Japan Today not very well-endowed; to die old, alone

I touched in passing on the issue of Japan Today’s blatant sexism/objectification of women in a recent post, but the situation has escalated beyond the means of mere mention. From singers to actresses, to misleading headlines and inappropriate reporting, the entertainment section is the worst offender. Yesterday, the article “Kyoko Hasegawa makes sexy comeback after having first child” focused entirely on how rocking Hasegawa’s new body is on the cover of anan magazine. A staff member from the magazine is quoted as saying: “She’s even thinner than before her pregnancy. But her bust remains bigger, so her figure is just awesome now.” Every woman should get pregnant so they can reap all those awesome, painless physical benefits!

The brief item concerning JUJU’s performance at the Japanese premiere of Disney’s A Christmas Carol focuses entirely on a joking comment she made about wishing she were lucky enough to spend Christmas with a man (and I realize that Christmas in Japan is more of a romantic holiday than a family one, but seriously?) with the headline “JUJU looking for man to spend Christmas with.” I must have missed something because nowhere did I read JUJU saying she was looking for anything. Inference and misquotation: two of the great fundementals of journalism.

Men on this web site very rarely have to deal with topics of relationships or how well they should keep their bodies looking; every time an engagement, relationship confirmation, or break-up occurs it focuses on the female half, bestowing the woman with chief responsibility/scorn. When Yumi Yoshimura and Nao Omori split, the headline read “Puffy’s Yumi Yoshimura back on the single scene.” How’s Omori doing? No one cares! Men have more important things to do then worry about relationships! He has his whole life ahead of him! And anyway, according to the commentary left by readers, it’s the woman’s fault if she failed to look pretty enough to nab a man before she got super old and no one wanted her. They probably broke up because “she couldn’t be bothered to comb her hair” writes one reader; “[s]he got no chance of finding happy hubby time now at 34 – a lifetime of host clubs awaits…” writes another.

As an extension, reporters seem to constantly badger women on the topic of their love life even when their appearance at movie premieres and charity events has nothing to do with their personal lives.

“Reporters at the event wasted no time getting into Hoshino’s private life, asking yet again about her rumored relationship with JRA jockey Kosei Miura, 19. […] Hoshino deflected further questions about her love life with her light saber, but was kept in the spotlight by the storm trooper at her side.”

“Actress Yu Yamada, 25, shocked crowds in Ikebukuro on Saturday when she appeared at the illumination ceremony of the Christmas tree in Sunshine City’s fountain plaza with her beautiful brown locks cut short by 30 cm. Jumping to conclusions, reporters immediately questioned if something had happened between Yamada and her beau, 26-year-old actor Shun Oguri…”

Actress Meisa Kuroki, 21, lined up with actresses Rinko Kikuchi, 28, and Hinako Saeki, 32, this week to announce the completion of their upcoming sci-fi movie “Assault Girls.” […] When asked if she was attracted by the allure of older men – a reference to her rumored relationship with kabuki actor Shindo Nakamura, 37 – she replied: “What are you trying to make me say?!”

“Model Yuri Ebihara, 30, attended an event in Tokyo this week to promote the sale of DVDs of the first season of American drama “Gossip Girl.” […] Ebi-chan is rumored to be seeing ILMARI, 34, of hip hop group RIP SLYME, and she looked like she had grown a bit weary of questions about her private life.”

It’s sort of hard to exclusively poke fun at Japan Today: to examine this type of “reporting” is to examine the actual system at work in Japan. Most promotional events feature women, rather than men, dressed up in cute outfits, a lot of emphasis is placed on awards bestowed upon women for their physical attributes – prettiest hairstyles, greatest legs – to give women an incentive to focus on and value their appearance above all else, and most reporters ask women questions dealing with their personal lives or fashion sense rather than their body of work (a reminder of where a woman’s “real” achievement is). I’d be very interested if anyone has any other examples of such egregious reporting in the Japanese press, or if Japan Today is a sort of very cruel exception to the rule (if I was as bad a reporter, I would instantly assume that with such a rampant, shallow focus on women, sexism isn’t just alive, but thriving in the Japanese press).

Girls in the men’s room: BoA’s androgyny

I’m not saying girls dressing up like guys is anything new (nor vice versa), but when super-feminine waif BoA’s new single is still touting the same fedoras, three-piece suits, and all-male dance cast, it’s worth reiterating a notion I skimmed while gushing over “Eien.” At a time when popular Korean girl groups like SNSD, 2NE1, and 4minute are wrapped in layers of techno-colored wardrobes and purporting to sell tough girl images while skirts get shorter and suits come tailored in revealing short-shorts (and I would be making a completely different point if it wasn’t so obvious that they weren’t choosing any of it themselves and instead, kowtowing to image consultants and gender standards), BoA gets a short haircut (that isn’t pixie, or twee), a three-piece suit (that wouldn’t look attractive on anyone, and looks a size too big), and gender-neutral choreography (that has never showed off her talent better).

