Read the article “J-Pop and performances of young female identity: Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo.” Toth, C. (2008). J-Pop and performances of young female identity: Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo. YOUNG, 16(2), 111–129., listen to these musical examples mentioned in the article and watch the music videos:Ayumi Hamasaki – “Boys and Girls” (lyrics (Links to an external site.))Ayumi Hamasaki – “Appears” (lyrics (Links to an external site.))Shina Ringo – “Instinct” (lyrics (Links to an external site.))Shina Ringo – Queen of Kabukicho (lyrics (Links to an external site.))Shiina Ringo – Kabukicho no Jyoou PV (Links to an external site.) on Vimeo (Links to an external site.).Misia – “Key of Love” (lyrics (Links to an external site.))Misia – The Place that Gets Sunshine (lyrics (Links to an external site.))When you are done, respond to at least one of the following prompts.Indicate which prompt(s) you are responding to. Your post should be a minimum of 200 words long. Your goal here is to make an argument and support it with examples from the article and/or the lesson.1. On page 112, the author states “While major record labels often tend to sell their female stars by highlighting their sexual desirability, some female performers managed to carve out a representational space by highlighting girl themes that energized girl solidarity and held up the possibility for a re-articulation of young femininity.” Using at least one of the music video examples above and at least one example from Lesson 5: Japanese Popular Music, provide examples of both music that highlights sexual desirability and performers who have attempted to re-articulate what it means to be an empowered female performing artist. Consider the music, lyrics, and visuals of the music video. Be sure to reference the article to support your response. 2. The author describes Ayumi Hamasaki as a ‘white’ goddess and Misia as a ‘black’ music diva. What are the racial implications of this statement, and how do you personally feel about it? Provide examples in support of your argument. 3. On page 116, the author states that “Music video is the key to Hamasaki’s and other female performers’ success. Beyond serving as marketing tools, they produce gender discourses that, rather than reiterate gender norms, complicate them.” Using at least one of the music video examples above, explain how can be true. 4. Using the article as a reference, argue for or against this statement: Ayumi Hamasaki is a positive role model for Japanese women. Use at least one of the music videos to support your argument.5. On page 123, the author states: “R&B is captured as a neo-Japanese sign in the sense that the singer’s message is that we (in Japan) are in possession of ‘blackness’; it is not an import, it is part of our own culture. Rejecting racial essentialism, one of Misia’s admirers has expressed this idea as ‘ … what makes us Japanese is getting more and more complex and diverse, and African American music is part of it. I guess Tokyo becomes much more internationalized and culturally chaotic.’ “What is the author saying? Do you agree or disagree, and why? Use at least one of the music videos to support your argument.ARTICLE
Nordic Journal of Youth Research
Copyright © 2008
SAGE Publications
(Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi and Singapore)
Vol 16(2): 111–29
J-Pop and performances of
young female identity
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
Carlow University, USA
This article examines the staging of sexuality and femininity in Japan Pop (J-Pop)
and its related club-cultural scenes. While historical research on many aspects
of gender in Japan has been extensive, the relationship between popular music
culture, gender, and urban space has been given little recognition. Based on extensive field research in Japan, the article provides an analysis of not only how
present-day female stars, Ayumi Hamasaki, Shina Ringo and Misia reproduce and
enact prescribed gender and sexual roles, but also reveals how, in many instances, they transgress those. These female performers managed to carve out a
representational space by highlighting girl themes that energized girl solidarity,
and held up the possibility for rearticulating young femininity. They represent
different angles of Tokyo’s current music and style scenes, and cultural geography.
These are scenes and geographies shaped by and inseparable from urban markers
that female fans follow night after night in Tokyo in order to reach clubs playing the
music of their favorite stars. Girls’ active engagement in clubs with commercialized
media texts that J-Pop performers produce assists them with the development
of their identity and formation of relationships with other young females. The
study argues that from trans-ethnic ‘white’-style scenes, ‘black’ soul, and rhythm
and blues (R&B)-oriented clubs in Shibuya to Shinjuku’s ‘seedy’ disco bars, young
women explore possibilities for new ethnic (trans-Asian, ‘Asian black’), gender
and sexual, and generational identities. The essay hopes to contribute to applied,
transnational gender and cultural studies as well as music criticism.
cultural geography, ethnicity, gender, girl studies, J-Pop, Japan, popular music
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
It’s so nice to be a beautiful girl
(It’s so nice to be… beautiful)
Party like a wild thing
(ba ba ba ba ba ba)
In parties that go on and on
Shake it at a nightclub
(la la la la la la)
Disco till the crack of dawn.
Kahimie Karie, ‘Good Morning World’ (1998)1
op star Kahimie Karie’s words adequately express the feelings of young
Tokyo women dedicated to spending their days in the chic boutiques of
Shibuya and Daikanyama, and their nights dancing in one or rather more of the
myriads of discothèques of the Japanese capital.2 Present-day Tokyo’s ‘clubland’
incorporates Shibuya’s ‘white’ goddess Ayumi Hamasaki, ‘black’ music divas
such as Misia, and tough-girl Shina Ringo, who is the voice of the shot bars and
edgy discos of Shinjuku where prostitute and female performers are often indistinguishable. Here I would take issue with cultural geographers John Connell’s
and Chris Gibson’s assertion that Tokyo is one of those centers that ‘have not
been attributed a “sound” in international mediascapes’ (Connell and Gibson,
2003: 102). What Connell and Gibson set as criteria of appropriations of urban
spaces for subcultural use — infrastructure of clubs, mobile populations, and
‘a vibrant culture of music consumption’ — are all present in Tokyo (p. 103).
