Monday, 18 August 2014

Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender, Part One: The Myth of Natural Origin

The problem of gender takes many forms, of which a brief sample may include:
  • gender inequality;
  • gender conflict;
  • the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
  • hegemonic relationship dynamics;
  • hegemonic family structures;
  • hostility to sexual diversity;
  • the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
  • the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
  • and the abomination that is rape, among others.

There is a worldwide struggle against many of these, even if only some people identify gender itself as the source of those ills. Indeed, the primary question of gender divides those struggles, at best compromising their focus, at worst confounding them into an ugly free-for-all. Some, the essentialists, do believe that there are inherent social differences between men and women, and would conduct the struggle according to these models as they see them. Others reject that binary altogether, considering those models to be constructs in themselves and seeing the struggle as one of transcending them.

In other words, these people all have different narratives. Ask them to look at our world and tell the story of gender on Earth, and each of their stories will be different. Their beginnings and predicted ends will be different – the liberation of humanity, or the end of the world? Their genres will be different – a heroic tale, or an epic tragedy, or a textbook? Their characters will be different, their settings will be different, and the assumptions on which they rely will be different.

I have made no secret of my own perspective. I stand firmly against essentialism: against the idea that the biological categories of male and female deserve any significant direct implications on our social arrangements. I do so first because we are each different, and second because we are each joined by our common humanity – and thus must suspect any such social division of our species as the herald of a repressive assault upon individual liberty and the collective good alike. From this division comes judgemental attitudes, pressures on people to be who they are not, and the punishment of those considered different. No-one should have to live their lives in that shadow. Essentialism is gender, and the bedrock of so many of its catastrophes.

Of course, the real villains have quite different narratives of their own. The rapists, the fundamentalists, the patriarchals, the morally panicked, those convinced that one sex should dominate the other or that sexual diversity is sinful – theirs are the narratives so obviously heinous to everyone who is not a cannibal that to discuss them now would be a waste of time.

Instead, let's look at some problems in the narratives on the better side of the struggle. Narratives which, though we may come to see sense in them with all the best intentions, are in the end more trouble than they are worth. They may even appear reasonable or effective at times; but their destiny is only to soak into the roots of the great gender parasite, to nourish it, and to lengthen its harvest of human souls.

In this short series of articles, I want to deal with three general varieties of these narrative problems – three myths, which I have called the Myth of Natural Origin, the Myth of Modernity, and the Myth of the Others. This first article will consider the first, the Myth of Natural Origin, while subsequent entries tackle the other two. In each case, let us explore we will never resolve the problem of gender so long as we rest on these illusions.

1) The Myth of Natural Origin
The first myth is the myth that gender is natural. It is simple on the surface yet profound in the depths, which may be why it is so pervasive but so hard to justify. Unpacking it requires great care, for there are extremely sensitive terms and concepts involved.

What makes a thing “natural”?
First, we should be clear on what we mean by nature. It is not enough to say that something is natural because it exists, nor because of some authority – any authority – declaring that it is. The first is tautology, the second politics. Instead, let us define it thus: a thing is natural if it is of this world – that is, if it has come to exist, as a product of reality, without interference from outside the system. We shall return to what 'outside the system' might mean later.

Second, we should remind ourselves that gender is different from sex. Sex refers to biological differences, gender to socially constructed ones. “Male” and “female” are sexes; “masculine” and “feminine” are genders. Thus to question gender's place in nature is not at all to suggest that sexuality, indeed one of the pillars of life on Earth, is also not natural – and while checking to make sure, note especially the splendid diversity of those sexual configurations, which are so varied that no one sexual model can be put forward as more standard than the others. These models of sexual interaction, so far as they occur outside societies of animals, have nothing to do with gender. Gender, as something socially constructed, by definition first requires societies.

Third, the fact that some animals do live socially, and do exhibit gender problems such as sexual violence or the subjection of females, is not enough to regard gender as natural. Existence alone, once again, is not a sufficient criterion for this; it must be shown conclusively that that thing came about without interference from outside the system. On top of that, we humans are so gendered ourselves that we can hardly trust our own kind to study and understand those creatures impartially, in the full nuances of their own contexts and ways of thinking and feeling, without allowing any of our own human assumptions, including gendered assumptions, to cloud our lenses.

Fourth, even if we were to take gender in other animals as natural, a massive leap is required to conclude by extension that gender in humans is natural – a leap we are not equipped to make. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have become exceptionally complex, diverse, and capable of more than enough logic and empathy to realise that gendered repression is calamitous for collective humankind and for each and every one of us. Conflict and alienation between two halves of our species benefits no-one, and certainly not the species itself. We can guess what we like about other animals, but for ourselves at least, we can know it is repressive. We can know it causes hurt. We have had centuries upon centuries to learn it – there has been no excuse not to. And that we would not only persist in gendered cruelty so harmful and meaningless, but spawn entire moral, legal and civic systems to perpetuate it – that is a mockery of sanity that must make us question how far our problems can truly be the products of a functioning universe.

And so the alternative echoes again. Outside the system.

