Japan discovers adolescence

Adolescence in Japan is still in its adolescence, but it's already produced a full-blown teen culture, complete with new ways for youth to explore their budding sexuality.

At least that's what Boston University anthropologist Merry White has found in the course of her observations of modern Japanese youth. And in a lecture at Penn on "Sex, Identity and the Marketing of the Japanese Teen" on April 16, she described how teen culture has evolved in Japan and how the media have helped shape it.

White began by pointing out that "until fairly recently, Japan was agrarian, and youth went straight to adult tasks as soon as they could."

No longer. Like their counterparts in the United States, the children who came of age in Japan during the 1980s - known as the "ichigozoku" (the "strawberry generation" or the "15s") - have money to spend and lots of sexual curiosity. White said, "the consumer markets have realized that young people will want their indulgences satisfied."

The media have rushed to satisfy them. White said that popular magazines such as Hot Dog Press and Popeye, both aimed at boys, offer tips on how young men can increase their sex appeal and guides to the female psyche.

Some of those tips are unusually frank by U.S. standards. For instance, White showed an article titled "Let's have more responsible, adult sex," which contained a list of dos and don'ts for young men. One of the don'ts depicted a woman lying naked on the bed while her boyfriend sat on the edge, drinking beer and watching sports on TV.

According to White, the magazine editors see themselves as performing an important function. "The magazines feel that sexual education in school is weak and watered down," she said.

While magazines aimed at girls include stories about pop idols much like what is found in American "fanzines," they also offer tips on such subjects as erotic massage, surveys that compare sexual behavior in cities around the world, and guides on how to be "streetwise" when visiting the big city: Tokyo.

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Originally published on April 29, 1999