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Jonathan Clements on a recurring media obsession

I once sent a BBC researcher away with a flea in her ear, after she asked me if I’d like to appear on a documentary about SEX. Oh yes, she said breathlessly, it’s all going to be very exciting. We’re going to talk about all those schoolgirls in Japan who’ll bang old men for money. Do you know anything about them?

No, I replied. Although I’m pretty sure that there are “schoolgirls” in Manchester who’ll bang old men for money as well, and I’m guessing that’s nowhere near as photogenic or titillating for you.

She wasn’t very happy to hear that, although I suggested that if she really wanted to find out all about schoolgirl prostitutes, she should give Sharon Kinsella a call, as she loved talking about them. That may have been the unkindest cut of all, as I’m sure if the Beeb did call Dr Kinsella, she would have given them a tongue-lashing that made mine look like a fireside chat with tea and cake.

It’s a truism widely acknowledged in the anime world that so many Japanese cartoons are obsessed with fantasy figures of 15-year-old schoolgirls because they are aimed at audience of desperate teenage boys. But Kinsella’s latest book, Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion in Japan, points to a wider media malaise, rising to fever pitch during the 1990s, based on a fervid, prurient obsession on the part of newspapers and TV programmes, determined to uncover a nest of vice and corruption that, frankly, wasn’t there. Drawing on the media theories of Stuart Hall, Kinsella points to hidden subtexts of ownership and control. “Our” women are being corrupted. What can “we” do about it? And can we watch…? How much do they charge…?

Using articles, TV coverage, novels and films, but also a timeline of changes in law and demographics, Kinsella talks us through the rise and fall of the enjo kosai (“Compensated Dating”) furore, and sets it within the ongoing narrative of the media’s obsession with teenage girls, as models, muses and commodities.

Kinsella pokes around in the archives to work out just who was quoting whom in the original scare-mongering articles, and soon discovers that absolutely nobody had any firm data to go on. Foreign newspapers quoted posh-sounding statistics, themselves harvested from “academic” articles that, on closer examination, she finds to be grounded in a few vox-pop surveys conducted by gutter-press journalists in Shibuya. This is a little like standing in front of a row of drunken Black Sabbath fans at an Ozzy Osbourne concert and asking if anyone likes eating bats. The answer you receive will more reflect peer pressure and sozzled jollity than actual truth. Nobody in their right mind would expect a foreign newspaper to extrapolate such a response into a commentary on bat-eating habits in Birmingham. And yet, it seems, this is what happened with compensated dating.

Kinsella breaks the politics of such interviews right down to their bare bones, and paints a picture of bolshie, amped-up soubrettes, bragging that they’ll do anything for 50p and a bunch of grapes, as long as they are talking to gormless, dorky researchers who look shockable. No-nonsense female researchers got immensely more sensible and demure replies, and handsome male researchers got hardly any replies at all, because their interviewees were suddenly bashful and giggly. Meanwhile, an entire slew of schoolgirls, wandering through the middle of Tokyo, had never even heard about prostitution until a bunch of journalists rounded them up and asked them if they’d ever consider trying it.

Kinsella smartly relates all this to earlier media panics, such as the British obsession with Mods in the 1960s, which similarly saw a prominent thoroughfare (Piccadilly Circus) jammed with reporters on a Bank Holiday hoping to see something kick off, and eventually outnumbering their interviewees. But she is more interested in precedents for a male-run, male-focussed media getting worked up about the activities (or alleged activities) of women, such as Japan’s 1920s media kerfuffle over the scandalously short-skirted, bob-haired “modern girls” of the flapper era. She also offers an entertaining aside about the conniptions of feminists, wringing their hands and entirely unsure whether they should be tutting with the men or cheering from the sidelines about females who take control of their own fate.

A common criticism of modern, Foucauldian discourse is that it chases its own tail for so long that it forgets about the issue at hand. But this is one of Kinsella’s points, that the entire media “issue” of Japanese schoolgirl prostitutes was built on phantom foundations, and amounted to a man in the pub fulminating to the Japanese equivalent of the Daily Mail that girls today were a bunch of slappers, dressed like hookers, and would probably sit on his lap for a fiver. Three or four repetitions of the story, and some random chats with passing teenagers, and suddenly respectable foreign newspapers like the Guardian are reporting schoolgirl prostitutes as an empirical reality, despite no actual evidence. Kinsella doesn’t say that there is no such thing as a teenage prostitute in Japan, but she challenges anyone who wants to talk about them to actually stump up some meaningful data.

I’ve got nothing. In twenty years dealing with Japan and the Japanese, the only time I have ever knowingly encountered a prostitute was at a London convention in the late nineties, when a large Welsh woman in a micro-skirt landed on top of a producer from Pioneer in the hotel bar and was mistaken for an Armitage III cosplayer. And there are anecdotes, of course, most memorably the encounter recorded in Donald Richie’s memoirs, when he runs into two schoolgirls who offer to fellate him for “pocket money.” Barking up the wrong tree, there, dears.

Kinsella notes that for certain listless teens lurking around Tokyo, the easiest source of income was not “pocket money” from sugar-daddies and aging film critics, but appearance fees and consultation bonuses from over-eager journalists, who inadvertently created a new class of “professional schoolgirls,” who would show up at teen magazines armed with stories of scandal. If their lives were disappointingly secure and middle-class, they’d simply make something up.

True to her title, Kinsella also follows the money, coming up with some interesting statistics about the way that the girl-focused industry rakes in its cash. She supplies, for example, the magic sales figure, above which a manga magazine is regarded as “popular” enough to be stocked in convenience stores (25,000), as well as the real reason that Sega made so much money out of photo booths (they’re also the sole supplier for the printing paper, and hence have operators over a barrel).

As part of an industry that glamorises and fetishes young girls, anime is, of course, part of this. Kinsella’s grasp of the medium is second-hand and wonky – she confuses Wicked City with Twin Dolls, and at one point appears to be suggesting that San in Princess Mononoke wears half a school uniform – but hits the crucial points where relevant. She alludes to the brothel subtext in Spirited Away – once a controversial assertion, now widely accepted – and to the psychosocial moratorium of modern otaku, drawing on her own earlier research into infantilism in Japanese media. Which is to say that nobody is all that surprised if a 15-year-old boy thinks that a 15-year-old girl is the most exciting thing in the world; it’s just a bit creepy if a 30-year-old man agrees.

Unlike the hack journalism it uncovers, Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion is richly referenced and meticulously cited, and will form a strong, robust foundation for further research into Japanese media, gender and issues of race. Race? Oh yes, for Kinsella’s closing chapters outline the various odd ways in which Japanese teenage girls respond to their characterisation in the media, including the grotesque blackface make-up that came into vogue at the turn of the century. It is, to be sure, no weirder than the young ladies of my native Essex painting themselves so orange that they look like they have been rolled in Wotsits. But it has become iconic of modern Japanese youth, and that’s what Kinsella has always pursued and analysed, to our great edification.

Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion in Japan, by Sharon Kinsella, is out now from Routledge.

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