An uncontrollable attraction

In Tokyo, schoolgirls can't escape the Lolita stereotype.

Walking up from the subway, the suit-and-tied man is treated to candy thigh glimpses at each flight of stairs. Center-Gai is an expanse of karaoke, fast food, street vendors, bars, love hotels, and pay-for-sex outfits. Here, post-pubescent girls catch his eye: the plaid skirts, white button-up shirts, polo sweaters, and loose socks, wrinkled and bunched at the ankles.

The glimpse of panties up a juvenile’s skirt makes the trip bearable for the commuter. On a packed subway, he firmly presses his old body upon some nymphets. He begins his walk to work. The man gazes at the gaggle of uniformed schoolgirls in Matsumoto Kiyoshi, the discount drugstore. He passes telephone posts plastered with advertisements for sex establishments showing breasty high school girls. “Good morning,” the office ladies greet him at work. Welcome to the mind of a middle-aged Japanese salaryman.

Until recently, it was impossible to avoid the cultural boom surrounding Japan’s high school girls, known as kogal (kou-gyaru). The word has its roots in kou, meaning “high,” as in high school, and gyaru, for “gal.” Those portrayed in the press are often involved in prostitution, drugs, skipping school, and using their profits for Italian-made handbags, Gucci earrings, and cellular phones. Is the media responsible for the images of kogal? Or was there truly a kogal movement, an emergence of consumer-minded girls who were waiting to be discovered and raised as a national issue?

The percentage of girls active in the promiscuity and drug use associated with the kogal is believed to be low. Television exposed only the most hardcore of these girls, and mass media attached a celebratory mood to their exploits, giving the reward of attention to the most extreme. A stereotype developed; the modern schoolgirl’s uniform, embellished with loose socks and cellular phone, is now the dress code for promiscuity, greed, and stupidity. Girls cannot escape the pigeonholing they suffer for being stylish within the boundaries of their uniforms. “Every week I am propositioned for sex for money,” says a 17-year-old student in Ikebukuro who calls herself X-ko.

Many kogal congregate in Ikebukuro because of its cheap karaoke, fast food, department stores, and proximity to Waseda University. X-ko—who travels through Ikebukuro during her daily commute to school—simply finds it a convenient place to stop and study. “I ride the Saikyo line, which is one of the most crowded, into Tokyo every day. Very often I run into chikan (train perverts), who press their bodies against me, often palming my body and becoming noticeably excited in their pants.”

The media latched onto enjo kosai, the money-for-sex trade, as the manifestation of the kogal’s moral corruption. As the number of girls who wanted the lifestyle of sex, drinking, and karaoke increased, they were greeted with legions of older men willing to pay them for sex.

Once the market heated up, the sudden influx of kogal participants created an oversupply, and prices plummeted as the customer base became better informed. The position of the girls became more vulnerable, and yarinige, a term describing a customer fleeing the scene of intercourse without paying for services rendered, was coined. Many kogal found themselves in debt. The cell-phone and drink bills piled up.

A quiet hostility has developed between the high schoolers, contemptuous of corporate sell-outs and authority, and the salarymen oyaji who provided financial backing and demand. One product of this rivalry is oyaji-gari, where a kogal, propositioned by an older man, leads him down a side street where her friends jack him for his money. Another is the recent decrease in the age difference between high school girls and their partners. Where older men were once sought, high schoolers are turning to their own.

The word that most often describes the kogal’s estimation of Japan’s working men is nasakenai (pitiful). Many see their own fathers as slaves to their work who sacrificed their relationships with their families. Most of their fathers drink nearly every night. Often sexually unsatisfied at home, the father is suspected of indulging in sex-for-hire.

When asked if her older patrons reminded her of her father, one kogal answered, “Yes.” She had never thought of it before. Not only did they remind her of her father, but by being with them, she felt that she was giving something to them that she saw as a need for her father.

Four middle-aged men in their forties and fifties were getting drunk at the table next to me at an izakaya. Their talk turned to the subject of women, and, subsequently, kogal. Three of the men had daughters in high school. None would admit to paying for enjo kosai, although the question was met with silence. One man did mention that he paid for sex and requested that his partner be dressed in a girl’s uniform. “Tamaranai,” they echoed, when asked what they thought of the kogal. (Tamaranai: an uncontrollable attraction.) The conversation moved from kogal’s phones to their skirts to their socks, and then to their thighs.

Walking up Dogenzaka, I see a diverse group of kogal. Some lick ice cream. Some negotiate on their cell phones. Others sit in the window of Dunkin’ Donuts, studying.

What remains of the kogal phenomenon is difficult to define. Surveys of kogal reveal a declining trend in participation in enjo kosai, although statistics regarding lack of respect for authority and loss of virginity hold steady. But despite efforts to catalog, track, or understand them, kogal aren’t simple. Said one 16-year-old girl, “I want to escape the stereotypes people have of me from my uniform, and from how they see it on TV. I don’t want to be a kogal, I want to be me.”

This story originally ran in a longer form in Giant Robot