Indeed, what makes Tokyo different from New York, Berlin and London is the
incredible density of clubs in relatively small areas, in which four- or five-storeyhigh buildings may accommodate four or five venues, each of which plays a
different kind of music for markedly different audiences, a difference that shapes
the age and gender mix on the dance floor. The author of this article has visited
a dozen or more clubs within less than a mile radius in Shibuya a night (only to
come by as yet-uncharted ones the following night), a good number of which
cater to almost exclusively young female audiences.
In Tokyo’s vast urban sprawl, female clubbers follow specific urban markers.
They travel a succession of stops along specific transit lines, and navigate specific
urban markers (Krims, 2007) on any given night in an effort to reach their
favorite clubs — in the plural. Arguably, Shibuya is the starting point for nightly
endeavors. The options are multifold. Groups of girls may want to explore some
of the fashionable districts surrounding Shibuya. The clubs of Omotesando,
Aoyama, Daykanyama and Roppongi are all within easy reach. However, most
young women of the ‘in crowd’ stay in, navigate or, at some point of the night,
return to Shibuya’s discothèques.
While major record labels often tend to sell their female stars by highlighting
their sexual desirability, some female performers managed to carve out a representational space by highlighting girl themes that energized girl solidarity and
held up the possibility for a re-articulation of young femininity. Girlhood emerges
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
from this space not as a universal, biologically-grounded condition of female
experience; instead, it implies a relation to agency, visibility and history (Wald,
2002: 207). Clubbing in contemporary Japan is a crucial site in which young
women can construct their own representations of girlhood — either as a challenge to or in conformity with hegemonic gender narratives. Clubs function
as important sources of emotional sanctuary for girls, and act as outlets for the
expression of anger, pleasure and hope (Wald, 2002: 209).
Japan is a country that even today remains unique, not only for its distinctive
culture but for the fact that, until recently, it has been the only non-Western society
to have successfully industrialized its economy. It seemed that Japanese society,
with its well-oiled government bureaucracy and corporate management, singleparty politics (Liberal Democratic Party), and high technological innovations existed as a ‘utopian alternative’, as the Eastern ‘Other’ to ‘what many perceived as
the corrupt and decadent societies of the West’, as film studies scholar Susan J.
Napier writes (Napier, 1998: 27–8).
By the mid-1990s, the situation changed dramatically. Japan found itself in the
midst of an ‘imploding national economic system, a disintegrating social order,
and the virtual absence of ethical and competent leadership’ (Yoda, 2000a: 635).
This real or perceived state of affairs led to an increasing disenchantment with
the values and goals that post-war Japan was built on. The disillusionment is
particularly obvious in Japanese youth culture. As girl studies scholar Catherine
Driscoll stresses that young women are highly visible and central to the ‘iconography of Japanese life and culture’, still, they are often represented as insignificant
in dominant discourses (Driscoll, 2002: 292). Therefore, it is greatly paradoxical
that moral panics over youth behavior, the outbreak of which has been closely
interwoven with the nation’s economic troubles, suggest that it is girl cultures
that reflect the brand-crazy consumerist obsession and the ‘anything goes’ attitude of the recent period (Yoda, 2000a: 635).
Media studies scholar Mary Celeste Kearney has demonstrated that girl-made
and girl-consumed cultural texts, including commercial media texts, reveal negotiations of ideologies of race, class, generation and sexuality (Kearney, 2006).
Girls’ participation in public activities such as clubbing assists them with the
development of their identity and formation of relationships with other young
females (Kearney, 2006: 15). In the different forms of girls’ culture emerging
in music and club cultures in Japan, young women have performed invented
ethnicities from a trans-ethnic ‘white’ to black American to pseudo-historical
Japanese. The ensuing massive moral panic has described these girls as ‘pack
animals’ ( guntai doubutsu), part-time prostitutes, and creatures who exist only
as images, appearances and body adornments (Kinsella, 2005: 150). In a sociocultural context where race/racial purity ( yamato minzoku) and, by association
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
of sexuality, bloodline (kettou) are still regarded highly important, such semiosis has generated, at the very least, contradiction and confusion (Kinsella, 2005:
147, 152).
I have selected three performers — Ayumi Hamasaki, Shina Ringo and Misia —
all extremely influential as both club-scene makers and commercially successful
artists, and their fans since they exemplify three different faces of Tokyo’s club,
music and girl cultures. It is remarkable how little these mega-selling performers
are known to western audiences favoring Japanese ‘underground’ artists identified by avant-gardist associations. The most obvious barrier to their success is
language; it is not accidental that Japanese noise music, which drives language
itself to its limits, and stages its dismantling and voidance in a wall of noise, has
been enormously influential in the West (Toth, 1999, 2003) while possessing
only a small fan base at home. The contradiction, of course, is that performers
who cross over into, say, the United States markets and gain popularity — most
recently, girl bands such as Afrirampo and Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re — remain relatively obscure in Japan. It appears that female artists, who succeed in the United
States, have, in cultural studies scholar Gayle Wald’s assessment, a postmodern
way of simultaneously acquiescencing to orientalist stereotypes and resisting
them, evoking the more pedestrian aspects of American commodity culture in
text/image and performing high-end rock, punk or metal (Wald, 2002: 202–3).
Neither being Anglophone nor easily fitting generic markers of western music
markets, J-Pop, at best, occupies a marginal position in these sites. And the fact
that some J-Pop artists play out seemingly conventional images of girlhood, makes
them less attractive to alternative or ‘indy’ audiences (and critics) thinking in uncomplicated ‘categorical hierarchies of conformity and resistance’ and missing
out on, what postcolonial film studies scholar Rey Chow calls, the ‘structural ambivalence’ of these songs (Driscoll, 2002: 208–9; Chow cited on p. 209).
