My third novel is concerned with the clash of cultures, east vs west. With the decline of America and Europe, Australia is increasingly turning to Asia. As a result there has been a corresponding increase in Asian immigration and therefore an increase in the popularity of Asian culture. As I write this my TV is tuned to SBS’s Pop Asia which showcases, as the name suggests, pop music from Japan, Korea and China (especially Taiwan). A good example is Korean girl group Miss A, Bad Girl, Good Girl.
The growing influence of Asian pop culture poses an interesting problem for those concerned about the sexualisation of girls because Asian culture is far more tolerant of sexualisation in general, and far more gender and age ambiguous. It might also be fair to say that Western feminism does not have a great deal of influence in Asia.
Elsewhere I have argued that the Australian concern over the sexualisation of girls is extremely parochial and largely seeks to privilege white, middle-class Australian values. It seems that without exception the current cohort of academic critics (Melinda Tankard Reist, Emma Rush, Abigail Bray, Helen Pringle, etc) are white and middle-class. Where is the ethnic representation? Where are the young Asian voices?
I raise this issue because Emma Rush, in her article Sexed up tween advertising shows fashion needs to grow up, mentions the Japanese (and to a certain extent, Asian) phenomenon of the Junior Idol.
Japanese business is, as usual, ahead of the race in this commercial game. There is a whole industry (referred to as “junia aidoru”) that thrives on selling images and DVDs of pornified girls recruited by modelling and “talent” agencies.
Okay, so the first thing I’d like to say is that this group of women need to be careful of racism. The opening sentence suggesting that Japanese business is ‘as usual’ ahead in this commercial game is problematic. ‘As usual’? Ooops, mind the racist stereotype of the degenerate Jap.
The simple and obvious fact is that Asian culture is not Western culture and should not be judged by Western standards. This is a critical point. The West is informed by the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. Asia is informed by a fusion of Buddhism and the indigenous traditions of Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto and other native shamanistic traditions. This difference runs quite deep and naturally affects the way each cultural matrix interprets their own and each other’s culture.
There is much about the Australian ‘anti-sexualisation’ cohort that is culturally imperialist. They judge everything from the assumption that white, middle-class Australian values are superior. They are right. Everyone else is wrong. But more importantly, culture should conform to those white, middle-class Australian (and in Melinda’s case, Christian) values. Problem is that we are well past that point.
So what exactly is Junior Idol (junia aidoru)? Pictures speak a thousand words. Here is an example of the more modest type (the more extreme examples involve skimpier outfits and more overtly sexual poses).
There is no question that from the Western perspective these images sexualise young girls. They tick all the boxes. The images (and videos) are designed to showcase the girls and not the clothing, and they are intentionally directed to mimic the classic cheesecake poses found in adult magazines. Indeed, the junia aidoru phenomenon is all about making ‘idols’ of young girls (and in some cases, young boys). It is legal in Japan and Australia (these images are captured from Google Images and not from some obscure part of the net), although most Australians would find these images creepy and highly problematic (I find them tacky and ridiculous) and I’m not aware of there being a market here, even within Asian communities.
So how are we to understand these images and the phenomenon of junia aidoru? Do we impose white, middle-class Australian values or seek to understand the culture that created them? First let me say that I am no moral relativist. There are many alien cultural practices that are not acceptable in Australia (FGM and forced marriages being two that come to mind, including the junior idol phenomenon). But with our increasing contact with Asian culture and a growing Asian population, how do we control cross-cultural exchange? Japanese manga and anime have already had a significant impact on Western pop culture, even if myopic white, middle-class Australians can’t quite see it yet.
I think we should at least try to understand Asian culture and to that end here are some important facts to remember in understanding Japanese culture in particular (and to a certain extent, Asian culture).
1. The traditional age of consent in Japan and Korea (and much of pre-revolutionary China) was 13. It is still 13 in Korea and still 13 under Japanese prefecture law, although the national age of consent in Japan is 18 (imposed at the request of the US after ww2).
2. Asian culture does not share the Christian aversion to sex or the belief that children should be spared the details of adult sex. Family nudity is not an issue in Japan and traditional families used to sleep in the same room, meaning that children might observe their parents having sex.
3. Japanese erotic art and literature did not exclude children. There are shunga showing children present and Japanese erotic literature sometimes included the seduction of children.
4. A part of the Geisha and Oinan tradition involved the selling of the apprentice’s virginity at the age of 13.
5. The Taoist and Shinto religions have no moral objection to child/adult sex and Buddhism is somewhat silent on the issue. Confucianism is far more conservative but accepted the traditional age of consent.
6. There was little internal pressure to change these traditions. The pressure to change came from Western colonialists, especially from the Americans in Japan, both during the Meiji restoration and especially after WW2.
7. There is resistance to Western imperialism and considerable national cultural pride.
8. Despite this Japan has a very low incidence of child sexual abuse, far less than the West.
9. Given the relatively low incidence of child sexual abuse in comparison to the West, many Japanese do not think Westerners are in any position to judge.
Having said this, it is very important to understand that Asian culture has appropriated Western memes and reinterpreted them. In relation to the ‘idol’ phenomenon, Asian culture has borrowed the Western tradition of ‘cheesecake’ and twisted it into a new form, sometimes getting it absurdly wrong (so that images look ridiculous and awkward, or more like a parody). The images above do not necessarily mean the same in Japan as they do in the West.
The key is the concept of kawaii, roughly translated as cute.
Japan does not have the tradition of the body as a subject of art. Indeed, it does not have much of a tradition of portraiture either. Japanese artists simply did not ask people to pose nude for them in order to create a painting or sculpture. In fact the only nudity you will find is in erotica, much of which is comic with exaggerated genitalia. Thus the whole concept of an individual posing for an erotic painting or photography is alien to Japanese culture.
This means that Japan does not have the depth of context that the West does. Let me say this another way. The Japanese erotic aesthetic is not necessarily the same as the West. Indeed, the West finds the Japanese erotic aesthetic quite ‘other’ and sometimes incomprehensible. They find things erotic that we do not and conversely, we regard things as erotic that they do not. We cannot assume that they see the Western tradition of cheesecake as erotic in the same way we do. Which is why the concept of kawaii is so critical.
It has no direct translation. It is cute. It is also sexy, but sexy in a playful and innocent way. It is also cheeky and all about teasing; all about look but do not touch; all about fantasy. The ‘idol’ embodies kawaii. It is essential to understanding many modern Japanese pop culture phenomena; from pop music, to anime and manga, to fashion, film and TV. In short, kawaii is a uniquely Asian cultural aesthetic that has no real equivalent in the West.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the kawaii aesthetic is the way it plays with gender and age stereotypes. Thus Asian girls can often exaggerate Western ‘girly’ memes, or subvert them entirely. In the same way boy idols can be quite feminine by Western standards. But there is also a deliberate blurring of age categories – in both directions. Thus adult women (and men) dress to look younger and children assume adult roles and, as above, mimic adult poses.
It would be my hope that those engaged in the sexualisation debate approach it with a bit of intelligence and cultural understanding. Unfortunately I suspect they are engaged in pretty ordinary white, middle-class cultural bigotry.