Bunny Drop

Title: Bunny Drop
Japanese Title: うさぎドロップ (Usagi doroppu)
Artist: Unita Yumi (宇仁田 ゆみ)
Serialization: 2005-2011 (Japan)
Japanese Publisher: Shōgakukan
American Publisher: Yen Press
Pages (per volume): 200

This review contains mild spoilers for the completed series.

Towards the end of October I presented a conference paper about Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth. My argument was that the “male gaze” should not be taken for granted in the study of such manga, and that an awareness of an active “female gaze” can change the way we understand contemporary Japanese popular culture. For example, while the male gaze sees infantilized sex objects in Sailor Moon, the female gazes sees icons of feminist empowerment. While a male gaze sees an undifferentiated slurry of popular “magical girl” tropes in Magic Knight Rayearth, a female gaze sees misogynistic narrative cycles being forcibly broken by the tragic end of the series. At the end of my presentation, I received a question that caught me off guard: Feminist empowerment in the realm of fantasy manga is all well and good, but what effect do these manga have on the real world?

Many feminist bloggers, journalists, and scholars of popular media have chronicled the negative impact popular media has on girls and young women. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, for instance, Peggy Orenstein (the author of Schoolgirls) connects the rising rates of depression and eating disorders in pre-adolescent girls with stories marketed to girls and the associated conflation of self-objectification with a perceived sense of empowerment. If emotional investment in media and the resulting internalization of its underlying ideology can have a negative impact on the real lives of girls and the women they become, wouldn’t it also stand to reason that a positive impact might also be possible? Isn’t that why feminists fight for “strong female characters” and alternative literary, cinematic, and historical canons?

It seems to me that the real issue at stake here is not whether manga affects the psychology of its younger readers (which it most undoubtedly does), but whether it has the same capacity for social commentary and the same effectiveness as a catalyst for social change as “real” literature. It’s difficult (but far from impossible) to argue that a glam-and-glitter “monster of the week” story such as that which characterizes the opening volumes of the Sailor Moon manga is literature, especially when compared to massive, era-defining novels such as The Right Stuff and Freedom. That being said, I believe that manga does have the same power that literature does to allow its readers to experience social and political issues from different perspectives on both a visceral and an intellectual level.

This is quite a long preface for Unita Yumi’s nine-volume series Bunny Drop, which is one of the most striking and memorable manga I’ve read over the past three years. Bunny Drop is about Daikichi, a single man in his thirties, and Rin, the six-year-old girl he adopts. The first four volumes in the series chronicle Daikichi’s deepening bond with Rin as he deals with the challenges of raising her; and, in the last five volumes, the focus of the story shifts to Rin as a first-year student in high school as she learns to negotiate the challenges of the adult world, such as how to handle her emotions towards her mother and towards Daikichi. Although this is a “slice of life” manga, it’s about as far from moe (the male-directed aesthetic and narrative mode of many slice of life stories such as K-On! and Sunshine Sketch) as you can get. Without being too adorable (or, at the other end of the spectrum, too cynical), Bunny Drop depicts the trials and rewards of raising a child – although the narrative tension of the series comes mainly from the trails.

The manga opens with the funeral of Daikichi’s grandfather and the introduction of a strange and sullen six-year-old girl lurking around his house. The child, Rin, is purported to be the grandfather’s love child, and no one in the family wants to take her in. While complaining about the expense and trouble of taking care of a kid, Daikaichi’s relatives squabble over who has to put up Rin until they can find an institution to take her off their hands. When Daikichi suggests that his mom adopt the child, she angrily retorts that he has no idea what sacrifices she had to make for the sake of him and his sister. Having observed that Rin’s silence is a result of her shyness and sensitivity as opposed to some mental deficiency and increasingly frustrated by the selfishness of his family, Daikichi suddenly proclaims that he will take Rin home with him. The open panel depicting Daikichi standing handsome in a black suit as Rin runs to him makes it seem as if everything will work out for the pair; but, on the last page of the first chapter, a decidedly un-cool Daikichi is woken by a sleepy-faced little creature proclaiming, “Hey, hey, Mister [ojisan], I’m hungry!” Daikichi comically snaps that he’s not an ojisan (a term literally meaning “uncle” that is used to address a middle-aged man) yet, and that such an expression would better suit Rin, who is technically his aunt. Along with this light humor, however, comes Daikichi’s sinking realization that he can no longer back out of the responsibilities with which his spur-of-the-moment decision has saddled him.

Although Bunny Drop maintains a fairly light tone throughout the first four volumes, as the first chapter of the series demonstrates, it deals with some heavy issues. Daikichi’s frustration with having to glue name tags on every tiny piece of Rin’s first grade math set is amusing, of course, but it also illustrates all of the nonsense Japanese parents have to deal with when their children start school (which is part of the reason why mothers drop out of the work force and limit themselves to only one child). Daikichi’s panic over the lack of suitable daycare options in the area surrounding his suburban neighborhood is presented as laughable, but his mildly exaggerated reactions attest to a very real sense of unease concerning the lack of choices available to parents in Japan. Over the course of the Rin’s childhood, Daikichi makes friends with other parents, such as a working father, a working mother, a stay-at-home dad, and a single mother struggling to raise her son while keeping both feet on the corporate ladder. Daikichi, who himself has to request a demotion to a non-overtime position in order to be able to pick up Rin from daycare on time, swaps war stories, survival strategies, and anecdotes of small victories with these other parents.

Meanwhile, despite growing up in a non-traditional family, Rin develops into a capable and emotionally mature young woman. The fifth volume jumps to Rin as a teenager, and the reader is invited to understand her story not only from Daikichi’s perspective but also from her own. Rin has matriculated into the same high school as Kōki, her childhood friend from daycare. Although Rin has done fine in a single-parent household, Kōki, who has been raised by a single mother, has had problems. These problems, which involve dating a much older woman while still in middle school, are alluded to in terms of their lingering effect on Rin and Daikichi, who have become like a second family for Kōki. In the later volumes of Bunny Drop, Rin (and, by extension, Daikichi) must deal with Kōki’s ex-girlfriend, an ambitious college girl on her own who isn’t interested in long-term relationships. Meanwhile, Rin becomes curious about the mother who abandoned her, eventually meeting her and learning that she was a single mother who often left Rin with Daikichi’s grandfather, for whom she worked as a housekeeper, in order to pursue her dream of becoming a manga artist. Rin herself has already begun to think about her own future and is strongly considering applying to a college within commuting distance so that she will be able to stay home and take care of Daikichi as he ages.

