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Anne Allison

Anne Allison is an associate professor and chair of the Duke University cultural anthropology department. She researches the ways in which desire seeps into, reconfirms, or re-imagines socio-economic relations in various contexts in postwar Japan.

Her first book, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994) is a study of the Japanese corporate practice of entertaining white collar, male workers in the sexualized atmosphere of hostess clubs. Her second book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Westview-HarperCollins 1996, re-released by University of California Press 2000) examines the intersection of motherhood, productivity, and mass-produced fantasies in contemporary Japan through essays on lunch-boxes (bento), comics, censorship, and stories of mother-son incest. Her current research is on the recent popularization of Japanese children's goods on the global marketplace and how its trends in cuteness, character merchandise, and high-tech play pals are remaking Japan's place in today's world of millennial capitalism.

An American, Anne Allison has a BA from University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, in 1975 and received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1986. She is fluent in Japanese.

Interview: May 4, 2003

We are always curious on why people decide to study Japan. Why Japan? Was there specific set of problems and parameters that initially interested you, or was there a more personal connection to Japan?
As a 19 year old, I dropped out of college after one year and traveled around the world with a rucksack on my back for the next three years. This inspired my interest in other cultures but didn't get to Japan this time (due to the expense). Returning to go to college, I majored in anthropology. In my senior year, when I'd finished all my anthropology requirements, a professor told me about a great course offered in history on the intellectual history of Tokugawa Japan. This is what inspired my interest in Japan. The course was mind-blowing: a society that foregrounded samurai yet prohibited them from fighting—such a fascinating paradox. So I was intellectually turned out by Japan—it has always been "good to think." After that I entered University of Chicago to pursue anthropology and quickly decided to specialize in contemporary Japan. Another reason for my choice was that, at the time (and still true today) few anthropologists study Japan so I figured the field would be wide open.

Your book, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994), is an influential work on modern Japanese society and is based upon your doctoral work at the University of Chicago. Could you summarize your main ideas and conclusions?
The mizu shobai is the entertainment domain in Japan that sells various services including restaurants, bars, and clubs. One sub-field here are hostess clubs that, along with alcohol and often kara-oke, also feature female hostesses expected to pour the drinks, light the cigarettes, and massage the egos of their (primarily male) clientele. In the book I study the interface between this realm of fantasy production and what, in the 1980s at the time of the study, was one of their main clients, Japanese businesses. Based on anthropological fieldwork (including working as a hostess for four months in a hostess club in Roppongi I call in the book "Bijo"), I examine what businesses seek in entertaining their employees and clients in such an eroticized environment as a hostess club. In Bijo, about 90% of all tabs were paid for on company expense and the aim of these outings, I argue, is the production of trust among men and loyalty to one's company (or companies with whom one is doing business). The medium for doing this is getting men to relax, feel good about themselves as "men," and be sexually titillated by attractive, flattering women. A heterosexual fantasy where women service men into imagining they are potent is the service provided by hostess clubs and purchased by Japanese businesses. A side-effect of such staged and deferred sexuality is that the home and marital bond are evacuated of adult men (of the class and occupation most likely to be entertained nightly in hostess clubs).

Why did you ultimately decide to study hostess clubs?
At the time most work on Japan approached the "culture" from certain perspectives and institutions: the family, traditional arts, politics, etc. I was interested in something less normative, so to speak, that also forefronted gender-what, at the time, was a subject mainly ignored in the field of Japan Studies. When I discovered that there were a lot of bars and clubs in Tokyo that catered specifically to men (with female personnel called hostesses), I thought this might be a good research site. When I was told by professors and friends in Japan that the mizu shoubai was "NOT about Japanese culture," I was even more intrigued.

One unique aspects of your study is that your fieldwork included working at Bijo, a Roppongi (Tokyo) hostess bar, for four months. What was that experience like? How did that experience inform your study, that interviews or mere observations could not?
This was a really hard experience for me. While I had good rapport with the other hostesses, the Manager, the Mama and with many of the customers, being a hostess meant I was in the structural position of the one giving service-and a service that entailed ego-boosting and sexual flirtation. The service itself is staged in the sense that, any hostess is expected to act interested in and attentive to any customer. And, in my club at least, the understanding was that everything stopped and started at the door: no sexual affairs, in other words. Once I entered the door and started working, I often could get into the play-acting mode. But the part of the job that was hard was having to endure what were sometimes rude, crude, and demeaning remarks and questions by customers (such as "when did you lose your virginity?" or "can you come and pee at the same time?"). Though the job could be draining, I could not have written Nightwork within having this experience. My interviews were important, but actually participating in, observing, and talking with customers at the site of a hostess club were invaluable sources of insight for me.

