The objectification of women is a global problem. However, it is perhaps more evident in some countries than others. Ingrained into Japanese pop culture is the fascination with underage girls and the sexualisation of all women. Yet alarmingly, Japanese society has become so accustomed to this predatory and misogynistic culture that the women now accept and emulate this objectified image of themselves.
Considering that Japan is the birthplace of manga and anime, it is unsurprising that its media is plastered with cartoon illustrations, ranging from fictional characters with superpowers to mythological creatures. However, deep within this art style lies a rather controversial genre, featuring child-like, scantily clad and excessively voluptuous heroines. Lolicon - a portmanteau of the term ‘Lolita complex’ –, describes this attraction to explicit cartoon drawings of young girls. Comics with these types of images have been banned in the UK. However, in Japan it remains legal, based on the premise that the images are illustrated, not photographic. In fact, this key feature of Lolicon art is a large part of the reason it has become so popular. Surprisingly, its fans prefer the fact that the girls are fictional: a predilection known as a ‘2D complex.’ This element separates the illustrations from reality, and apparently justifies the sexualisation of minors. That said, Lolicon has never truly been deemed as socially acceptable, with the Japanese term being almost synonymous with paedophilia. Yet, despite its underlying perverted roots, these erotic depictions of underage girls continue to gain exposure in Japanese media. Some argue that artwork like this can, in fact, help paedophiles refrain from touching actual children. However, there is fear that ubiquitous images of sexualised prepubescents instead foster the paedophilic delusion that sees ordinary children as erotic. This kind of material normalises the sexual abuse of minors and even encourages those with paedophilic fantasies.
Yet, Japan takes this industry a step further, and undoubtedly, a step too far. Another popular genre of child pornography is named Chaku Ero, a type of soft porn, which although involves no nudity, is nevertheless overtly sexual. It tends to feature prepubescent girls; with one producer admitting to filming girls as young as six years old. In fact, it is the younger girls that are the most profitable: in some cases, their videos can earn five times more than those of their elder counterparts. Yet, as long as there is no display of the child’s naked genitals, this practice is not categorised as child pornography, and therefore remains legal.
There is equally the opportunity for men to establish physical relations with adolescents. Joshi Kosei alley in Tokyo – a street lined with schoolgirls - operates as Japan’s red light district. Here, men can pay to spend time amongst minors, with services ranging from a walk in the park to more intimate options. Although once a legitimate and legal industry, Tokyo metropolitan government banned under-18s from working on this street last year. Nevertheless, business here continues, except now the women dressed in school uniform are of age. Clearly, despite the law attesting that the sexualisation of children is wrong, the fetish is so entrenched into Japanese society that it cannot be removed that easily.
However, it is important to recognise that this predatory culture is just a symptom of a broader problem: how society turns women into sexual objects. Since World War II, egalitarianism has defined Japanese society, to the extent that when compared to other developed nations, Japan has seen one of the highest levels of homogeneity, in terms of social status and economic opportunities. However, this does not mean that Japan is void of social division. The significant objectification of women in Japanese media reflects the severe gender inequality in society. The country’s population is fractured by gender stereotypes, whereby women are perceived as materialised objects that can be exploited exclusively as a means to give sexual gratification to men.
The worst part: the female victims of this objectification do not even dispute these practices. For years, Japanese pop culture has portrayed women in such a way that to oppose this over-sexualised stereotype of a female would take away their role in society. Consequently, women have grown so accustomed to this gender imparity that they only feel valued when satisfying male desires. Now, when young girls grow up in Japan, they are not taught to fight for gender equality, but rather to conform with the social mores of a country that normalises sexual exploitation and turns a blind eye to paedophilia. Evidently, Japan needs a shift in its social norms, as what is currently deemed as acceptable is far from it. Yet, the sad truth is that this change won’t happen when the girls involved don’t even fight for it.