Tokyo’s Shibuya district, a pivotal youth hangout, contains a stunning array of
giant, multi-storey TV screens showcasing J-Pop’s latest stars, huge billboards
(one of which featured singer Ayumi Hamasaki semi-nude), department stores,
specialized record shops, fashion boutiques and lately even a mall (McClure,
1998: 62–71). Coming from Shibuya Japan Rail (JR) Station, to the right of the district’s main thoroughfare, Dogenzaka, there is an extraordinary enclave crowded
with dance clubs and performance halls. Musician Mikami Chisako from the
group fra foa describes Shibuya as ‘a convenient place’ where ‘[y]ou can have
pretty much everything in the area, and almost everybody is allowed to be here’
(interview, in PPP @ Shibuya, Spring 2003, 14–5). She cites her pregnancy as
a case in point. Girl band Love Psychedelico’s Kumi claims that San Francisco,
New York and Tokyo’s Shibuya radiate a similar kind of positive power; to Kumi
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
the area is a ‘power spot’ (Kumi, 2002). In brief, Shibuya is perhaps the most
vital center of Japanese youth culture, fashion and music trends.
Ayumi Hamasaki as J-Pop’s biggest current star has enormous influence over
Shibuya trends or Shibuya kei (Toth, 2004). Shibuya kei is a very self-conscious
culture which changes monthly and changes dramatically, is expensive and difficult to catch up with; the exact same fashion design as what is displayed on
the runways in Paris, Milan and London. It is clean and very elaborate, ‘French-y’
style which is casual but not too casual (shibukaji), sexual but not too sexual.
It is heavily dominated by the color white with both clothes and make-up emphasizing a certain measure of whiteness that is perceived as trans-ethnic chic.3
A key to Hamasaki’s growing success in South-East Asian countries, historically
antagonistic towards cultural products coming from Japan, is her indeterminate
ethnic look (it was not accidental that she was the first recipient of the Miss
Barbie Award in 2001). Ironically, this fact led to a temporary drop in her popularity in Japan, and she had to be ‘repackaged’ in the image of a geisha whose
spectacular dress combined classic Japanese styles with strokes of cutting-edge
western fashion.
Ayumi, or simply Ayu as her fans call her, has her own clothes’ line brand-named
‘Material Girl’ in homage to Madonna. There is no concealment about the materialistic approach of promoting her. Ayu sells images, and is sold as a bundle
of images. Fans capture Ayu as a mascot, a body on a giant poster wall, and
a model for Bulgari, yet no one knows what kind of a girl she really is — the
star herself acknowledges this much as she sings in ‘Real me’ (title in English),
‘What I get?/What you get?/It may be an illusion’.4 This inscrutability enables
her close relation to merchandizing. When she wore Channel sunglasses, they
sold out, while Yves Saint Laurent’s lacey fashion was introduced by the diva.
A couple of years ago, tight jeans and knee-high black boots became fashion
because of Hamasaki. As one of her admirers has put it, ‘Ayu is the me I wish
I was. She just … gets it’ (Takeuchi Cullen, 2002: 51). Highly ironic that in a
hyper-consumption society, the practice of ‘extreme shopping’ by her fans, and
young women in general, is widely viewed as irresponsible overindulgence. On
the other hand, some popular feminists in Japan celebrate excess shopping as
‘a legitimate protest against constraints forced upon women’ in a paternalist
society (Bardsley and Hirakawa, 2005: 113; Yoda, 2000b).
Hamasaki’s early success came through electronic dance music (EDM) remixes of her songs (a hardcore/trance sound) that were allowed to be played
in clubs — a crucial form of expanding a performer’s appeal. While different
genres within EDM have had a wide appeal across gender, sexual and class
cleavages (Huq, 2006: 105), there has been very little generic crossover. In other
words, audiences tend to be bound up in their favorite styles while rejecting
others. Thus Ayu girls dance at their club nights to the mix spun by their favorite
DJs. While they exist, super clubs are relatively rare in Tokyo, smaller-scale clubs
with lower levels of volume and more intimate spatial arrangements abound;
they are compatible with holding conversations or simply passing the time. Here,
one needs to consider the scarcity of private (home) space in Tokyo’s crammed
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
living quarters; thus experimenting with make-up, reading magazines and sizing
up boys is carried out in the public space of the club.
Clubbing for these young women constitutes an aesthetic and political challenge to dominant representations of female sexuality produced by Japan’s
patriarcho-corporate sector. I would argue that clubbing is a strategy to realize
young women’s agency by the production of a representational space (dress,
music, language) that is, in effect, off-limits to patriarchal authority. While the
clubs Ayu fans frequent do not exclude male patrons, men present mostly serve
as ‘attendants’ and ‘body guards’. The girls’ wild carousing inspired by their idol
preempts the sexually objectifying gaze of the rest of male clubbers. Ayu and
her fans’ revelry in ‘girliness’ has an air of transgression in a profoundly masculine society (as Japan still is) while at the same time, can be interpreted as
merely playful performance lacking the markers of transgression. Gayle Wald’s
comment on western ‘girl power’ practices holds true for Tokyo’s young female
clubbers, ‘The instability of strategic reappropriation of girlhood is mirrored and
reproduced… in the very instability of “meanings” that consumers construe from
performers who play the “girl”’ (Wald, 2002: 197).
Shibuya girls successfully challenge male ownership of the club as a public
space and, while heteronormativity is not explicitly questioned, heterosexuality
is subtly subverted by their obsession with themselves. This latter point is clearly
exemplified by one of Ayu’s major hits ‘Boys and Girls’, a song for which the
visuals show Ayu only; the ‘boy’ appears in the text only, and even there he is
dismissed. The song starts out with flashes of a conventional romance — ‘It’s on
my lips/It’s in my dreams/It’s a story told by two’ — however, happiness — ‘You
say you want to be happy/You’ve already been so many times’ — which she
simultaneously expects and doubts, does not materialize. She quickly equates her
romantic feelings with a little confusion that dissolves in the light of the day:
I was really expecting it.
I really doubted it.
What was it? Who was it?
They say he’s a good person.
He seems like a person I don’t care about.
