese society, the expression and exploration of sexuality, particularly woman-centred (or more correctly, non-phallocentric) sexualities, extends desire to political action. Subscription to the online-zine, physical and cyber-visits to the sex goods shop and even perhaps personal use of the goods sold, suggest an extension that suggests a degree of agentive empowerment (Ortner 2001). While the repercussions may be limited to one person, and most likely subtle in appearance, I argue that the exploration of sexuality, and particularly a woman-centred sexuality, represents an expression of agency, whether in the form of resistance or unintentional (for example, purely pleasure-motivated) agency.

The limitations of this potential agency are, as Juffer argued, that 'transgression should not be used as the sole standard of examination', because transgression is neither universally intended, nor uniformly conveyed (1998: 18).[18] The potential for erotica, like pornography, to transgress the material social realities (including structural inequalities) of its performers, promoters and consumers can be seen as fluid and relative, never fixed to a single or universal set of criteria. Further, emphasis on the potential or effect of erotica to transgress speaks more of the agenda of the viewer—namely, the academic—in seeking new and radical interpretations of a familiar subject. Echoing Abu-Lughod's warnings against 'romanticising resistance', Juffer was critical of what she perceived as the academic tendency to 'valorise the production of new interpretations of texts, without regard to their limited circulation' (1998: 19; Abu-Lughod 1990).

Private consumption of erotica must also be understood in relation to the heterosexist mainstream that marginalizes women who transgress. In acknowledging this, we must also acknowledge that actual movements enabled in LPC users may be minimal. The perusal of a website such as the LPC does not in itself effect a change in the status, empowerment or overall wellbeing of a woman. If, as I have argued, agency is to be determined as empowering, it must also be acknowledged that the very act specified as empowering may simultaneously exclude and isolate the actor from certain social contexts and in some relationships, most notably the dominant and socially-sanctioned space of heterosexuality. To be excluded or to exclude oneself from this space in turn has an impact on the agential capacity of a woman, so that the taking up of some choices means the negation of others. As adult video actress Nina Hartley observed, the promotion of sex work and sex goods marks a woman as having 'crossed the line from 'good girl' to 'bad girl', rendering the public performance of mothering and wifely roles conflicted (cited in Chapkis 1997: 33, emphasis added).

However, I argue that to address agency in its multiplicity requires that the definition encompass pragmatic acts of unintentional resistance. For the study of women, it also widens the scope beyond that which is explicitly feminist, and perhaps even includes acts performed with an expressly un-feminist intent. While sex workers and 'so-called sluts' themselves may interpret their sexual activities differently, some feminists support the definition of these as un-feminist activities which, in Barton's words, 'reinforce women's subordinate status by rendering their value dependent on men' (Chapkis 1997; Barton 2002: 586).


Agency cannot be collapsed into simple decision-making. The choice to provide and use the service and site of the LPC reflects decision-making at multiple levels, and not all of these necessarily speak of empowerment, consciousness or politically-informed motivation. A focus on active sexuality as inherently and unequivocally indicative of empowerment can obscure the multivalence of sexual acts, which as Barton cautions, 'may be liberating on an individual level (while) simultaneously… indicative (and reproductive of) institutionalised constraints' (2002:586).

Thus the perusal of a website such as the LPC does not in itself effect a change in the general or specific status, or the empowerment or the overall well-being of a woman, and I am wary of such easy conflation. If, as I have argued, agency is to be determined as empowering, it must also be acknowledged that the very act specified as empowering may simultaneously exclude and isolate the actor from certain social contexts and in specific relationships. Thus the online publication of female nudes or lesbian erotica has the simultaneous potential to include and empower the actor (as publisher and viewer), while excluding her from certain social spaces – namely, the dominant and socially-sanctioned space of heterosexuality. To be excluded or exclude oneself from this space in turn has impact on the agential capacity of a woman, so that the taking up of certain choices means the negation of others. To take up (publicly) advocating feminist erotica in Japan excludes a woman from the moral safety associated with idealised middle-class femininity, and may delimit her participation in certain areas of feminist organization (Dales 2005i). While Kitahara publishes her work in a range of media, and has given presentations in a number of forums across Japan, her enthusiastic and politically charged promotion of (feminist) erotica means that she is increasingly unlikely to be invited to speak at a government-funded venue such as a prefectural women's centre.[19]

Operating both as a geographically-real and virtual site, the LPC can be interpreted as a cyberfeminist space, incorporating (and contributing) to understandings of the ways that internet technology affects gender and identity (Chatterjee 2002:200). In advocating sexual exploration as a means of pleasure and self-empowerment, the LPC promotes sex as a 'cultural tactic which can be used both to destabilise male power as well as to reinforce it' (Chapkis 1997:29). To promote feminist erotica is to be tied to non-feminist (mainstream, male-centred) erotica, and therefore both to support and oppose. Similarly, to promote queer or lesbian sex and sexuality is to acknowledge the centrality of heterosexism and its status as a discursive source of disempowerment for (some) Japanese women.

The LPC uses sex and sexuality to stimulate discussion of social inequalities and hegemonic ideals that affect women's agency (Wilkins 2004: 347). The consumption of texts and goods promoted by the LPC adds sexuality to the themes incorporated under the discourse of gender equality, and detaches heterosexuality from reproductivity within this discourse, a slippage which affects both heterosexual and lesbian women in its implications. In its countering perspective, the LPC also highlights the heternormative assumptions in structures such as law which privilege the reproductive family as well as heterosexual individuals (Muta 2003: 125; Maree 2004).

