Wednesday, November 09, 2005

censored proposal of a Japanese prince: let's have concubines!

In Japan, a comment made by one of the members of the royal family has stirred up a controversy over the proposed change in the Imperial Household Law, a law that governs all aspects of the royal family.

By Constitution, Japanese emperor (and by extention, members of the royal family) has a political and civic status separate from the rest of the population. The emperor's function is limited to those of purely simbolic nature, and he is not allowed to have any political voice. He does engage in the relationship with other countries, but it is limited to the fostering of "amicable atmosphere" and does not involve any political decision. In domestic matters, he is practically a decorative fixture, supposedly symbolizing the unity of the Japanese people, by the consent of the very people he symbolizes. His appearances in various scholarly and philanthropic organizations are highly valued as a token of recognition, and his occasional visits to numerous localities throughout Japan are enthusiastically welcome (or so it is staged), but those are pretty much all he is allowed to do. In a sense, he and his family are reduced to a very inhumane condition, utterly deprived of any political rights, forced to perform the roles "we the people" collectively (and imaginatively) demand him to play in exchange for the allowance we grant them from our tax dollar (I should say yen here). The Imperial Household Law articulates the details of these arrangements, based on the Constitution.

The necessity of ammendments of the Imperial Household Law arose in the absence of a male descendant of the current crown prince. The Law, supposedly according to the "uninterrupted male succession ever since the days of the gods (Japanese royal family has its mythical origin in gods)," only allows male descendants of the emperor to succeed him. Therefore, given the absence of a male descendant of the crown prince, it is likely that there won't be anyone who qualifies to be the emperor after the next one. (Further complication is the ill health, psychologically and physiologically, of the wife of the crown princess, who married him years ago, at his persistent "requests," leaving her brilliant career as a diplomat. It is speculated unlikely that she would have another child.) Prime Minister Koizumi has assinged a committee to discuss the possible solution to the problem, and its mainstream discussion has been to allow female succession of the imperial throan (with which imperialist rights have been more than furious).

Then came the Mikasanomiya comment.

In a newsletter of a social welfare organization to which he belongs, this prince, who is the fifth in the line of succession as a cousin of the current emperor, expressed his opposition to the idea of female succession. Excusing himself that since the newsletter's circulation is limited in number, his political remark would not constitute a violation of the ban of political functioning of the members of the royal family, he discusses the reason of his opposition and proposes some "solutions" to keep the male line of succession.

When I first came across the article in a major Japanese newspaper, I was quite appalled by the anachronistic diction and logic. His only argument against the female succession was the "solid historical fact" that "the imperial throne has, since the days of the gods and mythology, over 125 generations, been succeeded by male descendants, without a single exception." His claim of uninterrupted male succession is wrong, to begin with. There were empresses, many of whom known for their outstanding political aptitude and literary talent (Tanka poetry being a requirement of sophistication in the imperial court of the past). What is more appalling is the fact that this prince seems to truly believe in the strange, fanatic-rightish reasoning of the (manufactured) tradition of male succession being the source of authority and importance of the Japanese imperial family. To me, who can't even comprehend the necessity of the emperor and the admiration and the reverence some Japanese people hold toward the imperial family, his reasoning is completely alien, incomprehensible, and scary (as a kind of reminder).

The Yomiuri newspaper reports that Mikasanomiya "proposed 1) to bring back some ex-members of the royal family 2) to allow a female descendant to adopt an ex-members of the royal family (of the male line of succession) and to let him be the successor and 3) to restore some of the discontinued branches of the royal family, etc." According to an article on the Daily Telegraph, the "etc." part included a far more appalling idea, apparently censored in the Japanese mainstream media. Mikasanomiya's proposals included, with a defensive gesture that he understands that "this might be a little difficult considering social climate in and outside the country," the bringing-back of "concubines." Okay... concubines. How anachronistic is that? Emperors should be able to reduce women to child-bearing machines? Only to make sure that boys would be around to be emperors? Concubinage is different from polygamy. Polygamy could be a result of a different yet valid construction of romantic relationship, but concubinage, at least in this case, is an arrangement solely for the sake of the creation of male child. The patriarchal, misogynystic disregard of the female dignity so concisely expressed here (and apparently inherent in the imperial thoughts) disgusts me. And the fact that this incendiary part has been hidden from the Japanese public is alarming, infuriating

I don't need an emperor to symbolize the unity of the Japanese people (or whatever reason). Hence, the whole controversy over whether or not to allow female succession of imperial throne is, on one level, completely irrelevant and even somewhat useless. Yet, the values and ideologies that resurface during the debate have such disturbing power that I cannot but speak out, although I'm aware of the stupidity of the entire controversy.