The morning glow is dazzling.
It pierces my eyes.
My breast hurts.
I was a little confused.5
Music video is the key to Hamasaki’s and other female performers’ success. Beyond
serving as marketing tools, they produce gender discourses that, rather than
reiterate gender norms, complicate them. Visual representation of their songs
as filmic narratives has been important to young women’s identification with
the performer (Vernallis, 2004). Encounter with these clips is unavoidable, for
they penetrate public space: Shibuya and Shinjuku’s giant electronic billboards
constantly play them at full volume.
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
Some of what is going on in Hamasaki’s ‘Appears’ (sic) helps us understand
why a high school student said in a documentary that what prevented her from
dropping out of school were the sad but positive lyrics of Hamasaki. In ‘Appears’,
Ayumi sings about a girl who is obsessed with images of happiness such as couples holding hands, walking together, kissing in the car, etc. Everything is going
well, everyone is happy, seemingly there are no problems but who knows the
truth. Only two people, only the couples know the truth but even their ‘truth’
may not be ‘true.’ They cannot know what the truth is, Hamasaki suggests, because we look at our own happiness through other people’s eyes. Happiness is
constructed — ‘It looks like everything is going perfectly, but no one knows the
truth’ — everything is open to interpretation:
At the first phone call, the hand
with which I held the receiver trembled.
At the second call a message
was left on my machine.
At the seventh call we decided to meet.
It all began on that ordinary day.

At the 10th call we
went far away together.
As we held hands and walked,
I felt a little shy.
And the nights flew by.
On the way home, in the car, we kissed.
I love the white, shining snow.
Nevertheless, we were separated last year.
This winter, we’ll try together.
Will we make it? Can I say?
The Merry Christmas I couldn’t say before.6
There is an inherent tension between Ayu in the club context and Ayu singing
on Shibuya’s huge television screens. As opposed to the participatory, communal relations which her music incites on the dance floor amongst girls, many of
her songs such as ‘Appears’ seem to encourage privatized discourses of heterofemininity.
Hit songs like ‘Kanariya’ (Canary) and ‘Fly High’ (title in English) are selfreferential; in them, Hamasaki addresses what it means to be a young female
working in the music business. In ‘Kanariya’, ‘surface image people’ — presumably, record business people — expect canaries to sing but the birds do not
necessarily follow their expectations. The studio for Hamasaki is the cage, just as
canaries are kept in a cage. Now, the canaries have stopped singing:
It’s not that the canaries whose voices were crushed to death couldn’t sing. Maybe
they just chose not to.7
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
In ‘Fly high’, Hamasaki sings about pretending, and about how the real (that is,
the ‘girl’) Ayu has become the shadow of the fake (that is, the ‘superstar’) Ayu.
Ayu the ‘girl’ is watching Ayu the ‘star’ on the screen in a disco: everything looks
so small because, as the song tells us, the sky is so big. The ‘real’ Ayu is unable
to handle this ‘big’ vision of her; in stardom, everything is a fake. Out of this
confrontation between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’, Ayu springs her desire to reclaim
It’s all in this hand for sure.
I mustn’t leave my dreams here.
It’s all in this hand for sure.
I don’t need a predetermined future.8
The singer feels so blinded and trapped in the flashlights of the media that
nothing is or might be true. She feels like a ‘mascot’; ‘I am a product [of the
industry]’, she confessed in an interview (Takeuchi Cullen, 2002: 53). One must
note though that Hamasaki is in total control of her production, therefore this
‘confession’ must be taken with a grain of salt.
Girls who worship Ayu know that they are not the same as she, and will
not be, yet they are responding to statements that Ayu is just like them. Does
Ayu offer some expression of these girls’ desires while, in the end, encouraging
conformity? One could argue that girls’ embracing popular rather than avantgarde cultural production generates further emancipatory possibilities (Aapola
et al., 2005: 31). Does Ayu then push young women to identify girl-positive feelings with a non-political discourse? Do her fans think about girlhood in cultural
ways rather than a space for social and political action? While probably most
of these considerations are in part valid, I would argue that Hamasaki’s work
finalized a shift in the dominant paradigm of club cultural production directed
toward girls.
Girls’ influence on Tokyo’s club culture came to sight first at the legendary and
now-defunct mega club, Juliana’s, in the early 1990s. Women who wore bodyhugging micro-skirts (bodikon, or body conscious), Good Up bras allowing a
spectacular cleavage, and gogo shoes, created a sensational sight as they walked
the distance from the nearby JR station to this club on the waterfront (Shibaura).
Once inside, young women were dancing on tiered platforms, showing off their
bodies clad, as the night progressed, in barely more than G-strings and bras,
and holding a feather-trimmed fan (Juli[ana]-sen[su]) in one hand while moving
to the beat. Significantly, men were ‘condemned’ to only watch, and meandered
around in confusion. Tokyo police put an end to Juliana’s culture of ‘bodikon
and deviance’. However, the sheer existence of the super-club led to a new
understanding of the nexus between feminine spatial practice, club culture and
mainstream music trends, which was quickly taken up by Avex, now Japan’s
biggest record company that, in 1994, bought one of Tokyo’s most influential
dance clubs, velfarre (sic), as a ‘de facto replacement’ for Juliana’s (Braun, 2003).
velfarre became the testing ground for Avex’s increasing efforts to fuse electronic
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
dance music with the more orthodox J-Pop sound, which eventually translated
into the success of stars such as Ayumi Hamasaki. (velfarre closed in 2007.) A
proliferation of girl-centered smaller clubs ensued as the girls-only para para
dance craze began to dominate, a style that smoothly meshed with techno (tech
para) and trance (tra para). No accident that, on a club level, Hamasaki taught
her fans to do para para to some of her hits.
Shinjuku occupies a particular position within the cartography of Tokyo’s ‘clubland’. If anyone, it is Shina Ringo who represents Shinjuku-kei, pure and simple.
