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>.

 

Blood-Spattered Innocents: The Cachet of the ‘Grotesque Cute’

by Gregory Ranzini

Uh, ouch?

Introduction: Attack of the Cake-Demon

At 11:56, on January 20, 2011, the popular Western imageboard 4chan’s (link not safe for work/life/anything) anime and manga board, /a/, was watching live Japanese TV. This was not, in itself, unusual- although not as (in)famous as its sister board /b/, /a/ too boasts a very active community of Internet addicts more than willing to while away a few hours in the middle of the day (or night) with scabrous chatter and streaming video. Nor was their choice of show particularly surprising: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica,, a mahou shoujo (‘magical girl’) program from the reliably competent SHAFT Animation that had been getting muted, but positive, buzz. It was not shaping up to be overly original, of course, but that was beside the point. Madoka was being marketed as a genre piece; therefore, as with many such codified forms, its appeal was one of familiarity: an ‘ordinary’ middle-school girl is offered supernatural powers, accessed through a talismanic gem and associated with a change in costume, that she might fight for her ideals and to protect others. [Read more…]

The Japanese Bestiary of “Cool”

by Arthi Aravind

Japan’s mythological creatures are a source of rich inspiration for the many anime artists who produce the pop culture which has exploded in popularity in the United States in the past two decades. The mystical creatures of this culture’s bestiary are a unique aspect of its gross national cool which differentiate it from the pop culture exports of other countries. These otherworldly creatures, which are so foreign to the Western imagination, contribute to the popularity of Japanese cultural products in the United States because of their novelty value. [Read more…]

Spirited Away and Anime in the American Cinema Market

Far more Americans saw the clips from Spirited Away shown just before its Academy Award was announced than will ever see the movie. Despite anime’s extreme popularity in certain US markets, anime films have almost universally underwhelmed at US box offices and receive little general exposure in the states. What did it take for Spirited Away to attain its relative prominence in the American market and, if any, what effect has its story tell us about the possibilities for wide scale US distribution of anime films in the States? [Read more…]

Hayao Miyazaki: The Transnational Fantasy of Post-WWII Japan

Of all of Japan’s modern international cultural product, perhaps the most prominent is Japanese animation, or animé, and for more than a decade, Hayao Miyazaki has been the preeminent Japananese anime filmmaker.  Wildly popular within Japan, Miyazaki’s influence has gone global, and his art is appreciated by both young and old worldwide. [Read more…]

Pokémon, Localization, and Cultural Odor

The concept of mukokuseki is one used by many recent popular culture products emerging from Japan.  The term, literally the quality of “statelessness” or “nationlessness”, is used by Japanese producers of popular culture items to make these items relatable and marketable all over the world.  Interestingly enough, one of the products of Japanese popular culture to really send the foreign popularity of Japanese pop culture into the stratosphere was one that, in Japan, was littered with references and locales that only the Japanese would understand and appreciate, a “cultural odor” seen as foreign and exotic to those consumers outside of Japan.  (Iwabuchi, 27)  This product is one that most in the United States knows as “Pokémon” or, in Japan, “Pocket Monsters.” [Read more…]

Manga and the United States: New Life to Comics

A manga section at Barnes & Noble

Walk into a Barnes & Noble, Borders, or almost any other American bookstore, and you are certain to find a section labeled “Manga.” Often two or three times the amount of shelf space devoted to the comics of the United States is given over to the small thick booklets filled with Japanese drawings. Why have the adventures of aspiring ninjas and timid schoolgirls taken over displays once devoted to Superman and Captain America? For the stores stocking manga the answer is simple:  economics.

In 2007, Publisher’s Weekly reported the previous year’s sales figures for graphic novels in the United States and Canada. The results were staggering. The comic stories were worth approximately $330 million, with manga making up $170 – $200 million of that total.1 Manga made up better than half of the total graphic novel profit, and additionally there were simply more titles published. In the same report Publisher’s Weekly noted, “There were about 2,800 book format comics published in 2006, up 12% from 2005. Out of that total, 1,200 are manga titles and 965 are American genre comics.”1 With these numbers increasing every year manga is both more prevalent and more profitable in the United States – something that bears a stark contrast to its success in its home nation.

Even as Publisher’s Weekly reported manga’s success in the United States, USA Today reported the troubles it faces in Japan. “Sales of manga fell 4% in Japan last year to 481 billion yen ($4.1 billion) — the fifth straight annual drop, according to the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Publications.”2 Citing the prevalence of cell phones, video games, and a lack of variety in the comics for the decline, the article nevertheless concludes with a quote from Tufts’ Professor Napier, “They [manga] are still a staple of Japanese life.”2

This raises the question of why this struggling Japanese staple is making such a huge splash in the United States. What is it that has attracted Americans away from their own comic culture and drawn them to one so different? The first answer to this question lies precisely in that difference. When Roland Kelts interviewed Studio Ghibli Director of International Relations Steve Alpert, he asked what first attracted him to the Japanese style. Alpert replied “The way they used the frame – they weren’t afraid to break it… The perspectives are so evocative.”3 Kelts similarly writes of the works of Osamu Tezuka as “the beginning of what is referred to today by… Matt Alt as ‘the Mobius Strip’ of interrelations between Japanese and American artists – a crosspollination of influences.”3 Thus manga provides American audiences with a visual medium that initially seems extremely different, yet has been consistently and heavily influenced by their own culture.

a star trek

This combination has allowed Americans to enjoy manga as an inherently “cool” other. Kelts notes, “Even the manga that is translated into English today retains certain Japanese phrases and writing in the native characters – undecipherable and illegible to most U.S. readers, but still considered cool.” This tendency can be seen in its extreme in the publication of American stories in manga form. Multiple Star Trek series have had new stories published in manga form, and even the classic Canadian superhero Wolverine has garnered his own manga. Therefore, manga is at once familiar and alien to Americans. Its otherness is exotic, cool, and comfortable – and so it sells.

