Loose Socks as Molotov Cocktails: Finding the Rebellion in Japanese Teen Girl Subcultures

Within examinations of Japanese girls’ culture, there lies a wide gap between a perception of traditional subcultures as docile, meaningless cultural consumption based only on non-Internet sociality, that belies the truth. Japanese female-driven subcultures have long been portrayed as more old-fashioned, in-real-life groupings than concurrent male subcultures. This is changing as female otaku become a more pronounced population in online communities and fandoms.
Most popular preconceptions of Japanese subcultures, especially in the Western world, tend to focus on otaku, which roughly translates as geek or dweeb. While the connotations of the word “otaku” have drastically changed in the past few decades, from a term loaded with derision and accusation, to one of pride, a constant element of otaku culture is that it (at least in the minds of both Japanese and Westerners) is mainly comprised of males. Most likely, this stereotype was driven into the public consciousness by the Miyazaki child murders (the so-called “Otaku Murders”) and other otaku-perpetrated crimes, and remains prevalent due to headline-ready, majority-male sub-subcultures, like the shut-in hikikomori.
While the advent of the Internet allows for female enthusiasts to enter the world of otaku fandom with far greater visibility, female otaku are not a new phenomenon. Contrary to the popular image of otaku as male, the market for female-directed doujinshi has been in full force since the advent of Comiket in the 1970s. The rise of otaku, commonly considered to be the 1970s, is concurrent to the rise of shonen ai (boys’ love) stories in shojo (girls’) manga.  Today, the market for manga and anime made for female fans is easily comparable to the market for male fans, and female otaku are becoming a much more vocal part of online fan communities.
In contrast to this reality, many prevalent notions of female Japanese subcultures are often much more traditional notions of what a subculture should resemble. Unlike otaku, subcultures like loli and kogals are seen has participating in a face-to-face group, with tangible artifacts, largely independent of the internet. Frequently, these subcultures feature a strong fashion or visual component, where the participant must posses a certain aesthetic, and a devotion to that aesthetic in order to be considered genuine. Frequently, these groups are demonized either for their perceived sexuality (as with kogals, ogals, and loli), or conversely, for their lack of sexuality (as with the kawaii and kigurumin). Additionally, the necessity of in-real-life interactions within these groups has somewhat faded in recent years, as the Internet enables these groups to form and evolve without ever meeting in person. For a brief overview of these subcultures and their general aesthetics, please left click  on the slideshows above, and select “View Image.”
Among the many subcultures formed by Japanese girls in their post-Bubble society, three have captured international imagination: kawaii, kogal, and loli girls. A few other such groups enter into this discussion of female fandom, like the lesser-known ogals/ganguro/manba and kigurumin. The subcultures described above have existed in Japan in some form for at least the past two decades, and are part of an international image of young Japanese femininity. Among those groups whose flame extinguished more quickly are the ganguro/ogals/manba family of subcultures, and the kigurumin.
While these subcultures might seem disparate, they all follow a few traits common among female subcultures in Japan. All employ cute aesthetics, although what is defined as cute might drastically change over time. Each of these groups has been demonized by mainstream Japanese society as a sign of society’s decadence, and the inability of youth to affect social change. Further cultural stigma is assigned to the girls of these groups if they are seen as either extremely sexualized, like kogals, or as purposefully asexual, like the original kawaii, as the desexualized kigurumin, and the seemingly repellant ogals.
Furthermore, these subcultures are widely seen in mainstream culture as meaningless consumption of culture devoid of value. The decline of post-Bubble youth is marked by their apparent failure to oppose the mainstream, with such youth revolt defined by the student protests of the late 1960s. However, Sharon Kinsella successfully argues that this consciously passive consumption of culture whose meaning is not defined by the mainstream is its own successful form of rebellion. Kawaii works as a reactive subculture because it does not register as particularly rebellious. Because the mainstream definition of youth rebellion is explicitly active, the mainstream fails to see a youth in revolt when girls tan, party, and don’t shower to excess. In other words, these girls are not seen as rebellious even as they utterly reject societal definitions of youth, aging, beauty, and femininity.
And while Dick Hebdige’s seminal work on subcultures in limited in its specificity to 1970s British youth and other Western groups, it still applies quite aptly in its discussion of subculture as an act of resistance. Hebdige’s discussion of drugs as aspect of style distinction is a bit less relevant in Japan than it was in 1970s Britain, but his definitional style elements like clothing, music, dance, and make-up are particularly appropriate when one considers the manba’s para-para dancing, and kawaii idols’ presentation within their own community. His trajectory of a subculture, from marginalized resistance to commercialized mainstream, is easily visible, especially within the everything-kawaii aesthetic visible virtually anywhere in Japan today, and the prevalence of loli subcultures outside the context of Japan. The marketing of cute, which has occurred concurrent to the emergence of kawaii, marked beginning of the end for that same subculture, as the opening of the Moi-Meme-Moitie brand similarly doomed the edginess of goth loli style. Furthermore, Hebdige’s ideas on subculture as an expression of rebellion against the raw materials of culture dovetail cleanly with the theory, as expressed by Anne McKnight in her work on French influences in Japanese subculture, that Japanese subcultures are a reaction against the American post-WWII Occupation.
Viewing all subculture as a form of resistance seems to help explain the motives for creating, entering, and consuming these subcultures. However, a single pat answer can never fully explain the complex motives behind self-identification. Chalking up all subculture, especially in the non-Western world, to some kind of rebellion ignores and dismisses other potential motivators, like a positive sense of belonging, a desire for a feminine, feminist space, or even more obscure subcultural sources. While the loli groups are commonly referred to as Victoriana-fetishists, who idolize all that is European, it is entirely possible that the loli aesthetic can also be attributed to the Japanese styles worn in the Meiji period, which, while Westernized, were rarely fully Western. What’s more, Japanese notions of what constitutes a subculture are quite different from Western ones, and the air of deviance that accompanies most Western subcultures is not necessary in Japan. Kawaii has progressed so far down Hebdige’s subculture life-cycle that it is now mainstream in everything but name, and kawaii goods are everywhere. In fact, kawaii aesthetics and manga are two alleged subcultures where it is far more revolutionary not to partake of them. Clearly, examinations of Japanese subcultures must be made even more specialized in order to analyze these subcultures within their own cultural context.
In Japan’s post-Bubble culture, young women and girls have frequently been pushed away from developing subcultures like otaku and its attendant online communities, while being pushed into subcultures which, through their non-Internet presence, tangible artifacts, and familiar set of distinct style elements, represent a more traditional model of subculture within Japan. Ironically, in maintaining seemingly harmless, meaningless subcultures built on cute aesthetics and seemingly meaningless style elements, young Japanese women are able to transgressively resist a mainstream culture that continues to work as a patriarchy, even as the wreck of the Bubble economy leaves other pillars of Japanese culture toppled.

