Aya Sugimoto’s name is synonymous with all things sensual. Since her ground-shaking 2003 divorce, in which she famously (and very publicly) left a “sexless” marriage, Sugimoto has become a flag-bearer for women’s rights — particularly when those rights involve sex and relationships. Her sensational views are backed up by edgy performances in film and on stage, and she lends support to causes ranging from animal rights to female independence. Sugimoto’s new project promises more of the same: an adaptation, using the sensual Argentinean dance form tango, of the true story of Sada Abe, the notorious Meiji-era prostitute who asphyxiated and castrated her lover.
Finding a connection between dance and the carnal passions of a failed geisha may seem a stretch, but in an interview at her office in Setagaya, Sugimoto displays the confidence that has become her trademark. “The passion of tango can be easily linked with the passions of Sada,” the 40-year-old says from her perch on a sofa. “But it is the passion of a Japanese woman that can’t be expressed by an Argentinean dancer. So I realized it could only be performed by me.”
Such a provocative statement is typical of the woman who almost singlehandedly brought the issue of sexual dissatisfaction into the national consciousness, and who has continued to challenge audiences through forms as diverse as film, dance and literature. “I’ve been frustrated for a long time that Japanese society is so feudalistic and conservative to art and eroticism,” she says, “so I’ve always wanted to devote myself to overcoming that.”
By all accounts, she has come a long way to achieving that goal. After enduring what she terms a “strict” upbringing in Kyoto, Sugimoto began modeling kimonos at age 15, and her career took off in earnest when she took up singing at the urging of her management company. A string of No. 1 singles followed; their titles, like “Boys” (1988) and “Gorgeous” (1990), hinted at the erotic cast her career would take.
In a pattern that she would repeat again and again, Sugimoto soon sought out new challenges. “When I began writing my own songs, the lyrics were quite erotic,” she says. “I realized I wanted to dig into eroticism more deeply, so I started writing sensual novels.” As an author, her published works include “The Rules of Supreme Pleasure,” “Immoral” and the book-length 2004 essay, “Orgasm Life.”
‘Sexless divorce’ became catchphrase
By the mid-2000s, Sugimoto set her sights on becoming a film actress, but before getting the chance, her marriage of 10 years to musician Toshinori Numata fell apart. The ensuing media storm — the term “sexless divorce” which she used to describe the situation, became a catchphrase — won her equal parts notoriety and respect.
“I thought that saying the word ‘sexless’ openly would help Japanese women start living freely and making choices for themselves,” she says. “They are still so conservative and feel guilty expressing their real feelings. Even if a woman wants to end her marriage because it is sexless, she has to fear being misunderstood or accused of not being patient enough.”
With the trauma of her divorce behind her, Sugimoto then took the biggest risk her career, accepting the lead role in a remake of Masaru Konuma’s 1974 film “Hana to Hebi” (“Flower and Snake”). In the 2004 version, she plays a businessman’s wife who is sold into sexual slavery at the behest of a yakuza boss. The film required Sugimoto to spend 70% of her screen time unclothed and indulging in masochistic acts.
“At first glance, you would think the main character was treated with indignity because she’s tied up,” she says. “But you can turn it around and see that many men were working hard for her, almost as if they are worshipping her. I don’t believe that masochists are ruled by sadists.”
By now, Sugimoto has become that rarest of sex symbols, one who is esteemed by men and women alike. She dispenses advice on sexual health and relationships on the TV Tokyo talk show “Yearnings of a Goddess” and, more playfully, has served as a spokeswoman for Bust Up Drops, a dietary supplement said to increase a woman’s breast size. In 2006, Sugimoto was selected as the fourth sexiest woman in Asia by Playboy magazine — which is ironic, as the voters were the same Japanese men she terms “cowards” for not doing enough to satisfy their women.
