Men imagining a girl revolution: Lecture review

Erina Ogawa, Toyo University


The prevalent sexualization of young girls in Japan has long been a concern of mine, so I welcomed the email notification from Tokyo JALT of a lecture by Dr. Sharon Kinsella from the University of Manchester named Men Imagining a Girl Revolution. I attended this public lecture on the afternoon of 3 June at Hitotsubashi University, where Kinsella was a short term Visiting Lecturer. Kinsella is best known for her pioneering book Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, published in 1999.

Kinsella provided an historical setting for media and social trends in what is perhaps quite a controversial topic. Following a logical progression, Kinsella outlined trends in Japan’s social history, whilst providing examples from media sources. It was not the photos of topless teenage girls that kept the audience’s undivided attention for the ninety-minute lecture, but rather the amount of material covered and the comprehensive referencing with real media examples. The thoughtful questions aired during the time-constrained question session demonstrated the thought-provoking nature of the lecture. Below, I attempt to share some of the ideas presented in the lecture so that readers may have the opportunity to be similarly challenged.

Unlike in the West, where the historical image of poor and downtrodden women is related to the drudgery of housework and childcare, in Japan female liberation is historically a reaction to prostitution and male sexual control. This strong relationship between poor women and prostitution is evident given the fact that well into the twentieth century many fathers exercised their legal right to sell their daughters into prostitution. Conversely, voluntary prostitution in Japan is associated with female autonomy. The buried history of prostitution commonly appears in media images—even mainstream ones, such as in Miyazaki Hayao’s award-winning Spirited Away (2001). Chihiro’s bondage to the bathhouse (which could be a euphemism for the brothel) to save her parents could be viewed as a depiction of daughters in pre-war times being sold to brothels to save their families from poverty.

Kinsella also drew parallels between wartime Korean prostitutes (Comfort Women) and teenage prostitution (enjo kosai). She explained the reverse-image nature of the relationship between these two social issues; one image is of women forced into uncompensated prostitution and the other image is of girls being overly compensated for voluntarily provided services. She mentioned that the timings of news reports about enjo kosai repeatedly coincide with news reports about Comfort Women and suggested that members of the media prefer to report about enjo kosai rather than about Comfort Women.

Since pre-war times, according to Kinsella, Japanese journalism has consistently married the conflicting images of the two classes of young girls. The attitude of self-entitlement and the confidence of privileged middle-class schoolgirls has collided with the tough mindset, rough speech, and erotic clothing of poor girls. The theme of schoolgirls in revolt appeared in the Japanese media from the mid-1990s and the image of the bad schoolgirl was intense between 1994 and 2004 with a “veritable landfill” of media produced on the subject. At this time, camera crews went to Shibuya in droves, using low camera angles to film up the skirts of teenage girls. Almost all of the major animations of the 1980s to the 2000s have included sexual and powerful young girls as heroines. These heroines in Sailor Moon- type manga are girls in school uniform-style dress overpowering older males.

In reality, however, Kinsella insists that girls are still girls and are in a much weaker position in society than middle-aged men. This is evident in, and perhaps due to, their lack of voice in the media. Kinsella’s extensive research into cultural works about Japanese female resistance shows that they are almost exclusively written and/or directed by older men. In fact, she discovered that only one comic book out of several thousand on deviant schoolgirls was actually written by a schoolgirl. The absence of any manifestos, reports, or pronouncements by young women has meant that the only voice being heard is male. Kinsella noted that the fact that girls lack social experience and almost any media voice (coupled with the absence of young women in positions of authority) has allowed writers and producers to project a false narrative onto their image. This monopolization of the public image of young Japanese girls by middle-aged and older men could be a major obstacle blocking women from making progress in society today.

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