Japanese people have traditionally tended to avoid drawing hard lines between anything, because it goes against their concept of beauty.

Show host Kyota Ko explains how borders are blurry between nature and the human world, life and afterlife, and even male and female, to the eyes of Japanese culture.


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese bringing you a podcast about things you would like to know about Japan and its culture. My name is Kyota Ko.

So borders are blurry in Japan. By borders I mean any act of distinguishing between A and B. I don’t want to get too political but right now, even country borders are kept fuzzy between Japan and its neighboring countries. But, I’m not going to discuss politics. I would like to discuss culture.

So today, I’m going to give you examples of how   Japanese culture has traditionally liked being on the fence for many things. 

First of all, if you look at Japanese gardens as opposed to Western ones, you’ll start to agree. If you google Palace of Versailles garden, you’ll see that it has a beautiful garden with uniformly shaped trees planted in planters that are placed uniformly distant from each other, the grasses are cut in geometric shapes, and there is a clear distinction between where plants are and where pedestrians should walk. 

Now if you google imperial palace garden, you’ll see almost no geometric shapes or any sign of uniformity there, and it will look as if someone claimed a nice piece of raw nature and called it the imperial palace garden. It doesn’t really look man-made. But the thing is all Japanese gardens are totally man-made. The art is to make gardens look as if there was very little human intervention. 

So what we see here is a difference in values. The Western concept of beauty and value tends to be about man conquering nature. They want to distinguish between creations of men and  creations of nature. So there are clear borders between them. Geometric shapes signal human intervention. Fences and lanes signal human intervention. So when you step into a well-maintained Western garden, you immediately think “Wow, someone did a nice job.” 

In contrast, the Japanese concept of beauty and value tends to be about man articulating the greatness of nature. There’s only so much human beings can do, compared to what nature does. So let’s feature nature, not our skills. Let’s blur the line between what’s man-made and what’s natural because nature is the Tom Cruise, we are everyone else in the staff – the director, the cameraman, the casting and costumes staff. We help to make Tom Cruise play his role at his best. So when you enter a well-maintained Japanese garden, you don’t immediately picture an artist’s presence behind the artwork. Therefore, creating clear-cut borders is deliberately avoided in Japanese art.

Let’s bring our attention to religious architectures. In Christianity, there is the church. It’s a beautiful building with big doors and when you enter one, you feel that you have entered a sacred venue, because with the stained glasses, the high ceiling, the pipe organ and a bunch of other things you just don’t come across regularly in daily life, you feel you’ve entered God’s place.  

But if you visit a Shinto shrine, you get a big red gate at the entrance, not a door to a secluded space. You’re supposed to walk through it to take yourself further into the shrine premises towards the main building, but you can totally walk passed the gate from the side and still get there. God’s place starts from the red gate, that’s for sure, but there is no wall distinguishing the world of the gods with the world we live in. There is only a blurry line between the two worlds. 

This idea is also expressed in an ancient performance art called Noh. Noh is around 600 years old, and it’s kind of like a musical where everyone wears a kimono and there is a main actor, 2 or 3 supporting roles and just a few percussionists and a flutist. The main actor often wears a mask and plays the role of a ghost who died a tragic death, and narrates his or her story about death to the living sub characters. 

So what’s special about Noh is that it takes you back and forth between life and afterlife, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. One point Noh seems to try to get across is that life and afterlife coexist. All it takes is a trigger for each world to interact with one another. And it actually realizes this concept mentally in the minds of the audience. 

The songs sung in Noh are all very, very slow in tempo, and it makes you sleepy. There is absolutely no way you can stay fully awake throughout the performance. But in some shows, just when you’re fighting sleepiness, they gradually and subtly pick up the tempo and complexity of the rhythm, so you get into this trance, and to your mind, the music sounds like a rock festival. 

They only use simple, unplugged instruments, but to the audience’s mind in trance state, it all sounds like a rock festival. 

So many Noh performances take you from the world of the living where ghosts are pretty tame, singing and sobbing to slow music, to the world of the dead where ghosts are more emotionally expressive and animated. And then when the show’s over, you’re back to the world you belong. 

So in the world of Noh performances, the border between life and afterlife are blurry. 

This doesn’t pertain only to Japan, but for ancient Japanese people, sex was quite a blurry concept too. B ut let’s look at other cultures first so that we can compare. 

In North American Aboriginal societies there is a term called Two-spirit, which refers to indigenous American people thought to be of a third or fourth gender. So basically two-spirit people are males who play typically female roles, for example taking on jobs that women typically did like weaving baskets and healing people, or females who played typically male roles, for example hunting and fighting in war. Two-spirit males often became partners with male-males, and Two-spirit females often became partners with female-females. These people were thought  to have been supernaturally gifted so they were highly regarded and often played leadership roles in terms of religion and warfare. 

