The Image of Youth: Japan’s Age Old Obsession
[Disclaimer: I am currently researching this issue to better understand a common tendency I have noticed while living in Japan for older men to have a strange sexual fascination, if not borderline obsession, with adolescent pop idols and young girls in general.]
Are Girl Bands and Gravure Idols an Extension of Pedophila?
In Japan, music groups like AKB48 are hugely popular. These girl bands often contain anywhere from three to two dozen members, all of them teenage girls, usually around fourteen to fifteen years old. In the case of AKB48 there are a total of 60 members (AKB48 currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest pop group).[i][ii] This makes girl groups like AKB48, or Idoling, Girls Generation, Kara, etc. extremely popular with the younger crowds (especially my junior high school students). But here in Japan, such groups usually have a large following of older males as well. The men are typically in their mid thirties and early forties. In fact, AKB48 has done several concerts catering entirely to this unique demographic. It is a strange thing to turn on the television and see an entire crowd of middle-aged men holding up their cell phones and taking pictures of underage girls wearing short mini-skirts. However, such a practice is common place in Japan. The gravure idol industry specializes and excels at exploiting the sexual attractiveness of these young women and many more like them.[iii]
You will often hear stories of teachers marrying students in Japan. For a long time I thought this was just a theme found in Japanese animation, called anime, but having spent half a decade in Japan I have heard of two such cases. When I first came to Japan, the first school I worked at was going through a difficult time, as the school counselor (a man) had just been fired for getting caught taking pictures up the skirts of junior high school girls with a secret camera in his shoe. A year later an elementary school teacher I worked with had to be shamed when her husband, who worked in the school district over, was caught with child pornography in his school work locker.
Having spent so much time in Japan, I have formulated various reasons which help explain such tendencies for men to prefer younger women. Japanese culture is just generally obsessed with youth. The entertainment industry is obsessed with the image of youth. Needless to say, the two obsessions feed each other. In fact, the obsession seems to be so ingrained into the society as a whole that hiring practices for jobs often reflect a tendency to hire young beautiful Japanese girls over higher educated men and women.[iv]
Even so, the Japanese obsession with adolescent youth is so prevalent, that you can’t help but notice it. In fact, it is nowhere more prevalent than in the manga industry (i.e., Japanese comic books). Manga aimed at adult audiences frequently depicts extreme hardcore sex with girls which are drawn to look adolescent, or often times, are adolescents in the stories. In fact, the depiction of young girls in sexual graphic manga was so prevalent that Tokyo Gov Shintaro Ishihara passed Bill 156 which seeks to regulate manga that “unreasonably praises or exaggerates” the extreme sexual depictions of minors.[v]
Even so, the idol industry and publishing industry are only banking on that which is profitable to market—sex—or the idea of sex anyway. A friend of mine at university was obsessed with finding out why Japans idol fascination was so strong, his conclusion made sense. After several years of research, he concluded that modern day idols are filling an entertainment void left open after the decline of working Geisha. Many geisha begin their apprenticeship as underage girls, called hangyoku and many of these girls would start as young as nine years old, before child labor laws were passed prohibiting the work of minors. In her final stage of geisha training a young girl becomes a maiko, and works as an apprentice until she acquires all the skills of a professional geisha.
In Japan, the biggest industry has always been entertainment. According to Wikipedia:
“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.” The term geisha literally translates to mean “entertainer.” Some prostitutes refer to themselves as “geisha,” but they are not. A geisha's sex and love life is usually distinct from her professional life. A successful geisha can entrance her male customers with music, dance, and conversation. “Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.”
My friend’s theory was that with the decline of young female entertainers during the war era and Japan’s reconstruction, the need for such entertainment returned with a boom during the baby boom era, of young Japanese professionals more hungry for entertainment than ever. Thus Japanese idol culture was born.
Now that is the simple version of what I think is a much more complicated cultural phenomenon, but what is interesting to me is the continued obsession with youth. The question I would want to ask is, is it merely cultural? Or is something else at play? Why is it considered alright to idolize scantily clad teenage adolescents beyond just their entertainment value? In other words, I am interested in whether or not girl bands and gravure idols (and perhaps AV idols as well) are merely cultural, or perhaps, can be explained as an extension of paraphilia, such as pedophilia and the sexual preference for adolescent girls.
It would make sense to me, that in a non-Christian influenced country, such as Japan, that pedophilia would not be so well hidden from sight. Maybe what we are seeing is the general tendency for a natural occurring pedophilia in Japanese culture, where it is considered normal to have such preferences. Maybe such transparency in a culture is healthier than trying to cover it up, as which seems to be the case within many religious organizations. All these are questions which, I feel, deserve further investigation and consideration.
Yet as I thought about it, I realized I really didn’t know or understand what pedophilia is, other than the pejorative term for a child rapist. As such, I couldn’t really say whether or not what I see going on in Japan is related to pedophilia or is something else entirely. So I decided to investigate.
What is Pedophilia?
Even as the notion of pedophilia is controversial in most every civilized society, we cannot just write it off as a mental illness. It seems to me that pedophilia may prove to be more than just sick perverts getting off to images of child porn and molesting small children.
Don’t misunderstand me, I still believe pedophilia is morally reprehensible when acted upon. In fact, I agree with pedophilia being classified as a mental disorder for those who follow up on the urges. According to the International Classification of Disease, pedophilia is a “disorder of adult personality and behavior” in which there is a sexual preference for prepubescent children, or of pubertal aged children.[vi] The problem is, however, it might not actually be a mental disorder, which would cause us to seriously rethink how we classify and address pedophilia in modern society.
