Serenely and alluringly, the lotus flower opens. Unabashed, the temptress strides out, brimming with sexual beauty and proclaiming that the age of the Japanese lolita has passed. She has blossomed instead into a modern Aphrodite, a woman whose physical beauty exudes power, confidence and charisma. The "kawaii" generation watches in awe as she transforms into something startlingly sexy yet still adorable. She is erotic yet cool — "ero-kakkoii."
J-pop star and fashion icon Kumi Koda may be the omnipresent face of the new Japanese woman, but she certainly isn’t alone. R&B stars like Double helped bring Western-style sexiness in Japan, paving the way for independent-minded women to recognize that seductive needn’t be synonymous with submissive. TV actresses like Aya Sugimoto are reversing the tables by flaunting their extreme sexuality in middle age, symbolizing the feminine empowerment that’s been sweeping Japan. And if Aphrodite had a real life embodiment today, she’d reside in the world of adult films, where railblazing AV stars like Sola Aoi are earning respect and being celebrated by both sexes as pioneers.
Billboards around Shibuya are plastered with the face of R&B diva Double, and the singer herself is dressed to the nines for a pending photo-book shoot. Settling into a back street cafe, the “Queen of Japanese R&B” is delighted to discuss the new fashion for sexual independence. “It’s a good thing because Japanese women used to be really shy, always waiting for the man, following after them,” she says. Double will shortly celebrate an impressive 10 years as an artist in Japan’s fickle show business, and she’s sustained that success by staying ahead of the game.
“It was natural for me to be sexy because when I was a little girl, I loved Madonna, so I thought that’s usual,” says the singer, who was brought up on American influences that usually filter slowly to the world of J-pop. “Most of the people here can’t get my CD because they feel shy. Especially 'Spring Love.' The jacket was shocking, and fans were confused: ‘Should I take that or will somebody think I am dirty?’” Even Double’s song and album titles play up to the innuendo. “'Virgin Mix' is my manager's idea — he is like a pervert, but I thought it’s a really good idea and cute, so I agreed with him,” she says.
With scantily clad artists now becoming the norm in a society renowned for its public prudishness, the question must be asked: Is this openness merely a passing fad? Double thinks not. “I think that Japanese people have a feeling or longing for someone like Kumi Koda, with strong sexuality. It’s not only a boom. Even if she disappears, the trend and style will stay.”
Leading J-pop idols of the day have always inspired girl street-fashion: Namie Amuro’s Okinawan background gave us the deep-tanned "ganguro," and Ayumi Hamasaki’s uber-cuteness took color and glitter to the extreme. Until Koda, cute and acquiescent were the ever-defining traits, but her influence derives from an overt self-confidence in her body rather than the style of her clothes.
Consequently, the streets of Tokyo now see hot pants, sultry thigh-length boots, low-cut blouses and tube tops combined with transparent bras, bareback dresses and the tightest of tight jeans. And it’s not only clothes: tattoos, tanning, hair colors and makeup reveal signs of a shift from cute to seductive.
Age of sexless divorces
Yet to think that "ero-kakkoi" is purely a youth phenomenon would be a mistake. Women remain the lesser sex in chauvinistic Japan, and in various research studies — most famously that of condom-maker Durex — Japanese prove the least sexually satisfied of any people, particularly the women. Little surprise, then, that when renowned actress and tango dancer Aya Sugimoto announced her divorce in 2003, the reason she gave was lack of sex. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal.I actually thought that it was a healthier reason for wanting out than a lot of other mud-dragging types of divorce,” she says. The move coined the term “sexless divorce” and inspired many like-minded women to follow suit. Sugimoto, 39, has since become something of a spokeswoman for sexual well-being, candidly discussing the topic on the late-night talk shows like TV Tokyo’s "Yearnings of the Goddess."
Sugimoto’s performances on-screen buck the trend of Japan’s lolita obsession, as she flaunts her sexuality while earning plaudits for her self-assuredness. In an extraordinary remake of Masaru Konuma’s 1974 “pink” film "Hana to Hebi" (Flower and Snake, 2003), the actress worked closely with bondage master Go Arisue. Though Sugimoto spent roughly 75% of her screen time unclothed and participating in humiliating acts, she appeared every bit in control of her sexual composure. The actress’ influence as a strong-minded role model for women doesn’t preclude her from being the object of desire for men, either. Playboy voted her second only to Ziyi Zhang as the sexist woman in Asia, affirming her status as one of Japan’s most prominent feminist torchbearers.
If “cool erotica” has a real home, though, it can be found in Japan’s adult entertainment industry. Having cast aside its reputation as sleazy and yakuza-infested, the AV scene is now a place where stars enjoy reputations and careers their counterparts in the West could never dream of. As a launching pad to TV fame and beyond, the industry provides its personalities with a worldly-wise reputation that’s in direct contrast to the usual TV-idol fodder.