The issues Bunny Drop tackles are thus the issues the manga’s readership – presumably women in their late teens and early twenties – must confront as they begin to make choices about the directions their lives will take. Is it necessary to get married? What does it mean to have a child? Is it possible to stay at your job even after you marry and have children? If your career is important to you, should you even have children? What preparations do you need to make in order to care for your parents? Child care, elder care, and how young women negotiate their education and careers – these are the themes of Bunny Drop, and the manga explores these themes through a diverse cast of fully developed characters.

The social observation and commentary of Bunny Drop is subtle and doesn’t immediately engage the reader at the same level as the interesting characters and compelling story, but it really jumps out when the manga is compared to other manga with similar premises, such as Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&! or Unita’s earlier Yonin-gurashi (which might be translated as “Family of Four”). Both of these manga, which also contain stories involving young children, are highly episodic in nature and display on the lighter side of caring for a child. In the world of these manga, children are always adorable all the time, and the only problems their guardians face are easily resolved within the span of a few pages. Neither the children nor their parents ever get old, and money (or work) is never an issue. Isn’t it wonderful to be a parent, these manga seem to suggest, or even, Isn’t it wonderful to be a child. In contrast, Bunny Drop employs a degree of realism that never allows the reader to escape into a comforting fantasy that will disappear as soon as she closes the manga. The awkward ending of the series, which abandons this level of realism and retreats into romance tropes common to both manga and mainstream literature, might even be read as a critique of fantasies that demand happy endings, or even of a society that demands that its women be wedded to an outdated and increasingly dysfunctional family system.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay, then, I am sure that manga artists do not have the same ability to shape legal and political discourse as do lawyers, judges, politicians, bureaucrats, and the journalists and professors who publish in influential opinion magazines. However, as reading through periodicals like Aera and Chūōkōron (and made-for-export material like Japan Echo and Reimagining Japan) has convinced me, many of the major social issues currently facing Japan, such as a shrinking workforce, a low birthrate, and an aging population, directly concern women and the choices they make in their lives. Despite this, young women in the demographic represented by the readership of manga like Bunny Drop have little access to participation in public realms of political and legal discourse. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that they will create their own realms of discourse to which they do have access. Becoming a politician takes money and connections, but presumably anyone can become a manga artist, or at least submit a postcard to Feel Young magazine expressing her opinions regarding Bunny Drop.

An individual’s consciousness of social issues is shaped by many realms of discourse, and it makes sense that young women would be more comfortable with realms of discourse from which they do not feel excluded. A manga like Bunny Drop, which examines important issues that pertain directly to its readership, should thus be considered a text worthy of being read and studied and even enjoyed. If Bunny Drop is not serious literature, then it at least performs many of the functions of serious literature through its use of narrative devices similar to those used by serious literature. A pastel-covered graphic narrative like Bunny Drop may not be a catalyst for social change, but it certainly does serve as a mirror in which young women (and men) can scrutinize their lives, the limitations imposed on them, and the choices available to them.

If you haven’t started reading this manga yet, I highly recommend it.

What Is Moe?

This is a visual essay that I hope will help to answer some questions about the visual aesthetic often referred to as moe (pronounced moé). If I poke fun at this aesthetic in this essay, it is not out of a sense of disdain or relative cultural superiority, but rather because the particular otaku subculture that consumes moe images likes to poke fun at itself. An appreciation of how ridiculous these images is constitutes a significant part of their appeal.

I am drawing these images from the opening color pages of the August issue of the monthly manga anthology Dengeki Daioh, which is roughly the size of a New York City telephone book. Here is the issue’s cover:

This month’s issue comes with a double-sided pull-out poster. Here’s the front side:

And here’s the back side:

August (or early July, when this issue actually came out on in bookstores) is a great time for relaxing by the pool in a bikini and running around in a wet school uniform blouse in the rain, isn’t it? Ah, summer.

Anyway, this issue also came with another freebie, a large sheet of heavy plastic that calls itself a “leisure mat”:

I’m not sure what the purpose of this “leisure mat” is (and I’m not entirely sure I want to know), but I think it’s supposed to smell like strawberries. So what we have here is a person-sized illustration of a girl who looks to be about ten years old in hot pants with a gun against a backdrop of fish printed on a sheet of heavy, strawberry scented plastic. Okay then. Moving on.

Just to let you know, the freebie included in the next issue of Dengeki Daioh is going to be a full-color illustration book of the characters from the anthology’s manga in swimsuits. Awesome!

Moe isn’t all about manga and anime, though. The above image is the second page of a two-page advertisement for a moe-flavored collectible card game. The question of the Q&A section at the bottom of the pages reads, “But what if I don’t know how to play?” Apparently, there are guides both on the internet and included with starter decks, but I really don’t think actually playing the game is the point of these cards. Here is a sample card that was packaged with the magazine:

The card is titled, “The Crimson Sound of ‘Afternoon Sunlight.’” It features an illustration of a reclining beauty whispering, “Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Yeah! Action! Strategy! It’s just like chess! With cards! Anyway…

Did you know that Dengeki Daioh has a sister magazine called Dengeki Moeoh? Did you know that it’s on sale right now? You should totally get it, because it’s packaged with both a “special book” of swimsuit illustrations and an “X-RATED♥” body pillow cover. But that’s not all!

You can also go to the Dengeki Moeoh website to download cool screen savers for your tablet or smart phone, as well as digital manga stories!

And what sort of discussion of moe would be complete without mentioning visual novels?

Koi to senkyo to chokorēto (“Love, Election & Chocolate”) is a dating sim that went on sale at this summer’s Comiket. Apparently, it’s “the story of a boy yearning for true love and a girl hating chocolate.” But of course the male protagonist isn’t pictured in the promotional art, because that would be icky.

Hopefully these ten images from Dengeki Daioh, which has come to be accepted as the ultimate mainstream sourcebook for moe manga and illustration, have helped to give you some sense of the moe visual aesthetic. If you have been disgusted by these sexualized images of seemingly underage characters, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Such images (and the narratives that accompany them) have sparked huge storms of controversy in both Japan and America.