Can gender be natural?
The basic problem with the “gender is natural” position is the same as with any other “X is natural/unnatural” position, including statements about human nature: they are impossible to prove or disprove with our present understanding. What it comes down to is that we really know sod all. Humankind has learnt a great deal in recent millennia, but our records of our own history are only reliable so far back, and when it comes to the vast extent of our reality's space and time, the totality of our secure understanding scarcely bears mention. From where we are now, we simply do not know of what might or might not have happened in the billions-of-years-old story of all-that exists – indeed, to even think at that scale challenges imagination.

Of course this makes it equally impossible to conclude that gender is unnatural. But it does leave the question wide open, and invites us to ask: if gender is natural, then how did it come about? And if it is not natural, then how the heck did it come about?

“Gender is natural” arguments usually stand upon one of two foundations. On the one hand there is the religious foundation, typically resting on gendered creation stories, the Genesis narrative of the Christian Bible being a case in point. Even if not held as literally true, these come to reflect the values preferred by those who tell them. In other words, “gender is natural because I want to believe it is natural”. That is to say, a normative statement; a choice. There are many things one might say to that, but it adds little to our current empirical concern, so let's leave that for another discussion.

The other foundation is more interesting: the attempt at a scientific, value-impartial explanation. The eternally-cited framework here is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which must be one of the most frequently and tragically misinterpreted triumphs of our scientific heritage. By these readings, gender is both context and output: sexually differentiated roles and behaviours both shape and result from a contest for survival and reproduction, typically with aggressive male agents competing for passive female resources – sex as something women “have” and men “want”, or as Catherine MacKinnon eloquently captures it, 'man fucks woman: subject verb object'.

There are multiple problems with this inference. Life is not just some contest for survival, properly defined; not the “survival of the fittest” yanked from a whole other context and tacked clumsily to this one. It is observably not the case that survival and reproduction are the absolute priorities for all living things, nor would they result in gender inequality and conflict even if they were. Only at the pinnacle of wilful ignorance can we reduce all life to mere machines of self-preservation and reproduction, and suggest that all social activity and behaviour is a function of that; and only by leaping across a whole series of those pinnacles could we claim that a species fighting a gendered war with itself does any good for its prospects in the world.

This is especially the case with complex life forms like ourselves, capable as we are of our multitude of values, beliefs, ways of thinking and feeling, and above all, our propensity to value each other as ends in ourselves. We could point to the many systems of ethics, of law, of philosophy, we have developed to assert that, but they all come down to very basic human senses: that we experience or have record that certain things feel terrible, and do not wish others to feel them either; that we can understand that to harm others is to harm ourselves, as it motivates others to harm us back; and more than anything else, that we can love.

Of course, this does not undermine evolution itself. Evolution occurs over tremendous timescales, ever buffeted by the winds of chance, random mutation, and physical and social environments that are always changing, every second, every year, every era, perpetually reshaping the terms of life and the meaning of biological fitness with a chaos far beyond any one generation's ken.

It does, however, leave evolutionary mechanics next to irrelevant at the level of the here and now. Ask yourself, honestly, if there is seriously nothing worse to you than death. There is so much else that is important to us aside from survival and reproduction, be it freedom, or integrity, or the chance to express and fulfil ourselves, or the people or creatures or gods or objects that we love and the health of our relationships with them.

That is why attempts to apply evolutionary mechanisms to our lives tend to become normative instead: that is, an argument not that we do live according to them, but that we should. We all know well what manner of people have thought like that, and sought to make it happen, and we know exactly what harrowing anguishes lie down that road cemented with blood and paved with bone.

Why raise these echoes of European eugenics and Nazism? To indicate the pinnacle of our complexity: because as repugnant as these choices were, these were choices on a formidable normative scale, and a scale on which most of us, thank goodness, prefer other choices. A choice of nothing less than what it means to be human. Of what we want our species to be.

It has been within our abilities to think about that and act on it for at least tens of thousands of years, which makes it finally beyond imagination to suggest that concerns of natural selection and biological fitness account for the gender madness our kind has acquired. Strong life, fit life, is diverse life: capable of creating and adapting against as many different shocks and surprises as possible. Strong life, fit life, stands together: cooperates against universal threats, rather than turning upon its own for no reason.

Genderedness, by selecting against those who do not conform, acts to make us the very antithesis of this. It makes us weak. Divided. A fearful, feckless, faceless half-human race of ones and zeroes, squandering its strength, energy and self-control by panicking at every difference and policing and violating its own members. In evolutionary terms, we might call that a regression.

We must get beyond the idea that gender is a natural thing. Not only because we have not a clue if it is or is not, but because to proceed as if it is is paralysing our search for the actual causes of the gender problem and its worst manifestations. As with arguments about human nature, the appeal to “nature” does more to close an argument than win it: it masquerades as a conclusive explanation while in fact telling us nothing.

Nature” does nothing to explain why men have become generally larger and stronger than women, and even less to explain why such a hideously disproportionate apparatus of social norms and expectations have grown up to associate men with reason, power, aggression and violence, and women with emotion, vulnerability, weakness and submission. It tells us nothing about why so many men and women comply with these stereotypes without resistance, even while it destroys them.

Nature” tells us nothing about why societies segregate male and female spaces, or impose certain dress codes on men and women, or pressure men and women to want certain body shapes or sizes. It tells us nothing about why so many jobs or functions in society are considered the exclusive preserve of men or of women – usually of men.

