I Know What Boys Like

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As part of some professional research I am engaged in, I talked with two female fashion marketing experts last night about contemporary Japanese women in their 20s. For a majority of the post-war, a Japanese woman’s lifestyle — fashion, makeup, hair, hobbies, general dispositions — could be almost perfectly deduced from her primary magazine of choice. The instruction and guidance are so precise that even the most individual extrapolation of the ingredients would still result in an extremely manifest membership to a certain style.

Knowing this, I have been interested in the grand meaning behind the giant octopus Can Cam currently sitting on top of Japanese society. The magazine has a circulation estimated between 600,000 and 750,000 — quite possibly the best selling title in Japan outside of the phonebook weekly manga. According to my sources, even women who consider themselves non•no readers may also be glancing at Can Cam to skim tips. CC‘s popularity has been attributed to the three exclusive models (専属モデル) in their pages — Ebihara Yuri, Yamada Yu, and Oshikiri Moe — but these women (all in the same K-Dash jimusho keiretsu) have only really broken into pop culture over the last year, whereas the magazine started quickly increasing readership after 2001.

Source #1 sees modern culture revolving around goukon (合コン) — the traditional group date system that brings together an equal number of boys to an equal number of girls to meet and flirt at a table. Can Cam readers are obsessed with goukon success, and in the past, that meant catching the eye of that one special boy on the other side of the tatami mat. Now girls aim to win the hearts and minds of the entire enemy side, and ultimately, those boys’ parents.

Boys who attend goukon don’t like designer fashion, weird haircuts, queer collars, innovative fabrics, challenging appearances. And they don’t even like the strong and chic Yamada Yu. They prefer the slightly grown-up yet sweet and adorable Ebihara Yuri (“Ebi-chan” to you). Opposed to its rivals, Can Cam best shows you how to dress exactly like our goukon heroine Ebi-chan and is apparently moving Yamada out of the picture to make more room for Ebi, Ebi, Ebi.

This meta-narrative of female desperation towards capturing ideal boyfriends at group dates leads to another question: who is the ideal boyfriend? Rich and hot. How is this different from the 3高 (tall, well-educated, large salary) ideal of the late ’80s? It’s not really so different, they claim, although girls today care a lot less about where the money is coming from (something revealed by the deletion of the educational requirement.) Post-Bubble, the 3高 made room for the 3C (comfortable, communicative, cooperative), but that sounds less like a husband and more like a social worker. (Am I right, ladies???) In the last several years, that pipe dream of sensitivity got thrown out the window, and girls are on their feet with a new pipe dream: lusting after rich men in fancy suits sans cravate who will save them from a dull life of economical savings and buying clothes for their nobody kids at the Uniqlo across from Bldy. Needless to say, the bulk of Can Cam readers come from middle-class and lower middle-class backgrounds and are a bit concerned about their own abilities to pull themselves up to the top echelons of the class ladder, where all the real action is.

Can Cam girls may be a plurality, but there are two other groups worth mentioning:

First, the Ero Kawaii (“erotic cute”) crew — exemplified by butter caramel squash Koda Kumi, the magazine ViVi, and the popular lingerie catalog Peach John. These are girls who do not necessarily care about finding boyfriends, because boys have never shown much interest in them to start with. Japanese guys don’t like too much skin — they prefer the demure, conservative beauty of Ebi-chan, remember — so the Ero Kawaii crew make up for it by the self-gratifying passage into softly aggressive outfits that leave a 20% pie piece to the imagination. I hate using the term “ero kawaii” — feels like I got some memo from Dentsu and am explaining Japanese “cool” to you in Fall 2005 — but I think it is important to realize how attracting boys is not at the core of the controversial look. Also for reference, these girls — like their Can Cam second-cousins — want to become very wealthy, just not necessarily through the economic transaction of marriage.

Second, the “independent” girls who are generally from wealthy backgrounds. They are not necessarily interested in boys because their birth-right gives them a confidence that failure to attract a well-to-do guy in a banana yellow Porsche will not lead them to a bland, frugal future. This confidence also means not having to follow all the instructions in those 2 kg. magazines: ensembles can be put together more freely. Not caring what men think about you opens up some serious options.

W. David MARX
August 29, 2006

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

43 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Not caring what men think about you opens up some serious options.

    Men, of course, are compelled to care what men think about them.

  2. SB Says:

    Well, that’s why I hate myself being so short. I have some amount of money, though.