The LPC website used to bear the slogan 'We Believe in Feminism and Erotica', and the interconnection of these twin themes is central to the LPC agenda. The LPC invites female consumers of its site and goods to embrace active sexuality, to know and enjoy their bodies, and to engage in both pleasure and critique. It elucidates the connections between sex, sexuality and feminism, employing language and addressing themes which build on 'traditional' feminist discourse, and noting that hegemony extends beyond the gendered divide. In its promotion of erotica and feminism, the Love Piece Club advocates for change that specifically empowers women. However it also suggests that a challenge to the construction of women as passive, (hetero)sexual subjects is a challenge to the broader structure of hegemonic sexuality, and therefore an endeavour from which contemporary and future Japanese society might gain.

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[1] I am grateful to Danielle Every and the anonymous reviewers of ejcjs for their helpful suggestions and constructive comments on an earlier draft of this work.

[2] This article does not take up consumers' experiences of the Love Piece Club, although this remains a site of potential interest for future research.

[3] See Shimoda (2008) for discussion of the (unrealised) transgressive potential of Japanese magazines on parenting.

[4] When I visited the shop in its 2003 location, I was asked to ring from the train station for directions. The shop was at that time situated on one floor of a nondescript apartment building about five minutes walk from the station, identifiable only by the name on the building letter-box but nonetheless relatively easy to locate. When I visited in 2005, the relocated shop was quite difficult to find even with directions. It was placed among the stylish boutiques and luxury apartments of Omotesando, about 15 minutes walk into the suburbs from the nearest train station. The only indication that the new-looking, two-storey brick building differed from its neighbours was the rainbow flag hung over the balcony.

[5] In her 2005 column 'Before hatred grows' (Nikushimi ga sodatsu mae ni), Kitahara discussed contemporary experiences of prejudice, focusing on an incident in which she and a friend were verbally abused and intimidated by a neighbourhood couple—an English man and his Japanese wife—for being 'lesbians' and 'vibrator-sellers' (and therefore, implicitly, immoral).

[6] This was the breakdown of columns as at 02/08/2008. The number and composition of columns has changed over the period of study, with earlier versions of the website containing fewer columns, and some columns which have since been completed or discontinued. Past columns are archived in the site library (accessed 02/12/08).

[7] These columns can all be accessed in the site library (accessed 02/12/08).

[8] Comparisons with the riot grrrl movement and discourse are useful for the discursive connections that can be drawn when the LPC is located in the broader context of cyber culture. However, there are significant differences between the Vibe Girls magazine and the small-scale, locally distributed and primarily English-language zines—namely, that the Vibe Girls is created by a business, published professionally and is accessible only to Japanese-fluent readers (Leonard 1998: 116).

[9] The term yariman prefixes the man-half of manko with the verb 'to do', used to connote sex. Thus the term implies a cunt that does 'it'. As in English, this word is used pejoratively to describe promiscuous women.

[10] This discussion is absent from the current site. Last accessed 24/06/08.

[11] Cunt is defined in the New Oxford English Dictionary as 'women's genitalia' or 'an unpleasant, unkind or stupid person' (1998: 448).

[12] To clarify the point, the effect of the word manko when used by a woman is comparable to that gained by an English-speaking woman who uses the word 'pussy' to describe herself or her vagina. (I use 'pussy' here because the word 'cunt' would have different connotations when used to describe a woman, comparable to the word 'bitch'). The contextual nature of the words is also comparable, such that the import varies according to the circumstances in which the word is used. Unlike pussy and cunt, however, manko is not used for men, and does not connote effeminate or negative qualities.

[13] In English the synonymous use of pussy, or tail with woman creates the same reduction.

[14] This point was drawn from the view espoused by Wilkins' Goth women that 'sexuality [is] the strategy for women's empowerment' (Wilkins 2004: 341). However, a distinction can be drawn between the LPC's consciously and explicitly anti-heterosexist stance, and the largely heterosexual (though poly-amorous) romantic ideals of the Goth community.

[15] Of course, as a public site accessible to all with internet access, there is also the potential for the LPC site to be consumed by heterosexual Japanese men. Given the obvious feminist tone of the site and emphasis (on the front page at least) on text rather than photos it seems unlikely that many men would spend time on the site, particularly in light of the proliferation of freely accessible porn sites and their abundance of images and sexually explicit articles. Nonetheless, as a site on the World Wide Web, the LPC must also be understood as open for public consumption in all its myriad forms.

[16] The title of Chaya's column is deliberately ambiguous: her writing suggests that it is both her self that is being discarded, as well as the mores and constraints on sexuality and gender.

[17] Lunsing (2005) discusses the definitions and nuances of the term okama and its use within the gay community in Japan. He suggests that the term can most simply be defined as referring to 'non-gender-normative men' (2001:81).

[18] In this case Juffer was referring to pornography, but I have extrapolated her comments for use in this discussion of erotica and agency.

[19] Nishina Ayumi, Dawn Center, personal communication, January 2008. However, Kitahara replaced politician Tsujimoto Kiyomi as a speaker at Women's Center Osaka, in the 21st Women and Health Festival. The festival theme 'My (Woman's) Body, My (Woman's) Self: My sex speaks of my life' (Watashi no sei = sei wo kataru) (accessed 02/12/08).

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About the Author

Laura Dales lectures in Japanese and International Studies at the University of South Australia. She obtained her PhD from the University of Western Australia, for a dissertation which explored feminist agency and praxis in contemporary Japan, and involved two years of fieldwork in the Kansai region. Other research interests include Asian feminisms, NGOs and women's groups, agency and resistance and gender and sexuality in contemporary Japan. She has published chapters in the edited collections Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan (McLelland & Dasgupta eds., RoutledgeCurzon 2005) and Gender in Japan (Mackie, ed., Routledge, forthcoming), and has a forthcoming monograph, Feminist Movements in Contemporary Japan (Routledge, 2009).

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Copyright: Laura Dales
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