Irie Saaya and Defining Limits

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I’ve been following the Irie Saaya coverage on Idolizing St. Anna with great interest. For those who don’t know Saaya, she’s an 11-year-old Japanese girl with F-cup breasts (roughly a D cup in America) who’s part of a nascent Jpop trio called Sweet Kiss. As a model, her bikini photos apparently caught the interest of a Morning Musume bulletin board in Japan and they in turn helped bring her into the national spotlight. A girl that young and that maturely developed seems to hit a sweet spot in certain male psyches, making her an overnight sensation. It’s also the kind of attention that smacks of exploitation and invokes conservative scorn, leading to the inevitable controversy.


In the latest bit of news, the company that handles Saaya has pulled several photos of her from their website for fear that it will be construed by the police as child pornography. This includes the full version of the above photo. Best as I could tell, Saaya has never posed nude nor has she engaged in sex – either of which would definitively be considered kiddie porn. However, the photos of her are often highly suggestive – never raunchy, but focusing on her body and giving the impression of both innocence and an emerging sexuality. And according to Idolizing St. Anna, the company that’s producing Saaya’s DVD is actually known for their videos of young girls, often playing up the girls’ sexuality by costume choices and camera shots. In short, it sounds like they’re young-teen gravure idols.

So I think the company behaved correctly in pulling the photos, though really it’s like closing the gate after the cattle have stampeded. Saaya’s pictures are all over the internet and can be easily found with a Google search. The decision to remove the photos wasn’t to protect Saaya at all, but rather to protect the company and prevent employees from being arrested. What’s interesting is the implicit admission by taking down the photos: they realize they’ve crossed a line, or at least are afraid others will think they’ve crossed a line, and need to take a step back. They want to cash in on Saaya and her natural assets – they just don’t want to go to jail doing so. As a result, they’ve gone from bikinis and schoolgirl outfits to maid outfits, something Idolizing St. Anna considers particularly offensive, while I find it innocuous and silly.

The Irie Saaya saga intrigues me to no end because it pushes well-known boundaries within Japanese culture, particularly the fascination of some Japanese men for underage girls. It’s a prevalent enough interest that a whole underground industry has been built around the Japanese schoolgirl, including compensated dating, the selling of used underwear, and adult videos where AV stars dress up in schoolgirl outfits.

A good number of American men are also fascinated by underage girls, but it doesn’t manifest itself so publicly and so creatively. Moreso than Japan, sex with teenage girls is taboo in American public rhetoric – something to dance around, to imply, but never to wholeheartedly endorse or encourage. Think of Britney Spears’ first music video, dressed as a Catholic school girl and flirting with the camera. Or Roman Polanski, the poor bastard. Or consider porn magazines with titles like Barely Legal and Just 18, which focus on sexual encounters with girls just when they become legally available for sex – but not a second earlier.

Most of this springs from fear of punishment, of course, and the so-called Traci Lords law is the most obvious legacy of that fear. When it was revealed that Lords lied about her age and made most of her porn videos when she was under eighteen, there was a huge backlash against the adult industry. The attack was significant enough that the industry is now rightfully paranoid about making sure anyone who works in their field is strictly of age.

But all this brings up another difference: in American public rhetoric, teenage girls if considered attractive are primarily considered sexual partners. There’s something more idyllic, more idealizing and sentimental, in the Japanese public rhetoric about teenage girls. There’s a sense of innocence and of awakening maturity, a fragility that has to be cared for and nurtured… and only then, depending on your own brand of imagination, gracefully deflowered.

But not always.

In America, teenage girls are either Nickelodeon saccharine sweethearts or late night Girls Gone Wild. The middle ground is inhabited by few – at least, few in the media. And I’m talking about popular culture here, and the popular imagination.