“Nature” tells us nothing about why “masculinity” or “femininity” exist, nor about why the content of those constructs is what it is; nor does it tell us why hostility is shown towards homosexuals, transgendered people, or the many others who do not conform to gendered expectations.

Nature” tells us nothing about the invisible, suffocating and occasionally bloodthirsty rules we have set up around male-female social relationships, and why those who cannot or will not dance the dance at best must give up all hope at finding intimate companionship, and at worst are slaughtered like carrion. It tells us nothing about why we assume the models of monogamous heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family are best for everyone, and stigmatise those it does not represent, such as same-sex couples, polyamorous people, single-parent families, or people who plain don't like marriage.

And “nature” tells us nothing, absolutely and utterly nothing, about why rape exists; how it can exist; or how it is sanely possible that any human being can will themselves to violate the body of another human being, less still take pleasure from their agony or walk away with impunity knowing that society will blame the victim for it.

Frustratingly, in spite of all this, from a purely empirical standpoint we can only conclude that gender may or may not be natural. That is all that the hard evidence right now permits us to know – it is possible that gender might be natural, but the conclusive conviction that it is is absolutely a myth.

Beyond the evidence, we are left with values, influences, and intuition, which vary between us all. Are these worth anything in confronting the “gender is natural” myth?

Outside the system
From here I can only speak personally. I will fully admit that what follows is but my own subjective impression – emotions and instincts as fallible as anyone else's and hardly scientifically admissible. However, I can only admit that I cannot, as a human being, look upon the aforementioned gender nightmares and find them anything less than downright freaking abominable.

From any angle. From any perspective. It could be because of their logical and ethical bankruptcy, as just discussed – tormenting and weakening our species, hounding and excluding the different, an evolutionary regression, a source of so much suffering. Or it could be a nauseated revulsion at the extremes our kind employs to regulate gender and sexuality: the rape, the enslavement, the stonings, the lashings, the mass hysterias, the atrocities against people's bodies and souls, and the plain-as-daylight odiousness of the people who carry them out and call them righteous. Or it could be a more personal bitterness and rage, at how so long as this world is like this, my own prospects have been thoroughly screwed over by a gendered paradigm of behaviours, relationships and male-female interaction totally alien to me, and often altogether abhorrent.

But beneath that – beneath all of that – there is something else. It is something I have had for longer than I remember, and that I was certainly never taught. I do not know what to call it, aside from some deep, irrepressible sensation I get in the presence of gendered forces; a feeling akin to that of trying to breathe in the sudden absence of air, or of losing molecular contact with the world around me – as though when I look upon gender, I am looking at something that is not capable of existing.

That is the best I can do to give what is meant by outside the system, because words inherently cannot engage with it – words are of the system of which this is not. It is a thing of which, at the most elemental level, it simply does not make sense that it could exist upon the fundamental fabric of the cosmos; something upon which everything you know about reality breaks down, to leave only madness, a universe insane. There is simply nothing I am aware of – no logic, no intuition, no chain of causes and consequences – by which I can imagine our gendered paradigm coming into existence in our reality, without something foreign to reality having acted upon it.

I do not know what that would mean; what this something that cannot be something could be. I dread to consider the magnitude of what it might imply. But I have found nothing, absolutely nothing, that begins to demonstrate to me even the faintest hint of some natural basis for the horrors we have visited upon ourselves with our gendered creations; and until I do, I cannot suppress this suspicion that they are wrong at a level unparalleled in our most hellish imaginations.

If gender truly is this brand of abomination, I doubt we will identify it soon. But we can do ourselves all a favour by rejecting, or at least suspending, the notion that the problems of gender have a sane and legitimate place in the natural history of our world, until such time as we have the evidence to consider it.

Coming up in Part Two of this series: the Myth of Modernity.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Secrets of the South Downs

Two hours away from England's pustulant pit of tentacles festering with greed and injustice – generally referred to as London – a range of chalk hills runs overlooking the sea. These are the South Downs; a mysterious place. They remain undevoured by the ravenous urban monetisation of the English southeast, as though warded by some ancient invisible force in the earth.

Sheep graze on open grassland, green beneath a wide blue sky. Birds sing, the rabbits bounce through the bushes, the crickets chirp in perpetual conversation about religion and politics, and the air is fresh and at peace. Even the rumbling tractors somehow blend in, while the occasional military aircraft is reduced to the gravitas of a paper aeroplane. It is a land of secrets, of whispers older than us or any of our ancestors, which emanate from the remnants of hill forts, burial mounds, civilizations long gone by.

There is something almost sacred about it. Sacred, not in the sense of the arbitrary dogmas over which the English have spent the recent hundreds of years killing each other, but a far older, truer, profounder sanctity, preceding all the arrogances humanity has since contrived; an authentic solemnity from the breathing wind and steadfast earth themselves, and one you feel in your very bones.

Indeed, where centuries of bloodthirst, prejudice and exploitation ecological and economic have destroyed any resemblance of Britain to the 'green and pleasant land' for which its people long, the South Downs are one location where perhaps a snapshot still lingers, a hint at the potential this country once held but never realised: the potential to be a good place. A kind place. A place of respect between human and human, between human and earth; a place which leaves no-one behind, least of all the vulnerable or the different. Perhaps, after decades of struggle and self-reflection, it may find that potential at last.

