Friday, March 04, 2005

Pornography and Me

One of the neighboring towns to me is called Sekigahara. It is a small town, but of great historical importance. Many years ago a huge battle was fought there, which determined the fate of all Japan.

Or something like that. No one seems to know too clearly. Even my Japanese friends seem to be a little sketchy on their history, and can’t really tell me what the reasons for, or the results of, this battle were. Everyone agrees it was really important though.

But to me, whenever I hear the name, “Sekigahara”, it always sounds like a dirty word to me, because it reminds me of “Sekuhara”, the Japanese word for Sexual Harassment.

To me it seems natural that one should make close associations between these words. After all it’s only a couple syllables difference. But I am the only one who thinks so, at least when I am with Japanese friends.

My sister, who has studied linguistics, was telling me once that when people learn a second language they approach it differently than native speakers. Because native speakers just talk without even thinking, they don’t notice the same things that foreign speakers do when they study the language. Often people studying a language will think certain words resemble each other, but the thought will never enter the head of a native speaker.

I believe this is one of those cases. I was in the car with a couple Japanese friends, and we were passing through Sekigahara, and I said, “Hey, have you ever noticed that the words ‘Sekigahara’ and ‘Sekuhara’ sound almost the same?”

“What!” exclaimed the guy driving the car. “No they don’t.”

“Sekigahara, Sekuhara, Sekigahara, Sekuhara, they sound the same,” I said.

“No! Don’t ever say that to someone who lives in Sekigahara. They’ll get really angry.”

This case was actually a bit of a rarity because the Japanese person in the back seat took my side. “Sekigahara, Sekuhara. Hey, he’s right, they do sound alike,” she said.

The driver briefly put his hands over his ears. “Stop it, stop it, they sound nothing alike.”

I continued the joke when Shoko came up to visit. She wanted to tour the historical sites of the area, so she suggested we go to Sekigahara. “Okay,” I said. “Even though I am already married, I find you very attractive.”

She looked at me sternly. “Okay, first of all those two words sound nothing alike. Secondly it’s not only married people who can be guilty of sexual harassment. You’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble if you think that just because you’re not married you don’t have to worry about sexual harassment.”

One day I went out for yakiniku (Korean style Barbeque) with a couple co-workers from the elementary school. One of them mentioned “Sekigahara,” and I said, “What? You’re going to sexual harass someone?”

He gave me a confused look, until the other guy explained, “Oh, Joel thinks Sekigahara and Sekuhara sound alike.” They both agreed the two words sounded nothing alike but then the conversation spun off, as conversations sometimes do, into topics of sexual harassment. As they got more and more into what they were saying, there Japanese became more and more rapid and I became increasingly excluded from the conversation until I think they briefly forgot I was there.

I caught bits and pieces of it though. One of them was describing to the other a video game in which you can play a train molester. You wander around the train and molest women I guess. “It’s really cool,” he said. “You enter a room and a woman says, ‘What are you doing here?’ and the character replies, ‘I came here to molest you.’ It sounds really cool when he says it.”

In order to remind them of my presence, I pretended to pick up on the last bit and repeated it slowly as if it were some sample Japanese sentence I was learning for class. “I…am…here…to…molest…you.”

They both almost jumped out of their seats to correct me. “No, no, you don’t need to learn that. In fact better not to say it. And whatever you do, don’t say it at school.”

Later, one of them offered to lend the game to me.
I think every male foreigner who goes to Japan has had the experience of a Japanese male co-worker offering him pornography at one time or another. There is not the same stigma attached to pornography in Japan that there is in the West, so people don’t feel any embarrassment about admitting to using it. In fact my first Japanese girlfriend reacted with great surprise upon learning there was no pornography in my apartment. “All men have pornography,” she said in disbelief.

I don’t consider myself a puritan, but I do try and stay away from things that seem to exploit women. Of course I’m no angel either. I’ve flipped through dirty magazines before and even bought them on two separate occasions. I like to think that is a low enough number that it can be chalked up to youthful curiosity, but I guess I’ll leave that verdict for others to decide. Oh, and while I’m confessing, I also once bought a “Guns and Girls” magazine, featuring Japanese women in skimpy outfits holding different models of guns, and thus combining two things I’m at least theoretically opposed to. But since I bought it only as a gag gift for a friend, I don’t think that counts.

But at any rate, looking at pictures of women is one thing. A video game that encourages molesting them on the train seems to be crossing a different line. Especially in Japan where train molesters are a big problem. So the question is now do I stand on a pedestal and say I don’t want the game and he should be ashamed of himself, or do I act polite about it, accept the game, and then later return it unused.

Once when I was in Ajimu I was at a party at the neighbors house. During the course of the night I was asked if I liked girls, and I said I did, at which point they offered to take me to the soap lands in Beppu. “Soap lands” is a way Japanese entrepreneurs have gotten around the no prostitution laws by establishing a business where the girl is only paid to wash you, and then anything else that happens is just between you and the girl. It might be unfair to say there is no stigma attached to patronizing this place, but it is much less than it would be in the West. For example after an end of the year drinking party many school teachers while often head to the soaps. I’ve never experienced this myself, but other male ALTs will occasionally have stories about being invited by their co-workers, or in the case of female ALTs (like Monika), suddenly finding that all their male co-workers have disappeared for the soaps.

Anyway, at that point I had been in Japan long enough to know this invitation wasn’t serious, because Japanese often casually throw out invitations they have no intention of following up on. But I had also been in Japan long enough to know that in small town Ajimu I had no secrets, and if I gave a yes answer it might well be all over the town by the end of the week. And yet I was searching for a way out of it the invitation that wouldn’t look like I was condemning them.

So I decided to pretend I was a religious puritan, and gave an answer about sex being forbidden. Boy did that ever kill the party. In my defense, I was drinking at the time I told them I was a puritan. I like to think that if I had been stone cold sober I could have thought of something better, even though to this day I still don’t know what that response would have been.

At any rate, any attempts to safe guard my reputation turned out to be a lost cause. One night Ryan and I both went out drinking with some of the teachers from Ajimu Junior High School. One of them asked me what I usually do on the weekends. Before I had a chance to answer, Ryan said, "He always goes to the soaps."

"What! I do not!"

"Don't let him deny it, he always goes."

The Japanese teachers started to chuckle, and say things like, "I thought so," or "Yeah, he seemed like the kind of guy who would always go to the soaps."

"What are you doing?" I exclaimed to Ryan.

"Oh, let them have their fun," Ryan said to me. I was horrified, especially since there were a couple female teachers at Ajimu Junior High School that I was slightly keen on at the time, and I knew this would ruin my chances. But the more emphatically I denied these charges, the more guilty I looked. In the end the only thing I could do was retaliate by saying Ryan went so often he got a discounted rate. By the end of the night, both of our reputations were in tatters.

Returning to the story of the “Train Molester” video game: in the end, for right or for wrong, I took the path of least resistance and just graciously accepted the video game, and then returned it a week later and told him I didn’t get a chance to use it.

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