I like younger women and have no problem admitting to an attraction to teenage girls. Not all teenage girls, mind you, or even most of them – but if I think a girl is sexy and you tell me she’s sixteen, I’m not going to suddenly recoil and take back what I said. And while I’m not wholeheartedly taken by Japanese pop culture’s concept of youth, there are some things about it I appreciate. Sweetness isn’t automatically equated with childishness in the Japanese media’s presentation of teenagers, and innocence isn’t stupidity. Sexuality isn’t the gateway to rampant carnality, and being sexy doesn’t mean you’ve had sex.

Certainly, all of this factors into why I like Jpop but can’t stand Hillary Duff or Christina Aguilera or Michelle Branch or the Donnas.

Admittedly, most all of the Japanese media I enjoy involves teenage Japanese girls (oddly enough, this includes TV dramas as well as novels, but I’m focusing on Jpop here). I have a SweetS poster on my wall and a Zone calendar with Miyu, as well as a smaller image of W posted near one of my laptops, for inspiration. My wife, God bless her, is tolerant of my excesses. (She also doesn’t seem fazed by Saaya-chan. When I showed her a swimsuit shot of Saaya and told her she was eleven, hoping to provoke some outrage, she simply said something about nice boobs and went back to whatever she was doing at the time.) So while I don’t find any young teenagers (that is, under sixteen) attractive in real life, in Jpop there are a handful I can name who bring out my otaku fanboy side: Haruna and Mai of Sweets, Berryz’s Risako, Tanaka Reina of Morning Musume… give me time and I could probably name a couple more.

And there’s the problem: what makes my interest in SweetS, Risako, and Reina so different from other people’s interest in Irie Saaya? Why am I prepared to condemn the way Saaya is being handled and yet embrace the rorikon vibe of SweetS’ early work? If I find Saaya’s swimsuit photos uninteresting and manipulative, why am I already anticipating the first photobook for Morning Musume 7th gen Kusumi Koharu?

If I sift through my reactions enough, I realize the reason I abhor the treatment of Irie Saaya by her management company isn’t moral but primarily aesthetic. I don’t want to be told this child is attractive – if she is, I’ll figure it out for myself. (I don’t consider her attractive, by the way. For me, a hefty rack matters less than an interesting face.) To overtly stress the attractiveness of an 11-year-old in the way the photos have – to work the innocence and the emergent sexuality so aggressively that they’re no longer aspects of the subject but an angle to manipulate and market… well, that strikes me as boring and void of imagination. The Saaya pictures play upon the idealized innocence of youth and the sexuality of a fully developed body, but that’s about it. It’s an almost banal duality that plays off the madonna/whore complex in the most simplistic way possible.

Really, it’s about context – which is the difference between gravure idols and pop idols, as I’ve noted in an earlier blog post. The marketing of Saaya is pretty simple: an innocent girl in a mature woman’s body, so you’re supposed to get the best of both worlds. Either worship the innocence or lust after the body, it’s the same difference in many ways. There isn’t much complexity, just an easily reconciled paradox – easily reconciled because the age of the subject and her physical body are in such direct semiotic opposition.

In contrast, SweetS has a strangely complicit irony that made their rorikon era (first three singles and the eponymous first mini-album) scary, compelling, and fun. At some point I have a long post to write about SweetS and their PVs, but for now let’s just say that SweetS isn’t pandering so much as commenting about pandering. And the girls of Hello! Project are part of a larger history, a whole system of Jpop idol meaning, that makes rooting for certain girls something of a sport, like having a favorite player on a sports team or having a favorite nuclear physicist from the mid-20th century. (Which in my case makes Tanaka Reina the Richard Feynman of Morning Musume’s Manhattan Project.) As I’ve said before, the mere fact that these girls are singers and do other kinds of performance gives them added context, makes them more than just bodies.

I’m not saying that these girls are more “intelligent” choices than Saaya, just that there’s more to go on there, more context to fire an active imagination. It’s both a mitigating factor socially and a heightening stimulation intellectually.

