Past Loves and Future Sex: Gender, Sexuality, and Romance in Japanese Reality Television

Title: 1204 | Past Loves and Future Sex: Gender, Sexuality, and Romance in Japanese Reality Television
Area: Northeast Asia
Stream: Gender & Sexuality
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Alexandra Hambleton, Tsuda University, Japan (organizer, presenter)
Lindsay Rebecca Nelson, Meiji University, Japan (presenter)
Elizabeth Rodwell, University of Houston, United States (presenter)


Many have written about the importance of television in Japan in the postwar period (see for example Shunsuke Tsurumi 1987; Jayson Makoto Chung 2007; Shunya Yoshimi 2014; Alisa Freedman 2017). What constitutes television today has shifted from decades past as multiple online platforms allow for increasingly diverse experiences to be represented on screen. Yet despite industrial and technological changes, television as a media form continues to play a significant cultural and iconographic role in Japan today. This panel examines Japanese reality television as a window through which to consider love, marriage, sex, relationships, and kinship in Japan. Yuki Nakayama examines the 1973 variety program Door to Marriage and argues that the program’s reliance on technology represents a marker of development at a time when postwar Japanese society was changing rapidly. Alexandra Hambleton discusses The Bachelor Japan as a modern fairytale with a twist in which women attempt use the program to create their own spin on the Cinderella tale. Lindsay Nelson analyses changing notions of masculinity in the sleeper hit Terrace House and the performance of progressive attitudes towards gender. Finally, Elizabeth Rodwell turns to the future to examine the gendered nature of user interface design through the example of interactive television event Bloody Tube. Taking multiple perspectives on the theme of Japanese reality television, this panel illuminates the multiple ways Japanese society grapples with notions of gender and sexuality, and the role television plays in representing and perhaps even pushing forward social change.

Panel Abstracts:
Dream Man versus Women with Dreams: Gender and Ambition in The Bachelor Japan
Driving a sports car along a coastal road, staring wistfully at the ocean in an unbuttoned shirt, walking purposefully through an office corridor, confidently running a business meeting, showering outdoors by the sea, and finally dressing in a royal blue suit ready to meet his future bride. With this flashy montage, viewers of television show The Bachelor Japan (2017-present) are introduced to Japan’s inaugural bachelor, 35-year-old Kubo Hirotake. Kubo is described as everything women in Japan are said to want— he is tall, handsome, sporty, highly educated, and most importantly, rich. In the program Kubo is presented with a pool of 25 potential marriage partners and charged with finding the woman of his dreams in what producers describe as the ultimate modern fairytale, a “heated battle” for the heart of the perfect man. Appearing at a time in Japan when marriage rates are at an all-time low and young people increasingly deem romantic love important to their lives, the program may on initial viewing be a treatise on the importance of marriage. On closer inspection however, the politics of The Bachelor Japan reveal a tale of the dreams of contemporary Japanese women and the pressures they face surviving a society hostile to their independence. In this paper I argue that The Bachelor Japan, far from following the traditional fairy tale narrative in which a woman is rescued by a handsome prince, instead shows women on a completely new path—one on which they may become princesses on their own terms.

Breadwinners vs. City Boys: Debating Notions of Japanese Manliness on Terrace House
The Japanese TV series Terrace House follows six attractive people who live in a lavish house together, with the key addition of a group of comedians and TV personalities who comment on the action. Given that the show’s main focus is the question of who will (heterosexually) pair off with whom, questions about gender roles and healthy relationships inevitably arise. The generation gap between the housemates (who are mostly in their twenties) and the commentators (who are mostly in their 40s and 50s) also illustrates long-simmering tensions over the question of what it means to be “manly” and “mature” in Japan today. These tensions are connected to long-standing national anxieties about Japan’s declining birthrate / aging society, with Japanese media frequently placing blame on “weak” men who don’t take the initiative in relationships. Focusing on the most recent iteration of Terrace House, Tokyo 2019-2020, this paper examines specific housemates and incidents (and the accompanying reactions of the show’s commentators) as indicators of changing conceptions of manliness, maturity, and adulthood in Japan. Building on the work of Romit Dasgupta, Mark McLelland, Isolde Standish, and others on depictions of Japanese masculinities in mainstream media, I argue that Terrace House’s highest praise is still reserved for traditional expressions of manliness, particularly assertiveness, aloofness, and a focus on career / ambition, even if both housemates and commentators frequently “perform” progressive attitudes toward masculinity in the same way that they perform a certain personality and character type for the camera.

In Her Body: Usability, Participation, and The Future of Television
One of the first major experiments in Japanese interactive television took place in the body of a woman—actress Dan Mitsu. Called Bloody Tube, the program required players to use a mobile responsive website to race through Dan’s bloodstream and attempt to cross a finish line located in her toes. The presence of a physical female model was unnecessary, as the company behind this show (Bascule) are masters of projection mapping and had practiced their technique on a fabricated female form for weeks. The program nonetheless used a living model because of the strip-tease she could provide before the game itself and for the element of titillation Dan Mitsu’s half-naked body provided, despite the actress having to be coached on how to stay as still as possible during most of the show. The ways interactive television conceives of and genders its “participant-observers” reflect the perspective of mostly male creators and their format raises questions about the roles that men and women are expected to play within TV programs that allow audiences to co-create content alongside media professionals. Focusing on both Bloody Tube, and programs in which women are perceived to be the primary audience (but not participants!), this paper examines how gender factors into decisions about user experience. Informed by recent work of Moe, Poell and van Dijck (2016) on audiences, and Carpentier’s (2012) exploration of the evolving meaning of participation as a concept, I argue that what constitutes a usable user interface is always already gendered in Japan

This panel is on Friday - Session 02 - Room 8

Go to Room 8