Yesterday I attended Tokion Magazine’s sold-out Creativity Now Conference, again at the La Foret museum in Harajuku. I cannot provide a play-by-play report like last year, but I want to mention a couple points about social class and Japanese culture brought up in the discussion.
* In the panel about “otome” women’s culture, photographer and original Egg publisher Yonehara Yasumasa talked about discovering the gyaru/kogal movement in the early ’90s. These were the days before loose socks and fake tans, when roaming gangs of rich kids called “chiimaa” (“teamer”) ruled the streets of Shibuya, rolling-and-patrolling in their cars, stopping only to pick fights with rival groups infringing on their territory. The first kogyaru were chiimaa girlfriends, and like their beaux, were from elite private schools and wealthy families. These young women would often engage in enjo kosai, which at the time was a method of oyaji ijime (picking on older men.) For example, they would charge salarymen ten to twenty thousand yen to sit at tea together — for exactly one minute.
But when the news weeklies started to pick up on the story in the mid-’90s, the editors changed the content and meaning of enjo kosai to be more titillating and more easily comprehensible. Suddenly, the word denoted a new form of prostitution, instead of the “compensated dating” that was actually happening. As the media message spread out to the countryside, working class girls rushed into Tokyo to take part in this new movement — which some of them understood to involve a fashionable form of sex-for-cash. At the same time, older business men flocked into Shibuya to test out the waters themselves, thus creating the sensational enjo kosai crisis of the late ’90s.
I asked Yonehara later about the class issues at work here, and he said, “At first Egg was about the rich girls that working class yankii girls look up to, but now the magazine is dedicated to the working class girls themselves.” Does the lower socioeconomic background of the subculture’s participants help explain the group’s different code of sexual morality? “The Japanese tend to adopt every part of a trend, so if ‘free sex’ is in, everyone thinks, ‘OK, free sex it is.’” Like many Japanese social commentators in their late 30s/early 40s, Yonehara is somewhat exaggerating the thoughtlessness of Japanese youth consumer behavior, but I think the gyaru story does follow the traditional pattern of “top-down” cultural transmission. What started as an urban upper-class delinquent trend attracted a mass following of rural lower-middle class girls; enjo kosai started as a way to torment pathetic salarymen and ended up as a financial means to pay for an expensive designer-handbag lifestyle.
* In the last panel on “Tokyo System Crash,” MC and visual art genius Ukawa Naohiro discussed Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro’s recent crackdown on dance clubs. Apparently, they no longer issue permits for “discos” in the city, and even with the permit, clubs are supposed to shut down at 1am. So, most venues have been registering as “restaurants,” and when the floor managers get word about plain-clothes cops knocking on the front door, they pull out the required number of tables and turn on the required number of lights. At one party, the plain clothes cops requested Ukawa and Moodman shut it down at 1am — an act which the promoters argued would unleash hundreds of young people out on the streets, unable to get home by train. So, they asked if telling ghost stories was okay. The cops said yes and they spent the next half-hour telling ghost stories to a confused audience, increasing the volume of the dance beats in the background little by little until the party was back on track.
Ukawa blamed the problem on Ishihara’s privileged background: “As a member of the Taiyou-zoku (1950s rich-kid delinquents in Shonan), his idea of fun is going to house parties at friends’ summer homes and yachting. He doesn’t understand our working class ideas of dancing.” Ishihara’s new mission is to open a fancy casino in Odaiba, which is again, a leisure activity primarily targeted for the wealthy. Rumors seem to suggest that the LDP is taking the issue very seriously, as a casino would attract foreign jetsetters and funnel their pocket money into the tax pool. So, in a couple of years when you’re sick of tech house, you can go blow your cash on keno.