I think it’s important to keep certain things in mind, though. For example, is all anime and manga like this? Of course not. Do these pictures mean that all otaku are pedophiles? No, they don’t. Do these pictures reveal otaku attitudes concerning real women? I don’t think so. Are these pictures to blame for Japan’s low birthrate? I really don’t think so. Do female illustrators create these images too? Yes, they do. Can women enjoy these images? Of course they can.

After all, as René Magritte so famously suggested in La Trahison des Images, “Ceci n’est-pas une pipe.” And, as Neil Gaiman has famously pointed out, Americans have a “First Amendment right as [adults] to make lines on paper, to draw, to write, to sell, to publish, and […] to own comics.” The Japanese have the same right under their own constitution. And if the publishers, artists, and readers of Dengeki Daioh make use of this right by enjoying the moe aesthetic, good for them. Even if everyone agrees that it’s kind of ridiculous.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Title: Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
Japanese Title: 動物化するポストモダン:オタクから見た日本社会
(Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai)
Author: Azuma Hiroki (東 浩紀)
Translators: Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Pages: 200

Even though I have read Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals twice in translation (as well as once in the original Japanese) over the past two years, I will readily admit that I’ve had a difficult time trying to understand what its author is trying to say. It turns out that the key to my understanding of Otaku was Marc Steinburg’s translation of an essay called “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative” by a Japanese pop culture ethnographer named Ōtsuka Eiji. Reading this essay was something of an extended eureka moment for me, as Azuma has clearly created his model of narrative consumption as a response to Ōtsuka’s own model.

Ōtsuka’s “World and Variation,” originally published in 1989, is ostensibly about Bikkuriman Chocolates, or, more specifically, about the trading cards packaged with the chocolates. It was because of the trading cards that the chocolates were such a phenomenal hit with children around the time that Ōtsuka was writing, even though the character “Bikkuriman” had no television or manga tie-in products. The secret to Bikkuriman’s success was that, on the back of each trading card, there was a short paragraph of information about the character depicted on the front. If a child collected enough cards, he would gradually be able to piece together a larger story and gain a broader perspective on the Bikkuriman universe.

Out of many small narratives, then, children were able to create a grand narrative. The point of Ōtsuka’s discussion of Bikkuriman Chocolates is that “child consumers were attracted by this grand narrative, and tried to gain further access to it through the continued purchase of chocolates.” In other words, “what is consumed first and foremost, and that which first gives these individual commodities their very value, is the grand narrative or order that they hold in partial form and as their background.” The kids who bought the Bikkuriman Chocolates didn’t care about so much about each individual card as they did about the larger story, the mythology, and the worldview – what Ōtsuka calls the “grand narrative.” Ōtsuka argues that the consumption of anime functions in much the same way. Each episode in the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, for example, is a small narrative. The story of each individual protagonist (such as Char or Amuro) that plays out across the episodes is a small narrative as well. The diagrams and mechanical specs included in many of the toy models of the robots may also be considered small narratives. As these small narratives are accumulated, however, they begin to form the contours of an entire world. Ōtsuka argues that it is this grand narrative that makes long-running series such as Gundam (and, I would add, series such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) so popular – and marketable.

According to Ōtsuka’s model of narrative consumption, then, small narratives, while pleasing in and of themselves, also form pieces of a larger narrative. Ōtsuka argues that, while “the general viewing audience” will only follow one strand of small narratives, what characterizes otaku is their interest in the grand narrative. Otaku are characterized by their interest in gathering bits of information “hidden in the background,” putting these bits of information together, and creating their own small narratives based on their understanding of the grand narrative. Such a model of narrative consumption goes a long way towards explaining fan-made narrative products such as fan fiction and dōjinshi, since “if, at the end of the accumulated consumption of small narratives, consumers get their hands on the grand narrative […] they will then be able to freely produce their own small narratives with their own hands.” Therefore, otaku are otaku because they are invested in narrative consumption and reproduction at the level of the grand narrative.

In Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Azuma Hiroki proposes a different model of narrative consumption. The Japanese title of Azuma’s cultural study, Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, is revealing. The first word of this title refers to the concept of “animalization” proposed by Alexandre Kojève in The Roots of Postmodern Politics. This animalization involves the degradation of humans (independent subjects capable of reasoning, directed action, and compassion) into animals (mindless consumers who act on impulses such as hunger and the drive for greater comfort). It is Azuma’s thesis that otaku and, by extension, the society that has spawned them are becoming increasingly animalized. Azuma describes the narrative and cultural consciousness characteristic of otaku through what he calls the database model of narrative consumption.

This database model stands in direct contrast to the model proposed by Ōtuska (which he refers to as the “tree model” in his monograph Monogatari shōhiron). To give another example of how Ōtsuka’s model interprets otaku narrative consumption, the character Ayanami Rei of Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose individual story is merely a part of the larger story, is adored by otaku because, for them, she represents the tragedy, epic scale, and political allusiveness of the entire television/film series. Ayanami Rei is not just a girl in a battle uniform, then; she is Neon Genesis Evangelion itself. To “consume” her is to emotionally insert oneself into the apocalyptic, man-versus-god atmosphere of the larger narrative.

Azuma tweaks this model for understanding symbols and narrative in his database model. While Ōtsuka argues that the grand narratives of shows like Evangelion are given weight by their relevance to real-world grand narratives (such as nation and history), Azuma believes otaku narratives are almost completely removed from those of the real world. In the opening chapter of Otaku, he states, “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background.” Thus, although an otaku might be familiar with Ayanami Rei’s age and bust size, be able to quote her dialog, and expound on the quality of various plastic models made in her likeness, he is not invested any larger worldview or grand narratives that may be encompassed by Neon Genesis Evangelion. Instead, the otaku mines the series for information to plug into a mental database that also contains information on similar shows. Because of the absence of the emotional pull of grand narratives, the otaku can substitute one element of his database for another. The light blue hair of a young female character such as Hoshino Ruri from Martian Successor Nadesico or Tsukishima Ruriko from Droplet effectively is the light blue hair of Ayanami Rei. For otaku, grand narratives are nothing compared to the “animalistic” appeal of a character’s cute face or slender waist. Tropes can therefore be transferred from one story and character to another, as can an otaku’s emotional investment.

