Women in Japanese History: A Snapshot Through Hello Kitty

Volume 22

Updated 1 April 2022

By Zac Fairbrother

In 1995, designer Yamaguchi Yuko, according to her biography, overheard a conversation between three high schoolers about their plans to take part in enko - ‘compensated dating’. The term referred to young women selling sex to older men for money and had been the centre of a media frenzy that year, so Yamaguchi couldn’t help asking the girls why they would put themselves in such a position. They replied that they wanted expensive glam purses - so Yamaguchi offered to design one herself, branded with her company’s mascot and affordable enough that no one would need to turn to sex work to afford it. The girls loved the suggestion, and the result, debuting in 1996, was Sanrio’s Hello Kitty purse, which launched the company to global fame.

What, you may ask, does Hello Kitty have to do with women’s history? This anecdote seems like an odd choice, but by looking at aspects of Yamaguchi’s story we can introduce trends and continuities that have existed in Japan for, sometimes, centuries. Whether this anecdote is actually a continuation of historical trends is a debate for experts - I simply hope to use it as a fun and recognisable lens to highlight some ways that women fit into a national history dominated by male samurai, emperors, and ‘Great Men’.

And to do that, we must first ask - why were the girls so desperate to buy glam purses? Japan’s economy had boomed in the post-war period, becoming the world’s second largest behind the US. With a stable middle-class job secured and money to go around, Japanese developed a consumer culture built on luxury, and the ideal woman was presented as one clad in pricey designer clothes. With the collapse of the economy in the early 1990s, this ideal became much less realistic - but the pressure to conform remained, and young women turned to increasingly risky means. Here we have our first important trend - Japanese women’s use of sex work to achieve influence.

Sex work has a long history in Japan, and nowhere was it more famously formalised than the Yoshiwara Pleasure District, established in 1617. In a society with an incredibly strict class structure, Yoshiwara provided women a rare chance at upward mobility by increasing their skill and fame as sex workers or Geisha performers (contrary to popular belief, not the same thing).

The most prominent sex workers not only attained a level of sexual autonomy that would be inconceivable for the average housewife: by sleeping with some of the most influential men in Tokyo, they could also indirectly influence government, including the Shogun, Japan’s military ruler until 1868. It must be said that these women were most often forced into the sex trade, sold to brothels by desperate families, but sex work has long been a way for Japanese women to take advantage of oppressive and difficult circumstances to attain greater freedoms.

After WW2, informal sex workers known as panpan, by servicing American soldiers, gained access to coveted luxuries in a time of economic desperation, and could exercise some sexual autonomy by choosing between committing to one soldier as onlys or many at a time as butterflies. And in the aftermath of the prosperous ‘Bubble Era’, women such as the schoolgirls in Yamaguchi’s story again attained an appearance of glam and success by sleeping with men.

Their appearance is also worth mentioning, as Japanese women have often been at the forefront of cultural trends through fashion. In the 1920s, a period of perceived democratisation and westernisation, it was the modan guru (modern girl) who dominated the press as the ultimate symbol of freedom and independence. By embracing western styles - dresses, makeup, and glamorous accouterments - she was the symbol of the New Japan.

Likewise, the post-war panpan, dressed in the latest American styles and walking the streets proudly, became the new symbols of liberal democracy after years of fascism - they were at the forefront of cultural exchange, driving westernisation from below where it had previously been driven from above. And yet again, young women in the 1990s used fashion and style to assert their independence. The expectation for women was to marry young, leave their careers and have children, and their method of opposition was to, well, not grow up.

Increasingly older women continued to dress in childish styles with an adult twist; the girls in Yamaguchi’s story wore normal schoolgirl outfits with skirts cut short to present a sexual, adult flare. They embraced childish language, products, and cute digital faces that would become the first emojis, all to symbolically delay their assimilation into patriarchal family life. Yamaguchi herself exemplifies this too - at forty she had long passed the age that women were meant to leave work and start a family, and she still wore bright polka dots and ponytails.

Women’s influence on Japanese culture, such as by driving the growth of this ‘kawaii culture’, is also a longstanding trend. In fact, the Japanese language may not have ever existed without women. Chinese was imported to Japan around 400AD and was soon being used by officials and wealthy bureaucrats, but the language was so difficult that learning it required an education that women were excluded from.

So, women ingeniously invented their own phonetic alphabet by taking Chinese characters and using them as letters - the modern Japanese written scripts of Hiragana and Katakana, then, owe their existence to women. Women’s influence on language and writing is worth doubly emphasising, since we can thank Murasaki Shikibu not only for crucial historical records from the Heian period, but also for the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji.

Covering women’s influences on Japanese culture since would be a mammoth task, so it will hopefully suffice to say that, by creating their own childish culture opposed to the patriarchal norm, the women of the 1990s bear striking similarity to those who created their own language centuries prior.