Further wanting to test her limits, Sugimoto came closest to crossing the line from erotic art to straight-up pornography in the TV show “Shimokita Glory Days,” a manga-inspired comedy-drama that aired in 2006. She appeared opposite several AV stars, including the most famous proponent of the adult film genre, Sola Aoi. Not that she was ashamed of the work. “Society can’t consist only of ‘high-quality’ elements, and that’s also true for visual eroticism as well,” she says.
Happy to see young women expressing themselves
Although Sugimoto’s public persona may be intimidating in a culture that prefers anonymity to candor, it’s interesting to learn that she shares many of the same views as other Japanese women. The difference is that she’s more prone to speak her mind—and is rarely without an opinion. Discussing the recent craze for ero-kawaii (“erotic-cute”) fashion, she says she’s happy that young women are expressing themselves.
“It would be difficult to wear clothes like that if it were not accompanied by a new kind of spirit,” she explains. “When I wore the same types of sexy clothes in the ’80s and ’90s, it caused a stir.”
Thanks in part to this new spirit of erotic openness that she herself helped to create, Sugimoto isn’t surprised at the eager reception of the American TV show and movie “Sex and the City.” Yet her own feelings about its impact are ambivalent. Though she attended the Japan premiere, where she mingled with such stars as Jason Lewis, she’s dismayed that so much attention is focused on inanities like the stars’ fashion.
“I’ve noticed that the most popular character in Japan was Samantha,” she says, referring to the show’s sex-obsessed vixen. “I feel Japanese women want to live strongly, freely and powerfully like her. But when you seek freedom, you also need to be ready to assume responsibility. That might still take some time.”
It’s precisely this immaturity, Sugimoto believes, that causes Japanese women to score low in international rankings of sexual satisfaction, most famously the annual Durex Global Sexual Wellbeing Survey. But she’s adamant that blame lies on both sides of the bed. “There are some men who say, ‘I don’t bring sex into the home, I just do it with other women away from home.’ We shouldn’t allow them to say something like that! Japanese women allow men too much — we need to show more effort and energy.”
Sugimoto herself is waging a one-woman crusade to urge men to change their mentality, which she playfully dubs the “Latinize Japan Project.” “Japanese men have been put under a spell by society, and they are cowards. It would be wonderful if they were able to adopt the charms foreign men have,” she says.
As she enters an age where many “idols” tone down their activities, Sugimoto remains as busy as ever. The upcoming performance of “Tango Nostalgia” is an outgrowth of her appearances on “Uri Nari Geinojin Shako Dansu-bu,” a kind of Japanese version of “Dancing with the Stars” in which she and her partner, comedian Kiyotaka Nanbara, consistently ranked highly. As she enters her fifth decade, Sugimoto also takes inspiration from 69-year-old Italian singer Milva (“She’s still sexy and cute”) and 50-year-old Madonna.
“I’ve become stronger with age — strength that comes from peace of mind and emotional stability,” she says. “I feel my senses have been refined. What being ‘sexy’ or ‘erotic’ comes down to is having a profound ability to be attuned and sensitized to life and your surroundings.”
Even when speaking informally, Sugimoto’s words carry a weight of experience, and no topic is too taboo. Discussing her onscreen lesbian and bondage scenes, she extols the virtues of sexual experimentation. “As I become more mature, I think the most important thing is to know what you really want. If you like it, you don’t need to hide it. The only way you’ll never get satisfaction is if you don’t know what you really want.”
Whether she herself will ever again find satisfaction with a life partner remains to be seen. Sugimoto admits to a fear of marriage as an institution, and has recently said that she’d never marry again. “It is more important to know if we really need to be with each other than believe in the system itself and take the relationship for granted. We can’t build a good relationship if we don’t appreciate our daily life,” she says.
As Sugimoto graciously leads us out of Office Aya, walking tall, elegant and proud, her courteousness hints at the compassionate woman behind the tenacious, spirited persona. A Latin spirit always needs real love to fuel the fire.
Aya Sugimoto stars in “Tango Nostalgia” Nov 21-24 at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).