Just another day in Japan
A few years ago, my friend Iain called me up to ask if I could be Santa for an afternoon. He must have been in a real pinch, because I'm not at all the type, physically or by demeanour, to make a good Santa. It was a few days before Christmas, when most foreigners are out of town, and he had a scheduling conflict. The pay was decent enough for me to do it in any case, but also I was down for it just because it was so outside of the things I usually do. He had a proper Santa suit to lend me, complete with beard, wig, and so much padding I'd be completely transformed. And in any case, as Iain promised, the gig would be super easy.
The deal was this, that a pop group of young girls was performing on a stage at an outdoor mall, and one of them happened to have had her birthday on that day. She was to be given a birthday cake near the end of their show, and I guess someone figured that since it was just a few days before Christmas, it would be nice to have someone dressed as Santa Claus to bring out the cake. Sure, whatever. My task would be to wheel a cart with a birthday cake out on stage, waving to the crowd and calling out "Merry Christmas!" to everyone. When I reached the centre of the stage, I'd say "Happy Birthday" to the right girl, and she'd blow out the candles. Having done that, I would then turn right around and wheel the cake back offstage, waving and well wishing as I go. The hardest part turned out to be making sure the candles didn't all blow out in the light wind before the girl had a chance to blow them out herself, but still, the whole thing was not even five minutes on stage. Changing in and out of the suit and hanging around waiting for my cue was the real job.
The group consisted of about six girls, ranging in age from maybe eleven to fifteen. I could be totally wrong about this, but I think they were a sub group of AKB48. The impression I got was that AKB48, which already has about fifty thousand members, has less famous associated groups where girls are tried out, and if they show promise, they move up to the main group. Kind of like how pro sports teams have farm teams in minor leagues. This was a minor league team of girls, and I think they had a song on the radio, but I have no idea how popular or well known they were.
They had school uniforms on, but not deliberately fetishized ones, just really tame uniforms with knee length red plaid skirts and beige cardigans. The way they danced around on stage was fairly mundane, more like a pep rally than a choreographed dance troupe. Even the girls that I thought might be in their mid teens still had a very child like quality. Like they should be on a playground playing tag or jumping rope or something, not dancing on stage occasionally jutting their hips out. They weren't being presented in an overly sexual way, the way a girl group in an English speaking country is more likely to be. But, in a way, that's kind of what made the situation that much more strange to me.
While the girls might not have been offered in an overtly sexualized way, there was no lack of sexualization in the way they were received. I got to the mall with enough time before I had to change that I was able to walk around and see the crowd that had assembled for the show. The people that I assumed were the fans. The crowd, of a few hundred people, was entirely men ranging in age from mid twenties to mid fifties. I didn't see a single woman, except for the section off to the side of the stage that was clearly family and friends of the performers.
These dudes were all sketchy as fuck. They just had a certain look, which is hard to describe without sounding elitist in the worst ways. Floppy haircuts, no particular fashionable clothing, "normcore" at best, a sense that personal grooming was low on their priorities. Each one of them could have easily been in a poster hanging at a local police box. Adding further dimension to the disquieting implications of their presence was that they knew all the lyrics to all the songs, not only singing along but having synchronized movements. Later, as the concert was underway, I watched them wave their hands, some of them holding glow sticks, at predetermined times with coordinated actions, without having to be cued by anyone on stage. They chanted, jumped up and down, and squealed with delight when the girls would wave in their direction.
I worked once in the same office as a guy who had a desk covered in little figurines and drawings of anime style preteen girls. His mousepad, his desktop wallpaper, everything had big eyed childlike girls on it. I spoke to him once about it, and my takeaway was that he idealized the purity and innocence of young girls. He claimed that for him, and guys like him, that it's somehow a not a sexual thing. I assumed the audience at this concert held similar opinions.
Personally I think there's a lot of judgement and self delusion both by and about guys like these that is predicated on the idea that sexual interest and romantic, or at least romanticized, feelings are strictly separate. As if somehow sex sullies any other channel of interest. Which I don't think is the case. For me, sexuality isn't something that creeps into and undermines other feelings. For right or wrong, its as much an expression of other feelings as it is a feeling of its own. Which is why I bet these guys in their own weird way don't imagine themselves as any kind of sexual imposition. They would shudder in horror at the idea of doing anything that defile these little angels of innocence. Yet at the same time I bet they can't help but jerk off furiously in front of their computers when they look at the pictures of the concert later.
There was a window backstage so that all the production staff could see the show, and as I waited for my cue, I spoke to some of them about what they thought about the situation. When I asked about how the audience was basically paedophiles (I don't know how to say "paedophile" in Japanese, so I went with descriptions involving the word "hentai", which is a more general term, like "pervert"), the staff universally tilted their head demurely, as Japanese do, and said, essentially, "meh... what are you gonna do?" Most of them mentioned how the kind of music these girls were doing, the shitty J-Pop stuff that you'd expect them to be doing, wasn't really their jam. Universally, everyone on staff preferred foreign music like Jay-Z or Beyonce. It was their way of saying this was a separate world, just a job, and they didn't want to judge. They didn't even really want to think about it.
Was anything bad happening, though? I mean, I take it as axiomatic that these guys are jerking off relentlessly to the image these girls present. Like most J-pop groups, if there were no pictures or videos, their music would be as popular as recordings of industrial machinery. But just because an audience takes something one way doesn't mean the people putting it out there are intending for it to be taken that way. If you make a product that is carefully non sexual, if you take care to make sure the skirts aren't too short and the tops aren't too revealing, but you know the audience is masturbating to it... how responsible are you? I honestly have no idea.
At the end of the show, when everything was wrapping up, the girls all wanted a picture with Santa Claus, and some of them thought it was fun to try out some English on me, which was kind of cute. Their mothers were there, but I didn't even try speaking to them. Each mother had that intensity of stage moms which precluded small talk, let alone considering any insightful discussion about the implications of what they were getting their daughters into.
When you see girl idol groups on TV, when I guess they've more or less made it, the audiences are almost entirely girls of similar age, which lends to an impression that the scene is by and for girls, with of course record companies and producers facilitating the interchange at great profit. From this brief stint as a fly on the wall in a Santa costume, I came to understand that at the levels below television and sold out concerts at big stadiums, girl idol groups are fuelled by the fetishes of hikkikomori who want to sublimate their sexual desires into fantasies of childhood innocence. Everyone involved, including the men who I am certain are jerking off to these girls, is motivated to believe that there is nothing sexual about it.
As far as I could tell, the people most unaware of the sexual undercurrents were the girls on stage. But, I imagine, one day they will grow up enough to understand. I imagine a moment in their lives, perhaps sitting at a coffee shop while idly playing with their phone, and suddenly looking up at nothing in particular, and thinking, "Oh... I was being sold to paedophiles..."