In the midst of these hills there is an old, small village - Steyning - which has come to hold a certain personal significance to me during my long and troubled years in Britain. Suffice it to say that this became a place I came to many times over the years, and always to walk the same route up and along the Downs with my father.

While I have been briefly enduring London again on a visa-sorting intermission from Japan (to where I return very shortly), a walk on the Downs for the first time in numerous years transpired. It is the first time I have done it since I started this blog, so for the first time, I will share some images and reflections from it here.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Blazing Gentleman of Shinjuku - or What Next for Japanese Pacifism?


'Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized”
-Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan (1947)

On the afternoon of Sunday the 29th of June, a certain Japanese citizen, whose name remains unknown, mounted the girders above the South Exit of Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. Hundreds of pedestrians watched on as this respectable-looking gentleman sat cross-legged on a mat, produced a megaphone, and protested against revisions under discussion to Japan's constitutional pacifism which had privileged it with seventy years of peace. Then, as firefighters approached, he doused himself in gasoline and burst into flames.

Japanese pacifism, and Article 9 of the Constitution which protects it, is a complex matter. It goes right to the heart of questions of Japan's identity and national journey, questions whose answers are honestly not at all straightforward. Let explore these today.

First, however, we should pause to give the blazing gentleman his due, for it takes tremendous courage, whatever one's opinions, to consign oneself to the flames. Appearing in his fifties or sixties, he was likely aware that he was joining a blistering worldwide heritage of self-immolation as political protest: protest tragic, protest divisive, but protest undeniably shocking and potent. Protest that declares that no matter how painful the flames may be, the pain of what is protested against is one thousand times worse.

Thích Quảng Đức did it in Saigon, the horror of that moment preserved and immortalised in Malcom Browne's timeless photograph from that war the Japanese authorities so controversially supported. In closer memory Mohamed Bouazizi did it in Tunisia, and the flames set alight the entire Middle East and North Africa – and still they burn. From Tibet to Tamil Nadu, and goodness knows where else, these flames still rise.

Before closing my eyes to go to Buddha, I have the honour to present my words to President Diem, asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people and enforce a policy of religious equality.” - Thích Quảng Đức, 1963. A witness observed that “he was completely still, while those of us around him were crying and prostrating ourselves on the sidewalk.

Speak not a word against people who do this, or the flames will burn on and consume us all. We are not innocent bystanders, and we may hold no grievance against them for making us watch them burn. Instead, listen. Their actions accuse us: we have created a world which inflicts worse than this on people. We have created a world so insufferable to some of its members, that the only way left that they know to fight it is to set themselves on fire. But how dare we be shocked by a person on fire, if not by our societies' crimes against humanity?

In the case of the blazing gentleman of Shinjuku, his challenge to us is this: the fire is less painful than what will happen to a Japan which abandons its pacifist identity.

And he may have a point.

Almost two weeks after his protest, the Japanese media has still failed to provide any substantial coverage of his actions, and his name and current condition remain a mystery. As with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the affair reeks of a cover-up, and in particular state broadcaster NHK is under fire for all the signs of partisan censorship.

That's a poor start. We don't have to agree with his words – after all, they concern the future, so any certainty in any direction is premature. But if we dare to call ourselves human beings, we do have to care, we do have to listen, and we do have to seek to understand. So unlike NHK, let's take a closer look at his concerns. Let's consider the story of Japanese pacifism.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Broken Work

A sinister lie has usurped reality. It takes many forms and goes by many names. The “world of work”. The “job hunt”. The “rat race”. “Wage slavery”. “Labour flexibility”. And there is still more unspeakable slavery beneath this putrid morass, violent and bloodthirsty in textile sweatshops, domestic servitude, or traffickers' boats worldwide – though these are the abyssal depths of that very same infected ocean.

From it rises a toxic smog, which creeps and clogs the very air we breathe, suffocating us in all the affairs of life. A perpetual miasma: “work”, you must “work”, you cannot because you must “work” – the haze does not end, you cannot escape it, but then it turns solid and walls up your path: whereupon it demands, as its toll for your passage, your very humanity. Whatever our euphemisms for it, we may know it better as a massacre of the human soul.

The idea of work as something one does not want to do but is forced to for survival, instead of a path of empowerment and self-fulfilment. The reduction of human beings to microbes prostrated before employers who sit in judgement on corporate thrones, instead of the diverse contributions of people who actually mean something, for the betterment of all. A thing that secures not your freedom, but your exploitation by arrogant hierarchies which demand control over who you are, what you think, what you wear, and the time and space that is yours. A vehicle of hatred and structural violence against the young, the old, the poor, the unemployed, the gentle, the dissident, the vulnerable – the spluttering wheels of prejudice.

It has now been half a year since my return to Japan, and my attempts to find suitable work there have not been successful. It has been a bitter and exhausting struggle, strewn with the wreckage of dead ends and visa goalposts which do not stop moving. At the last, it has only reinforced my burning contempt for this misbegotten employment paradigm. I can only feel for those who have it still worse – those stuck in countries like Britain, where cruel forces have consummated this farce and gorge themselves on the cries of its victims on an hourly basis, blaming them for their own miseries, then battering them constantly deeper with benefit cuts, amenity closures, repossessions, media frenzies, sadistic job centres, mockery against food banks, and now even freaking anti-homeless spikes. What is this if not a pogrom against the poor?