Hip-hop may still be a man’s game, but BoA has never been playing it better. A determination to keep her overseas Japanese urban reign has produced some interesting choices, among them “BUMP BUMP!”, her new collaboration with VERBAL. The music video initially caught my eye because it uses the same effect that Koda Kumi’s “Physical Thing” does wherein the edges of frames are dark and blurred so it seems the only light comes from a cheap camera flash, creating a keyhole view. This technique is often used in brooding music videos, a sort of updated film noir that’s supposed to let you know something seedy, sexual, or sinister is occurring. “Physical Thing” played up the stereotype, alluding to bodies littering a room but never taking the lens off Kumi, all the while watching her perform sexually suggestive gestures with wine bottles and grapes. But the effect in “BUMP BUMP!” is absolutely G-rated to the point where it’s almost dull; at least in “Eien” there were multiple settings. “BUMP BUMP!” takes place in one room with two masters of their craft doing nothing much but dancing, singing, and goofing around.

I’m deeply interested in the point behind this particular evolution: Appeal to a wider audience? Highlighting craft over image? Deliberate separation from younger, more stereotypical idol-esque pop groups? Interestingly, there was a completely different marketing strategy with the U.S. release of “I Did it For Love” at the same time the costume change was occurring across the ocean. In any case, no complaints about the turn around here. If at all successful, it will at least provide immunity from the pesky Japanese media who ignore whatever women are actually trying to do to field questions on relationship status, parenthood, and ex-boyfriends at charity events and promotional parties with which men don’t have to deal. I just wish I could dig the song as much as I do the concept.

Lee Jung Hyun’s “Vogue Girl” and Western beauty

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

While the rest of the world was watching Kanye West make an ass out of himself last night, I was busy catching up on some albums and watching the Old Hollywood promotional blitz for Lee Jung Hyun’s comeback mini-album Avaholic. I listened to the album back in May when it was released and was sincerely disappointed. A long time fan of Lee’s eccentric techno, I’ve come to love the beautiful mess of her shrill voice and high-pitched attempts at rap. I loved the tribal influence on I Love Natural and the traditional Spanish instrumentation on Passion. But for all its purported hip-hop influence, Fantastic Girl had all the toughness of a mewling kitten and the street sense of a Hall & Oates single. After three years, my expectations were pretty high and the failure to deliver on even five full-length tracks was a rude wake-up call; Lee Jung Hyun: No longer awesome.

But when I stumbled upon a couple of performance videos for “Vogue Girl” (or “Vogue It Girl” as the television shows call them), I was forced to reassess my initial response. OK, so Avaholic, as a whole, is still sub-par pop, but “Vogue Girl” is extremely fun and fits right into the mold of current electro-inspired Korean hip-pop. It’s got a great beat and sassy attitude and if the satire is intentional, it’s kind of genius.

Some of the performances have Lee spoofing Classic Hollywood cinema, namely as Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Marilyn Monroe (The Seven Year Itch, although the opening clip they used was from Some Like it Hot – a totally different, declining-health Monroe). But even after watching something like ten of these performances, the song began to seem a bit hokey and even the Hollywood schtick seemed slightly bizarre. Lee Jung Hyun is a beautiful Asian woman, so why the exultation of  a platinum blonde stereotype? My hope is that the whole concept pokes fun at these pedestaled institutions of fashion and beauty, although the lyrics of the song are so vague it’s hard to debate. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and operate under those terms, that she’s not just having fun playing dress up but that she really does have something to say. Take for example the lines “Making, making / an image that I don’t even know” and the playful, mocking call of “Baby, don’t you wanna wanna be a di li di di di, it girl?” as if she’s some sort of sleazy publicist. But she’s not; she’s dressed as the product of misogynistic Hollywood studios, going through the motions of the winks and the ultra-feminine poses, while playing the preening starlet who’s aware of and very satisfied with the use she can get out of her sexuality; in promotional photo shoots, it goes further back historically as she dons the heavily tiered powdered wigs of a Marie Antoinette inspired get-up. The implications are brilliant in a way I’ve seen rarely expressed by a pop star, particularly an Asian one who has more to lose with the world’s obsession with Western women’s beauty standards.

