40c. The Mobilization of Shōjo Culture pt. 2

Uniform Standards

Having taken a bit of a “what it all means” breather, it’s time to depart the inn and wander down yet another path where, hopefully, we might take in breathtaking vistas and meet remarkable strangers.  And if we meet the Buddha along the way, we’ll be sure to cut that motherfucker down.

It’s no coincidence that I arrived last time, by way of a necessary digression on Japanese women’s activism and imperial mobilization, at high school girls.  One of the most fruitful intellectual exercises I have made use of over the years and which I have tried to teach my students to perform, with generally mixed results, is to “troll the index.”  What I mean by this is to go through the index of a book, the abstract of a paper, or some other indicator of important metadata and try to figure out what the author or authors in question simply didn’t talk about.  The point of this exercise is to see what kinds of things the scholar has taken for granted and how she presents those granted things as something like the scholarly consensus of a given discipline or field.  By learning to see what is both clearly relevant and clearly omitted, you learn, at least in ideal circumstances, not to take a particular methodology at face value and to arm yourself with the ballistic missiles needed to blow that methodology apart.

I say “ballistic missiles,” because such a tactic is inherently polemical, and by engaging in it you invite reciprocity, the likelihood that someone will do the same to you and point out your own failings, because we are all blind to reality in our own special ways.  So, many of the newly minted adults who have the great misfortune to be sitting in one of my classes quite often balk at the notion of engaging in such critique.  I can’t blame them.  They’ve spent most of their lives being subject to criticisms based on arbitrary standards they neither want nor properly understand.  Who in their right mind would actively invite such a thing back into her life?


Kagami is a born curmudgeon, though.

In reading a smattering of shōjo-ron or “shōjo theories,” it became apparent to me, almost immediately and rather ironically that while one of the primary foci for this discussion was “the schoolgirl,” most spent no time at all talking about Japanese education.  Sure, there is the occasional reference to “bourgeois boarding schools” and what have you, but that never developed into anything like a serious consideration of who this supposed shōjo is or what her education might have to do with the cultural formation of which she is presumably emblematic.  If you have already read last week’s post, you likely already know why I think this is–the theoretical figure of the shōjo has little basis in the lived experiences of actual adolescent girls.  It is a floating signifier drifting aimlessly from one media sphere to another (and in the darkness binding them), because those who hypothesize it rarely ever stop to ask whether, much less how, it (rather than she) might be grounded in something common to the lives of Japanese girls, even if not universally evident within them.  Insofar as education is a question unasked, I suppose we can’t make too much of the fact that it is unanswered.  Absent this grounding, “the shōjo” is free to be the constellation of flowers, frills, and ribbons so many critics want it to be or, following Azuma, a database of shōjo elements from which any given iteration of the type can mix and match.


Yet another mock-up “girl” from the Shinpan hikifuda mihon-chō dai 1 (Brand new flier sample book vol. 1) of 1903

Except, this image and its constitutive elements themselves have a fairly clear genealogy.  To be fair to Prof. Lunning, she at least tries to identify such a genealogy, even if her reliance upon mere resemblance leads her woefully astray (to Victorian/Edwardian England).  For the more obvious (and to my mind more convincing) genealogy appears in Honda Masuko’s “Jogakusei” no keifu (The Origins of the “Girl Student”) from 1990, where the salient connection between representations of adolescent girls and their connection to their educational experiences in the kindai period are left intact.  I cannot stress enough how important educational institutions are in the lives of Japanese teenagers (or teenagers in any developed country, for that matter), because they spend an inordinate amount of their lives in them.  Moreover, it is in high school especially where Japanese students form bonds, and quite often hierarchical bonds (for instance, senpai kōhai relationships), that last for the rest of their lives.  It is in high school that adolescent Japanese learn how to order themselves in accordance with societal demands for how they will be expected to behave later in life as adults.  Now, education as a form of social control is not unique to Japan, but it is worth bearing in mind that it does have some peculiar characteristics that, I would argue, shed light on that “mysterious” thing referred to as shōjo bunka, “shōjo culture.”

