I was rail-thin, shaky, and the first think I did was ask my old pal Bigfoot if he could lend me twenty-five bucks until payday. Without hesitation, he reached into his pocket and let me two hundred … Looking at me, and hearing the edited-for-television version of what I’d be up to in recent years, he must have had every reason to believe I’d disappear with the two bills, spend it on crack and never show up for my first shift. And if he’d given me the twenty-five instead of two hundred, that might well have happened …
I was so shaken by his baseless trust in me — that such a cynical bastard as Bigfoot would make such a gesture — that I determined I’d sooner gnaw my own fingers off, gouge my eyes out with a shellfish fork and run naked down Seventh Avenue than ever betray that trust.
Although you never hear much about it, Murakami Haruki clearly comes from money. Grandson of a Buddhist priest on one side and an Osaka merchant on the other, he was raised in the upscale Ashiyashi region of Kobe, took seven years to finish private university Waseda, and while still a student, married and started his own jazz bar in Kokubunji. Sometime in the 70s, Murakami decided he wanted to be a writer, and eventually debuted with the short novel Hear the Wind Sing from Kodansha - Japan’s most prestigious publishing house. His 1987 Norwegian Wood made him into a superstar - accompanied by (possibly) apocryphal stories of college girls coordinating their daily outfits to match the red and green covers of the novel’s first and second volumes.
Although now accepted as “literature,” it’s important realize that Murakami was first and foremost a pop writer. Old-style intellectuals like Oe Kenzaburo never cared for him. Even Jay Rubin - English translator of Murakami’s most important works - took a long time to consider him a serious writer: “In 1989, I read Haruki Murakami. I had only been vaguely aware of his existence—as some kind of pop writer, mounds of whose stuff were to be seen filling up the front counters in the bookstores, but I hadn’t deigned to read what was sure to be silly fluff about teenagers getting drunk and hopping into bed.” After a while, scholars on both sides of the Pacific finally broke through the Beatles references and unaffected language to find a deep philosophical core to Murakami’s work, but for all intents and purposes, the writer started off as a greater influence to Japanese pop culture than to the “high-art” world of Japanese literature.
We should find no coincidence, however, in Murakami’s high-standing social background and his success in “low” pop culture. He fits a very specific archetype in the history of Japanese popular culture: the young wealthy son freely and effortlessly producing debut works that become a leading trend within the youth culture.
Another example of this archetype would be Tanaka Yasuo - writer and reformist ex-governor of Nagano Prefecture. While a student at prestigious Hitotsubashi University, he casually wrote out his first novel Nantonaku, Kurisutaru, which not only enjoyed explosive sales in its 1980 first pressing, but was rewarded with the prestigious “Bungei Award.” Tanaka’s first novel, however, does not approach anywhere near literature. The book - about a wealthy female college student and part-time model - sold as a trendy pop piece, but moreover, as a consumer guide. Each time a store, brand, product, food, club, piece of clothing, university, or other proper noun is used in the narrative, Tanaka (as the narrator, not as the protagonist) supplies a footnote on the left-hand page to introduce/explain the item to the uninitiated. Here was a well-to-do, stylish young man giving away all the secrets to the Tokyo culture game in footnote form, and readers snapped it up as a practical trend guide.
Then in the early 90s, Oyamada Keigo and Ozawa Kenji from Flipper’s Guitar pulled the same game: wealthy young men from private high schools instantly winning record contracts and fame right out of high school. Just as Nantonaku, Kurisutaru had a decade before, the two KOs from FG supplied young fans with references to the latest trend - this time in musical form, rather than in fiction.
In all three of these cases, privilege does more than provide idle time and an escape from the compromising chains of fiduciary worries. Wealth and education in post-war Japan meant access to information - especially news beaming out from the West. Both Murakami and Ozawa Kenji mastered English at a young age, which no doubt allowed them to master their command of Western music. Moreover, these four all came from “old money” and not flashy wealth, and in a Bourdieuian sense of cultural capital, they used cultural reference as a way to distinguish themselves from the maddening crowds. Whether wealth allowed greater access to information or not, wealth situated these young men in a certain social ranking that motivated them to protect their position through artistic achievement in fashionably new modes of craft. In the cases of Murakami and Flipper’s Guitar, they wrote in intentionally Western styles to differentiate themselves from the baser “Japanese” standards, and the world interpreted this as being more trendy than their common competitors.