Direct sexual imagery and vocabulary bring Shina and Shinjuku together. To the
singer, Shinjuku stands for Kabuki-cho: the rough and sleazy culture of the East
Exit (higashi deguchi) of JR Shinjuku station. In other words, her work rests on
a negation of the culture of department stores, and pricey hotels concentrated
around JR’s affluent West Exit. Until recently, she has had that ‘amateur’ (read
‘uninhibited’) attitude so wholly different from the delicate sophistication of the
Ayu girls. A girl asserts about Ringo fans, ‘They have self assertion, and they are
sensual.’9 Explaining ‘sensual’, she adds, ‘Fans show their sexual[ity by] taking
control of the man they want. … Most important thing for them is control of
Ringo was discovered via the radio program Japan Music Quest, which is a
weekly showcase for amateur performers. Hopefuls send in demos, listeners vote,
and in the end whoever has received the most votes can debut on a major label
every two months. She is not a bona fide solo artist, has performed with the
band Tokyo Jihen since 2004; nonetheless she works on her music and songs
by herself. She has created the word Shinjuku-kei because before that, so runs
the mythology, no fashion and no music of consequence existed in this entertainment district for the salaried men.
Ringo’s ‘Kabukicho no joou’ (Queen of Kabukicho) opens with a dream sequence: everyone has this dream of going to Kabukicho. The female protagonist’s
mother was Queen of Kabukicho, that is, the most sought-after prostitute:
Mommy was the Queen of this place
And she’s my spitting image
Everyone stretched me their hands
And even though I was just a child, they showed me around the pleasure quarters
When I turned fifteen,
The Queen left me and disappeared
Maybe she’s living
With the man who came along every Friday
‘All that rises must eventually fall’
I barely started to understand what this phrase meant
when I stepped inside the pleasure quarters
Even though I hate the woman who abandoned me, now it’s Summer
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
And I revere with pride
The name of the Queen
Now I am a woman, and what I’m selling
Is only myself
I will lose everything
When I need sympathy.11
The mother might have vanished with the man who used to come to their house
to have sex with her. Did she flee aging? The listener-viewer is reminded of an
Edo era saying, ‘All that rises must eventually fall’, as he/she is confronted in the
video with grim, black-and-white images of aging prostitutes. The daughter, who
happens to be a musician, starts out on a spiritual journey in order to find her
mother. This is the time the daughter needs to take over. Her living the same
life as her mother is her destiny. Every utterance by Ringo references ‘instinct’,
‘gene’, and ‘sex’ as predicaments that cannot be avoided, ‘From tonight on, in
this city; I was once the daughter and now I am the Queen’.12
Kabukicho stands for secret life, taboo life; sex-Queen mother and daughter
are predisposed to follow the exact same life path. The daughter names the East
Exit of Shinjuku JR station as the site where her world lies. At the end, she too
dresses up as a prostitute — the Queen of Kabukicho. In a typical Shina-esque
move, she selects a word ( joou) of murky origin that, in written Chinese, first
appeared in the late third century and referred to Japan as a country ruled by a
joou or Queen.13
The song, however, is larger than a ‘simple’ daughter–mother nexus. It posits
the feminine as staging ground for national history by evoking at least one
distinct stage in recent Japanese history — the Occupation years of 1945–1953
(Dower, 1999). Shina is reminiscing about her mother while wearing a G.I.’s cap,
suggesting that her mother’s customers were US soldiers, and so was possibly the
man with whom she ran away. The potential is there in Ringo’s work to create a
narrative of the ‘travel of sexualities that would, once again, fracture disciplinary
practices’ of post-war reconstruction in the Pacific (Inderpal Grewal quoted by
Parks, 2002: 228). The sexual history of the ‘forgotten’ Occupation period is
a ‘taboo’ topic since miscegenation would complicate not only American and
Japanese gender and sexual norms but also symbolic investments in national
identity. Both the song and the video depend on an unstable exchange between
memories of Showa-era Japan (1926–1989) and the social costs of the economic
turmoil of the present — homeless people, a boy urinating in the street, and
sickly, stray animals. They are fused together by the theme of gender identity
formation, the feminine disrupting the constraints the nation (state) imposes at
the site of the body.
Ringo admits to enka influences upon her songcraft. The Shinjuku link is
made more emphatic by her persistent references to social class (urban, working class with rural roots). This is a characteristic of enka but unheard of in
Japanese pop. Shina has picked up these references while hanging out at markets for the poor where (amateur) enka performers equipped with cheap PA
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
systems sing about miseries of life as a form of release. Enka’s history dates back
to the Meiji era (1867–1912), when it was a political street song contesting in
the name of popular representation the government’s top-down introduction
of western market capitalism in the country. In its role today, it functions as a
cultural technology for creating ‘national and cultural memory’ and ‘archive of
the [Japanese] nation’s collective past’ (Yano, 2002: 17). However, while contemporary enka, facing the uncertainties of the present and unable or unwilling to account for Japan’s past, is about withdrawal, Shina Ringo’s songs directly
address a complex web of historical issues (Yano, 2002: 179).
In Shina’s ‘Honnou’ (Instinct), boundaries between femininity and masculinity
are transgressed rather than reinforced (Butler, 2004; Jagose, 1994: 4–5). The
protagonist, a nurse, does not need promises because they are never kept; she
just wants to have a physical connection until morning; she wants her partner
to put her ‘instinct into motion’. Don’t be bored, do something to turn me on,
she demands of her lover, whose gender is not immediately or not obviously
Forgive my whims
don’t think it’s too late, just rush me
enter me deep
put my instincts into motion.14
She responds angrily to her lover’s indifference by smashing glass windows. She
is breaking everything that is taboo by behaving as a sexually overcharged nurse,
and having a same-sex encounter with a patient. The hospital sign says: honnou
or instinct. Instincts in motion make her blood literally boil as shown by the
intravenous tube in the video. Ringo is wearing a nurse’s uniform, heavy makeup and high heels — the metal heels of which she uses to kick in the windows of
the hospital door. The latter are of significance because they represent not only
‘fashion with vengeance’ and ‘a defiant gesture… of rebellion’, but are coded as
ambisexual. It is a fetish that is unmistakably feminine yet carries the weapon
(Kaite, 1995: 95–7).