In his article “A History of Manga,” first published in Viz Media’s Animerica: Anime & Manga Monthly, Matt Thorn similarly cites Tezuka’s work as one of the great turning points for the sale of manga. “Tezuka’s innovations led to a broadening of the manga market and had a consequence that would inevitably force a radical restructuring of the market: the children who were raised on the manga of Tezuka and his followers, unlike their predecessors, didn’t stop reading manga when they got to middle school. Or high school. Or college.”4 What happened in Japan decades ago has now happened in the United States. This training of the American consumer goes fundamentally against traditional American perception of comics as children’s reading. In the U.S. traditional times to outgrow comics – high school, college – have become essential growth times for American interest in manga. Entire websites such as www.bleachexile.com and www.onemanga.com are devoted to providing English language access to manga – sometimes releasing translations months, even years, ahead of a U.S. print release. Manga keeps its cool long after other comics have been left behind.

a supermana kenshin 3

One of the problems plaguing manga at home has become a great strength for it in the United States. As reported by USA Today, Japanese consumers are “bored with the plots and characters manga offers.”2 Yet these same plots and characters that are old hat to Japanese readers are totally new to Americans. American comics, in contrast, have trouble breaking out of their own set ways. Superman was created in 1932, and though he has had many new adventures since then, the character has remained essentially the same. Thus although the adventures of Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin (both enormously popular series in both countries) may bear strong similarities to other titles, they are new stories, new heroes, and from a new land.

a shojo

Further, manga has managed to captivate a segment of the United States market never truly captured by American comics: girls. An entire “shôjo” genre “which is created primarily by women artists explicitly for audiences of girls and young women” has quickly drawn in American girls.4 As Barnes & Noble buyer Jim Killen told USA Today, “Manga offers something they weren’t finding in popular superhero-related comics.”2 With an entire genre devoted to their interest, completely apart from American comics, it is no wonder that American girls have been drawn to manga.

Thus, in the United States manga has captured a large market because it appeals to readers on multiple levels. Telling new stories in new ways, telling stories specifically for girls, and keeping consumers interested beyond their grade-school days have allowed manga to become a cultural juggernaut, now inarguably a part of American youth culture.

Discussion Questions:

Manga is clearly a comic form like American comics, but it is also its own distinct tradition. How does the “mobius strip” factor into Japanese and American understandings of manga? To what extent is manga otherized by Americans? Is American produced manga valid, and if so does it have an American or Japanese cultural odor? Does any manga have a cultural odor?

Sources:

  1. Reid, Calvin. “Graphic Novel Market Hits $330 Million.” Publisher’s Weekly 23 Feb. 2007 Web. 4 Apr. 2010. <http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/391509-Graphic_Novel_Market_Hits_330_Million.php>
  2. Wiseman, Paul. “Manga Comics Losing Longtime Hold on Japan.” USA Today 18 Oct. 2007 Web. 4 Apr. 2010. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-10-18-manga_N.htm>
  3. Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print. p. 24, 33, 42. <http://www.amazon.com/Japanamerica-Japanese-Culture-Invaded-U-S/dp/140398476X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272007034&sr=8-1>
  4. Thorn, Matt. “A History of Manga.” Animerica: Anime & Manga Monthly. vol 4. 2, 4, 6. rev. 2007 Web. 4 Apr. 2010. <http://www.matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/history.html>

Entry contributed by Charles Fliss

Pokémania Caught ‘Em All: The Youth Imagination, Adult Uncertainty, and Everybody’s Wallets

The Pokémania that gripped the United States at the end of the twentieth century can best be described as a series of contrasts.  This duality encompassed clueless parents and their captivated children, the American businesses who reaped the profits and the public who clamored for its consumption, and the product’s inherent sense of both capitalism and communalism.  Pokémon’s success in the United States can be attributed to a combination of these factors.  American corporations saw the unprecedented success of the franchise in Japan, recognized the potential for endless revenue streams, and marketed it towards children after repackaging it as a culturally neutered product. Children latched onto the games, cards, and cartoons because they could exercise control over the way they played and could communicate within their own peer groups. The majority of parents saw it as a benign yet totally incomprehensible foreign good when they were not transfixed on the sensational stories of violence reported by fear mongering media outlets. [Read more…]

Distinctly Japanese: Satoshi Kon’s Millenium Actress and the Nature of Modern Japanese Culture

Japanese popular culture is often noted for its distinct lack of “Japaneseness,” or the scarcity of features that can expressly define its cultural products as unequivocally “Japanese.” A perfect example of this is Sanrio’s Hello Kitty character, which is one of the most instantly recognizable Japanese pop culture icons on the globe, yet essentially is a cat intended to be of British background.  In particular, Japanese animation, or anime, is well-known for its ambiguous representation of purportedly ethnic-Japanese characters. The use of large eyes and multi-colored hair for character designs and the science fiction and fantasy settings often employed in anime allow many viewers to forget that they are watching entertainment created in Japan.  Thus these features lend a certain mukokuseki or “stateless” aura to any animated work. Mukokuseki has been cited as being a factor in anime’s popularity outside of Japan, by allowing non-Japanese viewers to enjoy entertainment originally created for a Japanese audience. [Read more…]