In turn, the work of these men was consumed first as fashion and second as art. Their existence lead to “booms” (a consumer phenomenon) rather than “movements” (an artistic one). This basically freaked them out - at least in the long-term. Murakami did not like being a “trendy writer” so much and fled to Europe, then American universities. Ozawa disappeared to NY after cashing-out as a Jpop idol. Cornelius went meta, then “guitar artiste.” Tanaka went into anti-establishment politics.
What is frustrating to many Japanese about their stories is the total ease and grace in which they made a huge splash upon the common culture. No struggling, half-compromises of hack jobs, years of toil at candle-lit typewriters.
Sure, there are artists who fit this archetype in other countries and cultures, but US/UK pop culture has a strong obsession with the underdog/underclass achiever - the Working Class Hero. Elvis, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson. What may be the difference between Japan and the U.S. is the sources of cultural creation: in the US, “low ranking” African-Americans were responsible for the jazz, rock, and hip-hop that formed the foundations of the pop culture cycle in the 20th century. This was clearly a bottom-up process - even if the media at the top eventually disseminated/cleaned-up the message. Authenticity originated in the street or in the swamp or on the Delta. In post-war Japan, style and fashion originated so strongly from overseas (mainly American) sources that authenticity - in the case of orthopraxic Japan, something more like high-speed adoption or knowledge of new information rather than an abstract faith-based “being real” - lay squarely with those at the top, since they had either the best education with which to find/translate the American pop culture message or access to the message/materials from trips abroad/connections.
As a defeated culture with an automatic sense of inferiority to the American cultural overlords, pop culture in Japan could not be “bottom-up,” and therefore, the wealthy in Japan became the most obvious messengers/idols in shadowy way. Once Japan regained its cultural confidence, “bottom-up” became more widespread. The Murakami-Tanaka-Oyamada-Ozawa Rich Kid model may no longer be as important today, when someone like DJ Ozma or Koda Kumi appears more authentically bound to their respective subcultures. To tie this into bigger streams we often deal with here, the capitalization of the whole gyaru/yankii working-class stream - which in the past was seen as deviation from the mediated “cool” consumer stream - totally outmoded our former archetypes. Cool is no longer monolithic nor solely imported - which no longer gives the wealthy an automatic advantage. Sticking to a deep sense of orthopraxy, culture in Japan generally remains an empty vessel to plaster “fashion” upon - rather than individual works of artistic meaning - but it is used now for a class-based subcultural affiliation rather than for placement in a top-down trend hierarchy. The bottom is proud to be at the bottom - or at least, having fun with the para para.
From an American perspective, the end of elitism should sound like a great development, but practically speaking, most of the bottom-up junk is junk. We may dislike elitism in principle, but the elitist stream in Japan is responsible for most of the country’s greatest cultural hits (I want to say this is a Western-bias, but Murakami is huge in Japan). Old money was silent in the past, but now it’s dead. The growing nouveau riche is more interested in amassing stuff than showing off the giant logos than flashing the subtle use of expensive silk in their sleeves. (As I write this, the exclusive import sports car shop across the street is loading in a red Ferrari that plays the theme to the Godfather as its horn. No joke.)
My lament about the breakdown of Japanese culture may be a specific eulogy to the elitist causes for cultural creation, but face the facts: the names that light up the concise histories of Japanese pop culture not only enjoyed the beautiful bliss of old money, but prospered specifically because of it. Sure, Nosaka Akiyuki may have had a crazy life of pain and suffering (see Grave of the Fireflies), but he was still the son of the sub-governor of Niigata.
“despite being self-absorbed, arrogant, entitled and exploitative, narcissists are also fascinating… we are strangely drawn to their self-centered personalities, their dominance and their hostility, their sensitivity and their despair, at least for a while.”—Why We Love Narcissists (at first)
When I visit a place, fantasies of living there start to tug at the edges of my imagination. How would I survive economically here? Which area would I pick to live in? How would I decorate my new apartment? How much rent would I have to pay? Would I ride a bike? How would I dress? Which cafes and clubs would I begin to haunt? Who would become my new friends?
Since this is a game of fantasy, it would be easy to imagineer oneself into some chintzy turreted mansion in a rich, flashy neighbourhood. Dreaming costs nothing, so why dream small, right? But fantasy doesn’t work like that, for me, anyway. The most evocative fantasy is one with only the thinnest membrane between itself and reality; it gets its power from being eminently possible. From being a plan. So actually, my imagination thrives on rather austere, impoverished scenarios. I like to project myself into rather stark, cheap, working class districts, and imagine some kind of free vie de boheme unfolding in them.