As far as Japan is concerned, I now have a different kind of plan to establish myself there. But I have decided once and for all that I will never, never again, submit to the barbarous ordeal of the “job hunt”. This may, one day, mean death. But death,
that patient and respectful acquaintance of mine from times past, would be preferable to the alternative. For from the corruption of the employment paradigm can only come broken sanity and terrible vengeance upon the world.

Work – that which should be dignified, glorious, and self-affirming – has instead mutated into a twisted monstrosity, a modern institution of human sacrifice by which our souls are ripped from our bodies then both together thrown from the bloodsoaked Altar of Development, to stuff the slavering maws of conformity, submission, and private greed. Maws which lurk from a harrowing, monotonous parallel dimension, that insufferable non-concept, that "world of work".

It could be a marvellous thing, this “work”. But instead we have made of it another infernal machine, a construct, inflicted upon the entire human race and now disguised as a law of our universe. One more Nothing we have raised to an Everything. And upon it, we have made of our world not a place of love and compassion, but one we are considered to enter as worthless, contemptible parasites, who do not matter, to whom is owed nothing – wherein we have to prove to our societies that we are worthy to have been born, on whatever smug and sordid terms it so chooses.

In spawning this nightmare we have violated our kind. And we must end it – we must take back our souls, our bodies, and the freedom and dignity of work – before this corrupted employment paradigm devours us all.

Consider, instead, a functioning world of human beings in the most elementary terms. Humans. People. In this world of abundance, where there is more than enough to meet the material and spiritual needs of everyone, while harming and excluding no-one. Where we value not only survival, but fulfilment. Where life is a good thing, not only because our material needs are met, but because of healthy relationships with each other, and with the living Earth. Where we are all diverse, but all have our humanity in common.

That could be us. That should be us. We really have no excuse for it not to be us.

Such a world is built upon the contributions of its members: members who recognize, as the most basic meaning of sense, that it benefits themselves and everyone else to contribute how they can best, to making it a better world for everybody. Who recognize the folly of selfishness and of “war of all against all” mentalities, as the conflict and cruelties that come from that path are ruinous to them all.

That, by the way, is not idealism. That is the least that can be expected for a sapient species that is worth its existence, let alone one that can sustain itself.

By what we can only presume is some eldritch consequence, the human race has turned inside out, and in its political, socio-economic and cultural power arrangements has come to rest on an opposite vision. A vision of us all as selfish individualistic automatons, who consume all we touch while contributing the least we can get away with – and where this is called “rational”. A vision where work does not come naturally to us, but must be forced, like so much else, through fear and punishment. Where survival itself is no longer a right, but a privilege; not a foundation for the improvement of life, but the sole and final goal of existence, around which all necessity, all value, all meaning in life, is defined. That is, one's own survival – the survival of others is rejected from our concerns.

It is a ghastly picture. And it is one which, if it continues, will equip the human race with neither the capacity nor the merit for a future in this universe.

Is that seriously the best we can do?

Enough of this miserable excuse for reality.

Society is the people in it, and its success requires both our individuality and our love for others to flourish. But our societies do not own us. And through its vile and profligate perversion of human “work”, today's economic establishment has forfeited any right to clam we owe it anything, beyond the baseline of not doing harm to others.

May we struggle for the day when every human being may declare these words with impunity: I shall not be told by society what to do with my life. I shall not be told where to go, what to say, what to think, what to wear. I shall not be party to a system where some are superior and others inferior, and where I must compete with my fellow human beings. I shall not be expected to offer up my sweat to support the profit and property of the greedy, nor to ruin the lives of others for the sake of my own. I reject the farce that my integrity, my freedom and my fellowship with my species may be levied as the price for my survival, and decry to the death the vile norm which holds as routine that these are legitimate sacrifices to expect of any human being. I have the right to live in a better world than this.

They do not own your space. They do not own your time. They do not own your environment, your ecosystem services, your food, your water, your shelter, your clothes, your speech, your name or your future. They do not own you. If they hold any of these, it is not because they have claim to them, but because they have robbed them. Your body is yours, not theirs. This planet's abundance belongs to everyone.

The employment system as we know it is structural violence at the most personally intrusive of levels: the literal robbery of lifetimes. But it is up to us to subdue the robbers, to get back our bodies and lives, and then for once, have the chance to contribute them on our own terms, on human terms, for the sake of a better Earth.

One day, work will again be something human. One day, this world will be a place of love. Our borders and immigration desks, too. Our workplaces, too. Every last one of them.

I swear it.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Rhododendrons on High: Hinokiboramaru (檜洞丸), Tanzawa Mountains

Some mountains draw attention for the marvellous views they give across their surroundings. Others, however, concentrate all that beautiful intensity into themselves, and discharge it in through your boots with every step you take. The mountain featured today falls into the latter category, and is especially popular in the last days of May, or early June, when the way to its summit erupts in white azaleas.