Azuma claims that, “Compared with the 1980s otaku [on whom Ōtsuka bases his model], those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated.” The otaku of the 1990s thus only consumed fragments, or small narratives. These fragments, which could comfortably fit within the small square boxes of a database, could then be easily cross-referenced with other fragments. Because of the ease of referencing these fragments, distinctions between an original and its copies (either through officially licensed spin-off works or fan works) disintegrated. According to Azuma, there was no longer any need to refer these fragments back to the grand narratives of either the original work or the real world. An otaku could float unanchored through the database he created through his consumption of undifferentiated narratives. And this, argues Azuma, is how the cultural phenomenon of moe was born. For otaku, stories don’t matter – it’s all about the cute girls.

In the first section of Otaku, Azuma explains his model. In the second section, he provides examples of how it works. During these two sections, Azuma’s writing is clear and easy to understand. The third and final section of the book, however, is a bit of a mess. In this section, Azuma gets really excited about the internet in a manner that now seems somewhat naïve; but, in Azuma’s defense, he was writing more than ten years ago. Despite the dated feel of this last section, however, Azuma’s ideas are accessible and make a great deal of sense, even to a reader with no prior experience in postmodern philosophy.

A Treasure Hunter’s Guide to Dōjinshi

Or, how to find dōjinshi in Tokyo. Here is what you need to know before you set out:

First, stores specializing in dōjinshi tend to fall into two categories, dansei-muke (for men) and josei-muke (for women). Dansei-muke dōjinshi are usually highly pornographic, and it is far from uncommon for them to feature the graphic rape of minors (or characters drawn to look like minors). The term josei-muke refers to the genre of boys love (BL), but the majority of the dōjinshi found in josei-muke stores aren’t BL at all but rather humor, parody, drama, or light heterosexual romance. You can usually tell what you’re getting from the cover, but every dōjinshi is enclosed in a plastic slipcase that you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) open until you actually buy the thing. Most general-audience dōjinshi are ¥210, and a good rule of thumb is that, the more expensive the dōjinshi, the more pornographic its content. There are exceptions to this – the dōjinshi in question may be particularly rare, or particularly good, or by a particularly well-known artist – but again, you can usually make an educated guess on the content based on the cover.

Second, you need to know how to read Japanese. It goes without saying that all dōjinshi are written in Japanese (regardless of whether English is used on the cover). More importantly, no English is used in any of the stores. Dōjinshi are organized in kana order by the title of whatever work they’re based on and grouped according to genre (ie, video games, shōnen manga, Western television shows, Korean boy bands, etc). Dōjinshi based on more popular series (such as Hetalia or Final Fantasy VII) are further organized by pairing or dōjin circle. You’re therefore going to need to be able to read Japanese in order to navigate the stores. The staff at these stores is generally happy to help you find what you’re looking for, but you need to tell them the title of the gensaku (original work on which the dōjinshi is based) in Japanese before they can help you. If you’re not confident about your Japanese, it might be useful to bring a friend to help you navigate and to visit the stores as soon as they open (so they won’t be crowded).

With that in mind, here we go!

Ikebukuro

Ikebukuro, and more specifically Otome Road, is the mecca for fujoshi. It should be the first and last place that any female dōjinshi hunter visits. If you’ve never been here before, let me promise you that it’s anything beyond your wildest dreams. Bring lots of money.

Ikebukuro Station is absolute chaos, and it’s very easy to get lost. In general, though, you want to head towards the Seibu side of the station. There are several exits out of the JR portions of the station; but, if you follow the yellow signs for “Sunshine” (which are referring to Sunshine City), you should be headed in the right direction. The specific exit you want to take out of the station is Exit 35.

You’ll emerge from chaos into chaos. There will be a huge Bic Camera to your left and an enormous throng of people directly in front of you. Follow the throng straight ahead and then to the left to a street crossing. On the other side of the street will be a Lotteria on the left and a Café Spazio on the right. Cross the street and pass in between these two restaurants to enter an enormous shopping street called Sunshine Plaza. Walk all the way down the street until you reach a highway overpass. Cross the road under the overpass on the right side and then turn right in front of the Toyota Auto Salon. Walk until you reach a Family Mart, and then take a hard left all the way around the corner building. You should see an Animate in front of you. Congratulations! You’ve reached Otome Road.

Otome Road begins at the Animate and ends at the three-story K-Books Dōjin-kan. This K-Books is probably the single best dōjinshi store in all of Tokyo. They have dōjinshi for every conceivable fandom, and they usually have the same dōjinshi for less money (¥210 as opposed to ¥420) than at the Mandarake you passed on the way. They also have tons of original dōjinshi and dōjinshi sets (all of the dōjinshi in a series, or a dōjinshi packaged with extras like fans or postcards). Keep in mind that all of the dōjinshi on the second floor are new and can usually be found for a fraction of the price on the third floor, where they sell used dōjinshi. What I like about this particular store is that they have a lot of general interest dōjinshi that have nothing to do with yaoi. The previously mentioned Mandarake has a much stronger focus on BL dōjinshi, and it’s a good place to find original dōjin artbooks as well.

There are two different branches of Café Swallowtail (a famous butler café) on Otome Road, one next to the Mandarake and one next to the K-Books. If you’d like to visit, make sure that you’re familiar with the process of attaining a reservation before you go. The two locations have two different reservation procedures, and you can only make a reservation for a thirty-minute time slot. Don’t be afraid of trying one out, even if your Japanese isn’t perfect, but it’s way more fun to go with a friend (especially since the cafés are geared towards parties of two).

On your way through Sunshine Plaza from the station to the highway overpass, you can turn right at any point to enter a maze of manga stores, maid cafés, and cat cafés. Also, if you’re really into Japanese youth culture and fashion, try entering Sunshine City (you’ll know it when you see it), which is the size of a small city – a small city filled with clothing and accessories for teenagers (and an aquarium). Finally, the cinemas lining Sunshine Plaza are the best places to go to see an animated movie, whether it’s the new Ghibli film or the latest feature-length spin-off of a popular franchise like K-ON. They’re also good places to pick up all the guidebooks and merchandise that accompany these movies. If you need to chill out and kill time before a show, you can always take advantage of one of the many many many kitschy love hotels (which are cheap and clean and more than likely have a nicer shower than your apartment or hotel) right off the main street.