So here’s a fantasy, and here’s a plan. Let’s say I come to live in Osaka, sometime later this year. Yes, why not? It’s a new decade, and I always like to get up and go somewhere new when the calendar changes. Ten years ago I moved, fairly haphazardly, to New York. Yesterday I got a flashback to how the Lower East Side called out to me in 1999. That year I trekked down Orchard Street, photographing abandoned TV sets and piles of Chinese boxes on the sidewalks. A few months later I was living there.
Walking through the wholesale light industrial area between Shinsekai and Nipponbashi yesterday, I actually felt something like what I felt on Orchard Street ten years ago, before the art galleries moved in. I have nothing against art galleries moving in, but I like to catch a cheap, mixed-use, working class neighbourhood on the turn; that moment when there’s just one art gallery is a special one. As it happens there is one peculiar little art gallery in my target area, one with the right kind of shabby underground energy. It seems to be called 御蔵跡. It’s located in an old building here in Haki Haki town, an area famous for wholesale and specialty footwear stores (plastic toilet shoes, slippers, trad Japanese sandals).
I’ve never seriously thought about living in Osaka before. I love Tokyo best of all. But increasingly, my outlook has Berlinified, by which I mean I regard expensive cities like New York, London and Tokyo as unsuited to subculture. They’re essentially uncreative because creative people living there have to put too much of their time and effort into the meaningless hackwork which allows them to meet the city’s high rents and prices. So disciplines like graphic design and television thrive, but more interesting types of art are throttled in the cradle. The most Berlin-ish neighbourhood in Tokyo is secondhand-town Koenji, and that’s the place I’ve felt increasingly drawn to on recent visits. But Osaka actually offers something much more like the Berlin environment, which may be one reason my musical heroes — people like Doddodo and Oorutaichi — live here.
Getting a glimpse of Doddodo’s Nipponbashi flat was also a bit of an inspiration. We met her in the Misono Building, itself a splendidly peeling underground and nocturnal place, the kind of building only possible in a city that allows itself some creative decay. Misono, once a chic shopping arcade near Namba station, is now full of weird countercultural bars. After drinking there, Doddodo took us to her place nearby to fetch a DVD she wanted to give me. She lives right by one of the area’s quirky, bustling, gritty shopping arcades; food shopping must take her five minutes. The flat was in some disorder, so we waited outside, but I glimpsed drawings and paintings-in-progress through the door.
In Tokyo terms, Nipponbashi would be Akihabara; bounding it on one side is a long street (dominated by a huge Gundam cut-out) full of electronics and porn DVD stores (as well as an amazing retro record shop). Serving the otaku clientele, the backstreets feature a number of Maid Cafes. And that’s a reminder of one way Osaka is totally unlike Berlin. Despite its shabby bits, Osaka is a vastly wealthy city (if it were a country, it would be one of the world’s richest) with a vulgar commercial energy Berlin can’t begin to match. Osaka is massive, industrious and dense, and there are businesses here that cater to every imagineable human whim, and that don’t close on Sundays. And if you want to escape the density and intensity, well, the mountains of Shikoku aren’t far.
So how much would it cost to have your own apartment in Osaka? The answer is, surprisingly little. This rental advert, for instance, shows an apartment you could have for just 30,000 yen a month. Now, sure, it’s only 7 metres square, and sure, it doesn’t have a bathroom or a kitchen. But come on, be creative! You could pee into a pet bottle and eat takeaway okonomiyaki. After all, your monthly rent is just 226 euros! And you’re living in Osaka, a place known for its cheap and excellent food. As for washing, grab soap and a towel and go to the sento! Most importantly, employ the time freed up by not having to be employed to make some good art!
“George thinks he has been offered a job, but the man offering it to him got interrupted in the middle of the offer, and will be on vacation for the next week. George, unsure whether an offer has actually been extended, decides that his best strategy is to show up. If the job was indeed his, this is the right move. But even if the job is not, he believes that the benefits outweigh the costs.”—Dozens of scenes from Seinfeld used to explain economic concepts.
It used to be about avoiding physical labor. The lazy person could nap or have a cup of tea while others got hot and sweaty and exhausted. Part of the reason society frowns on the lazy is that this behavior means more work for the rest of us.
When it came time to carry the canoe over the portage, I was always hard to find. The effort and the pain gave me two good reasons to be lazy.
But the new laziness has nothing to do with physical labor and everything to do with fear. If you’re not going to make those sales calls or invent that innovation or push that insight, you’re not avoiding it because you need physical rest. You’re hiding out because you’re afraid of expending emotional labor.
This is great news, because it’s much easier to become brave about extending yourself than it is to become strong enough to haul an eighty pound canoe.