Discussion Questions
1. Where do you think female otaku fandom and female subcultures might be headed in the future?
2. While not discussed here, how do you think Azuma’s database model might apply to female otaku? How might the system apply to non-otaku female subcultures?
3. How might female fandoms and female subcultures intersect?
How do you feel about the combined (Kinsella, Hebdige, etc.) idea of Japanese subculture as resistance, especially to the Occupation? How might resistance to the Occupation fit in here?

Sources

  • Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku, Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
  • Galbraith, Patrick W. “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public “Otaku” Image.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 210-230. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. < http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v005/5.galbraith.html>.
  • Hebdige, D. Subculture, the meaning of style. Padstow, Cornwall: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1979. Print.
  • Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties In Japan.” In Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.
  • Macias, P., I. Evers, and K. Nonaka. Japanese schoolgirl inferno, tokyo teen fashion subculture handbook. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books Llc, 2007. Print.
  • McKnight, Anne. “Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 118-137. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v005/5.mcknight.html >.
  • Toku, Masami. “Shojo Manga! Girls’ Comics! A Mirror of Girls’ Dreams.” Mechademia. 2. (2007): 19-32 . Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v002/2.toku.html >.
  • Winge , Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita .” Mechademia. 3. (2008): 47-63. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v003/3.winge.html>.

 

Isabel Bush

My name is Isabel Bush, and I’m a sophomore here at the college. I am majoring in Gloriously Undecided, but I’m considering an AMES/Theater double major. Last year I took “Japanophilia” as my freshman seminar, which really piqued my interest in the academic study of Japanese culture, and its reception throughout the world.

 

I decided to take “Gross National Cool” because the course feeds two of my foremost passions. Firstly, it centers on cultural narratives, how those narratives are consumed, and what can be understood about a culture from its narratives. Secondly, this course studies all of that by examining Japan, a country whose culture I have studied since before coming to college. I did a cultural and linguistic exchange program in Hokkaido before my senior year of high school, and I aspire to return one day.

 

When I’m not studying Japan or its language, I am interested in theatrical costume and millinery, and I enjoy cooking and sewing, and just generally making things. I use my free time to teach my toddler cousin to fist bump.

Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son–Can Gaijin Ever Get It Right?

Carey, Peter. "Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son." Random House, Inc., 2005. pp 158. $14.10.

