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What Orgasm Wars reveals about Japan's sexual culture
Don't just chalk it up to the country's "weirdness"
 
...And yet you can't look away.
...And yet you can't look away. (Thinkstock)

Meet today's two contestants: Ryou Sawai, a heterosexual Japanese porn star with a '90s boy-band haircut, and Takuya, a gay man who owns a bar called Cholesterol. The challenge: Can Takuya bring Sawai to orgasm against his will within 40 minutes?

If you thought Deal or No Deal was high stakes, welcome to Japan's Orgasm Wars.

Considering its scandalously "climactic battle," it's little wonder that the show has been getting a decent amount of attention. But it's more than the fact that it's a 40-minute blow job contest. It's a 40-minute blow job contest that begins with an exchange of bows and business cards, and proceeds to respectful pre blow job discussion featuring "trash-talking" that's as courteous and polite as a tea party.

The combination of sexual temptation, shame, and competition, framed in a formalized setting, is baffling to Americans — and yet it seems to fit with what we've come to view as Japan's "weird" sexual culture.

At the same time, it seems paradoxical considering the viral reports that Japanese citizens in their twenties and thirties are increasingly uninterested in having sex. According to one report, 45 percent of women and more than 25 percent of men ages 16 to 24 said they "were not interested in sex or despised sexual contact." Is this the same country that produced such a uniquely kinky game show?

It's a sticky issue (pun intended) to analyze because too often aspects of Japanese social culture, especially in regard to sex, are written off as part of the country's "strangeness." Beckie Smith at the U.K.'s The Independent writes, "Western media outlets clamber over each other in their haste to cover the story, with every report of bagel heads, snail facials, or ritual head-shaving being used as further evidence of a unique Japanese weirdness."

That's the reason stories about the Japanese not having sex spread like fire. We can see the same phenomenon playing out with Orgasm Wars, which fits neatly into our conception of the Japanese as the ultimate purveyors of sexual perversion. But rarely do people actually investigate the reasons behind such trends or place them in context. "These stories gain traction because they support a simplistic view of East Asia which is at best patronizing and at worst overtly racist," says Smith.

That being said, Orgasm Wars is worthy of analysis. The fact that the show mixes traditional formality — bowing, business cards, and even a box obscuring the actual sex act — and extreme sexual playfulness is revealing.

For one, it certainly shows that sexual desire is far from dead in Japan. William Pesek at Bloomberg argues that too often low birth rates are conflated with low rates of sexual activity. While there is plenty of evidence that Japanese citizens are less sexually active than many Western counterparts, that can be attributed to the same factors that keep down the birth rate: The country's "exorbitant living costs, elevated stress, and diminished confidence," according to Pesek.

The country has been suffering from economic stagnation, while more full-time jobs have become part-time, leading people to hold more jobs and spend more hours working. "If you leave for work at 6 a.m. and get home close to midnight, including weekends" writes Pesek, "where is time for dating?"

But just because people aren't dating or even seeking sexual relations, doesn't mean their sex drive is dead. In fact, that libido is often channeled into pornography, resolving the seeming discrepancy between a supposedly sexless population and a thriving industry of pornography and sex toys (and even sex toy bars).

However, there is also another element that makes Orgasm Wars such an intriguing show for Americans, and it is reflective of modern Japanese entertainment culture at large: The game show factor. There is plenty of American-produced porn featuring people in sexual situations against their will, much of which is far more graphic than Orgasm Wars. But none are so loaded with the brutal tests of composure and restraint that are common features of even non-porn Japanese game shows.

"The most consistent themes in Japanese game shows are humiliation and embarrassment — sometimes to the point of sadistic," writes Matt Hurwitz at the Associated Press. He argues that these shows play to extreme emotions like shame because they can be a form of release in an otherwise emotionally restrained society. Porn is the ultimate form of release, so this game show format actually seems fitting.

There's also the huge role that honor plays in Japanese culture. The samurai code and Orgasm Wars actually share at their core the constant need to maintain honor even in "disgraceful" situations. Arthur Smith, an executive producer of ABC's former I Survived a Japanese Game Show, tells the Associated Press, "Their games are all about saving face. When you don't do good, you've harmed your family — you don't look good in your family's eyes."

Those elements are present even in a battle of orgasmic will. In Orgasm Wars, the manager throughout the match reminds his straight porn star that he cannot come from a man (the stigmatization of homosexuality is a whole other ball of wax), and at the end there is a formal acknowledgment of defeat. And lots of paper towels.

 
Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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