It occurred to me recently, under conditions that I leave to your ample and likely sordid imagination (how dare you), that the very concept of “premature ejaculation” in human males is a strange one, at least from an evolutionary theoretical perspective. After all, the function of ejaculation isn’t really a mysterious biological occurrence…it’s an evolved mechanism designed by nature to launch semen, and therefore sperm cells, as far into the dark, labyrinthine abyss of the female reproductive tract as possible. And once one of these skyrocketed male gametes, in a vigorous race against millions of other single-tasked cells, finds and penetrates a fertile ovum, and—miracle of miracles—successful conception occurs, well then natural selection can congratulate itself on a job well done.
So given these basic biological facts, and assuming that ejaculation is not so premature that it occurs prior to intromission and sperm cells find themselves awkwardly outside of a woman’s reproductive tract flopping about like fish out of water, what, exactly, is so “premature” about premature ejaculation? In fact, all else being equal, in the ancestral past, wouldn’t there likely have been some reproductive advantages to ejaculating as quickly as possible during intravaginal intercourse—such as, oh, I don’t know, inseminating as many females as possible in as short a time frame as possible? or allowing our ancestors to focus on other adaptive behaviors aside from sex? or perhaps, under surreptitious mating conditions, doing the deed quickly and expeditiously without causing a big scene?
Like so many things before, it turns out that this insight of mine was actually several decades behind the curve, because in 1984, when, at nine years of age I was still anything but a premature ejaculator, a sociologist from California State University named Lawrence Hong published in the Journal of Sex Research a highly speculative, but very original, paper along these same lines, fittingly titled “Survival of the Fastest: On the Origin of Premature Ejaculation.” In this article, Hong—whose most recent work, so far as I can tell, has been on the global phenomenon of cabaret transgenderism—posited that, during the long course of human evolutionary history, “an expeditious partner who mounted quickly, ejaculated immediately, and dismounted forthwith might [have been] the best for the female.”
The empirical centerpiece of Hong’s arriving at this conclusion is the fact that, on average, human males achieve orgasm by ejaculating around just two minutes after vaginal penetration, whereas it takes the owners of these vaginas, on average, at least twice that long to do the same once a penis is inside of them — if they achieve orgasm at all, that is. This obvious gender mismatch between orgasm latencies can be understood, Hong reasons, only once we acknowledge the fact that sex evolved for reproductive rather than recreational purposes; don’t forget, he reminds us, that sex for sex’s sake is a relatively recent technological innovation enabled by prophylactics and other modern contraceptive inventions.
The author compares the mating habits of human beings to other rapid—and not-so-rapid—ejaculators in the primate family, noting that the faster a primate species is in the coital realm, the less aggressive it is when it comes to mating-related behaviors. He calls this the “slow speed - high aggressiveness hypothesis.” For example, male rhesus macaque monkeys often engage in marathon mounting sessions, where sex with a female can be drawn out for over an hour at a time (including many breaks and therefore non-continuous thrusting). That may sound great, but libidinous anthropomorphizers beware: macaque sex is a chaotic and violent affair, largely because the duration of the act often draws hostile attention from other competitive males. By contrast, primate species whose males evolved to ejaculate rapidly would have largely avoided such internecine violence, or at least minimized it to a considerable degree.
Key to Hong’s analysis therefore is the idea that intravaginal ejaculation latencies in males is heritable—there was initially greater within-population level variation in the male ancestral population, he surmises, but over time, “the ancestry of Homo sapiens became overpopulated with rapid ejaculators.” This is because, according to Hong, young reproductive-aged males who ejaculated faster (i.e., had more sensitive penises) avoided injury, lived longer and therefore had a greater chance of attaining high status and acquiring the most desirable females.
Hong’s reasoning on these heritability grounds has in fact received very recent support. You may have missed this in your monthly periodical readings, but in a 2009 article from the International Journal of Impotence Research, a team of Finnish psychologists led by Patrick Jern of Åbo Akademi University reports evidence from a large-scale twin study showing that premature ejaculation is determined significantly by genetic factors. So just as Hong surmised in 1984, this is indeed a heritable trait—if you doubt it, go on, have that awkward conversation with your fathers, boys. In fact, since Jern and his colleagues found that delayed ejaculation—the other extreme end of the ejaculation latency continuum—revealed no such genetic contributions, these authors generally agree with Hong, postulating that “premature” ejaculation may be a product of natural selection whereas delayed ejaculation “would be completely maladaptive.” Delayed ejaculators are considerably rarer, with a prevalence rate as low as 0.15% in the male population compared to as high as 30% with premature ejaculators, and their condition is usually owed to lifelong medical conditions or the recent use of antiadrenergics, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), neuroepileptics, or other modern-day drugs that, I say blushingly from personal experience, are often associated with anorgasmia as a miserably unfortunate side-effect.