Of course, Honda’s work has had widespread appeal in both Anglophone (though generally Japanese writing in English) as well as the Japanese language discourses of shōjo-hood.

One of the central figures in shōjo studies, Honda Masuko, identifies several important factors in shōjo, which she explains with reference to the keyword hirahira (1982: 135-170 [!, that page range… from Ibunka to shite no kodomo {Child as Otherculture}]).  This onomatopoeic term usually indicates flitting, fluttering movement; hence it symbolizes the fluttering of ribbons and frills, which may charm the observer but may also be taken, literally, lightly, that is not seriously.  Honda further points that the ephemeral nature of this hirahira movement, the momentariness that can further be interpreted as indicating the capriciousness of shōjo-hood as well as implying its transient and transitional nature.  Hirahira is an apt adverb to describe butterflies dancing or flower petals falling.

(Tomoko Aoyama, “Transgendering shōjo shōsetsu” in Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Japan p. 53)

What Honda’s later work from 1990, the aforementioned Origins, makes clear, though, is that these hirahira elements used to signal or symbolize the shōjo do not simply emerge from the aether or like Aphrodite from the sea but rather come directly from the uniform dress imposed upon girl students (the jogakusei of Honda’s title) as a result of the imposition of compulsory education in the Meiji period.  Coincident with this drive toward education were a number of print media tailored directly to this “girl student” that had an explicitly didactic aim: to teach not only the importance of ordinary academic subjects but also the importance of a certain moral character.  Honda draws a direct line from these jogaku zasshi (girl student periodicals) of the late 19th century to the shōjo zasshi that emerged at the beginning of the 20th, most notably the rather obviously titled Shōjo-kai (Girls World) published from 1902 to 1912.  Through print media a clear image emerges of a kind of normative girlhood, one derived expressly from the attempts to shift the subject position of adolescent Japanese girls from one of indifference (the Tokugawa never paid much mind to girls in any capacity) to mobilization in furtherance of Japan’s emergence as a modern nation state.  This is “her” uniform:


A Meiji era “girl student” courtesy of the Ginmaku sanmai blog

This uniform, in keeping with early modern Japanese ambivalence about Westernizing influences, is neither strictly Japanese nor strictly Western in its aesthetic.  Yet, all those hirahira elements associated with shōjo-hood noted above are clearly visible here: the large ribbon used to tie her hair back into a tidy bouffant, the pleated skirt worn over the kimono in a manner reminiscent of Japanese shrine maidens, and a spray of flowers (daisies, no less) clutched gently in her right hand for g-d knows what reason.  Looking back to the kindai era for these shōjo elements seems necessary in a critical environment where the fact that it is a uniform–and in the case of modern seifuku a military uniform–is so often overlooked.  When you see, say, teenage girls with their skirts rolled all the way up to their crotches marching through Shibuya with long, loose socks girding their legs, what you are seeing is, to be sure, an appropriation and adaptation of the official school uniform–making it one’s own–but that fact alone does not detract from how the base materials which shōjo culture puts to an array of design purposes come from without and how they have been already loaded down with an ideological intent that can always be read back onto them, even if it contradicts the purpose underlying the appropriation.  Consider, for instance, how punk appropriation of the swastika could never quite escape the shadow of Nazism.  The same holds true here as well, for even while the weight of irony might repress that ideology for a time, the problem with repressed things is that they have a tendency to come back, often in unseemly ways.