Make no mistake though. Hinokiboramaru (檜洞丸) is no overcrowded, tourist-encumbered Ōyama or Takao-san. Proximity to these flowers is something each of the people in these photos has earned by offering up buckets of sweat and lactic acid. This 1600m peak, whose name denotes a “circle of cypress caves”, lurks deep in the Tanzawa mountains, and an excursion up and over it is less a hike than a swashbuckling, sinew-grinding adventure.

The beauty of the Tanzawa mountains is in their diversity, and here that colourful variegation is on show in all its glory. To demonstrate your worthiness to see it, Hinokiboramaru lays down challenges no less mercurial: the paths and environment transform before your eyes, zone after zone, each time settling into a new configuration for you to negotiate. Expect plenty of this:

And this:

And certainly no shortage of this:

As well as a fair bit of this:

And if you are lucky, perhaps even this:

So while it does not demand specialist equipment or more preparation than other day hikes, Hinokiboramaru is not for the faint of heart. The way up the mountain is somewhat strenuous and often narrow of path, while the ridge that follows presents challenges of an above-average technical difficulty, featuring a rumbling series of ladders, hand-assisted or chain-assisted rock climbs and boardwalks. Injury opportunities are plentiful if you aren't careful, and if you get stuck, the only way out of this remote mountainscape involves misery, expense and a helicopter.

But don't let that put you off. These mountains reward you commensurately for every ounce of courage you put in, and so long as you approach them with respect, a cool head, and even only moderate fitness, you will be able to get from beginning to end of this route and feel better for it. The area is well looked after by the Tanzawa national park authorities, with excellent signposting and trail maintenance. Even dogs and small children do this walk, as encountered on this occasion, on a day when the average age of people on this hike seemed nonetheless well over fifty.

Do, however, plan well. Good hiking shoes are absolutely essential, as is enough food and water to last you the full way. Pay attention to the weather forecast and do not go on a day with a significant chance of rain, which would make this walk's many high and narrow trails too precarious. And avoid trying it in winter unless you have special equipment for the ice and snow, along with past experience with such conditions.

It takes about an hour and a half to get from central Tokyo to Shin-Matsuda (新松田) station on the Odakyu Line, followed by another hour on the Fujikyū Bus (1180 yen either way, regular and runs throughout the day, click here for timetable) to reach the West Tanzawa Nature Classroom (Nishi Tanzawa Shizen Kyōshitsu, 西丹沢自然教室), where the walk begins and ends. As the walk can take a good six to seven hours, an early start is strongly advised.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Strange Case of Sex Segregation in Japanese Hot Springs

The partition of humankind.

1) Hot Springs and Public Bathing in Japan
2) Traditions of Mixed Bathing
3) Segregation: the Gender Guillotine
4) Why is gender segregation in onsen a problem?
5) An Onsen Restoration?

1) Hot Springs and Public Bathing in Japan
The onsen (温泉), or hot spring, is a thriving institution of Japanese cultural life. Geothermally-heated water from Japan's volcanic depths has been harnessed for public bathing for thousands of years, and to this day these communal hot spring baths are widespread, popular, and highly diverse.

Onsen may be indoor or outdoor; may come in shiny, developed urban establishments offering a half-dozen separate baths, or in traditional little ryokan (inns) deep in the rustic wilds. Though they can be found anywhere in Japan, they especially cluster around volcanically active tourism areas like Hakone, where it is common to find each establishment advertising the unique mineral compositions of its water and associated medical benefits. Indeed, to invoke the healing powers of the onsen is to appeal to the earliest days of its heritage, when, it is said, hunters discovered these springs in their pursuit of injured animals, who would soak therein to heal their wounds.

Hakone, one of the most popular onsen hotspots in the greater Tokyo area.

Onsen are enjoyed naked. Some foreigners, especially those from countries with comparable public bathing traditions, find this familiar and comforting; others, disconcerting. As with the former, nudity in onsen traditionally lacks any sexual connotations. I have written before about sexuality in Japanese culture on this blog, observing that on the whole – though of course this is to generalize – attitudes in Japan to such things tend to be significantly less sensationalistic, horrified, taboo-ridden or moralistically indignant then in those cultures in the grip of sex-negativity.

The onsen reflects this more sober attitude, which is surely a great cultural strength. After all, unclothed, we can only observe the reality that we are all equal, stripped of our thousand masks and symbols of constructed social status. Nudity becomes not a source of shame – whose unpardonable idea was it to make it one in the first place? – but on the contrary, an empowering affirmation of natural freedom and common humanity. So befits the onsen's power: to provide refuge from the hectic lifestyles of beleaguering capitalist modernity; to bond and relate with others, not as superior and inferior but as human and human; and above all, simply to relax.

Onsen may be culturally seminal in their own right. Kokeshi like these originate from small traditional onsen deep in the Tōhoku countryside, whose artisans would hand them out to patrons. They have grown into a symbol of the region, and these onsen still produce kokeshi in their own distinctive styles.

And yet...

There is one glaring fault in this seemingly splendid narrative. One critical dimension, which, misaligned, brings misfortune upon the otherwise so worthy story of the onsen.

It is, of course, gender. But it derives, in this case, from an extraordinary historical twist.