You mention in your book the many Japanese did not think mizu shoubai was appropriate for an anthropology study; that it did not reflect "true Japan." This seems antithetical to the fact that the Japanese tax agency in the 1980s thought that after work entertainment was so essential to economic success that it was a tax-deductible expense. Given the billions of yen and sheer number of man and woman hours spent in these establishments, why do you think many of the Japanese you spoke to felt it was "inappropriate" and marginal?
When I worked on this project, in the early 1980s, the academic field in Japan was fairly parochial about dealing with sexuality. Everyone knew that hostess clubs existed and even that business here was protected and promoted by the government itself. But justifying business entertainment is one thing. Studying it seriously as a scholar was another, and my professors at Rikkyo University called me the one who was doing the study of "dirty" things.

You state that that hostess clubs were a domain of Japanese life that was relatively unrecorded when you started Nightwork. Has there been further academic study of hostess clubs? What about pink salons and the "lower end" mizu shoubai?
There has been much more work on the mizu shoubai and sexuality more generally since I did my study. I haven't kept on top of much of this as I've moved onto other subjects. But, it is my sense that younger scholars and journalists are taking up such topics much more openly these days.

You note in your book that the economic slump in the 1990s affected the entertainment/mizu shoubai industry. Now ten years on, companies have continued to trim settai (entertainment) budgets. One unofficial statistic is that the average hourly charge has fallen to half that of 1980s levels. Do you think that this has affected the construction of modern Japanese masculinity?
Great question. I'm sure the ebbing of jaunts into such masculinized spaces as hostess clubs IS affecting the construction of (post)modern Japanese masculinity. Not having the same institutionalized means of propping up egos probably means that masculinity is less secure or anchored to such spaces as work and hostess clubs. Of course, I think this is basically a good thing and not only for Japanese women but for Japanese men as well.

Women are being more prevalent in the work space. Also, given the economic instability, there seems to be a prevailing trend away from the company as a basis of individual identity. How has the construction of masculinity changed, if at all, in Japan in the last ten years?
I'm working on children's culture these days so, again, am not as versed in current issues pertaining to gender as I once was. But my sense is that this is a time of flux and change and that, while suicide is up, so are cases of men and women who are rethinking and remaking what once were fairly rigidly-defined gendered identities. More and more women are hesitating to marry and have children. This in itself has an impact on the construction of masculinity. Men will be forced to think more about how to behave both before and after marriage if they want a wife. But perhaps the whole institution of marriage and family will start to change as well and, accompanying this, will be changes in the way men and women define themselves as gendered selves.

You note that: "So as far as genital release is concerned, hostess clubs are sexless. When a man wants release, he goes to places that explicitly offer it." Do hostess clubs share a cultural or historical root with geisha, whose services were largely (with exception to their "danna") sexless. One also wonders why geisha activity was so well recorded, while hostess clubs are seemingly marginal—any thoughts?
Certainly, hostess clubs and geisha houses do share roots. But the social and economic conditions that have sustained them are quite different in the two cases. Why was geisha activity more recorded? I think it has been more respectable given its cultural roots in dance, music, and the arts. Some hostesses are similarly proficient in a variety of skills, including the so-called traditional arts. But many are not and the "service" they are selling is different.

Your recent work appears to be on the construction of popular cartoon and game figures such as Sailor Moon and Pokemon. Could you tell us a little about your current research interests and ideas?
My current research is on the globalization of Japanese kid's products and the amazing success this has had since the early 1990's. The book I am finishing this summer (tentatively called Millenial Monsters), examines four waves of such products—The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, tamagotchi, and Pokemon. Concentrating on two specific sites—Japan and the US (where Saturday morning TV now sports a sizable number of Japanese cartoons), I examine what the global appeal is of Japanese "monsters" today, how they are rooted in specific conditions of postwar Japan, and what political role they are playing in challenging the hegemony once held by Hollywood in the global imaginary.

How does (if at all) your current work connect to your work in examining Japanese corporate masculinity in hostess clubs?
In all my work I have looked at the interconnection between fantasy and material relations. The same is true today in my study of children's cyborgs, monsters, and transformers as they circulate the commodity routes of today's pop culture.

Nightwork counters the Reischauer-esque ideas that many people have about Japan: a well-ordered family-oriented society with no ostensible "underworld." What books, or set of books, do you feel accurately depict the complexities contained within Japanese society?
This is a hard question. Can I take a pass?

This is the question that almost everyone cops out on; what works do you feel are the worst books on Japan? There must be a few worthy of mention. Which ones have piqued your ire?
Well, books that orientalize Japan and Japanese. There are tons that fall in this category.

What are you reading right now? What do you generally like to read?
A colleague and I are planning a Martial Arts/Global Flows conference to be held at Duke next year so I plan to start reading for that. A book entitled Queer Globalizations has been one of my most recent and enjoyable reads and it helped me think, oddly enough, about Pokemon! I love Gerald Figal's, Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan and also Eric Cazdyn's recent, The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan. Though I've just started it, Brian Massumi's recent book on virtuality is also wonderful.

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