  3. Sophie Says:

    Is there any hint of the slightest possibility of radical feminism existing in Japan ?

  4. Gen Kanai Says:

    “butter caramel squash Koda Kumi,” lol!

  5. Adamu Says:

    Sounds like your fashion experts read Shukan Toyo Keizai. I read an explanation of the Ebi-chan phenomenon just like your article in that magazine about 2 months ago.

    According to that article, a jimusho heavy took a look at Ebi-chan, who was a minor model in the magazine a few years ago, and decided to use her as the poster child that would exploit CanCam’s huge audience for cross-medium success all while maintaining her image as a magazine model to maintain her loyal fanbase. Hence the shrimp burgers and the drama appearances, but the avoidance of overexposure (according to the article at least. I have no idea what it’s like on the ground).

    Now, on the article – you mentioned Dentsu and their skill at controlling the public discourse (I mean just look at their predictions for 2006 in this report. They may have been wrong a lot of the time, but I’ll be god damned if the mainstream media didn’t repeat just about all of them)

    http://www.dentsu.com/marketing/pdf/hitProducts_2005.pdf

    To that end, the other categories you mentioned *also* seem rather PR-inspired. But how reliable can dividing young Japanese women into 3 broad categories be? Are brand choices that limited in Japan? Is this stereotyping all it takes to make money in the fashion business?

  6. fukumimi Says:

    “a jimusho heavy took a look at Ebi-chan”

    We all know what that means, eh.
    He probably wasn’t just looking.

    Sugar daddies are part of the game, of course.

  7. marxy Says:

    If you want to see raw power look into K-Dash. The head was best buds with Suho from Burning back in high school.

    I read an explanation of the Ebi-chan phenomenon just like your article in that magazine about 2 months ago.

    Either everyone is right or everyone reads the same things.

  8. marxy Says:

    Is there any hint of the slightest possibility of radical feminism existing in Japan ?

    Radical feminism: not really. Some has existed in the past, but you don’t run into much now or even see its heritage.

    But how reliable can dividing young Japanese women into 3 broad categories be?

    These are the only three options, just probably the most common ones. Again, Can Cam girls are a plurality not a majority.

    Also note that Ebi-chan is almost 100% scandal free at this point. Couldn’t be her jimusho’s power, could it?

  9. rick Says:

    Maybe girls shouldn’t worry so much about what boys think about them but worry a bit more about what they (the girls that is) think about. Anyhow my grandmother told me the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, so they might want to read cookbooks instead:)

  10. check Says:

    Lil’ Kim told me the way to a man’s heart is through the penal system.

    Zing!

  11. nate Says:

    clearly momus, alin, and dzima have not caught wind of this post yet.

    I’ll be the one to take it off course though. Anyone else think that none of the names mentioned in this article belong to especially nice faces? I mean I’ve got no problem with KK’s nearly visible boobies or Ebichans back sans bikini-top-straps, but one my gaze gets all the way above each of these girls’ chins, I’d just as soon sit around at shibuya eki and watch who comes in on the shuden.

  12. Adamu Says:

    ebihara has a nice smile.. THE BETTER TO EAT YOU WITH

  13. Carl Says:

    I read an explanation of the Ebi-chan phenomenon just like your article in that magazine about 2 months ago.

    Either everyone is right or everyone reads the same things.

    Incidentally, this is the premise behind Biblical criticism.

  14. alin Says:

    nate, i’ve been for a little while starting having these suspicions that you might be the new momus, alin, and dzima. it’s just kind of becoming increasingly evident though can’t say it for sure yet. careful though ..

  15. dzima Says:

    M, A & D are Crosby, Stills and Nash and Nate can be our Neil Young.

    But what I really want to know is when is Kiiiiiii going to release their own fashion magazine and how many girls has Marxy seen around Tokyo who are being influenced by the quirky duet. You people are talking about political activism so there’s your chance to act, mates!

  16. marxy Says:

    Kiiiiii are in Zipper again this month and will be in the next Cutie.

  17. Rory P. Wakeboard Says:

    Hm, I don’t see Ebi-chan as more grown up compared to Yamada Yu.

  18. marxy Says:

    I think Yamada Yu seems a bit more “untouchable” for normal girls. Ebi is like the cute girl down the street.

    Stars cannot be too fantastical anymore.

  19. Rory P. Wakeboard Says:

    I think this is more the break-down, ala the resurrected three-button suit thread’s rule of Sometimes, Always, Never.