2) Traditions of Mixed Bathing
From the natural hot springs of prehistory, where hunters or monks might have soaked with cranes or bears for company, to the sophisticated bathing establishments of nineteenth-century Edo, men and women bathed together. Indeed, there is evidence that early Christian missionaries, visiting Japan before it closed itself off to foreigners, looked upon these mixed bathing practices with horror, and struggled, unsuccessfully, to suppress this practice among their converts. The Japanese, it is considered, responded with reciprocal disdain and bemusement, coming to view these Europeans as unclean and smelly because they did not bathe.

Dōgo Onsen, in Ehime, Shikoku, one of the oldest onsen in Japan. This onsen was also the inspiration for the bathhouse in the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Besides the foreigners, it seemed few people took issue with mixed, non-gendered bathing, and those who did, like the missionaries, could neither persuade nor compel the Japanese to change it. That is not to say public bathing did not play host to other divisions and conflicts – if not of gender, then certainly of class and race. This was the case, for example, when public bathing practices spread among the common people in the Edo period, with its rigid social stratification, and the samurai, outraged at the very thought of dishonouring themselves to bathe with the likes of merchants – perhaps, to be reduced to equality through shared nudity – imposed class-segregated spaces and bathing times. And more recently, certain onsen in Hokkaido got into trouble when they were sued, successfully, for policies of refusing entry to non-Japanese, apparently out of frustration with drunken Russian sailors.

The tradition of men and women bathing together, however, generated no such controversy – until recent times. Somehow, all of a sudden, after thousands of years of mixed bathing, it is now the norm for onsen to strictly segregate male and female spaces. Almost every onsen you go to, especially in the cities, has separate baths for men and women; and while mixed onsen (kon'yoku, 混浴) still exist, they are very much on the normative margins, and you typically have to delve deep into the countryside to find them.

So. What happened?

3) Segregation: the Gender Guillotine
Finding reliable, authoritative sources on this matter is difficult – especially with my limited lingual skills still precluding access to the Japanese literature – but most commentators point towards the Meiji Restoration and the late nineteenth century, when Japan hurtled to “modernise” by absorbing European values, customs and knowledge, and incorporating them into its own national journey. After three hundred years closed to foreign influences, Japan now set about actively infusing itself with them: and this included, unfortunately, the Euro-American world's terrible heritage of simultaneous fear and obsession with sexuality.

On many fronts, Japanese culture resisted this wave of corrupted morality. We should be in no doubt as to the scale Europe's sexuality mistakes had reached at this time, best exemplified perhaps by the overwhelming puritanical pretentiousness, and gender ruthlessness, of Victorian Britain. The Japanese, with no serious history of systematic prejudice against sexual diversity, were even so influenced to criminalize homosexuality in 1872, though this law only lasted eight years before it was abolished. To this day, Japan's approach to sexuality remains, if not at all exemplary, then at least distinct.

Distinct may be very much the word.

The resilient and venerable tradition of mixed bathing, however, at last began to buckle. I do not have the material to provide a blow-by-blow account, but it seems to have been a gradual process, accompanied by the twentieth century's rapid changes in Japanese life. Some point to Japan's concern to appear morally “civilized” to the Europeans, to convince those empires of its own great power status, or later to avoid upsetting foreigners at the 1964 Olympics. Others suggest that with the rise of private bathtubs and decline in traditional community life, public bathing became increasingly redundant both for hygiene functions and for communal interaction. Whatever the case, turning a millennia-old custom on its head like this must have required extremely thorough transformations in all its aspects, from underlying values to the routines of daily life, from political will to long-term national ambitions.

The final blow, it seems, came in the 1950s during the U.S. occupation, when the Japanese parliament passed laws making it compulsory for onsen to segregate male and female bathing areas. That this was now culturally possible, under the weight of that ancient heritage of mixed bathing, is astonishing enough. But there was one further irony: apparently these laws were the work not of the American occupiers, but of women members of parliament, asserting themselves at the crest of the post-WWII wave of Japanese feminism and sexual equality reform.

Nowadays, from my conversations here with foreigners and Japanese alike, it seems gender segregation in onsen is taken for granted, and the idea that it was ever any different stirs genuine surprise. I raise this matter frequently, because it is such a good example both of today's ubiquitous gender problems and the historical fact that culture, tradition and gender norms can and do change, and change dramatically. Responses have ranged from an astonished “but mixed bathing is what monkeys do””, to a contemptuously dismissive “it's Japan, deal with it” – of which the spectacular ignorance, in the latter's case, has hopefully been demonstrated here.

Although the statement that monkeys do it, while devoid of any inherent moral implications for us, is not in itself inaccurate. But these fellows here are suspected of quite different gendered problems in their own onsen practices – specifically, exclusion based on power relationships. But until we solve our own problems, we perhaps hardly stand on the moral high ground to lecture other animals.

4) Why is gender segregation in onsen a problem?
There are three main reasons that gender segregation in onsen should be of concern.

The first, and most immediate, is that it is excludes people. Consider, for example, families, lovers or friends who wish to relax in the onsen together. Consider people of a more complicated sexual or gender status, such as transgendered or intersex people, who already have to fight for the right to be recognized for who they are in all aspects of life, against societies which would lump them into unrepresentative binary categories of “male” and “female”. And consider people – I myself am in this number – who are fundamentally made miserable by gender segregation, finding in it an purposeless rift down the centre of humanity that divides us against each other for no reason, and who metabolically cannot relax in a gender-segregated environment.

