Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan. By Sabine Frühstück. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003

This book provides a thoroughly researched and extremely detailed study of ‘the history of sexual knowledge in modern Japan and the uses made of that knowledge’, during a period of ‘radical changes in the perception and description… of sex and sexuality’ (1). It thus provides an extremely valuable paradigm of the development and use of modern concepts and controlling mechanisms to do with the sexual self, in an Asian nation which did not form part of a European colonial empire. Instead of being the objects of a racially ‘othering’ gaze and structure of surveillance, the sex and sexuality of the Japanese were internally colonized by a variety of agencies, from the military to the medical (also, at least in intention, by intellectuals and reformers), through ‘complicated power relations marked by two distinct technologies, those of bodily discipline and mass regulation’ (2).

Frühstück suggests that a ‘creation of a normative Japanese sexuality’ was taking place, viewed as primarily happening between men and women, embodied in concerns over prostitutes and the communication of venereal diseases, in sex education of the young, and in pronatalist propaganda (incorporating questions about healthy sexual function within marriage and anxieties over frigidity and impotence). Central to all this was ‘the premium placed on scientific-mindedness’, a recurrent rhetorical theme, and the need for accurate knowledge to ensure ‘correct’ behaviour (5).

The first chapter looks at anxieties around national fitness, especially the health of the military, and the associated question of prostitution. These concerns segued into the promotion of children’s development into healthy adults. This leads into the second chapter on discussions around ‘scientific’ sex education and the importance of ‘correct’ knowledge, in which disclosure of previously ‘suppressed’ information went alongside protective, preventative and regulatory strategies. Frühstück notes the invocation of ‘Western’ individuals and studies - including ‘the earliest [Western] work’ (81) on masturbation, Onania (c. 1710: misidentified by Frühstück as Tissot’s later L’Onanisme) – and suggests that this was closely connected with perceptions of modernity and being up-to-date.

She then moves to the politically activist advocates of the wider dissemination of sexological knowledge alongside the creation of such knowledge, through empirical studies such as Yamamoto’s questionnaire survey of his students at Kyoto and Dōshisha Universities. An ideology of democratization of sexual knowledge led to the production of popular books and journals, though endeavours to differentiate this work from mere sensationalism was not always successful.

‘Claiming the Fetus’ discusses campaigns around birth control, both different strands within this movement, and the various external factors which had an impact on achieving their aims. Again, there were considerable connections with Western campaigns: a reference to Osaka Birth Control Study Society’s aim of ‘constructive birth control’ suggests contacts with UK pioneer Marie Stopes as well as her American rival, Margaret Sanger. Moves towards legalisation of abortion and contraceptives, as well as the wider sexological project, fell foul of the militarization of Japanese society during the 1930s and an increasing emphasis on ‘racial hygiene’, eugenics and the regulation of sexuality in the interests of the state. Frühstück has an interesting reading of advertisements for hormone products in the 1930s, promising increased virility, against this background.

Although there were clearly significant differences of concern and emphasis, one can immediately discern intriguing similarities between what was happening in Japan during this period, and in modernising, expansionist European powers. Issues around national and military fitness, the problem of differentiating the prostitute from the merely ‘promiscuous’ woman, the maternalist case for birth control, the advisability of the sexual enlightenment of the young, can all be paralleled. One interesting syncopation, however, is the rise of paranoia in Japan about the alleged ill-effects of childhood masturbation at the point when, in Europe, sexual pedagogy was increasingly concerned to downplay the demonization of self-abuse.

A somewhat wider perspective might have illuminated the comparisons and contrasts between Japan and other nations (some reference to Dikötter’s work on China during a similar period could have been particularly useful). The extent to which Japan was part of an international community of both scientific research and social reform also seems somewhat underplayed, given the role of Japanese scientists in the discovery of ‘Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet’, salvarsan, a specific against syphilis, and in developing the understanding of the relationship between menstruation and ovulation within the female cycle, thus enabling a rather more reliable version of the ‘safe period’ to be calculated.

This relates to a more general criticism of this work: it is densely researched but the focus tends to be somewhat myopic. It is hard to glean much sense of the individuals involved in the debates and campaigns (rather than their positions). A certain flatness of style works against the intrinsic fascination of the material.

Lesley A. Hall

Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London