But though those are the central concerns, it’s more than that: using Classic Hollywood figures attacks one of the biggest industries to fuel the obsession with a woman’s appearance. And while many might just see Marilyn Monroe as the classic embodiment of femme fatal or condemn her role as a willing play-thing of big-wigs and casting directors, there’s really something very vulnerable and sad about her entire existence that demands a sympathetic eye-opener to the strings that manipulated her every move, abandoned her during her weakest moment, and allowed her life to end so tragically and alone.

But if Lee is attempting to make a big statement, she’s not very good at following up on it: the rest of her performances of “Vogue Girl” drop the Hollywood act and feature her seemingly just as flawless and airbrushed as her fickle public demands and generally embodying whatever stereotype I thought she was making fun of up until that point. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to ruminate on the possible satire in the those few moments of promotional brilliance, or maybe it’s just another culture she’s almost fetishizing in the likes of her past fascinations with Native American and Spanish cultures, but I’d like to think it’s one more positive, albeit brief, message that managed to slip through the cracks.

Oh no, I’m horrible! I like a bit of dignity in my Jpop!

Note: I originally posted this as a response to a comment I received today on an article I wrote well over a year ago, on February 10, 2006. However, it ended up being quite long and I think it has a lot of interesting data relating marketing image and sales for the top-selling Japanese female pop artists and would be well worth posting here as an editorial, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t come equipped with any freebie music files.

Note II: During the wipe-out of ’07, all comments and discussions were erased, alongside the follow-up and second-part I had written to this. I have absolutely zero desire to revisit this debate and will simply leave this as is.

First of all, I appreciate you commenting on this entry in a coherent and grammatically correct manner, which makes your argument easy to read and legitimate. I respect your opinion and the dignity and poise with which you conveyed it (unlike the dude before you, whom I’m not sure has reached Conversational English in his textbook yet).

Second of all, to repeat something I wrote earlier: It’s worth noting that I find most opinions have a six to ten month expiration date before they need to be updated. Therefore, commenting on something I wrote almost one year ago is like assuming I am still drinking from the same milk carton I bought several months ago.

In other words, you have to understand I wrote this rant at a time when Ayumi had released the “my name’s WOMEN” promotional video followed by this, the “Startin’” PV, within a year. At the time, I was speculating on where Ayumi’s career was headed. Also, no one had yet foreseen her move back to friendly and PG-rated videos like “BLUE BIRD” and “JEWEL.” I still stand by my opinion that at that time, Ayumi had begun exploiting her sexuality as female musicians like Kumi Koda and Namie Amuro began following Western trends of exploiting their femininity as if to say, “I’m a liberated female who can dress as little and as sexy as I want and not be called a slut because it’s what I choose,” which, in my opinion, can be a misguided intent that can breed negative repercussions (I’m old-school feminist like that).

While I agree that “my name’s WOMEN” was not the focus of that particular single, it was significant enough to release a PV after an album had already contained the song. And in this case, I have to disagree; in this video, Ayumi was selling herself as a sexual object. And it worked. Sales records show her previous two singles, CAROLS and INSPIRE c/w GAME sold 340,000 and 329,145 units respectively. In 2005, STEP you/is this LOVE?, which contained the “my name’s WOMEN” promotional video, sold 401,000, and was actually her best selling single since 2003’s No way to say single. Sure, internet downloading may have something to do with it. Or a PV where Ayumi struts around with a whip and dances suggestively in a male strip club could have something to do with it.

I also agree that Ayumi does have a message in her lyrics. “my name’s WOMEN” does have some female empowering lyrics throughout the entire song, including “We are not just dress-up dolls,” and my favorite, “We are not such simple creatures, remember that.” So my question is, why turn this music video into a dancing S&M romp? It is completely unnecessary and she could have gone with an entirely different route to express the words in these songs much better (“Real me,” which also contained an empowering message for females, took place on a space ship with non-suggestive dance moves and modest attire…come to think of it, did this PV have anything to do with the lyrics?). But Ayumi, as she herself has said, is a product and she understands she has to market herself to compete with sales figures of artists who are beginning to take over her almost ten year reign as Queen of Jpop. So she shows a little skin. And then in “Startin’” she added some new dance moves, none of which, as far as I can tell, had much to do with the lyrics or gave some sort of message, unless she mentioned dancing provocatively in chaps somewhere in the song that I missed. Little was I to know that Ayumi had even more to say she as swung her way around a strip pole in 2006’s “1LOVE.”

