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Why is there shame over foreskin in Japan? A feminist scholar examines its origins, impact

Tomomi Shibuya, associate professor at Tokyo Keizai University and author of the book "Nihon no houkei, otoko no karada no 200 nenshi," or "Japan's uncircumcised penises: A 200-year history of men's bodies," is seen in this image provided by her.

TOKYO -- Why, despite it presenting no problems if good hygiene is maintained, are many Japanese men embarrassed by being uncircumcised? Tomomi Shibuya, an associate professor at Tokyo Keizai University who specializes in sociology of education and gender theory, has been researching this question for 12 years.

    Her work culminated in a book published by Chikumashobo in February 2021: "Nihon no houkei, otoko no karada no 200 nenshi," which roughly translates to "Japan's uncircumcised penises: A 200-year history of men's bodies." What did the feminist sociologist specializing in studying the history of male sexuality discover in her investigations of the attitudes toward uncircumcised penises over time?

    Warning: The following article contains language pertaining to sex and sexuality. Reader discretion is advised.

    The experience that inspired Shibuya's research came during her junior high school days.

    On the train she took to school, the suited men on board, who were around the same age as her father, would browse magazines and sports newspapers with racy images of gravure idols and sexual articles. These men who were probably thought of as good husbands and fathers at home, or as valuable members of society, were openly reading this kind of material on their commute. It was something that Japanese society accepted as normal. It sparked Shibuya's interest in male sexuality.

    The cover of the book "Nihon no houkei, otoko no karada no 200 nenshi," or "Japan's uncircumcised penises: A 200-year history of men's bodies," is seen in this image provided by its author, Tomomi Shibuya.

    During her postgraduate studies, she was inspired by the work of Osaka University professor emeritus Kunimitsu Kawamura, who researched historical shifts in values regarding female virginity. "I thought then, I'll research male virginity. Whichever man it is, they always start out as virgins. It will bring into view something fundamental about men," she said, describing her path to formally researching the topic.

    Her book "Nippon no dotei," or "Japan's male virgins," was published by Bungeishunju in 2003. It examined changes in attitudes toward virginity before and after World War II, and brought to light the history of the discourse that defines male virginity as embarrassing, among other findings.

    It was through this research that Shibuya realized that, like virginity, being uncircumcised was also seen as embarrassing. "I knew vaguely that a majority have a foreskin, and that if kept clean it wasn't an issue, but I really came to wonder why it is mocked to the extent that it is," she said. When she announced her research findings at a small gathering in 2008, she realized men were very interested in the subject. She threw herself into a full-scale investigation, delving into around 2,000 sources.

    Her book on the subject opens with data from the physical examinations for venereal disease, known popularly in Japan as "M-ken," which were done in the military, at schools and elsewhere through the pre and postwar years.

    Data based on 485 infantrymen in Hiroshima and detailed in an anatomist's 1899 paper describes four of the men having phimosis -- in which the foreskin cannot be retracted -- 137 had retractable foreskin covering their penises, and 344 for whom the head of the penis was exposed. But of the 344, reportedly 317 had falsely presented them as exposed. The anatomist wondered if some of the examined were embarrassed.

    The cultural idea that being uncircumcised is a source of shame was confirmed in various sources dating from the Edo period (1603-1867). Shibuya said, "At the very least, senryu comic poems in the Edo period includes passages mocking uncircumcised penises, and the word itself appears in the medical notes of doctor Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835). Among the sources I confirmed, his was the oldest."

    When and why this shame emerged is not something Shibuya's research could uncover. Reportedly it is an attitude that has ended up being passed down among ordinary people. Shibuya refers to it as a "native shame."

    Her book also exposes a separate "manufactured shame." Its origins are in the 1980s, when circumcision surgery became a "business" with the emergence of cosmetic plastic surgeons.

    Tokyo Keizai University associate professor Tomomi Shibuya is seen in this image provided by her.

    Among the articles and ads she found concerning foreskin in past magazines and publications for young men, many suggested that "having foreskin is something inferior, to be seen as embarrassing." It was a form of "complexity selling" that appealed to consumers' sense of inferiority and fear to get them to sign up for services.

    Although some of the articles looked like ordinary pieces of journalism, a third to a half of them were in fact "tie-up" advertorials. Medical advertisements are strictly controlled by the Medical Care Act, with only "facts" allowed to be promoted. But tie-up articles were, in reality, left unchecked.

    With circumcision operations turned into a business, a variety of issues came up. First was that while the surgery was listed at 200,000 yen (about $1,800 today), with options included, the total price reportedly shot as high as 2 million (some $18,000 yen today) in some cases. In a 2016 investigation by the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, over 40% of men expressed dissatisfaction after the surgery.

    Shibuya says the issue doesn't stop at just being a male one. Some of the magazine articles aimed at young men included direct or indirect "opinions from women," such as, "Foreskin is lame," and "Women hate uncircumcised penises."

    "The circumcision surgeons showing their faces on the pages are men, and the editorial staff were almost all men. Men would request these articles, and men decided to publish them to have other men read them. That all women hate foreskins is something that men have made them say."

    For Shibuya, what's behind many men's decisions to have the surgery is homosociality -- the bonds between members of the same gender excluding sexual and romantic factors.

    "In male homosocial society, there is a view that a man is recognized as such if he can 'have a woman.' The ones that can't are seen as second class. Statements like 'If you have a penis with foreskin then you can't keep a woman' is a kind of 'threat.' 'Virgin,' 'bald,' 'short' -- perhaps all of these kinds of male complexes are borne of this structure?"

    How could we break this chain? "Teaching it in a steady, clear way as part of sex education is important. Of course, how to clean it needs to be taught, but they need to be told being uncircumcised is normal and not embarrassing. They need to be taught that you don't need to have a complex about your body, and each person's body is special. Even if it's among men, mocking another person's body is harassment. If people are forced to tolerate that, they can develop adversarial attitudes toward men weaker than them and to women," Shibuya said. Perhaps rejecting the view that says having foreskin is embarrassing could help lead to the creation of a society easier for both men and women to live in?

    Profile: Tomomi Shibuya

    Born in the city of Osaka in 1972, she completed her studies at the Graduate School of Education at The University of Tokyo. Her specialization is gender theory, and she also researches South Korean K-pop's history and Japanese comedy. Among her published books are "The History of Male Students' Sexuality in Japan: Self-Made Man and his Body," published by Rakuhoku-Publications, and a title translating to: "Heisei era boys cram school: all six chapters for troubled boys," published by Chikumashobo,

    (Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Digital News Center)

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