After following one of those search engine rabbit tunnels, I ended up inadvertently discovering Japanese Gravure idols (gurabia aidoru). The term "Gravure Idol" refers to young female models from particular talent agencies who generally appear in men's magazines and "Idol" DVDs that feature them being pretty and sexy in various situations and outfits. The term "gravure" comes from "rotogravure", the printing press used to develop glossy magazines. While the work may be risque or suggestive, (common costumes are swimwear, lingerie, and school uniforms) there is no nudity involved for a gravure idol, though this type of modeling is often viewed as a stepping stone. It could potentially lead to mainstream work as a TV presenter, singer, or actress, or it could lead to work as a nude model or porn actress. There's a pretty high turnover rate, though, with many models lasting less than a year when their demand wanes. While the function of a regular model is to anonymously sell a product, the image of a gravure idol is connected to her identity--her name, her age, and often her hobbies and skills. Basically, she is the product, tied up in a marketable, sexy package. I think it's comparable to swimsuit or lingerie models of the nineties, whose posters were commonplace in frat-house bathrooms in the US.
The idea of a Gravure Idol is nothing too special--just young women capitalizing on their sexuality as a means to success. Lots of singers and actresses start out as models. It wasn't until I found out the age range of these models, whose main purpose is to market themselves in men's magazines, that I worked up my ire. The youngest working Gravure Idol was nine years old in 2006. NINE. From what I'd seen of the work of other Gravure Idols, this didn't even seem imaginable. Gravure Idols clutch their naked breasts in bubble baths, or stroke themselves in non-nude erotica videos. Even though a strong facet of mainstream sexuality in Japan is that of the infantilized female, surely there would be public outcry if a nine-year-old was doing this. So I looked her up.
I was a little nervous about what I might find through my internet search, and if it would draw the FBI to my computer. Interestingly, before I found little Mizuki, I found another pre-teen idol, eleven-year-old Saaya. The images of Saaya I saw were gratuitous. She had the fresh young face of a pre-teen and huge breasts. She was in a bikini, often leaning over. The source websites made mention of how the pictures, taken in 2005, were of an eleven-year-old, but that didn't stop the user comments of "OMG she is SO HAWT i would totes do her". She was a pretty child in possession of an early (and in Japan, somewhat rare) endowment, and so her parents chose to capitalize on her in this way. That is fucked up. If you're interested, here's an article about how we can all find common ground in agreeing about the hotness of a busty eleven-year-old.
What I had seen of Saaya made me more nervous of what I might see of nine-year-old Mizuki. But when I did find her, she was the opposite of what Saaya had led me to expect. She looked like a completely normal third-grader, with a striking resemblance to one of the third graders I used to teach in Japan. In most of her pictures she looked like a regular kid having fun, and in general, a lot of the photos didn't look too different from what you see of child models anywhere. At first I was relieved, then I descended into a sort of contemplative melancholy. The difference between Mizuki and other child models is that Mizuki's photos are intended to sell herself, and in a medium that has been previously devoted to wank-material, no less. Her photo books were selling well (in 2006, the time of all the Mizuki press) and the description on the website talks about her sweet look and tells a story about her auditioning for the school swim team, as it shows a picture of her in her school swimming suit. It tells about the other outfits she appears in: her school uniform, her gym clothes, her street clothes, a bikini, a maid uniform, a nurse uniform. I didn't see any of the maid or nurse pictures, but the ones I see tend to be the epitome of a regular little girl doing regular little girl things, which pretty much translates to pedophile fodder. The few instances where her poses appear suggestive, it's clearly unintentional on her part, as if the photographer caught her at an off-moment and used it. I don't know if this makes it better or worse than Saaya.