Akihabara

Akihabara is where you go to get porn. The end.

Okay, seriously. Akihabara specializes in dansei-muke dōjinshi. There are tons of small dōjinshi stores located several floors up or several floors down from the narrow side streets that twist through the main electronics district. Many of these smaller stores cater to specific fetishes, and some of these fetishes might be extremely disturbing to some people. I will therefore leave the true exploration of this area to the truly adventurous. Thankfully, the Akihabara branches of K-Books and Mandarake are fairly mainstream (although still filled with porn).

Take the Akihabara Electric Town exit out of the JR station. Straight ahead you’ll be looking at several columns and a storefront, so head to your left to exit. Once outside the building, turn to your right. A few dozen feet down the left side of the street you’ll see the Radio Kaikan. There are several entrances into this building, but you want to take the escalator that goes directly from the storefront up to the second floor. (It’s right next to the display of electronic dictionaries. Incidentally, this is the single best place in Japan to get an electronic dictionary, as it has all the latest models at 40-60% off the list price.) Once off the escalator, go up the stairs to the third floor and then turn to your right to enter the K-Books dōjinshi store. Whatever fandom you’re interested in, from Evangelion to Azumanga Daioh, they have porn of it. They also have tons of fresh dōjinshi from the latest comic markets at reasonable prices, as well as other dōjin goods such as Vocaloid albums and body pillow covers.

[ETA: As of July 1, 2011, the Akihabara branch of K-Books has relocated to the “Akiba Cultures Zone” (AKIBAカルチャーズZONE). To get there, use the directions for Mandarake but turn to your left before the Sumitomo Fudōsan instead of after it. In other words, turn left at the Daikokuya electronics store (you should see the K-Books storefront reflected in the glass windows of the Sumitomo building). The first floor houses used manga, and the dōjinshi are on the second floor.]

The other big dōjinshi store in Akihabara is the Mandarake complex, which has separate floors for dansei-muke dōjinshi and josei-muke dōjinshi (as well as other floors for other things, like used manga and cosplay supplies). To get there, go straight past the Radio Kaikan until you reach a large street. This road is Chūō-dōri. Cross over to the other side of the street and turn to your right. Walk for about two blocks until you read the Sumitomo Fudōsan Building. Turn to your left after this building onto a small street, and you should see the Mandarake complex ahead on the right. The fourth floor has josei-muke dōjinshi, and the third floor had dansei-muke dōjinshi. The selection on both floors isn’t the best, but you can sometimes find stuff here that you can’t find anywhere else, such as the dōjinshi of a popular circle called CRIMSON, which publishes print versions of its dōjin visual novel games.

On the way to Mandarake, you will have seen the main branch of Tora no Ana on the other side of Shōwa-dōri. Tora no Ana publishes its own art books and dōjinshi (and a few mainstream manga like Fuku-Yomo), but its third floor is a fujoshi paradise of BL manga, manga magazines, and dōjinshi. Even if you’re not into porn, it’s worth visiting the Tora no Ana in Akihabara just to check out the culture.

Shibuya

The main attraction of Shibuya is the Mandarake, which specializes in used pornographic manga and figurines but has a sizeable josei-muke dōjinshi section with a unique selection. Since this Mandarake is somewhat removed from Otome Road, the dōjinshi in stock here aren’t the newest or the freshest that you can get your hands on, but this can work to your advantage if you’re looking for dōjinshi based on older titles like Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Nodame Cantible, Hellsing, Wild Arms, Final Fantasy IV, or the next-to-latest incarnation of the Pokémon franchise. Also, if you’re looking for dōjinshi based on manga by CLAMP or the films of Studio Ghibli, this is the place to go. If you’re looking for original dōjinshi drawn by an artist like Ono Natsume or Yoshinaga Fumi, this is also the place to go. This particular store also has the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve yet encountered.

To get there, take the Hachikō exit out of the JR station and orient yourself so that you’re facing the Tsutaya building with the Starbucks café. Head down the left side of the big road passing to the right of this building (the 109 Men building will be on the other side of the road). In about a block the Seibu department store will be on your left. Turn left to pass in between the two Seibu buildings (there will be bridges above you). Go straight on that street until it splits at a kōban (police box) and take the right fork. The Mandarake will be a block down on the left side of the street, directly across from a Choco Cro café. You’ll need to go down several flights of stairs to reach the actual store. (For the record, there is another entrance into the store, but this is the one that leads directly to its dōjinshi section.)

While we’re on the topic of Shibuya, I should also mention the Tsutaya I referred to in the directions. In my opinion, this particular branch of the chain is the single best place to buy new manga in Japan. They have multiple copies of all the volumes of all of the latest manga in stock, and they have really cute displays created by the staff to highlight interesting and notable titles. This is the place to go to find out what is popular in Japan right now, and you can take to elevator down to the basement to do the same trick with video games before progressively working your way up through music, movies, and literature.

If you find yourself spending a lot of money, go ahead and apply for a T-Point card, which also works at Book-Off (and Family Mart convenience stores and Excelsior coffee shops, for what it’s worth). Book-Off is a chain of used book stores known for its ridiculously low prices and the excellent condition of its used merchandise. In essence, after using your point card for the first two or three volumes of a manga at Tsutaya, you can get enough points to get a used copy of the next volume for free at Book-Off. And speaking of Book-Off, the one across the street from the Shibuya Tokyu Hands is a manga lover’s paradise. They also have tons of used light novels, art books, and video game strategy guides that you won’t even find in Akihabara.

Nakano

Nakano is a bustling, working-class shopping area a few stops out of the Yamanote loop on the JR Chuo line. The area is a bit out of the way of just about everything, but it’s home to Nakano Broadway, a rundown warren of manga stores and hobby shops. The top three stories of this indoor shopping complex are a hive of Mandarakes. If you have any sort of hobby related to anime or manga or video games, whether it’s cel collecting (fourth floor), cosplay (third floor), or researching Taishō-era children’s magazines (second floor), Nakano Broadway is where you go to spend all of your money. There are also tiny stores specializing in Ninja Turtles action figures from the nineties, old Japanese coins, and prayer beads and power crystals. There is even a Mandarake store called Hen-ya that, as its name implies, is a treasure hoard of the weird, baffling arcana of postwar Japanese pop culture.