Adding additional credence to the evolutionary model is a separate set of self-report data published by Jern and his colleagues last year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, in which ejaculation latencies were shown to be significantly shorter when men achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration than when doing so in the course of other activities, such as anal, oral, or manual sex. In fact, in light of these differential ejaculation latencies, the authors argue that the very construct of such male orgasmic “timing” is best carved up by discrete sexual behaviors rather than treated as a more general clinical phenomenon. And they offer several helpful acronyms for these ejaculation latency subtypes, too, such as “OELT” for “oral ejaculation latency time” and, conveniently, “MELT” for “masturbation ejaculation latency time.”
I have the niggling, faraway sense that we’ve left something out of the evolutionary equation regarding the variation in male ejaculation latencies. What, oh what, can that possibly, conceivably be? Ah, right—women’s sexual satisfaction. Oh come now. Actually, Hong didn’t leave female orgasms out of his rather viscous analysis altogether; he just didn’t see it as being central to selective pressures. Presumably, like other theorists of that time writing about the biological reasons for female orgasms (such as Stephen Jay Gould, who thought that female orgasms were much like male nipples, a happy leftover of the human embryological bauplan) he saw women’s sexual pleasure as being a nice, but neither here nor there, feature of human sex that nature had thrown into the mix. And, anyway, writes Hong, for women, as a general rule, “genital sex is better with digital sex”:
The tender touch, the passionate caress, the gentle rub, the titillating probe, and all those other infinite maneuvers that humans, as the most sophisticated bipedal primate, are best equipped to do, can be much more satisfying to women than simply a longer time span between intromission and ejaculation.
Hong acknowledges—with great humility and humor, in fact—that his ideas on the evolutionary origins of premature ejaculation in human males are highly speculative. And his ideas were critiqued soundly by University of Louisville psychologist Ray Bixler in his very good 1986 review of Hong’s theory in The Journal of Sex Research. Among many faults that Bixler finds in Hong’s “survival of the fastest” theory, the basic logic just doesn’t mesh with the obvious female pursuit of sexual intercourse. In chimpanzees, for instance—a species for which male ejaculation latencies are measured in seconds, not minutes—it is often females that initiate mating behaviors. And then there’s the “ouch” factor of having a sexually recalcitrant female partner whose dry genitals aren’t terribly inviting. If Hong’s model were correct, says Bixler:
There would be little or no proximal cause, other than coercion, for female cooperation—and it should be very clear that she would have to cooperate if voluntary mating were to be speedy! If she were not lubricated he would have “to rasp it in,” a painful experience for the woman, and … “no pleasure” for him either.
Disappointingly, this is more or less where the evolutionary thinking stops. Apparently no other theorist—at least, no experimentally inclined evolutionary theorist—has picked up Hong’s lead in trying to tease apart competing adaptationist arguments regarding male ejaculation latencies. Pieces of the puzzle are floating about out there, I suspect, such as the Finnish research showing that vaginal sex leads to faster ejaculations compared to other sexual behaviors; but Hong’s article was before its time—premature itself, in light of today’s more informed evolutionary biology, which is now poised to construct a more nuanced empirical model about this evolutionary legacy that is behind so many of us being fast finishers.
Another big piece of the puzzle can probably be traced to our species’ specially evolved social cognitive abilities, which enabled us—possibly only tens of thousands of years ago, just a splinter of a splinter’s time in the long course of our primate history—to experience empathy with our sexual partners during intercourse. A male concerned about bringing his female reproductive partner pleasure during sex, and thus deliberately prolonging the act of coitus to delay his own orgasm for her sake, couldn’t possibly have been selected for in an ancestral species that more than likely saw others’ bodies as pieces of mindless meat.
The subject may not appeal to everyone, of course, but given the unpleasant stigma attached to premature ejaculation, I really do believe that an evolutionary approach to the “problem” can greatly inform clinical treatments, a (not surprisingly) high-grossing therapeutic area of which there is no shortage of work being done. But in any event, Hong’s seminal Reagan-era ideas should give us all pause in labeling any particular intravaginal ejaculation “premature”—Mother Nature, arguably the only lover that really matters, after all, may very well have had a thing for our one-minute ancestors.
“Several hard-core Star Wars fans who had tickets for the first showing actually said that when the movie finally began, they started crying. Mainly because they realized that it’s 22 years later, and they still haven’t lost their virginity.”—Conan O’Brien