I think of Chinatsu, an eleven-year-old girl who I taught for my last few months at the Japanese company. When she first joined my class, Sayaka, my manager, basically threw her in against her will. She was new to our cram school, and Sayaka warned me about her. She is very, very low-level, she is shy, she has a bad attitude, and so on. When I met her, she was wearing fashionable street clothes while all the other kids were still in their uniforms, and she had a hardened, fuck-off look on her face. When Sayaka informed her she would be joining the English class, her hard expression gave way to a look of momentary panic as she tried to refuse, but Sayaka just led her to my table where she folded her arms and sat in silence. As per the warnings, I was gentle with her and heaped plenty of praise on her efforts in order to build her confidence. When I complimented her, told her she did a good job, that she was catching up quickly (which she was), she smiled and seemed genuinely delighted that she was doing well. Though she was reserved, I saw little of the girl Sayaka had warned me about, and one day I asked her about it. Sayaka told me that Chinatsu struggled in school, and compared her to two other students of her age, who always seemed to me to be not-terribly bright. "School is difficult, but they are good girls," she said. "Chinatsu is... sometimes she is late to class, she is rude to teacher."
Chinatsu seemed fairly bright to me, but she was "not a good girl". Here's the thing. She was very tall for her age, and in possession of a woman's body. At eleven years old, Colin saw her in her street clothes and asked me if she was a high school student. She was already troubled, and I worried about what might happen to her, what might have already happened. Just because she looked grown-up didn't mean she was prepared for everything that went along with it. I remember instances of her child-like delight--on Halloween, when we were trick-or-treating and she didn't have a costume so I gave her my extra cat-ears, and when I gave her my contact information my last day at the school and she gleefully added another entry into her cellphone. I heard from her once since coming back, a mass text from her cell-phone mail about a change of address, with lots of stars and emoticons.
I worried similarly about a ten-year-old girl I worked with this summer, in Minneapolis. She too was very tall for her age, pretty, and looked much older than a kid who had just finished the fourth grade. She was also troubled, and I was very acquainted with her stank attitude, which earned her the nickname "Miss Stankypants". She was already wrapped up in fashion and pop-culture, and swiped her mother's platforms to practice her strut. She play-acted the sex-kitten mannerisms she saw on TV, which isn't uncommon for girls that age, but she was still a kid. I don't think there's anything wrong with girls trying to figure out their sexuality or how they project it, because that's something we all do on the path to womanhood. It's the predators who need to change. Traditionally, the burden has fallen on women to take all the responsibility to prevent their victimization--watch the signals you're sending, watch your drink, stay with your girlfriends, and by all means do not be a slut. All the while, boys will be boys. Men need to be educated alongside women about combating this "boys will be boys" culture. One step might be to stop publicly sexualizing teens and pre-teens just because they look older than they are, because having boobs does not constitute an invitation. Miss Stankypants got far less stank by the end of the summer, and at times was a really sweet kid. I still worry about her, because so few of us make it to womanhood unscathed, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
As for our pre-teen idols, Saaya is fifteen now and continues to dabble in music and voiceover work, and I haven't found any new information about Mizuki. I would hope that would mean she was out of the business, but if her parents were willing to offer her up to a medium notorious for producing stroke material, I suspect it's not for lack of trying. Mizuki and Saaya represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of representing pre-teens, but it's adults who have perverted their images. When I was about four and my sisters were six, one of our favorite videotapes was Madonna's live concert in Tokyo. We watched it over and over again, and whenever "Material Girl" started playing, we put on our Easter dresses (because they looked the most like Madonna's poofy, lacy costume) and stood on stools dancing. My parents didn't stop us from singing along to the risque lyrics we didn't understand, didn't tell us to get off those stools and quit aping Madonna's sexy dance moves, didn't scold us for being dirty and wrong for enjoying the then-controversial singer. For that, I'm grateful. They also didn't videotape us on those stools and try to sell it. For that, I'm very grateful.
Note: I'm going to try to stay out of the comments as much as possible, but I hope nothing devolves too far into "Japan is sick" territory. I use Japan as an example here, and while it may be a little more overt with the intentions of these images, I think America is just one step away from the same.