From the JR Nakano station, take the north exit for Sun Plaza. Head around to your right past the turnstiles to exit the station, where you’ll see an open-air bus station in front of you. Beyond the bus station and to the right is the entrance to a shopping arcade called the Nakano Sun Mall, which is marked by yellow arches. Enter the shopping arcade and walk straight back all the way to the end to reach Nakano Broadway.

There’s nothing to see on the first floor, but you can take the escalator up to the third floor to reach the most awesome used manga store ever (run by Mandarake, of course). Whether you’re looking for editions of manga like Rose of Versailles from the eighties or the whole back catalog of a manga magazine like Monthly Cheese, they’ve more than likely got it stashed away somewhere. If you want to go straight to the dōjinshi stores, skip the escalator and take the stairs to the right of the escalator up to the second floor. Turn left from the stairs and then left again around the corner, and you should reach a dansei-muke store and a josei-muke store right across from each other a bit down the corridor.

Since Nakano is so out of the way, and since Mandarake keeps a lot of its excess stock up on the fourth floor, you can find old dōjinshi at these stores that have disappeared from just about everywhere else (such as those based on Harry Potter). The josei-muke store in particular specializes in anthologies, and you can strike real gold here if you don’t mind paying significantly more than the usual ¥210 – dōjinshi anthologies are huge and beautiful but can cost up to ¥5,000 (although ¥1,050 is more common). It takes a bit of work to get out to Nakano, and you’ll probably get seriously lost in Nakano Broadway, but it’s definitely worth the trip for a true treasure hunter.

***

All of the directions I have given take it for granted that you’re using one of the JR lines (such as the Yamanote-sen). Be aware that these directions may not apply if you’re using one of the Tokyo Metro lines (or another private line like the Keio-sen).

K-Books, Tora no Ana, and Animate all have point cards. These cards are free and allow you to accumulate points with each purchase. You can use these points to either take a discount off future purchases or to get limited edition goods that can only be bought with points. If you’re going to be spending a long time in Japan or are planning on spending a lot of money during a short visit, it might be worth your while to ask for one of these cards. (In the case of K-Books, you might want to just get one anyway, since they give you a choice of really cute, collectible cards.) You can just ask your cashier for a card at K-Books and Tora no Ana, but you’ll need to fill out an application form with your address in Japan at Animate.

All of the stores I have mentioned by name accept Visa and Mastercard. The only caveat about using a credit or debit card is that you may not be able to get points on your point card for that purchase. The policy on accumulating points for credit purchases differs from store to store (especially in Akihabara), but you shouldn’t have a problem anywhere in Ikebukuro.

Finally, if this guide has made you giddy with excitement, please consider investing in the book Cruising the Anime City. It’s a bit dated (just as this guide is probably going to be in a year or two), and it betrays a strong masculine bias, but it’s still awesome.

Girl, Illustrated

Title: Girl, Illustrated: Japanese Manga, Anime and Video Game Characters
Japanese Title: ガールズグラフ:コミック・ゲーム・ライトノベルのイラストレーターファイル (Girls graph: Comic, game, light novel no illustrator file)
Art Director: Sometani Yōhei (染谷 洋平)
Translators: Shima Miya (嶋 美弥) and Marian Kinoshita (木下 マリアン)
Publisher: Pie Books
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 205

A few days ago I was killing time in the Borders next to Penn Station in New York City. I love this Borders. Not only do they allow people to sit on the heating vents next to the windows when it’s freezing outside, but they also have the largest and best-stocked manga section of any brick-and-mortar bookstore I’ve ever been inside. Every time I visit this Borders I find something that I had no idea had even been published. This time I found several copies of Girl, Illustrated. While I was flipping through one of them, I kept thinking about the recent New York Times article titled “In Tokyo, a Crackdown on Sexual Images of Minors.”

I am not a big fan of the article. For one, it doesn’t bother to introduce Ishihara Shintarō, his racism, his sexism, or his vocal ultra-nationalist political stance. So, when Ishihara is quoted as saying of the media in question that “These are for abnormal people, for perverts,” his statement seems only natural from a moral perspective. (Although one does chuckle a bit when he says, “There’s no other country in the world that lets such crude works exist.”) Indeed, the media that Ishihara hopes to censor is sensationalized as child pornography, and an impartial reader has no choice but to view it with disgust. It is only in the very last line of the article that someone is quoted as saying, “It’s a completely imaginary world, separate from real life.”

I wish the journalist who wrote the article, Hiroko Tabuchi, had played up this side of the debate more. I wish she had mentioned that, while Ishihara and his cohort are drafting legislation against the depiction of imaginary girls, they are also fighting an ongoing battle against feminists who want to change the law that doesn’t allow a married couple to maintain separate surnames (which hinders the career development of many female professionals). I wish these things because, in the past two weeks, enough people have quoted from or referenced the article that I am starting to fear how it may have influenced a non-specialist’s view of Japanese popular culture.

As all of this ran through my mind while I paged through Girl, Illustrated, I decided that the best way to look at Japanese illustrated images of girls is to actually look at Japanese illustrated images of girls. I would therefore like to review Girl, Illustrated, a bilingual art book published in Japan and available in America through online retailers like Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Books. Before I begin, I would like to state that this book does not contain child pornography. I myself do not support child pornography, and it is not my aim to defend or justify it in any way. Instead, I hope to challenge common notions regarding “anime-style” Japanese illustrations of young women.

The style of illustration in question is known as bishōjo-kei, or “bishōjo style,” with “bishōjo” meaning “beautiful young woman.” A bishōjo (as opposed to a regular shōjo, or “young woman”) is usually a female protagonist or central supporting character in a manga, anime, or light novel that belongs to a genre generally regarded as being targeted towards a male audience, like science fiction or adventure fantasy. Good examples might be Nausicaä (from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Nadia (from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water), or Ayanami Rei (from Neon Genesis Evangelion). Bishōjo are rooted firmly in fantasy, whether that fantasy is a post-apocalyptic technological wasteland or a halcyon senior year of high school. They need not be connected to an actual narrative, however, and are often depicted in original artistic compositions.

