Tea Leaf Nation

‘We’re Still Fighting the Japanese in Bed’

China's oversexed anti-Japanese propaganda and its underground porn trade have a lot in common.

Porn

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, a record of Japanese atrocities during their six weeks of occupation, is probably China’s best-kept museum. Its unique triangular design rises like a stone thorn from the site of a nearby mass grave, known as “the pit of ten thousand corpses.”

The painstaking level of detail and historical evidence, so often absent from official narratives that whitewash the ruling Communist Party’s own bloody history, is here excruciating: children and elderly gang-raped, pregnant women impaled, their bellies ripped open. According to China’s own estimate, at least 300,000 civilians died in the slaughter that took place after Japan’s army captured the former capital in 1937. It feels as if Nanjing’s curators have managed to record every one.

School visits were made compulsory in 1996, though when I went during a national holiday in 2013, it wasn’t crowded. In the souvenir store, among the military figurines, fake jade, and calligraphy sets, I came across a small jumble of DVDs whose covers featured martial-sounding titles atop sultry images of Asian women, bound and prostrate: war pornography, in the most literal sense. It was like finding SS erotica on a tour of Auschwitz, so I bought a copy of a movie called Unit 471 and some postcards for cover. At little over an hour, the film’s plot was as poor as the grainy picture quality: A group of female Chinese captives are sent to a prisoner of war camp for interrogation, where they end up half-naked. A vicious Japanese officer, with stereotypical round glasses and a toothbrush moustache, ignores their weeping and high-pitched pleas for mercy. The prisoners are further stripped and bound; more depredations follow. One of the women commits suicide. Roll credits.

Tropes of wartime sadism are not unusual in China, where depictions of World War II sometimes border on the pornographic. Such hyperbole is far from unique — reports of actual war crimes during the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, for instance, were embellished by British propagandists to create a stylized rendering of the “Rape of Belgium,” with its graphic tales of mutilated nurses, buggered nuns, and bayonetted babies. Similarly, suppressed urges drove the immense popularity in Israel of “stalags,” Holocaust pulp-porn fiction with titles such as I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch in which Allied pilots raped and killed their female SS tormentors, to the fascination of teenage readers in the puritanical early 1960s. In China, while pornography is still (technically) illegal, television shows and films edge awfully close to the genre, with themes of bondage and rape, making it difficult to disentangle a toxic triumvirate of sex, violence, and nationalism.

I showed Unit 741 to a Chinese colleague who’d previously mentioned a “hatred” of Japan. After studying the cover, the 24-year-old journalist said it looked like a realistic portrayal of historical events. Selling this film in the Nanjing Memorial Museum was not an anomaly to him at all — it was part of the tour. There are many like my friend, raised to view the Japanese as ravening “devils” who exploited China at its weakest point, who’ve come to regard these desecrated young women as analogues to their own national humiliation.

While such ideas are hardly a party invention, they received a significant shot in the arm beginning with “patriotic education,” introduced in 1991 as a bulwark against the so-called unpatriotic youth who had demonstrated in Tiananmen Square three years earlier before being crushed by the People’s Liberation Army. The curriculum emphasized the party’s single-handed role in winning World War II (often unabbreviated in China as the “Eight-Year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression”), ending a “century of humiliation” in which foreign armies and cartels rode roughshod over China’s sovereignty. The subsequent stoking of national insecurity has inspired a small industry: museums, parks, songs, films, books (such as an Atlas of Shame, which offers a cartographic view of Japanese atrocities), and, since 2001, a National Humiliation Day, in which klaxons sound every Sept. 18 in cities across the country to mark the anniversary of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria.

Frequently, national attention focuses on sexual atrocities. The State Archives Administration, for example, decided to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender with an eight-part web series documenting the ordeals of those forced to provide sex to their Japanese occupiers, known euphemistically as “comfort women.” But it is Nanjing’s horrors that are the locus of explicit anger and detail: Though conceived as a monument to “disaster,” “indignant grief,” and “depression,” the Nanjing Memorial Museum is now a permanent exhibition of Japanese barbarity — a monument to “pain” and “hatred,” according to architect Qi Kang. Before its entrance stands the prominent bronze statue of a woman, her clothes torn off, the words beneath reading, “Only death can wash away the filth!” The many hardbacks available in the museum shop suggest a healthy budget for titles like Ironclad Evidence — thick, coffee-table editions with whole sections devoted to bodily trauma.

Photographic evidence for these violations is almost exclusively culled from Japanese POWs, taken by the assailants themselves as war crime souvenirs. The use of these voyeuristic images is often justified as a search for historical truth — when professor Peter Gries asked the late Taiwanese-American writer Iris Chang about her 1997 bestseller The Rape of Nanking, which contains such graphic pictures, he recalled her saying that “as a woman she had concerns,” but forcing Japanese acknowledgement of the massacre “justified the risk.” Revealingly, while authorities rarely miss an opportunity to publicize the suffering, they typically neglect the victims themselves. Instead, as literary theorist Lydia Liu observed in her essay The Female Body in Nationalist Discourse, “the raped woman often serves as a powerful trope in anti-Japanese propaganda.”