This was, for all purposes, an opinion piece; in 2005, I was speculating on the reasons Ayumi was beginning to change her image from a fresh-faced, cutesy teen idol into a woman who can do a pretty good imitation of Britney Spears. Compare her “SURREAL” PV or “SEASONS” PV or “Boys & Girls” PV or any PV before 2005 to any of her PVs after 2005, and there is a huge difference; all which has to do with sexuality and expressing that sexuality in a stereotypically modern female fashion; you have never seen Kinki Kids or SMAP have to resort to the things Ayumi has had to do, ironic considering what she is trying to say throughout songs like “my name’s WOMEN” (although you have seen Gerard Way and Bert McCracken making out, but boys, you are not fooling me).

And finally, being an opinion piece, I was obviously expressing a huge one that I personally hold; that women do not need to resort to air humping or whip cracking to be sexy, beautiful, driven, aggressive, talented and successful entertainers. Unfortunately, this being the ’00s, most of the general public will disagree with me. Why? Western media being broadcast around the world has already desensitized most viewers to react to women acting in an overt sexual manner as normal. Most people don’t see a problem with Ayumi shaking her hips in “Startin’” because they’ve seen Christina Aguilera half-naked on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and rap videos where women wear barely-there shorts and halter tops, with their breasts hanging out, grinding against any (and many) number of men. Compared to that, sure, Ayumi looks downright chaste. However, in my article, I didn’t mention any of these things because I was attempting to display and focus solely on Ayumi’s progression through music videos. As I mentioned, she had already appeared naked on the cover of 2002’s RAINBOW and barely covered in leaves that same year on I am… but there was absolutely nothing sexual about these images in the way having people rub her breasts in “Startin’” was.

The reason I wrote this article was because I was obviously disappointed in the direction I thought Ayumi was headed in 2006, especially when what initially attracted Ayumi to me, besides the music and lyrics which came first, was the fact that she was at her most popular in jeans and a T-shirt, literally, as many witnessed in her encore of the DOME TOUR 2001 concert. It’s no doubt that Ayumi’s popularity has begun to wan, and it’s interesting that this side of her should come out at this time. Do I still listen to and enjoy her music? Yes. Do I still think she is one of the most creative, driven, beautiful, talented and self-made entertainers in the Japanese music industry? Absolutely. Do I think her wearing chaps and grinding the air is artistic? No, I really don’t, and I can’t see how art can be found in that in the same way that my brain tells me that the next step is a Puff Daddy video and there is zero art involved in that. This is my opinion. But I’m sure the marketers think it’s great peple love this, that it’s wonderful that so many male fans think she looks sexy and gorgeous while just as many women feel they have to resort to moves like that to be popular and have men find them sexy and attractive. Because it’s what sells. That’s what’s wrong.

I’m not going to stop calling myself an Ayu fan just because you say I shouldn’t in the same way I wrote this rant and don’t expect anyone reading to agree (although I’m finding it ridiculous that this is the post I have the most complaints and disagreements with). The only kind of person that makes a bad fan is somebody who never stands back and questions why they like what they like and if they are truly buying a product or a CD or watching a show or a movie and enjoying it because they want to, or because it’s being cleverly marketed towards them, or worse, because everything else the artist has done has been great, so they are, therefore, incapable of putting out crap. So what if Bob Dylan was phenomenal in the 60s, nobody was going to let him get away with those crap albums he put out in the 80s, and to give them high ratings just because his previous work was so great would be absurd; he might never have learned from his mistakes and put out Love & Theft and 2006’s Modern Times, his first #1 album since ‘76. Sure, we want to support artists in their not-so-great periods, but patting them on the back for their lackluster efforts is akin to stabbing them in the back.

Your argument that I shouldn’t call myself a fan is the same half-witted argument that says people who don’t like something about America should leave the country. If you can’t critique and find fault, how can you improve and become better and fix what’s wrong? You can’t. And then you find that despite all the shimmying and juking, instead of focusing on developing the sound and cohesion of the music, your latest album Secret still only sold 804,000 units, and while sure, breast-baring Kumi’s 2006 Black Cherry sold 994,130, artists who never went the sexual route like Hikaru Utada, sold 906,202 units of 2006’s ULTRA BLUE and Ai Otsuka’s 2005 LOVE COOK sold 835,333 units. On the other hand, Namie Amuro struts her stuff in choreographed routines all the time wearing skimpy skirts, short-shorts and in her latest PV, a whip and tight leather. Her latest album, 2005’s Queen of Hip-Hop? 475,600 units. Interesting.