Who is the shôjo? There are two separate answers to that question, depending on your perspective, inside or outside shôjo culture. Although shôjo is usually translated into English as “girl” it is much more specific than that. The idea of the shôjo begins with Japan’s modern period, when for the first time there was a gap, a waiting period between childhood and adulthood (for the upper classes at least) and girls were sent off to school for a few years before marriage. The Meiji schoolgirl in the 1880s and 1890s became a symbol of everything that was changing in Japanese society. The Meiji schoolgirl, with her high pompadour, flying ribbons, and hakama, was both alluring and frightening to the men who observed and wrote about her, such as Tayama Katai. Around 1910 he wrote several novels about respectable men disgracing themselves by chasing after schoolgirls, in the grips of an obsession he called shôjobyô: girl sickness.
These early shôjo became the driving source behind many of the trends we now associate with modern culture, including the development of modern women’s language, according to linguist Inoue Miyako. The Meiji schoolgirl was the flower of bourgeois girlhood brought out in public for the first time, but with her Westernized, politicized education she posed a real threat to male control of public and private life. It’s hardly surprising then that descriptions of girl students in Meiji literature is full of this double vision: she’s sexy but dangerous, not only to the man who falls for her, but to the Japanese nation as a whole. This way of viewing girls has persisted from the “modern girl” of the 1920s up through the impossibly busty sweethearts of moe-obsessed otaku. While the tendency to draw big eyes may have come from shôjo manga, this is still an outsider’s view of the girl. Like a porn star or a whore, she is both idolized and degraded. Japan is still suffering from shôjobyô.
But girls don’t see themselves this way, and never have. There is a wholly separate image of the shôjo that arose in the 1920s in all-girls schools, which were a temporary haven from the pressure of an arranged marriage that awaited girls after graduation. The two main forms of expression of shôjo culture were the all-girl Takarazuka Revue, and girls’ literary magazines, such as Shôjo No Tomo (The Girl’s Friend). The stories in these magazines were never about dating boys; instead, the focus was always on friendship between girls. Both in the magazines and in real life, girls formed passionate (and perhaps occasionally sexual) relationships with other girls, called S kankei. In the pages of girls’ magazines, novelist Yoshiya Nobuko (who maintained an S kankei relationship throughout her adult life) and illustrators such as Takabatake Kashô and Nakahara Jun’ichi created the look and feel of the ideal shôjo: upper class and cultured, pure and innocent, meaning she had no experience with boys. Times have changed, of course–now many Japanese, particularly older people, will say, with a disapproving glare at those vulgar kogals, that there are no more shôjo today. On the other hand, young women who refuse to marry and have children, or even those who do but who want to remain part of this innocent and idealized world, will refer to themselves as eien no shôjo, forever shôjo.
While S kankei have become less common in postwar Japan where co-ed schooling is the norm and dating is no longer forbidden, girls’ preference for homogender romance remains. Those prewar magazines were gradually replaced postwar by shôjo manga, but instead of girl-girl stories, we now have bishônen, shônen-ai, and yaoi, all stories of love between beautiful, feminine-looking boys. Even stories of S kankei are making a comeback, with manga such as Maria-sama ga mite iru, and in Takemoto Novala’s efforts to bring Yoshiya Nobuko to a new generation of girls. The prewar shôjo, with her chaste, refined ways, may seem quaintly old-fashioned now, and far removed from the hard-core porn of yaoi, but it seems many girls still find refuge in a homogender world when heterosexual relationships prove frustrating.
The Yayoi Museum (to whom we are thankful for use of these images) houses an impressive collection of art and resources related to magazine culture and the shôjo. No English support is available, but don’t let this deter you from visiting. It is visually stunning!
113-0032 Tokyo, Bunkyo-ku, Yayoi 2-4-3
tel 03(3812)0012 fax 03(3812)0699