    Fling
    Girlfriend
    Wife

    At least for me. Maybe more of a wake-down.

  20. Adamu Says:

    You think Ebihara would be content with dates at McDonalds? I mean, the shrimp burger *is* the most expensive item on the menu.

  21. Rory P. Wakeboard Says:

    I’ll guess no.
    But that would be a good way to slim the pack at yr next 合コン. Take the crew to Don’s and see who sticks around.

  22. alin Says:

    a question to help define some parameters here: is the japanese goukon a radically, essentially, fundamentally different kind of thing to occidental mating rituals: say clubbing and so forth, or are they culturally different expressions of the same thing?

  23. alin Says:

    and is say the keitai-kekkon thing and the online thing again different to occidental equivalents.

  24. marxy Says:

    I don’t think the goukon is a radically Eastern/Japanese custom, but it is the standard in a certain sense. Or at least has been for the last couple of decades.

  25. dzima Says:

    So how is the infamous “tennis circle” at universities rating these days compared to 合コン?

  26. Martin Webb Says:

    A makeup artist acquaintance of mine says Ebi-chan has had a lot done on the visage.

  27. marxy Says:

    infamous “tennis circle” at universities

    Well, you have to go to university for that, and that’s one of those institutions for the wealthy.

  28. yung james Says:

    I don’t think the goukon is a radically Eastern/Japanese custom, but it is the standard in a certain sense. Or at least has been for the last couple of decades.

    of course goukon is also heavily classed… the girls and guys who go to goukon are not the girls and guys who go to shinsaibashi to nanpa or get nanpa’d. In japan goukon is certainly a socially acceptable mating ritual, while going to a tachinomi bar or a dance club to find your mate is probably slightly farther down the totem pole, whereas nanpa is still lower than parking lot pimping…, as for radical feminism, well its not radical but none of my high school students seem to have dreams of meeting their soulmate through gyakunan, but then again only a small handful want to quit work when they get married… its an interesting middle ground.

  29. alin Says:

    feminism there is plenty, classic occidental, though somewhat limited in scope and effect, as well as feminisms yet unknown to the west. some of it is nothing if not ‘radical’. Probably more of it is articulated in fiction rather than theory this movie for example , many ‘radical feminist’ texts are actually written by men but that’s not to discredit the message – a lot of say, Takeshi Miike’s films are feminist and rather radical (eg Audition). probably the gender balance in the film industry is not quite balanced yet but dig into MANGA and literature and you’ll find every every kind of feminism imaginable to man ;-) of every degree of radicalism. seriously. marxy any I’s favourite japanese movie ‘kichiku daienkai’ can also be read as a radical feminist movie.

    (marxy, since we’re at manga , i meant to mention it a while ago around discussions on music, the fact that a lot of ‘music’ since the mid 80s (and pre-Shibuya-key) has spread around the country not as music but as MANGA first (http://www.makikusumoto.jp etc) is not inconsequential i think.
    (also i remember seeing a picture ages ago of keigo and ozaken , after striking their first big cash buying not records but literaly a mountain of MANGA)

  30. dzima Says:

    Takeshi Miike’s films are feminist and rather radical (eg Audition)

    I’m not sure I agree with this statement. We might as well have seen a different film all together.

  31. marxy Says:

    marxy any I’s favourite japanese movie ‘kichiku daienkai’ can also be read as a radical feminist movie.

    Funny that a lot of the feminist films you mention are horror movies. Nothing scares me more than a woman making as much as me for the same job.

    has spread around the country not as music but as MANGA

    Can I get some specific artist examples? Seems possible that Manga artists would mentioned musical artists and get them some attention. Still probably did not do as much for Flipper’s as the drama theme song did.

  32. alin Says:

    a lot of relevant western feminist stuff goes along the horror/abjection line etc … in fact that is one of the main discourses in feminism isnit?

    to put it really simply and reductively probably much jap. ‘feminism’ would be closer in spirit to say cixoux, irrigaray & co, ‘continental’ stuff than bra-burning and hairy legs.

  33. alin Says:

    Dzima: Audition (if indeed same movie) like much ‘feminism’ made by men is ultimately oddly framed which does somewhat undercut the message and marginalizes what is really the crux of the film.

  34. alin Says:

    Can I get some specific artist examples?

    maki kusumaki is a good example (i’m quite bad with names). her stuff was hugely popular she’d reference everything from Bowie to JS Bach to Die Toedliche Doris now a lot of readers getting right into the stuff had never actually listened to bowie nor harboured any particular desire to do so.

