Someone once told me, “Half-Japanese kids grow up to either be TV celebrities or porn stars.” Flip on the television, and there’s half-British male model Joy selling Samurai Road 4 or singer Becky promoting her latest CD single. Turn on a dirty movie, and there’s half-Brazilian actress and Yakuza star Rio getting naked.
This isn’t true, of course. Japanese people with mixed roots grow up to work an array of far more normal (and less explicit jobs). But, in Japan, there’s no denying their appeal and the appeal of what the country views as foreign.
Foreigners and foreign things are fetishised in every country. Take how the U.S. fetishizes Japan. It’s normal. But what makes Japan different are the numbers: Statistically, only 1.2 per cent of the country’s permanent residents are foreigners. The majority of them are Chinese, Korean and Brazilian. But with so few foreigners in Japan, the differences between Japan and the outside world are magnified.
Linguistically, too. In Japanese, foreign words are written in the katakana writing system, while Japanese words are written in either kanji or the hiragana writing systems. Some loaned words, however, are completely absorbed into Japanese and are even given kanji, such as “tobacco” (煙草), though the word is often written in katakana (タバコ) or hiragana (たばこ). Other Western ideas or inventions are absorbed, too.
Both baseball and curry first captured the country’s attention over a hundred years ago, and have since turned Japanese. Ask little kids in Japan what their favourite food is, and many will say curry. Japanese curry is different from Indian curry, but it’s roots are not Japanese. Likewise, baseball is entrenched in Japanese society. During World War II, when English and Western culture were outlawed, baseball remained, and the English loan words were simply changed to Japanese. Baseball wasn’t foreign. It was Japanese.
While AKB48 idol Sayaka Akimoto freely talks about her Filipino mother and how bad she is at Tagalog, it wasn’t always this way. 1970s pop icon Saori Minami hid that her father was Filipino and even that she was born in Okinawa. In the years before World War II, a passport was required to travel to Okinawa – for years, Okinawans weren’t viewed as “truly” Japanese. Even today, there are tensions over US military bases in Okinawa, with Okinawans pointing out that Japanese on the main islands don’t have to deal the American military presence in quite the same way.
For centuries, Japan has mixed and match outside culture and inventions. The language itself borrows complex Chinese pictogram characters, and the grammatical structure is similar to Korean. China influenced much of the early Japanese culture and fashion. But there’s always an element of “Japan” – whether that be an aesthetic or a way of thinking – through which outside influences and ideas are funnelled. America and Japan are quite similar in this regard: both are able to take foreign things, whether that be words or food, and make them their own.
(Ozawa/Megumi Araki Blog)
Hollywood and American fashion permeate Japan, and have done so increasingly after the war. For example, in the years directly following World War II, G.I. style haircuts and Hawaiian shirts were in fashion. Rockabilly music was huge in Japan! During the early days of television in Japan, American programs were shown, filling in programming gaps in the still-emerging Japanese TV industry. America programs are still popular, but so are Korean dramas. The popularity of Korean television and Korean pop music has done much to change the way Koreans are viewed in Japan. Decades ago, comparing someone to a Korean was an insult. Even today, Korean slurs are among the words banned from Japanese television.
Things have improved tremendously, thanks to the cultural exchanges between the two countries. Still, things are not perfect. For years, many Korean-Japanese hid their Korean nationality with Japanese “pass names”, worried that it might mean they wouldn’t be hired for jobs or even alienated or bullied. Names like “Kanemoto” or “Kaneda” are variations on the Korean name “Kim” and have been used by those with Korean heritage in hopes to blend in.
Saori Minami’s husband, the famed photographer Kishin Shinoyama, is known for his nudes and for photographing the cover of John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album. In 1991, Shinoyama released the controversial photobook Santa Fe, which featured full nudes of half-Japanese, half-Dutch celebrity Rie Miyazawa.
The book was not the first to show pubic hair. Kanako Higuchi, wife of Earthbound creator Shigesato Itoi, paved the way for hair nudes. The controversy surrounding the book propelled it to the top of the best-sellers chart, moving over 1.5 million copies. Miyazawa got her start as a child actress during the 1980s as part of the half-Japanese model boom. As she moved into adulthood, she acted in feature films and released music CDs. Still popular today, she was the biggest female celebrity in Japan in the early 1990s.
