September 2015 - April 2016
**For the article in German head over to VICE.**
When I first went to Japan about 5 years ago, I couldn’t help but to be shocked by how sexualised and objectified women are in Japanese media.
Not that this doesn’t happen everywhere else too, but clearly something was rotten in the state of Japan and in Tokyo, where you can find streets lined with high school girls selling their company to middle-aged salarymen. As of 2015, the world’s third largest economy ranks at 101 out of 145 nations in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Index” making it one of the most unequal industrialised nations in the world for women. Although always praised for being so technologically advanced (and it really isn’t, trust me), Japan still boosts one of the most conservative working environments in the modern world where many women permanently leave (or are pressured to leave) the workforce upon marriage or their first pregnancy. While this is clearly one of the less favourable remnants of old Japan, things are certainly changing with the younger generation. Just. very. slowly.
One other thing everyone who goes to Japan will notice, is that Japanese people have a special relationship to, what is probably best encapsulated in the concept of “cuteness.” And I don’t just mean their affection for adorable puppies wearing sweaters, life-size mascots or cafés serving teddy bear shaped food, but cuteness as a pervasive element in various aspects of everyday life, which manifests itself in both subtle and strikingly bold forms.
While most Japanese people don’t dress in cute outfits like you will see in this project, cuteness and even innocence are seen as ideal virtues, especially for (young) women. It is, for example, not uncommon for some females to make their voice sound cuter when talking to customers or to their often male superiors at the workplace. While this also has a lot to do with cultural standards of politeness, it is noteworthy that cute behaviour is more often expected from and performed by women than by men which many scholars attribute to the lingering of patriarchic values in Japanese society.
Breaking away from some of the more mainstream phenomena I have scratched the surface of, we can see the popularity of cuteness, youthfulness and innocent femininity even more obviously in plenty of Japan’s manifold subcultures. Most famously perhaps in Tokyo’s Harajuku girls by which people generally mean “Lolita” but also “Decora" or other various and ever-evolving styles I am not even going to attempt to list here. Even though Harajuku is always named as the Mecca of these cute and colourful subcultures, I find it important to mention that the size, influence and popularity of Harajuku and its people - within Japan - is definitely overblown by non-Japanese media, meaning that nowadays the tiny neighbourhood and adjacent Omotesandō have turned into a cramped amalgamation of mostly Asian but also Western tourists searching for an authentic Japanese experience. As a result, the one time safe haven for timid Lolitas and other mysterious beings has now turned into a showroom for those visitors who shamelessly photograph and stare at these girls like they are models on a catwalk, actually driving away many Harajuku girls from Harajuku. This however, gives also way to a whole new subculture of Western boys and girls who are now populating the streets of Harajuku with their own interpretations of cute.
But cuteness in Japan can also take other forms, some of which perhaps show the more complex layers and darker side that lies beneath this culture. Let’s take for example the ubiquity of the high school girl character which is what initially led me to start this project. Unless you haven’t watched TV or played any video games over the last 20 odd years or so, you will have probably noticed that Japan produces a hell of a lot of animated series, manga comic books and video games filled with frilly characters and often sexualised high school girls in uniforms (see f.e. “Sailor Moon”). Some areas of Tokyo like Akihabara, Shinjuku or Harajuku will have billboard-sized images of mostly fictional school girls advertising everything from electronics to restaurants and sex clubs. The craze and ultimately fetish for high school girls had been exploited so much by Japanese media in the late 20th century that the country eventually found itself in a sort of crisis where real high school girls in Tokyo would become part of a cycle of teen prostitution, sometimes self-initiated (in groups of friends) and sometimes not.
The 1990s saw also the height of so-called “Burusera” shops to which school girls could sell their uniforms, swim suits and used underwear which would often be bought by geeky middle-aged guys or lonely salarymen. Given that the sale of used school girl underwear has now been made illegal by the Japanese government, the notorious “Burusera” shops have become fewer and now sell cute, used underwear from adult women, fake used underwear from fictional school girl characters and used uniforms from various high schools which can have a price tag from a couple hundred up to a thousand pounds - the girl’s smell included.
While the attention of media over the last ten years has shifted to other topics, the school girl in her uniform still prevails as a much loved character in many underground but also mainstream cultures for she symbolises and has helped cultivate the yearning for youth, innocence, fragility and freedom in both men and women.
The popularity of cuteness goes so deep that cosmetic beauty ideals, fostered by magazines and advertisements, have adapted to this appetite for youthfulness and consumers are provided with numerous tools to alter their facial appearance to their desire. Women in Japan (but also other Asian countries) can buy stickers to create a Western-style double eyelid or coloured contact lenses to make their eyes appear larger and then finish off this look with various, very intricate make up tricks to achieve the desired quite adorable look. And it doesn’t just stop there: Japanese teen magazines have mastered the art of cute posing and hand gestures which have raised whole generations of people with extensive knowledge on how to increase their own cuteness factor when taking photos.
As part of my project, I also ventured into the world of “Purikura” or “Print Clubs” which are unique photo booths designed for groups of teenage girls to make beautiful memories with their friends while looking über-adorable but also slightly bizarre. The photo booths each contain a gazillion soft boxes aimed at making your skin and hair look perfectly blemish-free and suggests various poses (modelled by Japanese idols) to help you and your friends turn into the best possible version of yourself. In a special post production area users can then choose the size and colour of their eyes, lightness of their skin, shape of their chin and add any thinkable type of make up, from fake eyelashes to pink blusher. While those subjects I have photographed in the “Purikura” are all adults, the machine turns them into their teenage alter egos, reflecting the ever-lingering sense of nostalgia for youthfulness which spans across so many aspects of Japanese society and culture.
In the end, there is certainly something mesmerising but also quite uncanny about the notion of cuteness; it can bring empowerment and comfort to some, evoke cherished memories of the past, but also hide the vulnerability and facilitate exploitation of others. Cuteness is an overwhelming expression of happiness and yet refusal of responsibility. Just as it comes in a variety of forms, it also evokes a variety of responses, from utter disgust to saccharine love.
Although Japan boosts unquestionably a variety of one-of-a-kind experiences and people, it is sometimes too easy to just explain (contemporary) Japanese culture through the widely accepted notion of “weird Japan” - an image that many Western media have cultivated over the years and even the Japanese government itself capitalises on to lure curious foreigners to the country. Despite all its historic isolation, Japanese contemporary culture is and has been influenced by the West and other Asian nations; most notably of course, the United States which has enormous sway on Japanese foreign policy making but also on Japan’s popular culture. You may find that some of the themes described and images shown in this project are both inherently Japanese but also highlight issues which are not Japanese at all and instead faced by all societies around the globe.
Japan stands at a position which is not quite definable by our, perhaps, narrow Western standards; it is modern and yet so traditional, Eastern but more Western than many of the once powerful nations in Europe, it is somehow trying to “catch up” but also defying Western standards of thinking, offering us insight into an alternative way of living “modern” life. I would argue that it is a mistake to analyse Japanese culture from a Eurocentric point of view measuring Japanese society with values and standards that often fail to understand the complex history and culture of “non-Western” nations.