  35. marxy Says:

    I think it would be a mistake to say there is no feminism in Japan, but it is a much more silent rebellion by action – pursuing a career over having children (still somewhat of a statement).

    That being said, I do not think the dominant Can Cam-zoku have anything to do with feminism, from whatever angle. Even the gyaru seem much more reluctant to let men determine their behavior or life path.

    The problem again though is that a lot of the very simple feminist goals – equal salaries, equal career prospects – need a certain amount of mobilization in civil society and that is basically nonexistant.

  36. alin Says:

    let men determine their behavior or life path.

    equal salaries,

    i’m not simply bashing against what you’re saying but this is reductive and the inequality you seem to be describing is a fiction. on the classic (abstract at least, but not only) level , that we’re going against, the woman actually manages and controls all the wealth while the man works his ass off while being financialy managed. this i think is a factor to be considered quite seriously before shouting slogans of equality. same with the fact that the ‘patriarchy’ (logo-centrism, plalo-centrism and so forth ) in this country is basicaly a de-facto patriarchy. this is rather complex stuff point is different power-structures need different means to deal with.

  37. marxy Says:

    the woman actually manages and controls all the wealth while the man works his ass off while being financialy managed.

    You realize this only applies to married women, right? And it still does not excuse companies for paying women less for equal work or not putting them on the management track?

  38. nate Says:

    alin, did you just pull that remark out of a time capsule marked 1977? Even if the woman controlling the purse strings still rang true in modern families where often both parents work, it certainly doesn’t apply to unmarried women.
    But you’re right that women are benefitted much more in the long run by being cast in uniquely psychotic roles than they are by governmental policy that would assure them equal rights and pay in the workplace. also, the prevalence of rape porn is very good for women.

    Alin, I may wind up being contra-marxy a lot lately, but that’s because I differ with him on his valuation of contemporary culture, rather than his methodology. Were I a cooler, better educated dude, or had I been around when it was “really real”, I might think differently.

  39. nate Says:

    but while I’m here…

    I think marxy underestimates the cancam girl. I think she watches “london hearts” too, and gets a good long weekly-dose of thoroughly mixed messages about sexual relationships, marriage, kids, etc. This nationally broadcast show creates a really permissive space for women that oft times makes “sex and the city” look prudish.
    I’m not calling sluttiness a path to the light, but in terms of independent young women’s sexuality on the Tube, J has A beat.

  40. alin Says:

    You realize this only applies to married women, right? And it still does not excuse companies for paying women less for equal work or not putting them on the management track?

    but hey, in reality there are women on the management track and there is plenty of media, tv-drama, advertising etc reflecting it as well. the figures might not add to 50/50 but do they have to. i don’t deny that there are problems but i seriously question your method whereby (by laying a ready-made model you brought from home, shouting slogans, and fighting abstract points and a fictional one-way centre of power) you are actually zeroing relevant changes and mini-revolutions that are hapening.

  41. dzima Says:

    Alin, yes I’ve seen Audition.

    The difference in our readings is that you call Miike feminist but I think he’s as misogynist as it gets.

  42. alin Says:

    fair enough, i remember ages ago having a discussion about tarkovski’s Nostalghia and me reading the movie as predominantly an honest, subtle critique of patriarchy and its 1+1=1 modus operandi leaving the female character positively ambivalent while the other party was insisting tarkovsky was critical of feminism bemoaning the loss of trad patriarchal values.

  43. alin Says:

    i also saw a few rather long interviews with miike talking about audition among other things and he seems a rather sensible kind of guy. (if anything i’d think ryu murakami who wrote the script might be more of a culprit)

    i wonder in what way you see his stuff as ‘misogynist’ ? pink violencey ??

    i guess in my reading i tend to see stuff that deconstructs partiarchy as implicitly feminist. i actually see some of kitano’s middle period stuff as oddly ‘feminist’. his choice of dumb female characters a positive rather than misogynist statement. and find that final scene in either Sono Otoko Kyobo Ni Tsuki or 3-4 x Jugatsu, can’t remember, where, female characters absent throughout the entire film, after the guys out-willie themselves to smithereens, the movie basically ends, and we get a still shot of an OL wistfully typing while the credits roll and roll endlessly one of the most sublimely, or is it subliminaly, ‘feminist’ moments in cinema. that one shot outweights the entire film.