Japanese Women Today

Role Playing: Persona Building and Female Stars of Japanese Pornography

Society Culture

Sociologist Suzuki Suzumi explores the complex relationship of mutual exploitation between Japan’s “AV actresses” and their male audience.

As a longtime habitué of Tokyo’s Shibuya district—first as a high school girl, then as a coed, and finally as an office worker—I have long viewed the world of commercial sex as something operating in close proximity to the world in which I lived and worked. Everything seemed conveniently arranged for young women to become accomplices in the commercialization of sex without severing connections with school or family or deviating from the conventional path leading to college and a respectable corporate job.

The commercial value of high school girls was especially high, and I knew of schoolmates who capitalized on the fact. Some merely socialized with male office workers after hours—eating, drinking, and singing karaoke at their companions’ expense. A few went so far as to earn extra spending money by removing their panties for strangers on the other side of a two-way mirror and then selling off the undergarment. These were girls who were aware of their own commercial value and sought to take advantage of it without being stigmatized as social deviants, and they drew the line accordingly.

By contrast, porn actresses—while also functioning in a world contiguous to mine—seemed to have crossed the line irrevocably.  As a graduate student, I was intrigued by their seemingly blatant and unambiguous participation in the commercialization of sex. This is why I chose to do my fieldwork on the subject of adult-video actresses—as porn stars are known in Japan—and to publish my research in book form as AV joyū no shakaigaku (A Sociological Study of Porn Stars).

AV actresses are surprisingly articulate when asked to talk about themselves. In the videos by which they make a living, as well as in magazines and other media, they calmly field personal questions of all kinds and narrate their personal stories smoothly and eloquently.

To a large extent, this is a skill they acquire naturally. While the basic job of an AV actress is to perform sexual acts in front of a camera in order to provide her viewers with sexual stimulation, her work also involves promotional activities, such as magazine interviews and event appearances. In addition, an AV actress must pitch herself to production companies, engage with directors and others at casting interviews, and participate in various planning and production meetings. In AV joyū no shakaigaku, I describe how this aspect of the business, along with the trials and tribulations of becoming a “veteran” of the industry, help to make AV actresses strong. In these meetings and interviews, an actress is repeatedly called on to describe her personality and background, discuss her likes and dislikes, and explain her reasons for becoming a porn actress. In the process, she develops a distinctive narrative and a persona to go with it, and is able to portray herself as someone with pride, who entered her profession of her own free will.  She may not have started out with that attitude, but neither did she fabricate it in a cynical, calculated manner. Most often, it evolved naturally as a consequence of the way the industry operates.

Pornography and the “Cult of the Virgin”

In many ways, of course, the business has evolved in response to market demand and the social attitudes underlying those preferences.

For example, with a few notable exceptions, the market value of an AV actress peaks with her first video and gradually declines thereafter. Of course, her technique (camera awareness,  dramatic flare and range, directability, fluency in unscripted dirty talk, and so forth) is likely to improve with each successive video. Yet such skills almost never translate into higher pay. In most cases, in fact, payment declines with each successive production, even while the demands on the performer intensify. The reason for this is simple: The Japanese men who make up the bulk of the AV market are devotees of the “cult of the virgin”—worshippers of youth, freshness, and inexperience. Most of them place little or no value on an AV actress’s experience and skill. To the contrary, their ideal actress is the AV novice who conveys the tension of a young woman performing in her very first porn video.

From a conventional standpoint, then, newcomers lacking in skill and experience appear to occupy the top rank in the AV hierarchy. They dominate the tantai (“stand-alone”) category of AV, a genre built around the fresh attraction of an individual star. Tantai actresses receive relatively high paychecks under exclusive contracts with specific production companies. Those who have overstayed their welcome as tantai actresses tend to find themselves demoted to the status of kikaku actress, working for lower fees on a video-by-video basis, often in more specialized subgenres.

This is why, as an AV actress’s career progresses and her obvious market value diminishes, she learns to assert her value in ways that depart from the standards of the typical AV viewer. While the viewing public is fawning over the latest new AV sensation, the veteran will make herself a personal favorite with directors and staff or actively volunteer for parts that would be unsuitable for newcomers. In the smooth glibness of these actresses’ interviews, as well as in their content, I see a subtle resistance to the stereotyped expectations of the Japanese male viewer and the values that the actresses themselves once accepted without question.

A Reassuring Back Story

Wherever they go, AV stars encounter the same questions: What made you decide to appear in a porn video? Why did you become an AV actress? In magazines, videos, and new media, the actresses answer these questions smoothly and convincingly. Their glibness has the effect of convincing people that they had special and compelling reasons for becoming porn stars—whether as a means of overcoming extreme hardship or as a steppingstone to higher ambitions—reasons that put them in a completely different category from “ordinary women” (i.e., women who do not become AV actresses).

The basic thesis of my book was that the “eloquence” of AV actresses was a natural result of their experience in the AV business. And there is no doubt that the verbal poise and fluency that the business forces AV actresses to cultivate helps them sustain the image of women who, for very specific and compelling reasons, made a conscious decision to appear in porn videos.

At the same time, the personas and attitudes these actresses cultivate almost naturally, through their interactions with directors, producers, and staff, also reassure their male viewers, who want to think of AV actresses as a breed apart from the women they know and encounter in their daily lives. The same men who take pleasure in watching and reading about sexual icons would be horrified to learn that any of their female acquaintance had appeared in an adult video. The reasons actresses give for their decision to do so reassures men that they are in a special, discrete category of their own, distinct from that of ordinary women.

Exploiting the Stereotype

Although I have stressed the role industry plays in naturally cultivating this sort of narrative and persona, I would not go so far as to suggest that AV actresses are unaware of or indifferent to the public’s perceptions. The typical porn star understands on an intuitive level that the men who worship her simultaneously regard her as a kind of freak or aberration. She realizes early on that interviewers want to hear about the episodes that turned an “ordinary girl” into the kind of person who would appear in porn films. The more special and compelling her reasons for becoming a porn actress, the more she is fêted. Her pre-AV interactions also give her an objective view of men’s expectations and perceptions of AV actresses.

In addition, a great many AV actresses live a kind of double life, concealing their activities in the porn industry from family members, friends, and colleagues. They are able to turn their AV-actress identity on and off at will and thus interact with men and their desires from both vantage points. They know from their own experience that men want their AV actresses to be cheerful sex objects but would never want the “ordinary” women in their lives to be like that.

Here is where the AV actress’s own desires come into play. On the one hand, she wants to be a popular AV star who can get a lot of high-paying work. On the other hand, she wants to minimize the encroachment of her AV work on the rest of her life. A gripping background story, told with convincing fluency, helps her achieve her career goals while keeping her AV actress persona distinct from her “real,” everyday self. Gradually, she learns to enjoy her transformation into an alter ego and becomes better and better at playing the part of the AV actress.

Very few AV actresses develop this professional persona by conscious design, in accordance with some deep strategy or elaborate plan. But as women in a society dominated by middle-aged and older men, they sense which way the wind blows, and they have developed the knack of riding those air currents and enjoying themselves a bit in the process. They are happy to play the role demanded of them if doing so will enhance their reputation as AV stars.

The reason they can engage casually in such dissimulation without letting men’s expectations crush their sense of self is that they are living separate, “normal” lives in which their AV activities remain hidden from friends and associates. While working side by with side with male colleagues at the office, or cooking dinner at home for their husbands, they are laughing inwardly at the inability of Japanese men to make the connection.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 1, 2015. Banner photo: The interior of Tsutaya’s Shinjuku store. Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson)

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