Irie Saaya Stirs Up More Controversy

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Apparently, an article on The Japan Times Online about Irie Saaya’s unexpected role in Japan-China relations has generated a small flurry of responses on English-language blogs that hadn’t previously known about Saaya. Of course, Santos at Idolizing St. Anna mentioned this a while back, so this isn’t exactly news around these parts. That said, the availability of an official English-language news article has opened the gateways for Western observations on this Asian cross-pollination of pop culture and politics.

Beyond the bemusement and irony of some posts, there’s a couple of interesting types of response. The first is alarm or shock that an eleven-year-old can pose in a bikini for an audience. The second is condemnation of Japan and China for having so many pedophilic perverts. The two are often linked together but not always. Both seek to impose a universal standard upon the situation, which is a common (and, admittedly, often useful) enough impulse… But as I’ve been arguing all along, Saaya and the whole preteen gravure thing is more complicated than that.

Let’s ask the obvious question (obvious for me, at least): Where is the line drawn?

Is it wrong to look at any pictures of Saaya at all? Is it wrong to look at bikini pictures of Saaya, even if in a disapproving way?

Is it wrong to look at bikini pictures of Saaya in an admiring way, even if it’s not sexual? Say, a marketer who doesn’t like Saaya’s type – or age bracket – but thinks this is a case of genius marketing for Sweet Kiss.

Is it wrong to look at bikini pictures of Saaya in an admiring, sexual way but still know that sexual relations with underage girls is wrong and immoral? This would be the notion that an imaginative space can be transgressive – that is, it’s alright to fantasize about things that are socially unacceptable – but only if one observes those limits in reality. This is a stance that some people – especially Americans – seem particularly unable to grasp. To see something and want it is to act upon that desire. “I want” equals “I will have”. This ties to a lack of faith in self-restraint and self-control, a lack of faith that speaks directly to a culture built on instant gratification and overblown ambitions.

Is it wrong to look at bikini pictures of Saaya in an admiring, sexual way and consider sexual relations with underage girls as acceptable? This would be the out-and-out pedophile, someone whose fantasies about sexual girls translates to the pursuit of such girls in real life. I’d argue that most all admirers of Saaya do not fall into that category. Further, it’s apparent that some of her admirers enjoy defending Saaya’s honor against the more filthy-minded out there, insisting that her work as a model is about purity and innocence, not about a burgeoning sexuality. Again, this has an analog to the Victorian-era cult of childhood.

Let’s take another tack to the question. At what age do pictures of Saaya become acceptable? If not eleven, then twelve? Fifteen? Seventeen? Or do we wait until she’s eighteen or twenty-one? Or, for some people, is looking at pictures of Saaya – or specifically Saaya in a bikini – wrong no matter what, demeaning to her and to women in general?

Should we factor in consensuality – her willingness to participate in such photos? Should that be considered only after a certain age? What about the role her parents or her management company plays in this? Are they guilty of anything, or are they trying to prepare the girl’s future?

I’m not trying to indulge in sophistry here, just trying to point out how everyone draws lines on what’s acceptable and what’s not. I’d argue that culturally, Japan is different from China is different from the United States is different from France. I’d also argue that individually, we’re all motivated by certain basic assumptions and all the attention paid to Saaya – both admiration and condemnation – should be considered in that light.

Posting up pictures of Saaya makes plain my own stance: the pictures are not only acceptable, some of them are pretty damn good… That said, I strongly suggest that we think about what we’re looking at. Look beyond the eleven-year-old and consider the cultural context. Without meaning to, Saaya has become a focal point about unspoken assumptions about childhood, sexuality, and cultural differences. That’s pretty revelatory in its own right, especially as more voices become involved.

I have MSNBC on right now and they just showed a brief clip of Elizabeth Smart in a swimsuit on the beach as the newsreaders discuss her abductor’s trial. (On a complete tangent, several times I’ve referred to the girl as Madison Smart Bell. I know the difference but I’m funny like that.) No one’s going to object to that and we assume that should be the case. Shukan Bunshon, the newspaper that originally reported the Saaya Chinese relations piece, was assuming an ironic and bemused tone, even advocating sending Saaya to China instead of diplomats. Would that have been acceptable in American media? Should it be?