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Girls in Sailor Suits: Constructing Soft Power in Japanese Cultural Diplomacy

Author: Kyunghee Pyun

Source: Global Perspectives on Japan (GPJ), No.5 (2022), pp.21-45
Publisher: Forum Tauri Press
Keywords: Cultural diplomacy, soft power, bodily autonomy, sailor suit, conformity, popular culture


Girls in sailor suits became visual symbols of Japanese modernity and subsequently of post-war Japanese popular culture. In modern Japan, from the 1920s, female students in sailor suits represented the Japanese alliance with European Enlightenment of the nineteenth century, which set itself aside from its competitors in East Asia in the process of modernization. After WWII, however, female characters in sailor suit school uniforms presented inviting access to Japanese popular culture through the genres of anime, manga, J-pop, horror films, and video games. These characters also emerged in a range of cultural categories: contemporary art for the cultural elite, Hollywood films for mass consumption, and the low-brow subculture of pornography. Japanese foreign policy, according to the Ministry of Foreign Aff airs, focuses on eff orts toward peace and disarmament and world economic development. The emphasis on being a ‘member of the West’ in East-West relations is well established in the context of the cultural influence of Japanese popular culture on broad regions beyond Asia-Pacific geopolitics. Girls in sailor suits became an accessible icon of cultural diplomacy, emulating the image of ‘the girl next door’ among fans of Japanese popular culture in the West: they wear school uniforms —a symbol of conformity and group identity— while their American counterparts wear casual jeans and shirts. Although Japan did not plan a geo-strategic vision of Japanese school girls representing its popular culture as a foreign policy, it succeeded in creating an image of accessible, disciplined partners of international cooperation.