Many facets of Japanese culture often appear to be “infantile” — in other words, the culture treats adults like children. Toys and underage idols, for example, are marketed towards a much older audience than seen in other countries.
There is, however, much evidence that this cultural mode is not an integral or eternal part of Japanese culture, but something that really began during the emergence of consumer culture in the 1970s.
Listen to the young idol singers of the ’60s, like Hirota Mieko. When she was 14 or so, she put out her debut single “Kodomo ja nai no yo,” which sounds like it’s sung by a 30 year-old crooner. Popular culture was generally adult-oriented, and there was not much in terms of a “kids market.”
The whole burikko infantilized Japanese female culture did not start until the late ’70s. There was no equivalent of Morning Musume in the ’60s or ’70s. In the mid-’80s, Onyanko Club (The [wink!] Pussycat Club) comes on the scene, but opposed to the ’90s mass-girl groups, Onyanko is all about selling underage sex and lolita fantasies to older men. Everyone accuses Morning Musume of doing this, but they are sexless and spayed compared to the Onyanko who had lyrics like “Please don’t make me take off my sailor school uniform.” (Se-ra-fuku wo nugasanaide!)
With the Japanese economic miracle and its ensuing equal distribution of wealth, crime and poverty disappeared and any left over was swept under the carpet. Children grew up in a world where a predetermined path to adulthood — school, study, college, career — could be followed without having to make any kind of difficult choices. TV became a sanitized outlet for stay-at-home moms.
Adult-type worries became a smaller and smaller part of the national consciousness. Sex — which traditionally was very free in Japan — became very hidden until it exploded again in the Bubble era. The authoritarian government did not necessarily want to concede power to the masses, but they realized that they no longer needed an iron fist — just a soft mitt.
But in the rubble of the earthquakes, the gas attack, the bursting of the Bubble, teenage prostitution, an end to lifetime employment and the whole protective system itself, Japan is again faced with adult realities. Some are furrowing into childlike hiding places to escape, while others are breaking from the societal bounds, rising above the masses, and succeeding wildly. This is no longer a place where success in life is as easy as getting a “A” in Conduct — there’s no award for Perfect Attendance. And those who are taking steps toward making hard choices and embracing their adulthood are leaving the childish herd in their dust.
Those teddy bear ads still hope that everyone can be treated like a child, but sadly everyone has had to finally grow up.