Something About Education

If the shogunate had shown little interest in the minds of not-yet-women, then what exactly was it that the Meiji government intended to teach them?  Were they just so unwaveringly progressive that they had to lift women and girls up to an equal station in life right now, this minute?  Hardly.  Both the Meiji and Tokugawa regimes regarded the masses as simple minded plebs, an impediment to an orderly society that always had to be managed with the utmost care and irritation.  Education in modernizing Japan was meant, not unlike the “education” of aboriginal peoples in North America, to assimilate supposedly backwards individuals to the rigorous demands of civil society.  And the masses were so enamored with the new way of doing things, so enthralled with the possibilities of a new Japan that they resisted compulsory schooling in droves.

Not everyone was so happy at the obligation to attend school and the opportunity to graduate.  The elementary schools were to be financed by a 10 percent local surcharge to the national property tax.  In the 1870s angry taxpayers reacted to compulsory schooling as they had to the draft: They rioted.  Crowds of people destroyed at least two thousand schools, usually by setting them afire.  This represented close to one-tenth of the total number of schools.  The passive resistance of simply not going to school was even more widespread.  Rates of attendance for school-age boys and girls stood at 25 to 50 percent of the eligible population for the first decade of the new system.

(Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, p. 68)

Gordon draws a clear parallel between resistance to compulsory schooling and military conscription, each being a key component of what Meiji officials assumed to be the source of Western imperial can-do.   More than that, though, education served as a means to indoctrinate a population not otherwise predisposed to the mythos of the nation state into providing the intellectual and literal muscle needed in order to get that project off the ground.

As this resistance [to the draft] makes clear, the strong discipline and fierce loyalty shown by Japanese soldiers in later decades were by no means timeless traditional elements of Japan’s “national character.”  Such resistance also took place in Europe and in the United States, where large anti-draft riots erupted during the Civil War.  In Japan, as elsewhere, a patriotic spirit that could induce willing military service–a key element of modern nationalism–had to be drummed into the masses of people over several decades.

(ibid., pp. 66-7)

Yoshida Aya, in her essay, “Kōtō jogakkō to joshi gakusei” (“Upper Girls Schools and the Female Student” in Onna no bunka), notes that there was more to girls’ education in the kindai period that just the 3Rs (124).  The Imperial Rescript on Education makes clear that there was to be a moral component that demanded service to the state, and more specifically to the Emperor, and that would train adolescent girls to provide that service as good wives/mothers.  The Rescript imprinted the Confucian patriarchal order proper to the family onto the nation state, with the Emperor as the figurative father to a family represented by the body politic.  Filial piety now took on the form of loyalty to the state, to the monarch who would supplant the more “natural” patriarch of one’s own family.  This re-inscription of family values, as they were, is important, because it leads to an aspect of resistance in the early Meiji period that Gordon does not mention, how these new Japanese social institutions broke up one’s more traditional responsibilities to community and tried to reforge them in such a way that the state’s interests took precedence over local concerns.

This fracturing of family and communal ties lies at the very heart of both shōjo manga and the girls literature (shōjo shōsetsu) that both preceded and provided most of what are now considered narrative tropes.  The arguable creator of most of those tropes, Yoshiya Nobuko, makes quite clear how this familial fragmentation and reorganization plays out.  The English dormitory mistress in the first chapter of Yoshiya’s Yaneura no nishojo (Two Virgins in the Attic) had a fondness for describing herself, the narrator assures us, as “an elder sister [ane]” who nevertheless is also “mother to many.” (11)  Thus, what bourgeois educational institutions amounted to for the proto-women of the kindai era was a kind of surrogate, or rather, substitute parentage.  Now, the idea of educators functioning in loco parentis (“in the place of the parent”) lies at the heart of nearly all educational institutions in every country, but what is distinct here is how this plays into the political developments of that era, especially with regard to how newly organized familial units were put to the service of the state in Japan’s period of most aggressive modernization.