Perched on the edge of a sofa at a Shibuya cafe, wearing a leather hat and mock tiger-print dress, Sola Aoi is every bit the kitten her on-screen persona suggests. Gleeful, playful and undeniably cute, the 24-year-old exudes a smart, streetwise femininity. Having already conquered the AV world, Aoi has graduated to a successful career in TV and film, gracing mainstream magazine covers and launching a pop-music career. “In the industry, there has been no one like me,” she declares, while her young male manager sits nearby and lets her do all the talking.
Symbol of AV industry
Indeed, Aoi is the first of a new breed, a symbol of the AV industry that was rocked in 2000 by actress Ai Iijima’s tell-all book, "Platonic Sex," which revealed the business to be as seedy as everyone had suspected. According to Iijima, AV was awash with girls picked up off the streets, unable to say no to lurid propositions or simply in need of cash. "Platonic Sex" inspired a change in the industry and propelled Iijima to stardom as a TV commentator, while new, “clean” companies revolutionized the business with no yakuza involvement at all.
Within moments, it’s clear Aoi is almost completely disassociated from the world Iijima depicted. She took her education seriously before making her adult film debut, and she speaks with eloquence and conviction. “There is no personal influence on me from [Iijima], because I had no negative preconceptions of the AV industry from before I joined it. Once I started, it was fun ... There was also a possibility of going into TV and other parts of the entertainment industry. If there was only the AV industry, I couldn’t do it.
“Originally, I wanted to become famous, so I decided to do anything I could. I have big breasts, but I am very slim and I didn’t want to waste that,” she continues. “I assumed that most people didn’t acknowledge acting in adult films as a career, but now it’s considered to be a proper job. The people in the past had shady backgrounds, but I was loved by my parents and brought up in a compassionate family. I might be the first person with a normal background. I wanted to be the pioneer. Eventually I want to get married and have children. No other successful actresses from adult videos have become a mother, so in this sense I want to be a pioneer as well.”
Aoi’s appearance in the 2005 television drama "Jyouou" (Cabaret Queen) confirmed that her pioneering ambitions could be fulfilled. “I’ve acquired new skills from TV and film acting. The attitude toward each job is different, unlike in AV, where I just need to think about the camera angles.” The actress’ experience can also benefit co-stars who have a more traditional professional background. “I can do things naturally where they would feel ashamed, so I can teach them how to be considered beautiful as a woman or how to be erotic. When they have photo shoots, I can show them how to pose.”
Aoi may be a symbol of a powerful, independent woman, but she is also protective, cautious and accepting of the fact that not everyone approves of her lifestyle. “Maybe most people look down on me from deep within their hearts. Yet even though I am criticized, I don’t feel I have to defend myself.”
Wielding her sexuality in the pursuit of stardom has earned Aoi unexpected respect and empathy from women. She is, naturally, flattered and surprised. “I don’t want to be looked down on and don’t want to feel contempt. I don’t want to be fake and flatter men to be loved. But my job is mainly for men, so I have to be shown properly and I have to be sexy. I am very happy to be supported by women because I didn’t expect it at all.”
Aoi is proud of her achievements — and has every right to be. Like an athlete or a singer, she has chosen to use her skills and strengths to her best advantage. She is proud to have used her natural beauty to become more alluring and beguiling over time, earning women’s support in the process. But complete acceptance is still hard to come by. “It’s on the way, but in Japan it’s still difficult. Starring in adult films is not yet fully accepted as a proper work.”
Cool erotica, then, is much more than just a buzzword. It represents a sea change in the way of thinking that is affecting women all across the country, creating a sense of confidence not seen in the modern era. Aoi, for one, hopes it will affect sexual attitudes too — and not just of women demanding more passionate marriages. “If the increasing independence makes women in Japan the leaders in their sexual life, it will be very satisfying.”
Like all cultural trends, Japan’s new openness to sexuality is not due to any one person — it has taken a combination of influential women from various fields to be wholly accepted. Kumi Koda is the leading light and most visible face of "ero-kakkoii," but the reason it’s here to stay is the efforts of figures throughout the entertainment industry. Double, Aya Sugimoto and Sola Aoi are blazing a trail for independent-minded women, and by using their very femininity to earn respect and adoration, Japan’s new goddesses are stepping out of a flourishing field of lotus flowers.
Double’s best-of CD, "10 Years Best — We R&B," will be released Feb 6.
Kumi Koda’s new single, “Anytime,” was released Jan 22, and a CD/DVD compilation, "Kingdom," will appear Jan 30.