Girl, Illustrated is a collection of such compositions. Each artist is allotted two pages and four to six full-color illustrations. Accompanying these images is a section for information about the artist, which includes fields for the artist’s birth date, gender, hometown, webpage, inspiration, and comments. More often than not, most of these fields have been left blank, but the information is written in both English and Japanese when it is available. Unfortunately, the translation isn’t always perfect. For example, something like 銃器・武器と女の子を描く (drawing girls with guns or other weapons) might become something like “drawing girls in their underwear with guns,” but these short artists’ comments are still fun to read.

This being said, the main draw of Girl, Illustrated is what the artists say with their illustrations. Through affective character design and rich, detailed backgrounds, each of these illustrations wordlessly suggests a story. The vast majority of these images have been created with digital ink in programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and PaintTool SAI. Although most of the artists choose not to reveal their gender, judging from those that do, it seems that 2/5 are female. Among these female artists are young professional illustrators like Sakizou, Foo Midori, and fukahire. All of the artists, male or female, take beautiful young girls as their subject matter, and there doesn’t seem to be any discernable difference between the themes and style of the male illustrators and those of the female illustrators. For example, this is a piece by the female artist onineko:

And here is a piece by the male artist Ichikawa Takashi:

Both of these illustrated girls seem to be young, pure, and innocent. They are magical beings firmly enmeshed in their respective fantasy worlds, and there is a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” quality about them that probably seems familiar to a Western (and non-otaku Japanese) audience. Illustrations like these won’t raise any eyebrows.

Problems in the interpretation and judgment of these images arise when the girls are not quite so pure and innocent but instead betray hints of sexuality. For example, one picture by the male artist gorobots parodies the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) with the logo NPK (Japan Panty Corporation) and contains the text “When you sit down, I stand up,” double entendre absolutely intended:

Such sexualized images of young women are not just drawn by men, however. Exposed breasts, bums, and panties are also explored in the work of female artists like Higuchi Norie:

The portfolios of other female artists whose work appears in Girl, Illustrated are full of scantily-clad young women enjoying themselves and each other’s company. Regardless of the extent or intensity of the sexualization, however, the fantasy element of these pieces remains strong, and the girls are always more playful than pornographic.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not defending child pornography. Illustrated pornography in Japan is extraordinarily explicit, and it is quite clearly packaged as pornography and sold in separate venues, regardless of the imagined ages of its imaginary protagonists. As for sexualized but non-(overtly-)pornographic images of young girls, though, I might argue that they belong to a different discursive space altogether. Bishōjo simply are not real. They are not real because they are illustrated, obviously, but they are also not real because they are the embodied representatives of pure fantasy. Their world is not our world, and they are our gateways into that world. People who draw and appreciate them do so because of the beautiful otherworld they channel, not because they are fodder for onanistic inclinations. One might draw a parallel between the bishōjo style of illustration and the hyper-sexualized men and women on the covers of American fantasy novels; the tight leather pants and clinging silk dresses of these painted figures are not so much signifiers of pornography as they are emblems of a certain Tolkienian fantasy aesthetic.

The fundamental idea behind the proposed manga (and game and illustration) censorship law in Tokyo is that men are looking at women in a way that is psychologically unhealthy. There is obviously a pornographic gaze that is encouraged and exploited in many aspects of popular and commercial art, but I wonder if perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to posit the existence of something like a “fantasy gaze,” or at least a type of gaze that is less concerned with the image itself than the story behind the image.

Moreover, the sizable percentage of women painting and consuming these bishōjo characters and illustrations complicates the idea of an all-powerful male gaze. One might argue, as have many feminist scholars, that these women have adopted an hermaphroditic gaze. In other words, female viewers have internalized the male gaze and therefore identify with male characters and viewers when they look at sexualized images of women. I myself would like to raise the possibility of a female gaze. This female gaze is responsible for the fanworks featuring male-on-male pairings from popular series like Naruto and Hetalia, of course, but I think it’s also a way for women to portray and look at themselves and other women. By creating and appreciating mildly sexualized images of girls, for example, women can embrace and celebrate a sexuality that lies beyond virgin/mother/whore stereotypes. For women, then, the appeal of bishōjo is not merely the asexual appeal of the fantasy world they represent but also the self-reflexive appeal of being young, beautiful, magical, and, yes, sexual. Furthermore, who is to say that male viewers don’t similarly employ this female gaze when looking at such images?

Girl, Illustrated isn’t just a collection of gorgeous artwork. It’s also a way of looking at and thinking about Japanese bishōjo illustrations. Included at the beginning of the volume is a (mostly) translated essay about how bishōjo characters are marketed and used to promote domestic regional tourism in Japan. Are the editors of the volume trying to suggest that perhaps bishōjo are Japan? It’s a stretch, but it’s also an interesting cultural perspective. In any case, this collection is both fascinating and beautifully produced. Even if you’re more interested in fine art than you are in anime, Girl, Illustrated is still an excellent resource for examining both portrayals of the body and the possibilities of new digital media.

Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part Three)

In three of the main genres of Japanese animated pornography, then, female characters are privileged, not degraded. In the osana najimi story, women are not merely bodies to be gazed upon, exploited, and manipulated. They are instead characters in their own right and often developed much more than male characters. These male characters respect the female characters and connect with them just as much on an emotional level as they do on a physical level, and their union is often tied to a narrative of self-realization and maturation for both parties. Certainly, the personalities of the female characters are often based on phallocentric ideals, but the same could be said of many female characters in the mainstream anime from which the pornography draws its tropes. In the self-fulfilling harem story, women are depicted as fantasizing about idealized men as they satisfy themselves sexually, and actual men are not strictly necessary. On a metatextual level, this situation parodies many popular mainstream anime as well the onanistic activities of the male viewer who is erotically drawn to these anime. Finally, occult pornography bestows on its female characters many of the powers given to the protagonists of magical shōjo stories, and these characters are thus able to defeat their tentacles and enjoy them too. Also, these stories locate erotic and other physical experiences in the female body, thus allowing the viewer to receive pleasure by identifying as female.