Likewise, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies pedophilia as a paraphilia in which a person has intense and recurrent sexual urges towards and fantasies about prepubescent children and on which feelings they have either acted on or which cause distress or interpersonal difficulty.[vii]
Paraphilia simply means unusual sexual interests. American Journal of Psychiatry describes paraphilia as "recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors" generally involving:
- Non-human objects
- The suffering or humiliation of oneself or one's partner
- Non-consenting persons
Homosexuality was included on the list until 1973.
Needless to say the view of paraphilias as disorders is not universal. For example, while pedophilia is considered a mental disorder, the closely related hebephilia (sexual preference for adolescents typically 11-14 years of age) and ephebophilia (sexual preference for later adolescents typically 15-19 years of age) are not. Obviously, with the latter one, ephebophilia, in many countries and cultures where girls are considered legal consenting adults from 16 to 19 years of age there is no ethical dilemma. Of course the exact age varies from culture to culture, and the dilemma only arises depending on what age we designate as a legal consenting adult, but it is important to realize that in most cases the defining line is drawn at puberty.
Some professionals, such as Charles Allen Moser, have suggested that paraphilia should be eliminated from diagnostic manuals as strange sexual preferences are not always bad or illegal. Nonetheless, the psychiatrist Glen Gabbard has noted that “the term paraphilia remains a pejorative in most circumstances.”[viii]
This is certainly true when we equate pedophiles with corrupt, insane, child rapists. Yet medical professionals still seek to understand the reasons for strange sexual urges. Many assume that pedophilia may have a genetic basis, as does homosexuality, which causes a person to automatically have a sexual preference for adolescent age groups. Although any direct biological associations are still being investigated. However, according to a recent study (2008) it seems that with pedophilia, and other paraphilias, the study suggests these may be “a dysfunction at the cognitive stage of sexual arousal processing.”[ix]
What this means is pedophilia may not be a psychological disorder but a brain disorder.
Additionally, if this proves to be true, then pedophiles are the victims of a life crippling disability. However, more research needs to be done before we start defending pedophiles, but if it turns out there is a genetic and biological relationship to the cause of such paraphilias, then pedophilia would no longer be classified as a mental disease or psychiatric disorder but would be something similar to sexual orientation, in this case, sexual preference for adolescents.
I suppose we must be careful not to equate homosexuality, which is a sexual orientation, with sexual preference, as the two are not entirely mutual. If pedophilia turns out to have a genetic or biological cause, then it would be just as valid, if not more accurate, to equate pedophilia with genetic obesity. Homosexuality in itself, is not unhealthy or dangerous. Obesity, on the other hand, is extremely dangerous for an individual’s health. If pedophilia has a biological explanation, then I would see it equating more along the lines of something like genetic obesity, something which is adversely affecting the individual, and which may have social and cultural implications.
However, pedophilia, unlike obesity, becomes a legal issue because there is the concern of protecting the well-being and rights of adolescent children. As most pedophiles prey on children, who are not mentally mature enough to deal with complex social relationships let alone sex, it becomes and imperative to protect the children from the acts of pedophile predators.
Needless to say, I think we must continue investigating the cause for pedophilia and the sexual preference for prepubescent teens. The sooner we can understand it, the sooner we can take action in learning how to deal with it, and hopefully learn to better safeguard our children—regardless of which country or culture we live.
Pedophilia proves to be more complicated an issue than I initially thought. This makes pronouncing any set conclusion rather difficult. All I can give you is my opinion on what I think may be happening, based on personal experience and research, but I can’t say whether or not an obsession with girl bands, gravure idols, and the image of youth in general is related to pedophilia or not. Much more research needs to be done first.
In the end, however, I suppose it comes down to figuring out whether or not the cultural tendencies for our sexual preference denote a biological predisposition or a cultural one, or perhaps a little of both, and then determining where we draw the line. For example, with regard to Japanese girl bands and gravure idols, we might ask, although it is illegal to have sex with those who are still minors (under 16 years of age in Japan), does this make the sexual desire to want to have sex with them abnormal, or would this merely reflect a naturally occurring sexual preference? We might ask whether or not there are cultural biases and other external factors we haven’t accounted for, such as stigma against such behavior or the sponsoring of it. When I see a girl band consisting mostly of adolescent girls, dressed down into nothing but their underwear and posing provocatively, is this ad supposed to elicit a sexual response? Am I supposed to be attracted to these teenagers? Or is the media’s sexploitation so out of control that it is sending the wrong messages? Additionally, we must consider whether or not is it designed to exploit an inherent sexual preference in us for prepubescent teen girls, and if so, what are the moral implications of such advertising? All these questions (and more) need to be addressed, but I am afraid further research must be done first. As it is, I wouldn’t rule out Japan’s obsession with girl bands, gravure idols, and the like as an extension of pedophilia. It seems a real possibility, but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.
[iv] “Are People hired based on their looks?”Available online: http://injapan.gaijinpot.com/2011/06/17/are-people-hired-based-on-their-looks/
[v] “Ishihara ordinance adamant on Manga Censorship.” Available online: http://injapan.gaijinpot.com/2011/06/21/ishihara-adamant-on-manga-censorship-ordinance/
[vi] World Health Organization,International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems: ICD-10 Section F65.4: Paedophilia (online access via ICD-10 site map table of contents)