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Mark McClelland’s (2000) Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan

MaleHomosexModJapanMale Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities

by Mark J. McLelland

Published by Routledge

Published October 12, 2000
Cultural History (Japan)
268 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

January 4, 2004.

Mark McClelland’s (2000) Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities is the best introduction to popular discourses about homosexuality in late-20th-century Japan, and provides some material about Japanese gay men who have sex with men, albeit from a very biased sample of that population.

The contemporary discourses perpetuating what McClelland calls “cultural myth” are mass media representation of male homosexuals as effeminate, representations of beautiful, androgynous, romantic, beautiful, and sensitive gay males (bishônen) in comic books and magazines aimed at young female consumers, representations of hyper-masculine gay men intent on sex (often involving bondage) in gay magazines. McClelland argues that Japanese males who have sex with males differ from all these stereotypes, although some of the sixteen men he interviewed were stigmatized as effeminate in school and many seek a variety of sexual partners (tricks) or the kind of domination/subordination of what McClelland calls “vertical relationships” in which the older and richer partner indulges boyish whims of the younger partner and uses the body of the younger and dependent partner as he wishes. “Although discussion of homosexuality is fairly widespread in a variety of Japanese media,” McClelland writes, “none of these representations seek to document actual lived experience but rather they construct a fantasy of the gay body which is largely divorced from the concerns of men who experience same-sex desire” (p. 161).

Both the bishônen comic books and the light-in-text gay magazines obviously cater to fantasies: girl’s fantasies of males who are romantic and sensitive and unlike straight Japanese men who expect domestic service, breeding and raising children from wives and spending their waking hours at work or with male associates, and gay males’ desire to look at and masturbate with pictures of men they find arousing. Both kinds of publications provide evidence about desires, and (probably) indications of longings for what the buyers don’t have. Neither is very helpful for revealing what Japanese men who have sex with men are really like or really do. McClelland oscillates between arguing that they aren’t like anything (that is, that they are too diverse for an general characterizations to apply) and generalizing from his small and biased sample.

Japanese men whose preferred “type” (taipu) is Caucasian (gaisen) are more willing than those who want and/or have Japanese partners (naisen) to discuss intimate matters with Caucasian males. And those advertising for sex and/or relationship partners on Internet sites are more likely to have a specific “type” than those not making dates on the Internet. McClelland is forthright in stating that “my method of initially contacting Japanese gay men through the Internet has resulted in an over representation of gaisen or Japanese who like foreign men” (p. 162). He is also candid that he did not reveal that he was advertising for contacts with Japanese gay men for research purposes (having tried and gotten few responses for that). That is, only after establishing contact (with men who were seeking sexual relationships) did he reveal that he was doing research and wanted to gather information about their lives. (He denies trading sex for interviews, though the sense of obligation into which Japanese are socialized makes explicit “trading” unclear and unnecessary.) McClelland does not specify how many of the sixteen “submitted” to being interviewed after having sex with him, and is cavalier in obscuring the difference between a random sample (which cannot be drawn from an unenumerated population) and a representative sample, and moving from saying he does not know what a representative individual would be to generalizing from a clearly biased sample of Japanese men who were sexually interested in him (or at least in his online profile/ads).

I think that many of the problems about lack of private space and public support that the gaisen articulated are indeed general, but it seems to me that McClelland’s gaisen are more likely to be influenced by occidental conceptions of gay identity and long-term relationships than other Japanese men who have sex with Japanese men. (Moreover, many of McClelland’s sample had spent years in western countries and had some fluency in English, the language in which half the interviews were conducted.) The lack of self-identification as “gay” is probably more pronounced in the larger population (though McClelland also seems to have avoided and derides those with political conceptions of sexuality), but I have to wonder if the feeling of solidarity with other Japanese men who have sex with men is greater among those not longing for, having, or recalling having had Caucasian partners. McClelland notes that “many of my interviewees feel connectedness only with men they are sexually attracted to” (p. 204) without considering that non-gaisen men likely see more “point” in socializing with other Japanese gay men (to whom they are sexually attracted. I am suggesting that McClelland’s sample is biased (positively) for identity and (negatively) for community, not just unrandom (or “convenient,” to use a word McClelland and his interviewees use a lot).

There is a range of attitudes and goals and sexual experiences (with females and with males) within McClelland’s small sample. He quotes them very little, so that they have no voice, only his summaries of their views and lifeways. Even editing out their voices, the book has many repetitions (though not as the earnest and mind-numbingly repetitive Coming out in Japan: The Story of Satoru and Ryuta; for translations in to English of some Japanese gay and lesbian voices, a collection edited by Barbara Summerhawk and others, Queer Japan , is preferable).

McClelland is also very repetitive in incanting the vulgar Foucaultian dogma of David Halperin. Although overdrawing an east/west (or Japan/the rest) distinctiveness, McClelland does not engage in the gratuitous America(n gay-community)-bashing of Wim Lunsing in Beyond Common Sense (which I reviewed in the Journal of Sex Research 40(2003):111–12). McClelland also focuses more on sexual conduct and sexual desires than Lunsing did. Lunsing was not writing only about Japanese male homosexuality but had a larger and less obviously biased sample than McClelland’s. Both McClelland’s and Lunsing’s books are easier to read (for differing reasons) than are Gregory Pflugfelder’s dense (and also Foucauldian) history, Cartographies of Desire, or the Ito/Yanase book. McClelland’s is also more reasonably priced than Lunsing’s.

Despite their ideological biases and empirical lacunae, both McClelland’s and Lunsing’s books are essential for those interested in understanding cultural differences in how male homosexuality is conceived and treated. McClelland’s is also likely to be particularly useful for those interested in being partners of Japanese gaisen.

McClelland has gone on to publish Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age in 2005, Queer Voices from Japan (with Katsuhiko Suganuma) in 2007, and Boys Love Manga and Beyond (with Kazumi Nagaike) in 2016.

originally published on AssociatedContent, 8 January 2004
©2004, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.