TOKYO — The sexiest schoolgirls in the world parade down Japanese town and village streets every weekday after class in their micro-mini skirts, exposing tanned legs that are never sheathed in hose, no matter how cold. Although America’s semi-naked female teens may disbelieve it, their provocative appearance is created entirely in school uniforms, to the alarm of the authorities.
The young women – the ones referred to are mostly 16-18 – display an ingenuity their adult masters never dreamed of when they adapted the nation’s uniforms in the 19th century from military models.
Boys were pushed into constricted, brass-buttoned, high-collared, dark blue tunics and peaked caps borrowed from the Prussian army. The girls were given British sailor collars, complete with the three white bars for Nelson’s greatest victories, and these were dark blue, although now skirts are often plaid. The boys soldier on in their outfits, although they are disappearing. But the girls have transformed theirs.
They are known as “kogals” from “gal” and “ko” meaning either little, or a shortened version of “koko”, or high school. Their emergence in the mid-1990s electrified onlookers. They sported dyed hair, sometimes almost blonde, garish cosmetics, expensive accessories like Versace handbags, and skirts often hiked to just below underwear level.
It was the kogals’ alleged after-school activities that caused the real alarm. By using telephone date clubs, and now their ubiquitous cell phones, they allegedly sought out mature and prosperous men for what is known as enjo kosai, translated in the blushing Japanese euphemism as “compensated dating”.
The media, especially the sensational weekly shukan magazines, went wild with estimates of as many as one in four girls experimenting in enjo kosai, although not necessarily engaging in full sex. Yet even such preliminaries were grossly exaggerated, although kogals were consistently quoted on prices up to $300 a “date” or more desirable, monthly retainers of $2000, (hence the top priced purses).
What was going on? Were Japan’s female morals, indeed the very future of its womanhood, deteriorating into mass prostitution? Of course not, but the idea was just what right-wingers were waiting for.
The result was a constrictive new law. How and why it was really enacted is discussed in a serious political and sociological book by the American research scholar, David Leheny, Think Global, Fear Local: Sex, Violence and Anxiety in Contemporary Japan (Cornell University Press. He also links the process to Japan’s newly emerging militarism and other recent laws exploiting fear to enable the nation to “enhance state authority”.
The two topics may seem mutually exclusive, but Leheny cleverly shows a connection – in motivation at least – while raising trickier sociological arguments about “international norms” and their unintended results. In both cases, the political right used fears imported from the U.N., in one case, and the U.S.A., in the other, to crack down on freedoms at home.
As the kogals were strutting their stuff, an international debate bubbling up at the U.N.’s International Convention on the Rights of the Child over concerns over male sexual tourism, particularly in Asia, began to embarrass Tokyo. In truth it was not kogals, but Japanese men, eagerly responding to flagrant advertising about availability of young girls – and, more secretly, boys – in holiday resorts in Thailand and the Philippines that were the trouble.
Japan signed the convention in 1995 but domestic debate raged on over teen morality with the ruling Liberal Democratic (conservative) Party which established a research group in 1997 to frame new legislation. It was passed in 1999 and amended in 2003 under the title Child Prostitution/Pornography Law. It was a response, said supporters, to “harsh international criticism” of Japan, which in a 1990s estimate accounted for 80 per cent of the world’s child pornography. But the law was aimed at enjo kosai in particular”.
Japan’s age of sexual consent is 13, and anti-prostitution laws are vague. So the schoolgirls’ sexual “crimes” remained unidentified. But their general behavior, with its implicit snub to adult authority, continued to be highly visible and consequently under attack. Meanwhile Japanese men took their golf clubs to Phuket, dumping them in airport lockers upon arrival.
From 1999 to 2003, the National Police Agency proceeded with “five cases” of Japanese overseas child sex. Meanwhile, arrests for domestic prostitution under the new statute rose from 613 in 2000 to 1,200 in 2004. “Creeping authoritarianism endangering individual rights,” as Leheny says, had successfully manipulated a new international legal standard irrelevant to the condemned behavior.
A similar bait-and-switch tactic occurred after 9/11, which fundamentally changed how Japan approached international terrorism. Previously this approach had defied American-British insistence on “no negotiations” with terror kidnappers and hostage takers, and it paid ransoms in several cases.
But rightists wanted more military authority and the new “war on terrorism” provided the opportunity. Under this guise Japanese hawks, headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, “moved closer to global norms on counter-terrorism,” Leheny writes, “by connecting fears that many citizens had… of foreign criminals.”
New laws were introduced. The most important was the “emergency” legislation allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Agency (military forces) to enter the 2003 Iraq war, its first visit to combat since its constitutional renunciation of war after 1945. The Japanese troops were not to shoot. But it was a huge step and, to the rightists’ glee, finally engaged Nippon as a “normal” fighting nation, although no public majority supported it at the time. Other “reforms” and changes in military regulations have followed.
Leheny writes: “The decision to send troops to Iraq thus demonstrated not simply the mobilization of changing norms to take controversial steps but a wholesale revision of the political principle on which Japan’s international counter-terrorism stance had rested.”
He concludes: “Child prostitution and terrorism were two cases in which international norms became crucial tools for those trying to enhance the Japanese state’s authority. Particularly in their struggles with left-leaning forces that used the constitution as a bulwark against remilitarization and the recrudescence of an older family ideal, conservative leaders have been able to point to global standards and argue that Japan needs to comply.”
From cute schoolgirls to international terrorism… As Alexander Cockburn, in a slightly different but applicable context recently pointed out, it is so often under-estimated just how roughly the right plays to win.
CHRISTOPHER REED is a British freelance journalist in Japan. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.