Friday, November 04, 2005

your body's a wonderland... of pieces of sushi!?

For some reason, I don't think using a woman's body as a sushi plate is a great idea.

Kizoku Sushi, a Japanese/French/Italian restaurant in Chicago's River North area, offers an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet that is served on what the Chicago Tribune review calls a "nubile body of a scantily clad young lady." A $500 value for a group of four. The Tribune reports that the human serving dish "lies in the center of your table wearing strategically placed clamshells," where a sushi chef places various sashimi and nigiri for your enjoyment. The Tribune goes out of its way to assure you that "it's not that gross; the fish is placed on bamboo leaves, not directly on her skin."

In the photograph, the woman looks like a mannequin, inanimate and silent object of beauty. And yet, she is alive. Her muscles are tense to keep her body (and the food on it) in the perfect arrangement. She hears your conversation over dinner. Would there be an interaction between her the plate and you the diner? Or would you ignore the fact that she's a human being? What would you talk about, if you did engage in human interaction? Would you be comfortable with picking up a piece of sushi from the body of a living person, warm and breathing? Should you be?

I don't think I would. I just can't imagine being the female diner in the photo. It's less about the fact that the woman on the table is naked than about the fact that she is used as a beautiful, exotic serving plate: an object. I don't think I should be comfortable with the idea that I can objectify someone's body and ignore her (or his) mind just because I can pile up cash upon the table. Declaring this, I'm aware that there might not be much of a qualitative difference between using a "semi-clad woman" as my serving plate and wearing a Banana Republic tee shirt that was probably manufactured in a sweatshop in Southeast Asia, where the water polluted by the bleach used in the factory is slowly destroying the workers from within. Therefore, it is not to say that being able to ignore the carefully concealed objectification of other human beings is alright and being able to have fun with objectifying a person in front of you is not, but I'm tempted to refuse to believe that there are people who can enjoy sushi served on a woman's exposed body. I mean, how would you deal with the physical presence of a whole person who is confined to being a plate? I don't understand.

I'm equally disturbed by the tone of the Tribune review, if not more. Whoever wrote this article, s/he didn't seem to have the whole idea problematic. The only concern that the article seems to have is whether or not this way of serving food is hygienic or not (recall the "it's not that gross" part). Reading the article, I rolled my eyes and said to myself, is THAT the first thing that comes to your mind? (And maybe the last?) The amused tone of the article, with its total lack of awareness that this might be found problematic (not in terms of hygiene but in terms of dignity of human body, etc., of course) is just striking. Then I wonder to myself: am I disturbed because the restaurant and its treatment in the review blur the boundary of "inherently harmless" everyday dining and the whole industry of "vile adult entertainment"? Am I buying into the centuries-old dichotomy of chaste wife and promiscuous whore? ...It raises so many questions.

It does raise so many questions, but there's one thing that is clear. It is not a great idea to serve sushi on a human body. Human bodies are warm. Sushi shouldn't be. Plain and simple.

All the photographs were taken from the Chicago Tribune website.

*UPDATE ON Nov. 10, 2005*
Yesterday's Red Eye, a free tabloid-sized paper produced by the Chicago Tribune with a younger audience in mind, featured the restaurant on the front cover. Again, without even a hint of questioning. According to the article, the serving-plate woman (who goes by only her first name) earns as much as $500, including tips, for a 1.5-hour shift, two of which she has for a night. As for conversation with her, it "is kept down to a bare minimum" in order not to make the sushi and maki rolling all over her body. In a questionnaire they had run on the Metromix website, on whether the practice is "gross" or not, 8% is reported to have said "I'd go for fresh cream," but none critical. It seems that, if I were to be sympathetic and understanding to the reporters and have some faith in them, since getting worked up on these things (like I do) is deemed so totally "uncool" that the reporters self-censor themselves, silencing any critical (uncool) thoughts and questions raised by the practice, out of sheer fear of losing their audience (and of course, eventually their jobs.)