Segregation denies the pleasure of relaxing and communing in an onsen to all these groups of people, where previously it would have been equally available to them since time immemorial. And this is not trivial. Exclusion, especially of minorities, followed by arrogant denial and dropping responsibility onto the excluded, is one of the most shameful failures of virtually all human societies throughout their histories, histories we need not revisit here. To defend or ignore it is to be complicit in one of the most dangerous cruelties of our kind.

The second concern is that segregation worsens the gender problem. The gender problem, we should be clear, encompasses gender inequality and the subjection of women but runs a lot deeper still. At its core, gender itself is the problem: the destruction of our common humanity caused by an artificial social rift between women and men, followed by gender alienation – the assertion of rigid differences between those and separation of their spheres of life; gender conflict – the creation of a power struggle between them, of which the subjection of women is the main current expression; and gendered hostility to human diversity – the refusal to recognize that each of us is different, the expectation that each of us must live by these strictly-defined gender categories and norms, and the punishment and persecution of those of us who do not.

Segregation in onsen, despite the surely honourable motives of those parliamentarians who made it compulsory, worsens the problem of gender. It assumes the need for separate male and female spaces, then embodies that assumption and has it taken for granted. It places a literal barrier between frank, sober, relaxed communication between men and women as equal human beings, in the one institution – certainly in Japan – where this was most possible. In so doing, it further separates the “male” world and the “female” world, and thus delays a future in which this may once again be a world for us all.

The third problem is that it worsens our broken sexual paradigm. The paradigm, that is, in which we refuse to possess an informed and sober understanding of our kind's sexuality, regard it sensationally with fear and excitement, and load it with a negative moral charge as though it is somehow dirty or shameful.

In the onsen's case, this mainly involves the automatic association between nudity and sex, something not present in the onsen's history until the coming of foreign influences. Why do so many people now support segregation? The reasons I have heard usually involve discomfort about being naked in front of people of the other sex, something which – though there may be sound reasons in this day and age – is surely learned, not inherent, and certainly not inevitable.

Frankly, we have to get past this. Mastery of our natural sexuality necessitates that we surpass all senses of bodily negativity that centuries of false moralities and gendered pressures have conditioned in us. The onsen, until so recently, was a most radiant demonstration that this is possible: that human beings could socially interact without the slightest aversion to their own or one another's naked bodies. Now it has been twisted into an opposite embodiment: a place of tension where alarm bells explode at the sheer emergence of a male body and a female body into line of sight of each other, for fear first that such is automatically a sexual event, and second that this makes it bad. For the deliverance of humankind, both assumptions warrant torpedoes.

5) An Onsen Restoration?
None of this is to say, of course, that solving these problems is a simple matter of de-segregating onsen. The depressing fact is that attitudes have changed, and it will take a lot of effort to change them again. It seems evident that the majority today – The damned majority! Always the problem! – are comfortable with segregated onsen and would resist the restoration of mixed bathing. Though inevitably I have questioned their assumptions, people are of course entitled to their opinions, and I would not want these people excluded from a comfortable onsen experience any more than those who are presently. It seems that any solution would thus have to retain some segregated onsen spaces for those who, at least for now, would not be at ease in a mixed-sex setting.

Then there are issues like wani. Literally “crocodile” or “alligator” in Japanese, this refers to certain men who have got into the habit of haunting mixed onsen to harass women, by staring at them for hours on end or approaching them menacingly. This, however, seems to me not so much an argument against mixed onsen as an argument against harassment – and of the responsibility of all of us, onsen proprietors in particular, to uncompromisingly maintain no-harassment environments.

It would be an interesting experience to get into an onsen and then see one of these is in it.

So in today's context, perhaps the only solution would be for onsen to offer both mixed-sex areas and segregated areas, so that all comers could choose the baths most suited to them. But of course, this would demand both money and land, as most onsen would have to expand their premises and build more baths to accommodate it. We must ask, though, whether that cost – any cost – could compare with the cost of exclusion. For after all, what price can be put on that most valuable of institutions: a space where all people, regardless of sex or gender or anything else, can associate together, in their most primary natural forms, as free and equal human beings?

It will probably take decades, at best, to re-align the resources, the social attitudes, and the political and corporate will towards restoring the onsen. But the day must come, the day can come, when huge changes come again to the story of Japanese hot springs. After all, it has happened before.

That will be a good day, though it might come too late for me. I know that I may have to bear this frustration for the rest of my days. At the end of a gruelling hike in the mountains, when no release would be better than a purifying soak in Japan's volcanic waters, I know that instead, I must sadly walk on past that welcoming blue curtain with the “ゆ” on it, because the gendered circumstances therein would only aggravate, rather than relax me. When my female friends here excitedly suggest a visit to the onsen, I know that I must decline, and bear their puzzled looks as they head out of the door, because I would not be able to join them in communion and would instead be segregated away to sit, on my own, on the other side of an insubstantial but unbreakable bamboo fence.

Once or twice, I have been instigated to try that. It is a horrible feeling. Alienation. I raise my eyes to that partition, and within my heart swells a molten inferno, a terrible rage at humanity's mad, pointless, meaningless severance between male and female, its division of humans against humans. And I glare, as though the sheer flames of my anger might burn that barrier to ash.