If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve seen them. If you have plans to visit, then you will see them no matter where you go. From Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the far south, you cannot escape them. They are the sailor-suited Japanese schoolgirls! They are the trend-setters, the queens of fashion, girls who are not quite children and not yet adults, who are not tied down to a marriage or career and have the most disposable income of anyone in the country. To understand a major portion of Japanese pop culture, you must understand “how teenage girls made a nation cool.”
This book is not just about Japanese schoolgirls, it’s about how they have become an international symbol of cool. You will find sailor- suited characters in the anime of “Sailor Moon”, “Evangelion” and “Blood : The Last Vampire”, the kung-fu fighting women of “Street Fighter”, and as an assassin in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”. Gwen Stefani sings about them in “Harajuku Girls.”
It’s not only in anime and video games where you will find young women dressed in sailor suits – this book covers Japanese pop-idols, cult movie actresses, and even the history of the sailor suit itself. Although the sailor suit was originally created as a school uniform, girls would wear them outside school hours because they are also cute and fashionable. There are even companies that create “nanchatte” sailor suits (fake sailor suits) that aren’t affiliated with any school and do a fair amount of business.
However, one of the most interesting chapters to read about is the Japanese pop idol industry. You will find that music producers purposefully dress the idols the way they do to create an image that sells records (CDs now). The idol boom may have started in the 70s, but it was the brainchild of Yasushi Akimoto in the 80s with his creation of Onyanko Club, an all-schoolgirl group. Not all the group members were talented as singers or dancers but as long as they looked cute, they gained fans who worshipped them like goddesses. (Ashcraft and Ueda could write a whole other book about the fan boys (or otaku) themselves.
The late 90s spawned another pop idol group called Morning Musume, who was discovered during an audition for a TV show when the producer was looking for a new vocalist for his band. Instead, his new creation went on to become quite successful so he spent more time producing other idol groups as well – most of them being spin-offs from Morning Musume which started as a five-piece group, expanded to eight, then sixteen (with members graduating into other groups or going solo, and new members joining.)
Currently, the most popular idol group is AKB48 – another creation of Yasushi Akimoto. The concept is creating idols you can meet. With the explosion of the world of otaku, with anime and maid cafes putting Tokyo’s Akihabara on the map, the group’s name, as you might guess, was inspired by Akihabara. The 48 is the number of members (give or take ten or so).
It's not only idols that wear sailor suits –Japanese schoolgirls are also used in a lot of commercials selling everything from packages of kimchee to buying insurance. Businesses hire schoolgirls for focus groups to get feedback on their products. But it’s the fashion industry where their influence is the strongest.
The Tokyo Girls Collection is held twice a year. Its more than just a fashion show – it’s a fashion festival. The Paris and Milan and New York Collections may be prestigious, but it’s the Tokyo Girls Collection which can garner the biggest crowd – nearly 23,000 at the last one held. The concept is different from regular fashion shows; the clothes the models wear can also be bought on the internet via the cell-phone at the event itself. I’ve seen this event covered on the news a couple of times and you would think the women who attend it are lined up for a concert given by their favorite pop star; some even spend the night in line. To me, it’s mind-boggling.
Although this book does a fair job of covering most aspects of teenage schoolgirls, including controversial subjects such as enjo-kosai (paid dating), it seems every chapter could spawn a book of its own. It is light but entertaining, filled with many pictures and drawings and includes quotes from real teens that the authors have interviewed on the streets. It may not give you the lowdown on the entire history of Japanese pop culture but it will educate you on how a young generation of schoolgirls continue to make Japanese people cool!~by Ernie Hoyt