Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion in Japan by Sharon Kinsella

Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies Series, Routledge, 2013, pp.238 pages including notes, bibliography and index, ISBN-10: 0415704111 & ISBN-13: 978-0415704113, £26.99 (Paperback)/£85.00 (Hardcover)

Review by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

This sociological study is based on painstaking research and contains much interesting material about aspects of the life of young women in modern Japan.

The reader needs to bear in mind that, despite constitutional provisions about equality between the sexes, Japan remains a male chauvinist society and Japanese women continue to suffer significant discrimination. Kinsella notes (p.104) that ‘the female ratio of the total wages earned in Japan in 2006, women received approximately one third (0.366) of total male wages.’  The Japanese birth rate ‘reached its lowest point on record in 2005 after a five-year slump (at 1.25 live births per 1,000) and marriage rates reached the lowest levels on record of 5.5 per 1,000 in 2010.’ (p.3).

It is also necessary to bear in mind the history of the ‘sex industry’ in Japan – from the ‘floating word’ of Tokugawa Japan and the ‘Nightless city’ of the Yoshiwara, through the war-time ‘comfort women’ and the ‘pan pan’ girls of the occupation era to the bars, ‘soap-lands’ and houses of assignation of modern Japan.

It is not surprising that some young high-school girls have rebelled and indulged in practices, which aroused the interest of populist magazines and sensation-seeking television companies. Some Japanese men, with what some might call prurient or pornographic interest, followed and stimulated the way-out behaviour of such girls.  Kinsella has looked hard at the question of how far the media were themselves responsible for at least some elements of deviant behaviour. Were some of the girls involved simply seeking, and wallowing in, publicity? Were they being led on in their responses by the questions posed to them? How far were their answers true or made up to lure questioners on?

Kinsella (page 32) notes: ‘From 1996, dressing up in sexy “adult” clothing, posing for photographs, and competing to have photographs published in magazines became dominant themes in schoolgirl street fashion and the basic formula of a new category of girls’ magazines targeted at kogyaru’ (high school girls). Kinsella also points out (p.64) that ‘Rather like the bõsõzoku bike gangs of the 1980s, who boisterously pressed journalists for appointments in which their deviant performances would be observed, photographed and reported, being a kogyaru was a pastime that played blatantly with media narrative about under age prostitution and compensated dating’.

‘Compensated dating [enjo kõsai] as a salaryman subculture’ is the title of chapter 3). ‘Compensated dating’ which involved girls in trying to get money from apparently sex-starved young males attracted much attention in the Japanese media in the 1990s. It was as Kinsella notes (p.39) ‘a risqué subculture for company and government employees led by male intellectual and fashionable cultural figures. For these people it was a distinctively male subculture that delighted in playacting at the boundaries of teenage prostitution.’  Kinsella devotes two pages to what she terms ‘Vicarious dating’ suggesting that sexual stimulation was for some man a substitute for the act itself.

In a subsequent chapter entitled ‘Kõgyaru chic: dressing as a delinquent girl’ she comments (page 84): ‘The intensity of their [the girls] interaction with reporters and camera crews and the organizational centring of kogyaru activities within the editorial offices of high-school girl magazines hint at the extent to which the sub-culture, while fully-fledged and “real” was also a highly professionally produced phenomenon.’  Schoolgirls in the 1990s had much more pocket money than the pre-war mogyaru (modern girl) and the magazines that catered for them needed to keep up their circulations to attract advertisers.

This book inevitably leaves a number of questions unanswered. How, for instance, do the Japanese girls studied here compare with British or American girls of a similar age? Do Japanese girls have more or less sex in their teens than their western opposite numbers? Teenage pregnancy would seem to be rarer in Japan than here in the UK.  Is this because they take more effective precautions or because they have less sex? Homosexuality is a taboo topic in Japan despite its prevalence. Do young Japanese girls have Lesbian relationships? How does the continuance of what might be termed the ‘kawaii’ syndrome, which attracts hordes of Japanese visitors to Beatrix Potter’s former home in the Lake District fit in with the deviant behaviour of the girls who are the subject of this book?  I do not criticise Kinsella for not offering answers to these topics but they do show that there is room for further studies in this area of sociological research.

When many years ago I was a member of the Economic and Social Research Council, I used to plead with sociologists to try to avoid sociological jargon.  Please, I said, try to write in clear simple English and short sentences.  Like so many books by sociologists this book is often very dense.

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