Shina has a committed club cultural fan base that embraces her outbursts of
rage on stage, ruthless domination of male musicians around her, and the violent
content of many of her songs and video clips. One of her CDs’ jacket design
(Gipusu or Plaster Cast) shows Shina slicing her hand with a kitchen knife,
which have led devotees to wonder about her ‘sanity’. However, one female fan
has touched upon a potential intersection between cultural creativity and micropoliticization (Marchart, 2003) in Shina’s world, ‘Violent images = destruction =
get rid of regulations. Violent images used for innovation… ’.15
Shina has fashioned an ‘Old’ Japanese ethnicity, one that she constructs in
linguistic (rare Chinese characters, invented ‘old’ words), generic (enka allusions),
and sartorial ways (the singer’s donning a kimono fits with this process unlike
Hamasaki’s in whose case it has been a purely commercial move). Her sexually
overt style, both textual and visual, not only intentionally evokes the pleasure
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
quarters of Edo, as Tokyo was once called (till 1868), but by referencing the
sexually polymorphous world immortalized in shunga — erotic scrolls or woodblocks documenting brothel life — fosters a greater sense of awareness and acceptance of the Other (Leupp, 1995: 78–80). Significantly, this includes the queer
Other understood to include a broad variety of ‘non-heterosexual and gendervariant identities, practices and communities’ (McLelland, 2005: 2). Using Shinjuku,
this ‘veritable epicenter’ of sexual and gender Otherness in contemporary Tokyo
(Pflugfelder, 1999: 330), as the backdrop to most of her work, is significant. Shina
Ringo, on occasions at least, gives representations of kono sekai or ‘this world’
as queer cultures have been commonly referred to in Japan (McLelland, 2005: 1).
She positions herself as a pop genealogist tracking down what Foucault calls
‘buried and disqualified’ knowledge (Foucault quoted in McLelland, 2005: 8).
Significantly, the unparalleled forcefulness Shina displays in her music videos,
screened in heavy rotation on television and billboards, speaks to an audience,
and may complicate often condescending western views positing sexual minorities in Japan as ‘the hapless victims of a repressive regime’ (2005: 6). Nonetheless, in order to avoid triumphalist generalizations concerning Ringo’s cultural
work, we must remember queer theorist Yukiko Hanawa’s caution that ‘it [is]
necessary for one to always consider the singularity of practice informing subjectivity, sexual as well as gender’ (Chalmers, 2002: 1–17; Hanawa, 1996: 476;
Robertson, 1998).
Ringo’s performance does imply loss, grief and absence in a gendered way.
Tension builds in her work as her ‘old’ way of saying or doing things feels cynical
in light of the contemporary mood. New and retro sounds blend in her tunes as,
textually, and less obviously sonically, they hark back to a long-lost, yet never
idealized Japan:
Though her old Japanese is not exact, I think it’s (a good) match and beautiful. I’m
Japanese so I have such a feeling’ (Female high school student).16
Ringo’s historical detours are considered new wave-y because they fit the retro
rage of the moment in Japan and elsewhere.
It is Misia who embodies diva culture in Japan. Diva would ‘translate’ as the
aggregate of female soul and R&B music, braids, dreads, cornrows and fashion
wear such as Tommy girl and Baby phat. In March 1998 Misia made her live debut
at Tokyo’s premier R&B and hip hop club Harlem, packing the 600-capacity
venue with 1200 fans.
It was her African–American vocal coach in Fukuoka17 who exposed Misia
to soul and R&B at a music school (McClure, 2007). In 1997, Misia was signed
by Arista Japan, moved from Fukuoka to Tokyo, and released her debut single,
‘Tsutsumi Komuyouni’ (Embracing, 1997). An analog version of the single was
released before the CD and became a hit on the Tokyo club scene, thanks to
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
remixes by DJ Watarai and rap versions by Muro. ‘Embracing’ eventually sold
some 700,000 copies, catapulted Misia into superstardom, and was followed by
the Recording Industry Association of Japan naming her New Artist of the Year
for 1998. Her success paved the way for other R&B-influenced ‘divas’ who, as
McClure points out, changed the ‘J-pop template with technically accomplished
soul- and R&B-influenced music’ (McClure, 2007).
One can ask basically the same questions about Japanese soul music that
historian E. Taylor Atkins poses about Japanese jazz. Does a Japanese soul diva
surrender her identity when she performs black R&B? Is it possible to express that
identity through an African–American art of music? Is this, in the last instance,
‘authentic’ soul (Atkins, 2001: chapter 1)?
In partial response to these questions, one may suggest that Japanese soul
and R&B is about no boundaries, and that Misia’s performance is more about
reinvention of ethnicity or creation of post-ethnicity. Her music is what is
currently being referred to as m.o.b.o., or ‘music of black origin’. The concept
of m.o.b.o., originating from the United Kingdom,18 lends credibility to the
existence of Japanese soul, R&B and hip hop: the music is black or m.o.b.o.,
therefore the performer does not need to be black. R&B is captured as a neoJapanese sign in the sense that the singer’s message is that we (in Japan) are
in possession of ‘blackness’; it is not an import, it is part of our own culture.