Of course, not every pornographic story challenges traditional notions of the male as subject and the female as object in these ways. One of the more problematic tropes of animated pornography (which is often embedded in science fiction themed stories like Bondage Queen Kate) is that of the female rape victim who falls in love with her rapist in a case of sexual/romantic Stockholm Syndrome. This is not to be confused with the erotic conversation that often occurs during consensual sexual acts, of which a typical example might be, “No, stop, don’t do that, please stop” (Yamete! Sore dake wa dame. Iya da!). Rather, this trope involves a woman who actively resists and is obviously upset by a traumatic sexual experience only to then blushingly cuddle with her rapist(s) after the act. Closely connected to the rape equals love trope is the idea that it’s not rape if you enjoyed it, which occasionally finds its way into more conventional (and consensual) pornographic narratives. In my experience, however, both of these tropes are infinitely more common in manga than they are in anime, so I will put them aside for a future discussion. (What I will also put aside is the prevalence of both of these tropes in boys’ love pornography, which is written by women and for women.)

In any case, if the generalizing assumption that animated pornography privileges female characters can be accepted, can we therefore state that it isn’t sexist? Does it really treat female characters as subjects with their own agency? To address this question, I’d like to briefly refer to American feminist debates regarding live-action American pornography in the eighties. By 1980, feminists such as Laura Lederer had started to speak out against rape and spousal abuse. To greatly oversimplify the matter, these feminists blamed real-world violence against women on the misogyny present in mainstream media and public discourse. Pornography became a key issue in this movement, with radical feminist Robin Morgan famously stating that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” The notion that watching pornography directly influences men to commit sex crimes has since been challenged and disproved, but the idea of a “pornographic gaze” that is harmful to women remains, especially when it is joined to the concept of the “male gaze” that has been adapted and re-adapted ever since cinema theorist Laura Mulvey first proposed its existence in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

The concept of the male/pornographic gaze is highly psychoanalytic in nature, and I’m still not sure that I completely understand it; but, to summarize, it is centered around subjects and objects, with the looker being the subject and the person being looked upon being an object that the looker is free to manipulate as he wishes. This type of looking, which denies the agency and humanity of all but the looker, is considered to be extremely psychologically violent to the women who are often the objects of the gaze. Therefore, even if the narrative of a pornographic story characterizes women as powerful and respected by male characters, the way that the camera treats their bodies – forcing them to hold still as it pans over their curves, or rotating around them to show their bodies off to full effect, or taking the position of the male who is sexually penetrating them – cancels out any interiority or agency with which the narrative might have endowed them. Robert Jensen, the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, articulates this argument quite succinctly:

Pornography presents women as objectified female bodies that exist for men’s sexual pleasure. Because women in pornography are not subjects but objects, not fully human, kindness towards them is no more required than would be kindness to any other object. If while out for a walk I picked up a stone and threw it down the road, no one would chastise me for being unkind to the stone. So it is in pornography.

Of course there are many problems with this theory, including, for example, the fact that it ignores the existence of a female viewer who may have an entirely different relationship to the characters on screen. Devil Hunter Yōko may be a sex object to heterosexual male viewers, but my teenage self adored her simply because she is such a badass. It’s also not inconceivable that many male viewers have been similarly captivated by her sword-swinging antics (the show has some awesome fight scenes) without then going to look for porn of the character being raped or otherwise abused.

On a broader scale, I believe that a great deal of Japanese animated pornography out of the (admittedly limited) amount I have seen over the course of the past fifteen years is not at all unkind to its female characters. They have interiority (in that they are often the main character or narrator), they have agency (in that they are usually in full control of what happens to their bodies), and they are often quite powerful characters, even if the viewer is encouraged to ogle their every curve. Certainly the context is quite different than that being addressed by feminists like Robert Jensen and Andrea Dworkin, but I believe that’s why it’s important for Western feminist scholars to pay attention to Japan. The more data there is to add nuance to an argument, the better; and there is a huge amount of data contained within the wide field of Japanese animated pornography. When the very category of gender itself is now accepted as imaginary, perhaps imaginary women themselves deserve a closer look.

To complicate my argument a bit, I feel that it’s necessary to bring up the topic of moe, a style of characterization that either focuses on children or presents young adults as childlike in an attempt to stir an affective emotional response in the viewer or reader. The titles I have been referring to in this essay are from the nineties, and similar stories continue to be released. From the beginning of the past decade, however, moe has gradually crept into mainstream animated pornography; and, even though all of the characters are 100% imaginary, this style of graphic and narrative depiction has often been labeled as child pornography and treated accordingly – with unmasked disgust. (There is even a now-famous case of an American manga collector being jailed for importing this type of pornography.)

It is easy to dismiss this reaction as sexual Puritanism, as sexuality is a fantastic wonderland of the mostly unknown and, in any case, illustrations are just illustrations. However, even non-pornographic anime has adopted a sexualizing moe element, from relatively innocuous series like K-ON to not-so-innocent series like Kodomo no jikan. What is upsetting about moe to me personally is not the sexualization of minors, per se, but rather the minor-ification of sexual subjects. What I have been sensing over the past ten years is a feedback loop between animated pornography and mainstream animation in Japan, the result of which being that an infantilizing pornographic gaze has been increasingly applied to the characters of many popular anime series. A great deal of digital ink has been spilled discussing this topic (and a good place to start clicking on links is the Wikipedia article), so I will defer to other writers, but I simply wish to mention it as an alternate path of inquiry on the topic of female characters in Japanese pornographic anime.

Speaking of deferring to other writers, I’d like to list some of my sources. Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital has a lot of good information and discussion of pink films and Japanese cinema. Susan Napier’s book on anime has an excellent chapter about occult anime, and Anne Allison’s Permitted and Prohibited Desires has some good chapters on eromanga and the many types of gazes – although both books are a little out of date. Roland Kelt’s Japanamerica has a fun chapter on ecchi anime that’s much more current, and Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals does a nice job of explaining moe. The book Feminism and Pornography does an excellent job of summarizing the feminist and legal debates concerning pornography in the seventies and eighties, and the essay collection Everyday Pornography provides a nice update on the subject from many different voices (plus it has a super classy cover). Finally, the last two chapters of Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan summarize the context of postwar Japanese feminist movements, and Ueno Chizuko’s Onna-girai: Nippon no misogyny, published about a year ago, covers everything that’s been happening in the post-postwar period (and is also a fantastic read). As always, if there’s anything I’m missing but should definitely read – academic or otherwise – please feel free to let me know about it!

Part One
Part Two

Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential:
How teenage girls made a nation cool

Authors: Brian Ashcraft with Shoko Ueda
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 191

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.