Listen to the Voice of Buddha
Andrew Stevens interviews Neo-Geisha author Hillary Raphael for 3:AM.
3:AM: We’re in Italy, what brings you here?
HR: I once had a rare and deadly strain of cerebral malaria, contracted in the Bazaruto archipelago off the central coast of Mozambique, and was treated in Rome’s Policlinico hospital, which I believe may be Europe’s largest tropical disease ward. Bedridden, at death’s door, for five months, I had a hot affair with my parisitologist, which began with a moment of eerily intimate eye contact during a suppository. Since then, I’ve had a profound emotional connection with Italy.
3:AM: OK, but what about before then?
HR: Usually, I’m accused of being a pathological liar when I describe my background, but the truth is that I have been, professionally: a model, dancer, hostess, journalist, grant waiter, bartender, diplomat, waitress, dance critic, CEO’s personnel assistant, backpacker, fashion trend scouter, kept woman, and editor, over the years. I’m originally from New York, but have been resident in Tokyo, Phnom Penh, Rome and Mexico City for long stretches and have travelled throughout the world, from the Sahara to the Himalaya, the Negev to the Alps — you get the picture.
3:AM: I do. Tokyo’s interesting… do you think the more malevolent elements of the Japanese psyche are permeating their way into fiction through the likes of Mari Akasaka and Hitomi Kanehara, or was it always there?
HR: I, ashamedly, have never heard of the writers you named, but I am a huge fan of Ami Sakurai, whose novel Innocent World delves into the darkest elements of the Japanese psyche. However, I would say that far from being ‘new’, this attitude is classically Japanese. Starting with Shining Prince Genji — who fucked his step-mother and boy pages, among others — and going all down the line through Mishima’s perverse anti-heroes, the J-novel has always been, and will always be, god willing, based on the depravity of the human spirit.
3:AM: Your book I [Love] Lord Buddha deals with aspects of the hostess culture and Ryu Murakami’s latest English translation also centres around the lingerie bars in Tokyo. Yours is based on experience but why do you think this is becoming popular for a setting? They’re both accepted parts of modern Japanese culture but do you think the Japanese male’s motivation for attending those bars is the same as when Gaijin do?
HR: Lingerie and hostess bars have always been an accepted part of Japanese culture, however I think their current incarnation is more standardised and business-like than it has been in the past — you could say the industry has standardised — and therefore reveals itself in a fresh way even to the Japanese.
As for Nihonjin vs. Gaijin clients: the difference boils down to expectation paradigms. Japanese go to hostess bars because they want the service provided there. Foreigners go because they are fence-sitting vis-à-vis the idea of seeing a whore, and would like some risk-averse, easy-ingress prostitution. They are confused. A high-end hostess does not waste her time with foreigners unless they are obviously special.
3:AM: OK, but are you a Buddhist? Do you think the lack of organised religion in Japan makes for a better society than somewhere like the US where it’s more vociferous?
HR: Tough question. I meditate; I accept the notions of Karma and reincarnation; and I reject any and all delusions of self. However, I resist facile labels like ‘Buddhist’. Anyhow, Japan does have an organised religion: consumerism.
3:AM: Good point. The book retains an intense sexuality at its core, how would you comment on the current role of gender and sexuality in Japan? I’m thinking here of the recent problems in Tokyo, groping and mobile phone camera stuff on trains. Where do you think this originates, given other capitals don’t seem to suffer from it to the same extent?
HR: Yeah, I agree that Tokyo is decidedly more ‘hentai’ than say, Mexico City or Rome. I attribute this to the omnipresence of school uniforms, the humiliation of social etiquette, and the population density, which brings everyone into close contact with exactly those whom they cannot possess. Combine these with extreme age-stratification and consumerism, and you are left with a Molotov cocktail of thwarted desire.
3:AM: It’s an interesting point about ‘hentai’ as inappropriate sexual contact, particularly groping, seems integral to that genre, don’t you think? I think the mother-son incest storylines in some of those comics has lent itself to a ‘Popbitch perception’ here in the UK that such activities are the norm there, such as the urban myth about mothers wanking their sons off to relieve the stress during exam season!
HR: Is mother-son playtime really an urban myth? A female friend of mine, a very credible American girl, told me that she had broken off an engagement with a Japanese man because he told her outright that he had been sleeping with his mother since he was a teen and did not expect to stop after the wedding.
3:AM: Blimey! On that point though, why do you think inappropriate sexual contact is so prevalent in hentai comics and even some commercial manga film?
HR: I think that ‘inappropriateness’ is at the heart of all Japanese humour-eroticism-amusement, primarily because mainstream Japanese culture-values are completely dependent on ‘appropriateness’ like etiquette, seasonality and correctness. If a foreigner who understands Japanese watches a Japanese comic, he will often find the whole routine terribly unfunny because so much of the ‘fun’ is simply subverting mores that do not even exist for the rest of the world.
3:AM: In an interview with us a few years ago, Bruce Benderson said that “Ruth Benedict was the first to say that the Japanese are inhibited by shame and not by guilt, something that’s hard for a guilt-controlled Westerner to understand… All sexual restraints in Japan are external, you see, they have to do with being seen. So when you’re alone, it’s fireworks.”
HR: I basically agree with that, though the whole “guilt vs. shame society” thesis has become a bit of a cliché about Japan, and we all know that clichés are damaging to reality. I wouldn’t exactly say ‘fireworks’ regarding the Japanese in the bedroom, either. I would more describe a top-level Japanese lover’s ethos as “painstaking, committed, circuitous, and omni-tactile”.
3:AM: Why did you write the book? Do you see yourself as a writer now?
HR: I wrote I [love] Lord Buddha because a psychic oracle sought me out in a Tokyo hostess bar and told me that it was my duty to do so. My main influences — at least the ones I’m aware of — are The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Diamond Sutra, The Codex of the Maya and the movies they show on the TV in love hotels. I have been writing since I first became literate — maybe aged seven — and had my first paid publication — a poem about purple — when I was eight. Before having I [love] Lord Buddha published, I did a book on Japanese Butoh dance, called Outcast Samurai Dancer, which is now taught by university dance departments.
3:AM: How does I [love] Lord Buddha fulfil your claim that it’s a “post-pornographic” novel, by the way?
HR: It’s post-pornographic in multiple senses: the sex is not promised, but has already happened. The players are not living, but dead. The sex is for sale, but not to you. The victims benefit, and the advantageous suffer. Karma works itself out no matter what you do — no matter how inventive.
HR: I have never read Nerve, and in general only read news, news analysis and high literature. I had frankly never heard of Suicide Girls prior to their request for an interview, but I quickly was availing myself of the free membership a little too zealously, if you know what I mean. I particularly enjoy the photosets of girls with tattooed private parts. It strikes me as a clever commentary on the male obsession with catching a stolen glimpse of pristine private parts.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 8th, 2005.