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Sunday, February 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Increasingly, Young Girls Are Sex Objects In Japan

Chicago Tribune

THE PREVALENCE of sexual images of ever-younger girls is fueling worries that women will never gain equal treatment in Japan's male-dominated society.

TOKYO - In the video-game parlors of Japan, players with 80 cents to spend can battle villains with karate chops, or they can strip the high-school uniform from a young teen until she is topless.

"I wasn't lucky," says the computer-generated image of a girl of about 14, as she bares herself to three boys who just won a round of video mah-jongg at a Tokyo game center.

The Japanese high-school uniform - for girls it is a sailor top and short skirt - is a visible symbol of the nation's commitment to education. But it also has become a tawdry prop used by a society that has a predilection for turning young girls into sex objects.

Protests are being raised by feminists and lawmakers, who worry that women will never gain equal treatment in Japan's male-dominated society if even young girls are considered playthings. But their objections are drowned out by a seamy cacophony of images that equate ninth-grade schoolgirls with Playboy bunnies.

In every Japanese bookstand and convenience store, pornographic magazines feature lewd photos of girls in high-school sailor uniforms.

On television, one of the most popular children's cartoon characters is "Sailor Moon," a high-school girl in uniform who fights crime and inexplicably appears naked in her bathtub during the ending credits.

Child prostitution glamorized

Recently, the sexual fascination with teenage girls has been explored by mainstream Japanese magazines and television news programs, which have become obsessed with sensationalistic stories of high-school girls prostituting themselves to make money to buy expensive clothes.

But rather than focus on serious societal questions raised by girls selling themselves, the stories tend to get caught up in the excitement and become glorifications. Instead of calling the phenomenon child prostitution, the media have coined a romanticized term for what the girls do with their middle-aged clients: "supportive relationships."

"In Japan, the people who have the power are men, but their sexuality is pretty immature," said Naohide Yamamoto, director of the Japan Institute for Research in Education and the Culture of Human Sexuality.

Sex stories are popular everywhere in the world, of course, and nearly every society has pornography. But by Western standards, Japan appears unique for condoning public displays of raw sexual imagery and for blurring the lines between adult and child pornography.

Clothing stores in Tokyo think nothing of displaying provocative photographs of topless preteen girls in seductive, adult poses, and residential mailboxes get stuffed with ads for phone sex services that are illustrated with graphic photos of high-school girls performing sex acts.

Images getting younger

"The prevailing image of women in Japan is sexual, and the images are getting younger and younger," said Junko Miyamoto, an anti-pornography activist. "This runs totally against the idea of women's equality, of course. Men can't see women as equal partners because women and children in pornography are very, very weak."

Experts say the society's acceptance of young girls as sex objects is a legacy of Japan's feudal past, which never saw a conflict between sexuality and morality.

"Traditionally to the Japanese, sexuality wasn't included in the makeup of a person's character; it was kept separate," said Yukihiro Murase, a professor of human sexuality at Hitotsubashi University.

Prostitution was legal until about 40 years ago, and in the years before World War II it was a status symbol for rich and powerful men to employ a geisha as young as 13, said Setsuko Inoue, author of a book on men who use prostitutes. Today enforcement of anti-prostitution laws remains lax.

A question of equality?

It is open to theory why Japanese men find very young girls sexually attractive. Experts on sexuality and women's rights say that as women have begun to assert themselves, the traditional lack of equality between the sexes has left men intimidated by strong women, and therefore more interested in young girls.

The theory revolves around a generalization about Japanese society, in which young boys are doted upon by their mothers, and then enter a male-dominated society in which the wife plays the mother's role.

In the prototypical Japanese home, the husband is always working and spends little time with his wife. She controls household finances and gives her husband an allowance. With the mother-son relationship defining marriage, men are more likely turn away from their spouses and toward young girls.

The less analytical reason Japanese men are fixated on young girls is that no one has stopped them.

"Japanese men don't think about human rights or anything else related to women; they look at them as objects," Yamamoto said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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