Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential:
How teenage girls made a nation cool
Authors: Brian Ashcraft with Shoko Ueda
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Kodansha International
When I first looked at the cover of this book, I thought, Wow, so this is the new Orientalism. The coyly smiling teenage schoolgirl with her bling-covered cell phone has replaced the coyly smiling teenage geisha with her understated yet elegant folding fan. A white guy with a Japanese wife tells us about the strange, mysterious, exotic land that is Japan. What is this world coming to, etc. But looks can be deceiving.
While recognizing the international icon status of the Japanese schoolgirl, the authors do their best to treat the girls not as fetishized cultural signifiers but as actual human beings. Even as they attempt to explain the collective power of the demographic as a symbol, Ashcraft and Ueda devote as much space as possible to giving a voice to the actual girls themselves. They accomplish this by interviewing female creators and performers whenever possible. This book is mainly a cultural history of the “Japanese schoolgirl” trope and is thus told primarily from the perspective of popular media, but I applaud the efforts of the authors to incorporate the actual people involved into this history as much as possible.
The book opens with a chapter on Japanese high school uniforms, giving a history of the tradition from its origins in the new educational code of 1872 through the sailor suits of the early Heisei period through the sukeban biker girl style of the 70’s through the designer socks and blazer-style nanchatte seifuku (professionally-designed fake uniforms that are cuter than real uniforms) popular with the after-school crowd today. Numerous photos, interviews with people like the curator of the Tombow Uniform Museum (Tombow being a major Japanese manufacturer of school uniforms), and details about cultural miscellanea (like boys giving their crushes buttons from their uniform jackets and the glue used to hold up the super-baggy socks popular with girls a decade ago) flesh out this chapter and take it well beyond the realm of tired stereotypes.
The rest of the eight chapters follow this model of history mixed with interviews, trivia, and tons and tons of pictures. The second chapter covers teenage idols (and legitimate rock stars, like the uniform-wearing musicians in the punk group Scandal), and the third chapter handles the depiction of schoolgirls in live-action film, including pornography and slashers like Battle Royale, Machine Girl, and, of course, Kill Bill. Chapters four and five are all about fashion, whether it’s on the street or on the cover of a magazine like egg. The sixth chapter begins the transition from reality into pure fantasy with its overview of the female artists in Murakami Takashi’s art collaborative Kaikai Kiki, with a focus on the schoolgirl-infused pop art of teenage prodigy Koide Akane.
The last two chapters handle girl games and anime, respectively. The final chapter on anime and manga is nothing special, although it admittedly does an admirable job of covering the distance from Rose of Versailles to Sailor Moon to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The chapter on “girl game” dating sims (like Air and Clannad) is pure gold, however, with its extended interview of prolific female graphic designer Itō Noizi incorporated skillfully into the main body of the chapter’s narrative. The authors’ explanation of the moe aesthetic is especially worth reading (as is their aside on otome games).
Overall, the topics of discussion and the specific examples used seem to have been very carefully chosen, and all of the facts and information flow together nicely. The prose is intelligent, witty, and easy to read. I would say the photography and illustrations are worth the price of the book by themselves, but Kodansha, in its infinite wisdom, chose to publish every other two-page spread in black-and-white instead of the glorious full color that graces the other half of the pages. That aside, the page layout is flawless, and there are numerous small details that I will leave as pleasant discoveries for future readers. Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential is not only lots and lots of fun but also manages to transcend the schoolgirl icon by coalescing into a rich and informative cultural history. If I were teaching a class about contemporary Japan, you can bet that this book would be required reading.