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Japanese schoolgirls: Cute, flirty, vulnerable psycho killers

Until a few years ago, Wired magazine ran a column called "Japanese Schoolgirl Watch," which covered tech trends embraced by teenage girls in Japan. It was quirky and amusing, showing Western readers how cutting edge and ahead of the curve this group could be.

One of the writers of that column, Brian Ashcraft, told me recently that as he tracked those trends, he was amazed by the huge impact schoolgirls seemed to have on Japan. He began to wonder why this was so, and eventually that became the driving question behind his latest book, "Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential," out now in the United States on Kodansha International.
japanese schoolgirl confidential by Brian Ashcraft
The cover of "Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential."
Not just cute, but feminine cool

With help from his wife and co-author, Shoko Ueda, Ashcraft (now the senior contributing editor for the video game site, Kotaku) explores the rise of the schoolgirl in Japan. The book, which is full of vivid illustrations, begins with the symbol of her identity, the uniform. From there, he delves into popular culture, from pop idols to film, magazines, art, fashion, manga.

"I wanted to look at how schoolgirls have been portrayed in a variety of different mediums," he says. "Usually, when people write about schoolgirls in Japan, they write about cute stuff. I also wanted to look at elements of cool -- a feminine cool in Japan."

For each topic, Ashcraft zeroed in on key players, like Katsuhiko Sano, founder of the Tombow Uniform Museum in Okayama, and the actress who appeared in "Kill Bill," Chiaki Kuriyama.

japanese schoolgirl confidential by Brian Ashcraft

He spoke to Yonehara Yasumasu, an editor at Egg magazine, a big force behind the kogal movement in the 1990s, as well as Shinji Takenaga, who runs a market research firm that surveys the tastes of teenage girls to tap their vast spending power. He had access all over the place, making for a who's who of the schoolgirl scene.

Ashcraft, who's lived in Japan for nearly 10 years, offers a thoroughly reported, insider's take. He wanted the book to be for all readers, Japanese included, and steered clear of fetishizing schoolgirls. Rather, he takes a serious and probing look at the culture and the history to get at what's behind their power and appeal.
the book japanese schoolgirl confidential
Flirty and vulnerable or psycho killers? You decide.
Girl power Japanese style

While reading, I wondered -- why not boys? Ashcraft explains that, unlike schoolboys, who lack variety of stereotypes, "schoolgirls are incredibly flexible as mass media characters -- they can be fighters, they can be flirty or vulnerable, they can be utterly normal or totally fashionable, they can be psycho killers, they can do whatever you can come up with for movies, comic books, video games."

the book japanese schoolgirl confidential

Whether it's loose socks or the newest gizmo, "they are always changing and adapting to the next trend, and they're doing it in a society that is high tech and eager to meet their needs."

Ever wonder how cell phones first became popular? It was the way teenage girls in the mid-1990s were using them, just as the generation before them had embraced pagers, "the first viral youth tech."

Before reading "Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential" I didn't appreciate how resonant this story of "girl power" could be. Now I see that it's really about Japanese women's shifting place in the culture.

As Ashcraft says, "The way that the country has changed is reflected in schoolgirls in a manner that it isn't reflected in corporate Japan or other aspects of society."

Ultimately, he writes, "she is a metaphor for Japan itself."
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