Rejecting racial essentialism, one of Misia’s admirers has expressed this idea as,
‘ … what makes us Japanese is getting more and more complex and diverse,
and African American music is part of it. I guess Tokyo becomes much more
internationalized and culturally chaotic.’19
This search by Misia for a parallel ‘emotive vocabulary’ (Atkins, 2001: 249) as
historically indigenous and rich in depth of feeling, does not come at the price
of expunging soul’s roots in African–American music. The ‘discursive loophole’
that Atkins takes note of regarding the history of Japanese jazz, is quite possibly
valid for Misia’s R&B performance as well. This ‘emotive vocabulary’ rests on the
assumption that there exists a ‘natural affinity’ between black soul music and
Japanese soul music, both expressive of the shared and painful history of peoples
of color (Atkins, 2001: 251–2). Misia familiarizes her audience with this — to
her listener’s as yet unfamiliar — sign; in her videos, for instance, we see a
dreadlocked Misia leading her African–American dancers across the narrow
alleys of Hong Kong. In her Japanese fans’ imaginary, black culture equals ‘hip’
culture, that is, Misia gives her followers the ultimate ‘cool’ — and one that is
experienced as homegrown. ‘Cool’ is realized through cultural consumption;
youth consume (and produce) commodities such as music that show both
their desire for these cultural products and their investments — affective and
material (Maira, 2002: 197). Obviously, boundaries do exist in Tokyo’s R&B
scene; yet, challenging some of the assumptions of subcultural theory, ‘cool’
is in this instance constructed by virtue of its (racial) inclusivity rather than
exclusivity (Jensen, 2006; Muggleton and Weinzierl, 2003: 9–10; Thornton,
1995). This inclusiveness goes beyond the appreciation of music ‘only’, Misia’s
fans do include African–American, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Asian clubbers as
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
any night in any Tokyo R&B club will reveal. As cultural anthropologist Daniel
Miller notes, ‘consumption is a “moral” project, built on the possibilities that
commodities offer to reimagine cultural ideologies, such as those of “self” and
“other”…’ (Miller quoted in Maira, 2002: 197).
Paul Gilroy suggests that Afro-diasporic cultures in western modernity cross
‘different national paradigms for thinking about history’ and that black identity is
‘unstable’ that challenges notions of authenticity and cultural uniqueness (Gilroy
cited in Huq, 2006: 121; Condry, 2006). Misia’s work might retain ‘residual contradictions’ of colonialism and exoticism, yet it also speaks to new cultural and
political currents that have emerged from ‘fundamentally new geopolitical and
economic realities’ (Lipsitz, 1997: 5). Considering ‘reflexive uses’ of the black
Other in the context of Japanese popular culture, anthropologist John Russell
raises the possibility for the rejection of a racial status-quo mirroring a Eurocentric
world view, and assertion of solidarity by Japanese youth with other non-whites
(Russell quoted in Maira, 2002: 66).20 Misia and her fans’ embrace of black music
does the cultural work of ‘discursive transcoding’ (Douglas Kellner and Michael
Ryan): indirectly expresses youth disenchantment with not only a Eurocentric
universe but the new rage of topdown ethno-centrism in contemporary Japan
(Kellner and Ryan cited in Lipsitz, 1997: 55).
Misia’s fans who flock to dance clubs with such telling names as Harlem, Asia
(both in Shibuya) and Yellow (in Nishi-Azabu) view blackness as a means of
iden-tity negotiation. They incorporate black skin in their stylistic vocabulary as
a key signifier of R&B and hip hop styles. As historian of Japanese literature Nina
Cornyetz has noted, in J-Pop fandom, like in white suburban appropriations of
African–American youth culture, the origins of these genres are erased but with
a crucial difference: in Japan, they are not ‘whitened’ (Cornyetz, 1994: 114).
Black culture therefore might be understood as a space to comprehend the self,
and experience Otherness. Fans talk about the incorporation into their selves
of the black Other, ‘Through the music of African American origin, I acquire a
totally positive image of otherness — cool, soulful, and powerful.’21
Unlike Hamasaki, who rarely sings in English, Misia cannot avoid singing in
English. In order to reflect the ‘proper’ atmosphere, she feels compelled to mix
Japanese with English to engender the feeling of soul music. Misia’s performance
represents the fundamental pleasure of music: the listener does not take her as
commodity; it is a music-centered performance. Her respect for African–American
music is reflected in her adoration for Chicago soul diva Minnie Riperton, whose
1975 hit single ‘Lovin’ You’ Misia has covered (the Japanese diva like Riperton
possesses a rare five-octave vocal range). In New York, she sought out Erykah Badu
whose Afro-centric soul, hip hop and jazz has been an influence on her music,
in order to record with her the duet ‘Akai Inochi’ (Red Destiny). Admiration is
manifested in the other direction as well; legendary house music DJs — Junior
Vasquez and Frankie Knuckles — who work with Misia, consider her a top talent
in the R&B field.
Misia always talks about the boyfriend she wants to have. Her yearning
exemplifies girls’ sentimental dreams and appeals to young women with her
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
evocation of passionate longing. In ‘Key of Love’, Misia asks her boyfriend to
teach her a ‘little bit of love’, and asks him to open the ‘wounded door’ of her
heart and hold her:
Abandoning hesitation,
The time is now
I will start to run. The time is now [repeat]
Alone I was looking up at that sky, now I extend my arm
My love for you that was once unable to grow has gone beyond my dreams

Key of my love
My heart, like a thin spring ice,
Melts little by little, I realize
You’re the key of my love.22
In ‘Hi no ataru basho’ (The Place that Gets Sunshine) she asks existential questions: What is the meaning of her life? Why does she sing?
