[16 September 2010]
One of the more surprising elements of Japanese popular culture, at least from the point of view of an outsider such as myself, is how thoroughly it is saturated with images of schoolgirls appearing as everything from sparkly magic girls to kick-ass assassins to underage sex objects. The high visibility of teenage girls is even more surprising when you consider that Japan remains largely a male-dominated society, ranking #101 out of 134 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Index (by way of comparison the UK ranked #15 and the US #31). Yet turn to almost any aspect of Japanese popular culture and you’ll see lots of successful franchises based around highly specific representations of idealized schoolgirls.
This paradox is examined in Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential: How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool by journalist Brian Ashcraft (who writes the “Japanese Schoolgirl Watch” column for Wired and is a senior contributing editor at the video game site, Kotaku.com) and Shoko Ueda (who was once a Japanese schoolgirl herself as well as a research assistant for Wired). Their conclusion is that for adults, schoolgirls represent a time of innocence and unlimited choices before taking on serious obligations such as work and family, while for younger kids, the freedom of action granted these teenage characters represents something they aspire to.
Ashcraft and Ueda look at eight different aspects of Japanese culture, starting with a history of school uniforms (95 percent of Japanese high schools require them) and covering in successive chapters music, movies, shopping, magazines and books, art, games and manga and anime. This is a fun book to read, written and laid out in a punchy style recalling teen magazines such as egg which intersperse lots of illustrations and graphics into the text. Although Ashcraft and Ueda include historical information and cultural analysis, they’re not trying to write the final word on any topic: rather, they are alerting the reader to different aspects of an ever-changing cultural phenomenon and provide a brief bibliography and list of magazines and web sites for those who wish to follow up.
The chapters use a common structure which allows the authors to zero in on particular manifestations of the schoolgirl phenomenon while also placing them in a broader context. Each chapter opens with a specific focus which exemplifies the subject in question and then expands to include other examples, historical background, and psychological and sociological interpretations. There are many sidebars and other digressions set off from the main text, and each chapter also includes a “Girls on the Street” page which has (presumably real) schoolgirls commenting on the subject of the chapter. These photo pages, dead ringers for the style of the teen magazines they imitate, incorporate a full-page photo of the girls in a jewel-encrusted frame with their comments superimposed in little speech bubbles.
Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential has a lot to offer anyone interested in Japanese culture. Starting with the very first chapter: who knew that there was a museum in Okayama dedicated to the history of school uniforms? Granted, it’s run by the company which makes 70 percent of the school uniforms in Japan, but still, the dedication to preserving the history of a very specific aspect of one’s culture seems particularly Japanese.
Ashcraft and Ueda use the museum as a jumping-off point to discuss clothing in Japan from the Heian period (794-1185 CE) to today. They find the roots of modern school uniforms in the so-called “opening of Japan” by US naval ships in 1853 and the educational modernization of 1872: the demands of sitting at a school desk favor Western-style clothes over traditional Japanese dress. Sailor-style school uniforms have been popular since the 19th century but have undergone many official modifications over the years, including padded hoods to protect against shrapnel during World War II.
On the other hand, students have also found ways to express their individuality even while in uniform: for instance in the ‘60s and ‘70s, teenage rebels took to attacking their uniforms with scissors creating the sukeban look. Blazers promoting a more preppy look became popular in the ‘80s and many other fads have come and gone, from fake tans to outrageously baggy socks which girls liked because they made their legs look thinner but adult authority figures despised due to their association with enjo kosai or paid dating.
Some of the most perceptive sections of Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential are the sidebars which focus in on specific aspects of modern Japanese popular culture and commerce. Consider for instance thepurikura machines, which can take your photo and print it on a small sticker. Originally meant for salarymen who wanted to affix their photo to a business card, they found an unexpected market among teenage girls who liked to pose for pictures and give the stickers to their friends. The machines have been updated to accommodate this new market and can now electronically alter an image to make the subject look more kawaii (cute) and can also output the result as an electronic file to be sent to friends via a mobile phone.
Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential doesn’t neglect the influence of schoolgirl icons on Western culture: take for example the character Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, who has a clear antecedent in Sawa, the schoolgirl assassin from the direct-to-video anime Kite. It’s a great read for anyone interested in Japanese popular culture and I have just two words of advice regarding it. First, you might want to think twice about reading this book on, say, the commuter train, because the title and visual style suggest it’s far more salacious than it really is. Second, if you do know all about the Tonbow Uniform Museum already, that might be an indication that this book is too “Japan 101” for you.