For decades after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the state viewed mass media, particularly film, as a mouthpiece for revolutionary propaganda. But by 1985, when the Nanjing Memorial opened, film was becoming a more freewheeling industry, with cheap content often testing the bounds of censorship. Depictions of female POWs, tied up to suffer for their country, became a popular trope of wartime genre pictures, as detailed in one enthusiastic Chinese blog entry on film and literature criticism website Douban. Among the first was The Roaring Sea, a TV series that debuted in 1982, in which a female soldier is captured, “hog-tied, gagged, and humiliated,” as blogger “Moonlight Shengnu” (a Chinese term for an unmarried, or “leftover,” adult woman) describes. The scene, which Moonlight calls “very arousing,” was excised for broadcast on national television a year later. By the time the heroine was captured and paraded by Japanese soldiers in 1991’s Hero on Fire, shots of her being stripped and raped, hands tied behind back, were permissible. “Some people like watching bondage. It’s not like those shows were serious drama,” argued 27-year-old financier Huang Li, who remembers such programming from his teens. “There used to be lots of tits exposed in anti-Japanese war shows too, just in the form of breastfeeding. Were those shots necessary? No.”

Retaining viewers in the competitive satellite television market came at the risk of attracting official censure. But as studios became lazily reliant on politically acceptable World War II dramas, their content grew increasingly outlandish. Take Human Breast Den (1989), whose bizarre plot is little more than Unit 741 with a lactose twist: The Japanese army captures a group of busty, qipao-wearing soldiers who happen to be lactating. The women, after refusing to produce milk for the soldiers, are tied, branded, and whipped, before a small Chinese force overwhelms the entire base and rescues them.

In a 2013 interview with liberal newspaper Southern Weekend, Tsukagoshi Hirotaka, a Japanese actor who specializes in playing villains for the mainland market, explained how Chinese directors seek to dehumanize these roles. When his character was once directed to rape the first woman he spies upon entering a village, Hirotaka said he duly complained: “‘Director, this is unlikely. It’s so cold, no one would want to do that.’ The director insisted, ‘You don’t understand. In those times, Japanese were just like that.’” As soon as Hirotaka began to take off his trousers, the article continues, “his buttocks froze.”

Acts of superhuman Chinese resistance soon featured as a counterpart to the onscreen depravity. The protagonist of hit show The Legendary Anti-Japanese Hero frequently tears enemies apart with his bare hands; in Arrows on the Bowstring, a gang rape grants the victim fantastical powers of archery, as she slays an entire Japanese platoon with three arrows. In one scene from long-running television serial Let Us Fight the Devils Together that engendered widespread public criticism, the male protagonist’s wife visits him in jail, kisses and fondles him in front of the guards, then detonates a stick grenade, previously hidden in her vagina, destroying her own body for the motherland.

Decrying over-the-top television has nothing to do with calming anti-Japanese sentiment, though. “We grew up being taught that way — thinking that the shame of a raped Chinese woman mirrors the shame of a nation,” said a young college graduate who grew up on China’s east coast and asked to be known only by her surname, Li. “A comfort woman [who] had survived the war said that she hated the Japanese soldiers, but hated people in her village more, who saw her differently afterwards. Women like her are living reminders of national humiliation.”

If this victimization, in the words of Liu, serves “to eroticize … China’s own plight,” the ubiquity of Japanese-made pornography in China — as opposed to mainland pseudo-porn — amounts to a form of “erotic imperialism,” according to author Katrien Jacobs. “It’s a very aggressive kind of industry,” Jacobs told me, discussing the dominance of the nominally banned Japanese adult video she explores in her 2012 book People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet. Adult video’s stature is partly due to geographic proximity and partly due to the same robust production standards that have sent Japanese cars, milk powder, and electronic goods into middle-class homes across the world. The Japanese industry can afford attractive models and decent scripts, where fantasies are realized with detailed sets, such as a subway carriage, an airplane, or a classroom. The competitive mainland market even means Chinese viewers enjoy a more explicit product, as importers work hard to find underground export editions without the genital pixilation common to Japanese versions.

Much as mainland depictions of World War II have become luridly sensational, Japanese adult video frequently broaches aggressive and abusive territory in search of greater market share. “There is a huge amount of pornography,” noted a 2008 study by U.K.-based Sheffield University of the culture surrounding sexual assault in Japan, “much of which depicts violence and degradation against females.” The study observed that rape-themed films account for one in five adult video films sold in Japanese sex shops, and pointed to the popularity of mainstream movies and manga in which voyeurism, assault, and rape is normalized, with female characters “often shown as coming to enjoy their pain and degradation.” (Concern about a “rape culture” was being sounded in Japan long before it was a topic on American campuses.)