I can sing a song for you and me forever (English in the original)
Finding a place where the sun shines
I can sing a song for you and me forever
Let’s change sadness to a smile
Although I fool with PAPPA RATTATTARARA
Incompatible with my feelings that flow and flow
If I was not here, oh
If I had the time to think
It would be good when I look up at the clear sky
Because I am so small, I am not alone, unable to live alone
If I lose the words, I can still sing, oh.23
I would argue that embrace of ‘blackness’ by Misia’s fans and their R&B culture
recast America as constructed white as well as defies the equally constructed
Japanese national, racial identity. As Cornyetz points out, Tokyo’s ‘black cultural’
fans search for an alternative, yet communal identity, and by incorporating Black
and other non-white cultures, Japanese R&B and hip hop ‘generates interactive
dialogue rather than unilateral plundering of image’ (1994: 132).
Club scene is one of metropolitan Japan’s most fertile sources of new musical
trends. What all Tokyo clubs have in common is a degree of subtle sophistication.
It has been an elitist and very masculine scene. This is the culture which Ayumi
Hamasaki, Shina Ringo and Misia have broken into, begun to interrogate and, on
occasion, managed to reformulate its masculinist codes. ‘She is jisaku-jien-ya’,
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29
a fan characterizes Ringo; that is, a maker and enactor of her own style, a characterization that holds equally true for Hamasaki and Misia.24
However, what made the creation of these openings in Tokyo’s club culture
possible were the activities of young female fans. Their collective sense of identity — acknowledged even by their most vociferous critics (see ‘pack animals’) —
has been built around a particular type of music and particular performer.
I would concur with Mary Kearney that young women’s collective participation
in commercialized public activities, such as clubbing, helps ‘female youth to express themselves assertively and to form relationships with other girls’ (2006: 4).
And while these girls might be seemingly politically disengaged and involved
in semiotic ‘warfare’ only — although as I have hinted earlier, contours of an
emerging micro-politics can be sighted — their nightly endeavors speak directly
and unambiguously to mounting social and economic insecurity under neoliberal regimes (as the Koizumi and Abe governments have been), and reflect a
desire to counter encroachment by a patriarcho-corporate culture.
1 Text was accessed on 17 March 2007 at
4821/goodmorningworld212097.html. No translator was named. All lyrics are provided for educational purposes only. Intermittently, I have made slight changes for
the sake of greater clarity.
2 An earlier version of this essay was presented at the School of Culture and Communication, Södertörn University, on 13 March 2007, and the Center for Gender Studies
at Stockholm University on 14 March 2007. I want to thank my audience for their
valuable comments. I also wish to express my gratitude to Atsuko Miyawaki (Tokyo)
who was instrumental in honing my approach to J-Pop. The romanization system in
this article follows the Hepburn system.
3 See, for instance, the Ayumi Hamasaki cover story in Girlpop (Japan), January, Vol. 77,
2006, pp. 10–21. The article and photo-shoot evoke a white, dreamlike vision of Ayu
dressed in a wedding dress, however, significantly, with no male in sight.
4 Text was accessed on 22 May 2007 at
The text has been translated by Masa, Wataru and Ustuff (sic).
5 Text was accessed on 17 March 2007 at and
was translated by Wataru.
6 Text was accessed on 17 March 2007 at
htm and was translated by Wataru.
7 Text was accessed on 17 March 2007 at
htm and was translated by Wataru.
8 Text was accessed on 17 March 2007 at
lyrics/ and was translated by Masa, Wataru and Ustuff (sic).
9 T.R. email on 21 May 2007.
10 T.R. email on 23 May 2007.
11 Text was accessed on 17 March 2007 at and was translated by Brian Stuart and Takako Sakuma.
12 Ibid.
Music, gender and urban space in Tokyo
13 The word is a relative latecomer in Japanese, making its appearance most likely in
the mid-eighteenth century. I want to thank Professor Junzo Oshimo at East Asian
Languages and Literatures, University of Pittsburgh, for this information. For historical
detail on Wei chih (the Chinese chronicle, c. AD 297) about the Japanese ‘queen’, see
Hall (1991: 25–6).
15 T.R. email on 21 May 2007.
16 High school student’s (anonymous) email on 24 May 2007.
17 Coincidentally, Misia, Ayumi Hamasaki and Shina Ringo are all from Fukuoka, the
largest city on the southern island of Japan, Kyushu.
18 The acronym has been popularized by the Mobo awards — one of a number of music
awards in the United Kingdom that can influence record sales and boost an artist’s
profile. ‘Music of black origin’ awardees account for more than half of all singles sold
in Britain. Nominations are not restricted only to Black artists. Nominees can be of
any race or nationality, so long as their performance draws on music that traces its
roots back to Africa.
19 S.I. email on 14 March 2007.
20 John Russell observes ‘the tendency to employ the Black Other as a reflexive symbol through which the Japanese attempt to deal with their own ambiguous racial
status in a Eurocentric world, where such hierarchies have been largely (and literally) conceived in terms of polarization between black and white, and in which
Japanese as Asians have traditionally occupied a liminal space.’ (Russell quoted in
Maira, 2002: 299.)
21 S.I. email on 14 March 2007.
22 Translation by Yoko Motoyama. Commissioned by the author.
23 Translation by Yoko Motoyama. Commissioned by the author.
24 High school student’s (anonymous) email on 24 May 2007.
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CSABA TOTH received his PhD from the University of Minnesota, and
is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Carlow University in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Toth’s scholarly interests include social movements,
production of gender, girl cultures, politics of sound, urban history, and pedagogy. His writings have been published by The M.I.T. Press, St. Martin’s Press,
and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He was a guest professor
of American Studies in Japan (1998–2000), lectured in Australia, Lithuania,
Ukraine, Georgia, and Sweden, and has been the recipient of several major
grants and awards (Fulbright Senior Lecturer, NEH, Newberry, George Soros
Foundation, DAAD, Wise-Susman Prize). Toth co-teaches with Katie Hogan
the seminar ‘Girl Cultures’. Address: History Department, Carlow University,
3333 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA. [email: tealeaf_toth@yahoo.
Young 16:2 (2008): 111–29

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