Japanese people with international parents physically and cultural blend elements of domestic and foreign. Since the 1990s, the term “half” (“haafu” or ハーフ in Japanese) has been viewed as offensive, as it suggests that these individuals are halves and not wholes; some prefer more accurate markers like “mixed” or even “double”.
Mixed Japanese people straddle both cultures, and the reason why they are fetishised is that Japanese (and some Americans, too) believe that they take the best physical features of each parent. During the 1970s and 1980s, an increasing number of foreign models appeared in Japanese print ads and commercials. In the 1970s, an idol group of mixed Japanese female singers called “Golden Half” released singles and appeared in commercials. The increase in mixed kids is a direct result of, first, the military occupation and, later, the international expansion of Japanese companies. By the late 1990s, more and more “half-Japanese” began appearing in fashion magazines. The number of non-military foreigners increased throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as Japanese business exploded.
Unlike the country’s traditional gaijin celebrities, these “haafu” models straddled both worlds. Of course, not all could speak English (or whatever foreign language), but they were exotic, and even glamorous – a far cry from the derogatory terms thrown at them during the 1960s. They were Japanese enough to make people comfortable, yet different enough to have appeal. Japan has an attraction, and repulsion to that which is foreign. The attraction is that it’s different; same goes for the repulsion. Mixed Japanese are now having kids of their own, leading to a new category: “quarter”.
A few years ago, I interviewed Yasumasa Yonehara, the famed Japanese magazine editor and photographer. Yonehara, or “Yone” as he’s called, told me that he polled a hundred schoolgirls in Shibuya in the late 1990s, asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Over 50 per cent of them,” Yone told me, “said they wanted to be foreign.” Around that same time, schoolgirls were bleaching their hair, tanning their skin, and wearing colour contact lenses.
The girls didn’t want to move abroad – most girls said they couldn’t speak English. But, rather, they wanted to live in Japan, speak Japanese, but look different. They’re like any foreign Japanese anime or game character, say, Frenchman Lupin the Third, who don’t necessarily look Japanese, but speak and act Japanese.
Osaka kids’ brand Denim Dunagree (Limo!)
This desire isn’t simply trying to appear like a Westerner, but rather, is a protest against traditional notions and norms of Japanese beauty: thick black hair, pale skin, and even small breasts. In a way, they were rebelling like American kids who when they dye their hair green or wear outrageous clothes. At that time, dying one’s hair blonde in Japan was just as shocking as dying it blue or green.
Throughout video games, characters with Western features dominate. Some wonder why Japanese characters “look white”. This issue has been addressed on Kotaku in the past, but the short of it is that Japanese might not view these characters as Western, even. During the 1920s and 1930s, Japan became increasingly attuned to American and European fashion. The war put Japan’s interest on foreign fashions and music, like jazz, on the sidelines. But the US Occupation sped up the influence of American sensibilities. It’s often said that the reason why Japanese characters have such enormous eyes is that Tezuka Osamu, the god of Japanese manga and anime, was influenced by the big-eyed characters Walt Disney drew. Doe-eyed characters are now a Japanese trope.
It’s the way that Japan continues to absorb foreign influences like this and ultimately make them its own that is special. There are entirely Japanese notions of American fashion, such as the “Ivy Look” during the 1960s, when it became hip to dress like you were out of a J.D. Salinger novel. Or now, the fashion “American Casual”, which looks like blue-jeans-meets-Route-66-badges-meets-Japan’s-notion-of Marlboro-ads. It might be casual, but slightly different enough that it’s ultimately not American.
The way that Japan – or America, for that matter – looks at the outside world reveals what it thinks of the lands that stretching beyond its borders. More importantly, it tells us what it thinks of itself.
What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week? is a regular, obsessive look at the trends and topics, from mainstream to niche, that catch Japan’s fancy. WIJFTW alternates bi-weekly with its sister column, What Is America’s Fetish This Week?
Top photo: Brian Ashcraft/Kotaku>