By Isabel Bush

Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most famous contemporary authors. His novels and short stories have earned special praise, and he is one of  two writers to win the prestigious Man-Booker Prize twice. For the past two decades, he has lived with his family in New York City. In the early 2000s, Carey took his teenaged son Charley to Japan to explore the culture together. The resulting voyage became Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son, an exploration of his relationship with his son, and that of Japan with Western society. The narrative is pleasant enough to read, but Carey’s conclusions about Japan are disappointing and almost superficial. At times, his experience in Japan seems to have less to do with Japan than Carey’s attempt to connect with Charley as he becomes an adolescent.

Carey first noticed his son’s interest in Japan after Charley began immersing himself in Japanese comic books and animated films (called manga and anime, respectively). Charley was a quiet boy to the outside world, but when his interest in Japan led him to become more extroverted, his surprised father offered to take him to Japan, ostensibly to interview the anime and manga idols Charley so admired. Charley assented on one surprising condition: they would not visit “Real Japan.” “No temples. No museums,” no delicate geisha or the like (11). Carey and Charley would only examine “Real Japan” inasmuch as it could help them understand the country before them. As their trip progressed, however, it became clear that their preconceptions about Japanese culture were mistaken in almost every instance, leaving the reader wondering whether a foreigner can ever understand Japan. Carey concludes that Japan is a delicate enigma wrapped in a lacquered puzzle box, to which gaijin (foreign barbarians) could never get the key.

While Charley wants to understand contemporary Japan, Carey looks to more arcane artifacts of Japanese culture, searching to understand a thoroughly modern, paradoxically traditional culture. One of the author’s fundamental questions is whether he or his son had the correct method for interpreting Japan. Is it better to analyze a culture’s context and condescend, as Carey does, to its modern existence, or is it better to examine a culture only as it is in the present, without any knowledge of how it became this way?

Carey never fully answers this question. Initially, he is convinced that his methodology is correct, but as the story progresses and Carey misses every pitch, culturally speaking, he begins to doubt himself. Every time he thinks he can draw some conclusion about Japan, he talks to another of his experts (and who is more expert than an actual Japanese person?) and he is contradicted again. How Japanese people perceive Americans, how they read their manga, why they enjoy what they enjoy, what they eat for breakfast, how proud they are–Carey strives to understand it all, but blunders into Japanese culture with the delicacy of a stereotypical American tourist. Neither Carey nor Charley speaks Japanese, nor makes any effort to beyond the occasional konnichiwa. Furthermore, they stay in and around Tokyo, and never visit any less-urbanized areas, which are arguably more genuinely Japanese than the Westernized cities like Tokyo.

One of Carey’s most prominent Japanese “experts,” and the narrative’s most confounding  addition, is Takashi, a friend Charley met over the internet, who guides them around Tokyo. He represents another in a crowded chorus of characters who sing a confusing, dissonant melody of what it means to be Japanese. However, Takashi is not real. Takashi is supposed to explicitly show the reader how the Japanese think and live their daily lives, but the knowledge that he was created by a Western man, one who claims throughout his narrative that he cannot understand Japan, only hurts the character’s credibility, and ultimately, the narrative’s. Takashi’s narrative purpose is superficially to compare the young Japan Charley idealizes with the traditions Carey seeks, but he could have been added to allow the author to rationalize his lackluster relationship with Charley.

There is, however, a lurking disappointment to Wrong About Japan. While the story itself is strong, it can sometimes seem a little flat. Carey’s other works, like My Life as a Fake, are vivid and captivating in ways that this book just isn’t. The book takes time to generate its momentum, but once it does, it’s quite enjoyable. The extensive, ambiguous quest in Wrong About Japan is a common motif in Carey’s work, and as he does in his novels, Carey leaves his readers unclear about the story’s conclusion. One never knows if Carey or Charley find what they came to Japan for, or if they ever figure it out for themselves. One of the more irritating aspects of Carey’s narrative is its travelers’ privilege. Carey and his son have a marvelous itinerary, and could have done and learned so much more. It’s disappointing when, after meeting people like the iconic animators Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshiyuki Tomino, Carey is bogged down thinking that he can’t fully understand Japan, and seems to stop trying to. His Orientalist distancing of Japan as the “Other” almost certainly guarantees that he could never fully understand this group of people.

Isabel Bush

My name is Isabel Bush. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, though I’ve also lived in Texas and California. I like theater, and in my spare time, I play the baritone ukulele, try to teach my toddler cousin large words, and make things like clothing and food. At home, I work in a haberdashery, where I have learned the difference between a bowler and a derby, and the true cost of an excellent hat.

I’m currently a Freshman, and I’m considering majoring in Japanese. The summer after my junior year of high school, I traveled to northern Japan with a student immersion group, and I’d love to return to Japan to study further. My earliest exposure to Japan and its culture was the Japan exhibit in the National Children’s Museum, and Maira Kalman’s Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman.

 

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