PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential': They're Sparkly, Sexy and Can Really Kick Ass!

Why are images of schoolgirls so predominant in Japanese popular culture? Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda offer their take on the subject in Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential.


Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential

Publisher: Kodansha
Length: 192 pages
Author: Brian Ashcraft, Shoko Ueda
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-08
Amazon

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.