But beyond that, I have no real problem with Saaya. I wish her the best of luck, I hope she makes a lot of money for her parents, and that she does whatever she wants to do in life. I hope her management company smartens up some, but I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, not when bucks can still be made.

I don’t condemn what’s happened with Saaya and her photos and the way she’s being marketed. If she was being forced into this, I’d definitely take issue, but that does not seem to be the case. If in any way Saaya the real-life human being was violated to promote Saaya the media creation, I’d be the first to protest such a thing – but again, that seems the opposite of what’s happening. I just find that, as much as I’m fascinated by what’s going on with her as a media event, as an actual source of entertainment I find her work (the photos, that is) uninteresting. And Wildean as it sounds, in popular culture, at least, boredom is the greatest crime of all.

So.

Taking in the bigger picture, what it all boils down to is imagination, and what a society says is allowable in our imagination and what isn’t. For some reason – and I’m not going to list them now, though a handful come to mind – the imaginative space America encourages doesn’t like to push things too far, they’re too afraid of imagination leaking into reality. If anything, the American ability to turn wishes into wish fulfillment, crazy ideas into crazier facts, makes such a fear seem more valid. But it also feeds into a cause-and-effect relationship between imagination and reality, not a cathartic imagination that helps keep reality stable and ordered. (There’s a reason why “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”is no longer a part of contemporary American pop culture.)

Japanese media culture, at least, concedes that there’s the imaginative space where fantasies play out and there’s the reality we all live in, and that one can indeed be separated from the other if given enough thought. In common sense terms, the imaginative space ends where real-life consequences begin. Playing video games where you commit crimes does not mean you commit crimes in real life; rap songs about drugs and drive-bys do not automatically result in listeners acting out these things. And photos that indulge romantic fantasies with idealized teenage girls do not turn a person into a child molester.

We all have transgressive fantasies – whether it’s violent in nature, or sexual, or criminal, or all three and a few other things, is beside the point. It’s knowing that a line exists between what’s in your head and what you allow to happen outside of you. You may want to chase down the guy on the highway who gave you the middle finger and proceed to shoot him twice in the face before violating his corpse, but you’re not going to do that. Why? Because there’ll be repercussions of all sorts, and you’re in a society that functions only by the mutual understanding that we all must observe certain limits.

Saaya is a lesson in how the line between fantasy and reality can blur in any society if the fantasy demands too much of us. And frankly, an 11-year-old sex symbol is a bit too much for most folks. (If you want an American analog, think of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby.) As a result, reinforcing the clear line, the obvious demarcations, means that vigilance – and common sense – is necessary even for something as frivolous as a pre-teen bikini model’s photo shoot. Sometimes you push the boundaries to make a point or to make more bucks, but ultimately you need a dose of reality (a bit of fear, a bit of caution) to remind you of how far to go. Saaya’s company had that dose and acted accordingly. Maybe they’ll be more careful in the future.

And lest we forget, there’s one last reality to consider: like most of the world population regardless of age or gender, teenage girls tend to be annoying, ignorant, and difficult to deal with. You can romanticize it and consider it a part of the innocence of youth or the difficulties of puberty, but that doesn’t make dealing with teenage girls any less annoying, ignorant, or difficult to deal with.

I adore Haruna, I’d rob banks and club baby seals if she asked me to do so (Okay, not really, but we’re being hyperbolic here because of the imaginative space she’s staked.) But if I had to take the real-life Haruna shopping in a mall and listen to her about school and parents, I’d probably go nuts and run screaming. Just imagine following her through the Gap and Hot Topic and whatever other crap stores would interest her, or babbling enthusiastically in a way that’s charming on DVD but a complete time-waster in real life. (I would want to know if she has any inside scoop on the Amuro Namie / SAM relationship as it now stands, but that’s gossip and teenage girls are great at gossip.)

Which isn’t to say that she isn’t a lovely girl in real life – but real life’s messy and rarely fits perfect to our expectations. Which is something we should never forget.