To say that these women were rejecting the mainstream, though, may be a stretch. They created their own cultural power within Japanese consumerism, and Yamaguchi Yuko asserted herself by staying in work and by showing that women, too, could succeed within the status quo. This has always been one way for Japanese women to exert influence - even acclaimed feminist Hiratsuka Raichō argued that women’s roles were as mothers, and that mothers should thus be given legal protections. But not every woman has conformed to social norms.

Some have tried to upend those norms completely, and women have had a crucial role in radical Japanese politics - from anarcho-feminist Kanno Suga, the first woman political prisoner executed in Japanese history for attempting to assassinate the Meiji Emperor in 1911, to student activist Kanba Michiko, whose death at the hands of police, during the massive 1960 protests against the Japan-US Security Treaty, galvanised opposition to the government.

Yamaguchi Yuko herself highlights another point, since she was only Hello Kitty’s head designer; Sanrio’s CEO was a man, and like Yamaguchi, women have often exerted influence from a subordinate position in Japanese history. This should seem odd for a nation whose first named ruler was Himiko, a woman, and whose native religion, Shinto, has in its most extreme forms placed a female deity, Amaterasu, as the mythical ancestor of the emperor. Yet despite their paradoxical subordination, women have always been able to exert power behind the scenes.

In the Edo Period, with production usually being on a household level, wifehood was defined less by procreation than by an ability to productively assist with the family business, despite subordination to the husband. Major merchant houses grew through the marrying of different families, with male household heads coming to control new assets - yet it was mostly thanks to a woman, Tatsuuma Kiyo, and her covert influence on those household heads that her family became the largest Sake alcohol brewer in Japan.

And we must not forget Beate Sirota who, while not Japanese and under the authority of male superiors, ensured the equality of the sexes in Japan’s US-imposed modern constitution (though it should be noted that defining marriage as equal between binary, opposite genders in the constitution has since become an obstacle to LGBTQ+ rights). Like Yamaguchi, women in a subordinate role have always found a way to assert their power in Japan.

Finally, Hello Kitty and the ‘kawaii cult’ shows how femininity has become central to our understanding of Japan. The feminine ideal has long been important and coveted in Japanese history, even for men. Samurai men often slept with wakashū, something of a third gender (though always assigned male at birth) who represented the height of beauty by embracing femininity, and femininity itself was believed to be best embodied by male actors in the kabuki theatre scene - even today, the standard of Japanese male beauty is one of gender ambiguity or feminine features.

On a wider scale, after WW2, US-occupied Japan itself was viewed as feminine; as the image of the male American soldier sleeping with the female panpan flooded the press, America itself became seen as a dominant male presence, subjugating a feminine Japan. Japan today continues to be conceived of in traditionally feminine terms - from Hello Kitty to Pokѐmon, from young female performers to squishy animal mascots, our popular image of Japanese culture is dominated by the cute, the harmless and, in the context of a heteronormative patriarchy, the feminine.

Whether this image is a deliberate attempt to present Japan, which has embraced the mandated pacifism of its post-war constitution, as peaceful, or an unintended consequence of Japanese pop-culture being stripped of its more serious political meanings and made cutesier for a western audience, is a debate for another day.

But what is undoubtedly clear is that Japan has been forever shaped by women and feminine influence. Whether making and breaking cultural norms, dominating the economy from behind the scenes, or rejecting the status quo entirely, women’s role in Japanese history is as crucial as it is overlooked. And this can all be seen in one anecdote from Yamaguchi Yuko, on that day in 1995.

Further reading

This essay was intended as an introduction to Japanese history through a recognisable cultural icon, so I thought it a good idea to include further reading. I strongly recommend Pure Invention by Matt Alt, which looks at post-war Japanese history through examples of influential cultural phenomena, including anime, karaoke, and even the website 4chan.

Japan Story by Christopher Harding is an excellent and accessible modern history, while his The Japanese in Twenty Lives covers all of Japan’s history through individual figures, including Queen Himiko, Murasaki Shikibu, and the current empress Masako. Ian Buruma’s A Japanese Mirror looks at the more risqué side of Japanese culture, and Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City is a masterpiece of historical research, piecing together the life of an ordinary woman in Edo Japan.

For anyone wanting to go deeper into Japanese history, Embracing Defeat by John Dower, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix, and The Making of Modern Japan by Marius Jansen are all good bets - Jansen’s work is too monolithic to omit mentioning, but is difficult to find and, I feel, quite lacking in its coverage of women. Finally, Bending Adversity by David Pilling looks at Japan as it is today, particularly the impacts of the 2011 Triple Disaster.

Category: Ancient Modern