As noted above, alongside reforms in the economy, military, and education, there was also a successful attempt by reformers within the Meiji government to re-inscribe the more localized patriarchal values of Confucianism from the family (or ie, the household) onto the state.  The Emperor became the grand patriarch, the father of an enlarged family that now included the entire body politic, displacing the previous decentralized though intertwined system of families and clans in favor of a mobilized nation functioning under a much simplified system of ruling oligarchs and the ruled.  Just as the military became more centralized and specifically structured, so too social relations, especially for women and girls, through the reorganization of family, were wholly re-situated with regard to the state.  Education, in this context, became a point of necessary fracture, the point where the old bonds of one’s genetic family were broken, or at least loosened, so as to allow for the imposition of familial constructions from without.  This is not to say that family bonds ceased to exist but rather that they were put to a broader social purpose than could be encompassed by the ambitions of one’s immediate family.

I point to this “ancient history,” because we see its dark shadow cast over the shōjo bunka of today.  In perhaps the most popular and certainly one of the longest running shōjo manga of all time, Miuchi Suzue’s Garasu no kamen (Glass Mask), we see precisely this fracturing of the genetic family play out as a means to re-situating the main character Maya’s relationship to broader forces that require her to play a particular role (pun intended).  As a working class, teenage girl, Maya dreams of nothing else but to become an actress, a goal which she is constantly disabused of by her entirely unsympathetic mother.  The two of them work in a Chinese restaurant, and it is Maya’s job as a delivery girl that gets in the way of her ambitions.  One day, she is discovered by the famous actress Tsukikage Chigusa, who admits the burgeoning ingénue to her academy, where through a series of successes and defeats, through intense rivalries and friendships (your typical manga schlock), Maya slowly but steadily rises up through the theater world.


On the one hand, you can read Glass Mask as a rags to riches story, as a paean to the virtues of meritocracy, how, with talent, dedication, and hard work, you can rise up to be recognized by the elite and perhaps become one of them yourself someday.  Within this reading, the denigration of Maya’s working class origins and of her mother’s narrow-mindedness makes perfect sense.  The myth of one’s rising from her base circumstances demands that those genetic conditions be, first and foremost, debased.  There can be nothing about Maya’s previous life to draw her back into it, to threaten the primary thrust of a narrative that simply cannot countenance the world of mundane labor.

Another way to read this, though, in a manner not entirely contradictory, is to focus not on Maya’s movement from the bottom up but rather on those elite forces making impositions on her from the top down.  After all, Tsukikage’s interest in Maya is not motivated solely by a desire to mold and shape a talented individual, to assist in her self-actualization, but to mold her into the kind of actress who might one day take over the lead role in a fictional play called The Crimson Goddess, a play whose performance rights Tsukikage and other elite interests have been fighting over since before the beginning of the story.  Her efforts to shape Maya’s career are also, implicitly, to preserve her own legacy, her position within a theatrical oligarchy.  As a result, Maya becomes someone to be fought over by preciously those interests that seek to displace Tsukikage.  Perhaps each of these elite figures truly are carried away with Maya’s talent and potential, but that can never be divorced from the fact that admitting her to Tsukikage’s tutelage and more broadly to the elite theater world serves their interests just as much as hers.  Moreover, as the price of admission to this new world, Maya is forced to cut ties with her mother, as a result of which she, after her mother dies several years later, is seriously traumatized.

The theatrical elite that seek to shape Maya’s destiny have, quite literally, no regard for her genetic family, only for how her social relations might be reshaped so as to further their own ends.  Similarly, as we see in the kindai period, education, particularly those educational institutions created to serve elite/bourgeois ends, fractures family in service of a society largely beyond the individual’s control but to which the state demands a precise form of obeisance.  Contemporary Japanese society has not escaped this mobilization of shōjo culture–if anything, it has simply adopted a new mask.

With that in mind, next time we’ll move forward to more recent history and see what the contours of that new mask are.

Stay tuned!


  1. […] I and the world would most likely be better served by finishing part 3 of my series on shōjo bunka, I thought I might return to a critical controversy whose most recent discursive turns, given the […]

  2. This is brilliant. Please keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: