Women for Sale

The sexual objectification of women in Japanese society runs deep

Call me a geek, but I need my daily fix of Japanese anime as much as I need coffee during 8 a.m. lectures. Maybe that’s why I never realized how demeaning it was in its representation of women. 

In the world of anime today, it’s become increasingly common to see borderline sexual images of female anime characters with their (unusually) large breasts and curvy bodies only ever so partially covered in revealing outfits. More often than not, these women are portrayed as objects of male sexual desire – and sadly, portrayals like these aren’t confined to strictly fictional Japanese worlds.

Take a walk down "JK" alley in bustling Tokyo, and you might just catch a glimpse of the dark side of Japan’s infamous “kawaii” culture. Much like an after-school part-time job, young schoolgirls don their uniforms to attract older men, who pay the girls money for services such as massages, chats over tea, fortune-telling and strolls after dark. In a country where all this is perfectly legal, the purchasing and selling of women like play toys has become a popular and lucrative business.

From anime to schoolgirl culture, it’s clear that the sexual objectification of women in Japanese society has had a long and disturbing history – one that remains prevalent today.

Anime, Racy Manga and Pornography

My brother thinks I started watching anime just to spite him.

We grew up watching the usual slew of Saturday morning TV anime together – Pokémon, Avatar the last Airbender, Dragon Ball Z, etc. As we got older, our tastes diversified, and my anime addiction retreated into hibernation for a good portion of my preteen years. So when my brother tried to get me to watch the latest action-adventure anime he was glued to, I decided to do the only thing a pesky sister like me would think to do: start watching a different anime entirely.

That marked the start of my love affair with Naruto – a compelling story about perseverance, acceptance, and friendship. What started as sibling rivalry soon became a hobby – I was instantly mesmerized with the storyline, dynamic characters, and the way animators seamlessly integrated comedy and fast-paced action. Plus, I was growing tired of watching Totally Spies.

Yet as I started watching more anime, I began to notice that many female characters were made of the same cut: overly large breasts adorned in revealing outfits were often their most prominent feature. Take for example Kukaku Shiba and Harribel from Bleach, Nami and Robin from One Piece, Tsunade from Naruto, or Misa from Death Note – the list of hyper-sexualized anime girls goes on and on.

Despite the personalities and intellectual/physical strengths that made these women compelling characters, they were ultimately reduced to nothing but their sexuality through appearance and design – a choice that also drew away from the plot itself. It only added fuel to the fire when male characters objectified these women by openly having sexual fantasies about them. Can’t a woman to be of any worth without having her body put on display to be ogled at?

Albeit sexual at times, women in mainstream anime are far from the pornographic stereotypes mocking outsiders believe them to represent. Yet those seeking “legal” pornography in Japan don’t have to look far to find it – the sexual objectification of women starts young. And in a multi-billion-dollar industry, profiting off their bodies has never been more easy or lucrative.

 Revealing/sexual images of women on magazines can be seen in convenience stores and book stores, for anyone to see. (Japan Daily Press/Adam Westlake)

 Revealing/sexual images of women on magazines can be seen in convenience stores and book stores, for anyone to see. (Japan Daily Press/Adam Westlake)

After much scrutiny, Japan banned the possession of child pornography in 2014 – a ban that excluded explicit manga and anime. Sexual pictures of underage girls can still be found in convenience store magazines and inhabiting the pages of risqué manga, showcasing girls dressed in lingerie, performing sexual acts, or imitating  "junior idols" by striking suggestive poses. Rights activists not only recognized this problem but called for Japan to strengthen its laws on pornography, saying young women are “preyed upon” by the rich and powerful controlling the industry.

In Japan, pornography of this kind is perfectly legal – and easily accessible at that.  One news article  describes how pictures of naked women on magazines can be spotted at “regular, run of the mill convenience stores” or along “typical bookstore aisles” for anyone to casually pick up and flip through.

Readily available porn, risqué manga, and anime that religiously portray women as objects combine forces to make the sexual objectification of women easily digestible in Japanese society. In a culture with norms like this, it’s no surprise women being sexually objectified isn’t bound to worlds of ink or TV screens.

“Schoolgirls for Sale”

When did it become acceptable to sell women on street corners like bread at a bakery?

Take a walk down the streets of Tokyo at night, and you’ll see just that – hoards of schoolgirls hand out flyers and wait, hoping to attract potential clients. What sounds like prostitution at play is really just popular JK or “joshei-kosei” cafes that aren’t half as innocent as they seem.

 A schoolgirl waits in Tokyo, Japan for clients. (CNN/Will Ripley)

 A schoolgirl waits in Tokyo, Japan for clients. (CNN/Will Ripley)

A Vice News documentary titled “Schoolgirls for Sale” explores these cafes and Japanese schoolgirl culture. Grown men can pay to buy schoolgirls along with the variety of services they offer- everything from nighttime strolls to massages to chats over tea. Japanese schoolgirl culture is a lucrative business, where girls don their skirts, blouses and bows to play music to hoards of men, or whose images are used to sell manga and other products.  

What still strikes me as odd about the schoolgirl culture is the way which it’s been sexualized. From what the documentary shows, these girls are probably wearing the same uniforms they wear to school everyday while they’re taking tests, or gossiping with friends over lunch, or doodling in their notebooks – they’re innocent, and naïve looking, and cute, and possibly the furthest thing from sexually appealing.

It’s sickening to think about, but maybe it’s their “cute” factor and lack of sexual appeal that makes them desirable. “Japan is a patriarchal society, and it has this mentality that the young and seemingly innocent are valuable and more alluring,” said Kaze Muta, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Osaka University, to the Washington Post .

While some men even described encounters at JK cafes as "fun" and innocent, they can quickly turn into situations of sexual exploitation. Tokyo police raided a JK café in 2015, after they found schoolgirls folding origami and posing with their legs open for male customers to see. It’s no surprise that situations like these can give way to prostitution rings and human trafficking, as found by a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of State.

It’s hard to ignore both the pedophilic nature behind the industry and the sexually objectifying way in which girls are sold and purchased by older men to ward off their spells of loneliness. It’s the schoolgirl culture here that has given rise to what journalist Jake Adelstein describes in the Vice documentary to be one of the “most misogynistic, sexist societies in the world.” The sad part is we don’t have to look further than our own borders to see manifestations of this culture.

No matter how socially progressive we claim our societies to be, the entertainment industry and pop-culture in the West continues to profit off the sexualization of women – whether that be through half-naked women in music videos or TLC broadcasted child beauty pageants. While the open pedophilia enshrined in JK café culture is an uncommon sight here, singling out Japan as the only country to rampantly objectify its women would be hypocritical –  we are likely just as guilty.

All this research has gotten me thinking about whether I’m at fault-- if by watching anime, I’m indirectly supporting and financing a culture that fuels the sexual objectification of its women. But to limit anime to its occasional faulty portrayal of women would do it injustice; it has so much more great storytelling to offer, which is what keeps viewers like me hooked. Nowadays, I tend to lean towards stories with strong female characters, because these stories are ultimately more compelling. Until animators realize this and choose to look beyond superficial features, I’ll sit here waiting, and watching.