Unsurprisingly given its illegality, there are no official statistics about adult video’s proliferation in China, though it is sufficiently wide that many view the material as an alternative to sex education. Acquiring hard copies is a matter of approaching the nearest pirate DVD vendor and asking softly if he has any “yellow” content, the Chinese term for pornographic material. A back room is checked, a plastic sack retrieved, most of the stock invariably professional productions from Japan. Online, despite official censorship, the process is even easier, a matter of simply knowing the right sites or correct keywords.

Chinese authorities tacitly acknowledge such widespread usage, giving visas to adult-video stars for promotional visits, allowing them, until recently, to run popular accounts on social networking site Weibo, and making winking references in state media: “Japan features various kinds of charming women, including angelic-looking ones, the sweet ones, and the more mature type,” explains one state-run site that calls itself “China’s national online news service,” listing the “Top 10 X-rated Japanese Actresses.” One of the most famous is Sora Aoi, a former porn star with nearly 16 million Weibo followers and credits such as Complete Obedience-Masochist Secretary to her name. Aoi’s nickname “Teacher Cang” is a mischievous reference to her role initiating many fans into sexual awakening, a “shameless” identity which Li suggests enhances her Chinese viewers’ masculinity: “In East Asian culture, where shame is relative, the other side of the dichotomy, pride, will grow in the minds of those who get to judge.”

But China’s historically recent confidence — a rising economy with global swagger — is fragile enough to turn at the slightest provocation. Businessman Zhou Chuan was staying at a five-star Zhuhai hotel in 2003 when his lift opened onto an unusually priapic event: a three-day orgy which comprised some 400 businessmen from an Osaka-based company in flagrante delicto with about 500 Chinese prostitutes in hallways, rooms, and public bathrooms, a spectacle which reportedly left Zhou “furious and humiliated.”

Although no one in Zhuhai seemed willing to pay any attention, Zhou was sufficiently enraged to take matters — and his sentiment that the Japanese “have no culture and no morals” and are “worse than animals” — to the media. The ensuing uproar saw the hotel closed, an official complaint lodged with Tokyo, and the arrests of hundreds of prostitutes, procurers, and staff. The date of the imbroglio, the 72nd anniversary of occupation (National Humiliation Day), was a source of particular indignity — 90 percent of respondents to a Sohu.net survey believed the orgy was deliberately timed to humiliate China. Weeks later, their wounded pride would erupt into violent demonstrations at a misconceived skit by Japanese students, who donned fake genitalia to proclaim their “love” of China at a welcoming ceremony in Xian’s Northwest University. Refracted through the lens of sexual shame, the performance was perceived as a purposeful mockery of recent events and set off a tinderbox of frustrated rage: Boycotts and protests spread across the whole city, along with death threats and demands for the perpetrators to make a full apology and be deported (they did and they were).

It’s ironic that a nation toward which China directs so much ire should inspire such erotic admiration, but many claim not to think about it. Viewers prefer “local bodies,” suggested Chinese producer and actress Ai Wan, whose credits include the documentary Yasukuni (2007), Cinemax series Erotic Confessions, and Rush Hour. Japanese adult-video actors “look more like Chinese, and they’re very professional and natural,” she explained over drinks in the Beijing party district of Sanlitun, near the Japanese clothing store that incited a recent sex scandal. The male viewer “might forget it’s a Japanese girl … or he might like it because it’s a Japanese girl.”

It’s not just the looks: Japanese adult video caters to Confucian expectations of male dominance and passive femininity that are relatable to Chinese viewers. “They have the same format: the girl silly, cute, and pale, the guy older and creepy,” observed Huang, the financier. Some find these scenarios a turnoff. “I’m not a fan,” said 27-year-old Henry Wu, a mainlander who now works in Hong Kong. “Maybe it’s the way they shoot it, maybe it caters to certain tastes. But to me, it just doesn’t look like the ‘normal course of business.’” But, he added, “Most men in China watch it.”

To Li, this avid consumption possesses a patriotic bent, in which the narrative of national humiliation encourages Chinese men to absolve themselves of shame by exulting in the debasement of willing Japanese women on screen. When Li’s friends enthuse about adult video, it is to complain that nowadays, young Chinese women are not as submissive as their idealized stars. By avidly consuming adult video’s narratives, in which Japanese women are willingly made to suffer — and “enjoy” it — these men can passively exact a form of sexual retribution for past humiliations. The sadomasochistic themes that infuse the mainland’s World War II-focused output, meanwhile, provide continual reminders of the need for such vengeance.

For China, about to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender with a jingoistic military parade, that tortuous legacy is likely to die especially hard. Until tensions fade and sensibilities relax, a heady coalescence of sexual shame, infused with angry nationalism, will continue to exert a powerful hold on the Chinese imagination. “I guess there is a bit of a revenge complex in it,” remarked Huang, discussing his countrymen’s interest in adult video. He imagined the ultimate viral video: A sex tape of mainland tourists with a single Japanese woman. “It would be huge. It’s like we’re still fighting the Japanese in bed, you know.”

Image: Fair use/Getty Images

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com.

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