Now going back to Japan. Ancient Japanese culture agrees with the Two-spirit culture in that it thinks of gods and persons with both male and female strengths as divine. Many gods in Shinto myths carry both male and female traits. But somewhere down the line, the idea of these kind of people being perceived to be divine transformed into these kind of people being perceived to be sexy. 

One of the oldest remaining literature of Japan is a novel called Genji Monogatari, and everyone who grewows up in Japan learned about it in school. Genji Monogatari depicts life of royalty back in the 11th century and it’s written in beautiful classic Japanese and everything . 

There’s this hilarious female essayist who studies and writes about classic Japanese literature called Hikari Otsuka, and what’s so amusing about her is that she focuses on how erotic classic Japanese literature is and how sex and eroticism played a crucial role in forming Japanese culture as we see it today. 

So she took a look at Genji Monogatari, the most classical Japanese novel, and pointed out every representation of eroticism in it in a bunch of her essays. She claims that there was a hell lot of  sexual attraction between male characters in Genji Monogatari, and because the novel was about the daily lives of royalty back then, that sexual orientation was not binary as in just male and female, it was more blurry, at least in ancient Japanese royalty life. 

The main character of Genji Monogatari is an extremely talented and handsome imperial officer called Hikaru Genji and basically he’s like Jame Bond. He’s very much respected by people around him for the quality of his work and has love with a bunch of ladies, one after another. Why? Because he’s hot. Now in the novel he meets an older talented male officer and says something to the effect of “Oh how pleasurable it would be if I could make him my girl and got in bed together.” 

So this is not exactly homosexuality. Hikaru Genji, the main character, is feeling that a talented and handsome individual who happens to be male, is so beautiful he wants to make him his. And the story goes on and in a monologue by this officer, we find that he too looks at Hikaru Genji and thinks “Oh how splendid it would feel if I could make this boy my girl and slept together.” So he’s expressing the same, weird sexual desire back. They both have wives, by the way. 

So in this novel Genji Monogatari, it’s suggested that people considered anyone who’s aesthetically eye-pleasing sexually attractive – male or female. In fact, in Classical Japanese literature, there are uses of a few adjectives that mean superb beauty and they’re used to describe both men and women, without discrimination. In English, for example, you use the word beautiful more often to describe women and handsome to describe men, and the modern Japanese language has equivalents to these of course, but in Classical Japanese, if you were awfully beautiful, no matter what your gender is, you were given the same adjective.

Therefore the essayist Hikari Otsuka points out that in Japan up to and around the 11th century, the line between male and female was blurrier than it is now. 

There are more graphic episodes of Japanese people exploring sex a little too much mentioned in her writings but maybe I’ll cover that in my blog. Because they can be really disturbing.

Now back to modern-day Japan; we still kinda see this tendency of blurring the border between  male and female, now more in the concept of sexiness in the minds of women. There is a 100 year old musical performance genre in Japan called Takarazuka. You can buy tickets to shows every week but getting good seats will be very difficult because those are always preoccupied by the most intense fans mankind could ever imagine. 

So Takarazuka shows are musicals, but there are only actresses. There are no male actors. Females play both female roles and male roles, and the biggest stars of Takarazuka are the actresses who play the lead male role. They are typically tall and slender, has beautiful skin and a vocal timbre that’s relatively thick for a woman, and they wear tuxedos and mustaches. 

 Now those intense fans I mentioned earlier are all females. So basically, women are worshiping actresses who crossdress as a handsome male. I think Takarazuka has succeeded in captivating a part of the female Japanese population through portraying the ideal man in the minds of women in their musical shows. 

Boybands are serious, serious business in Japan. Including all the performances, music sales, casting of their members in TVs, movies, and commercial ads, everything, it’s almost a billion dollar business. With a billion dollars, you can plant 50 million trees. So Japanese people spend money on boybands rather than planting 50 million trees. I am ashamed!!

But anyway, the most popular boyband singers have a trait in common. They are visually as beautiful as a woman. They have fair skin and has a hint of femininity in the way they look. They occasionally dress in feminine looking costumes for their shows and this is always, always well received by their fans, who are primarily girls of all ages. The Japanese figure skating Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu is in fact the best male figure skater there is in competitive figure skating now, but his attractiveness in the Japanese sense – carrying both male and female traits, definitely accounts at least in part for his crazy popularity in Japan. 

So there you go. Japanese culture tends to like keeping the border between male and female blurry. They like keeping the border between life and afterlife blurry, and the border between the natural world and human world blurry. It’s that in-between zone that Japan seems to like. That’s the Japanese sweet spot. 

I hope you enjoyed this episode. Please check out my blog if you would like to find out more about what I discussed here. You can google “The Metro-classic Japanese.” それでは、またお会いしましょう。