I can still feel the flush in my cheeks from when older women asked me to tug my skirt down. I can still feel how my legs tensed at the faceless older man in my periphery. I can still feel the odd pang of betrayal at catching my mom, stitching and unstitching, without my permission. But it was still comforting to have that clear marker of my youth, a clear visual that I still had time to grow up, that I was still coming of age.
Back in 2017, Japan saw a rise in syphilis that was especially high amongst young women. This created not only a public health problem, but a PR problem. How do you even begin this conversation in a society that ties the worth of young women to their ‘purity?’ How can syphilis awareness be more digestible, light and cute?
The government’s answer was Sailor Moon.
Vicereported on how the government used her image to sugar-coat the taboo nature of a syphilis outbreak. They printed her on shiny pink informational pamphlets, posters, and condoms. The Director of Infectious Diseases explained how Sailor Moon’s female empowerment and LGBTQ+ appeal made everyone feel included, and made this conversation feel safe. They even borrowed her rally cry, “If you don’t get tested, I’ll punish you!”
Bright white socks are hard to forget. They blink in my mind, like white spots lingering in my vision from bad flash photography. I stayed up late reading more on all the young Asian women who posed for Araki. I never managed to track down the woman in white socks, but instead I found KaoRi.
KaoRi posed in Araki’s work for over a decade. The Museum of Sex’s retrospective reignited people’s interest in her. She wrote a blog post to set the record straight. Translated by writer Alisa Yamasaki, KaoRi dissects the power imbalance Araki held over her. He never fairly compensated her for her work, dismissed her unease at nude photoshoots, and used her name without her written consent.
A young aspiring artist and dancer at the time, KaoRi wasn’t sure if any of this was normal, and had no idea how to advocate for herself. And how could she have known? Araki’s whole career is built off the fantasy of submissive East Asian women. He poses them, regulates them, decides how much space they’re allowed to take up. As KaoRi dissects it, to work for Araki often meant submitting to him. In KaoRi’s own words—
“I sacrificed myself by being polite.”
I feel like I oversimplified what makes a Magical Schoolgirl. There’s an important distinction at the end of that tvtropes.org article, “A girl who can use magic is not necessarily a Magical Girl in the sense of the trope or genre.” It’s debatable where the line ends and starts, but here are just a few things I’ve noticed.
Many, if not all, Magical Girls keep their powers a secret from most of the people in their lives, namely, their family. This means their family life often feels like an incidental, background aspect of their lives.
Magical Girls often have a love interest who’s an older man (in the original manga, Sailor Moon, a fourteen-year-old middle schooler, falls for Tuxedo Mask, a seventeen-year old college student. This is very tame by manga/anime standards).
The isolation of keeping her magical life secret, means Magical Girls often shoulder emotional trauma and labor alone.
Whenever I don’t feel like writing, I avoid it by fact-checking details. Sick of writing this essay, I texted my friend Michelle to ask if she remembers which Taiwanese channel, specifically, broadcasted all those Magical Girl shows. Michelle searches with me online and this, inevitably, turns into us just watching clips of Magical Girls (Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch).
Night turns into dawn and we’re still poring over these shows. At this point, it’s become one of those nerdy conversations that don’t make any real sense (is it more problematic that this Magical Girl loved her teacher, or that this one was into that villain?). At some point, I become coherent again, and ask, why were we ever allowed to watch these shows? We never found definitive confirmation of which station it was, exactly.
In the season one finale, all of Sailor Moon’s friends die protecting her. Their bodies, twisted and broken and still in uniform, are left on the battleground. As Sailor Moon makes it to the final fight alone, she thinks about how much this journey and the friendship of all the girls has matured her. Sailor Moon started out as a naïve, clumsy, regular schoolgirl. But each of her friends has made her smarter, more cunning, more resilient.
Sailor Moon dies, vanquishing evil and thanking her friends one last time. Somewhere between death and whatever comes next, Sailor Moon becomes Usagi Tsukino, a tired fourteen-year-old girl. Her eyes shut, her body lifeless, Usagi wishes for her ordinary life back, “When I wake up in the morning, a pure white curtain of lace rustling in the breeze, the cuckoo clock in the room says it’s seven o’clock, and Mom’s voice says, ‘you’ll be late if you don’t get up!’ I’m still half asleep, and I think ‘please let me sleep for three more minutes’ . . . The crepes we’d all eat on the way home. We’d gaze dreamily at a party dress in a show window. The little things bring such joy and I’m happy. I wish I could go back to that kind of normal life.”And her wish comes true. Usagi wakes up and she’s late for school, everything wiped from her memory. She passes all her Sailor Senshi friends, but they’re just strangers. She’s innocent as ever, only to soon transform, fight, and die again.
Somewhere between death and whatever comes next, Sailor Moon becomes Usagi Tsukino, a tired fourteen-year-old girl.
The Asian schoolgirl grows up with us, for us. Yet, she’s always so young, adorable, never aging. Just when she grows too old, the story restarts. The show is rebooted, new girls are hired, freshmen enter high school. Her world is too cute for anything truly bad to ever happen. If something bad threatens to happen, she takes care of it for us. She keeps us company, sitting with old men in cafés and performing on the TV screens of kids. When we’re in her company, her world, no trauma feels irreversible.
2019 was my last year as a teenager, the last of my Asian schoolgirl days. Really, they ended when I graduated high school. But turning twenty is the real end because during the late-night “research” session with Michelle, I made an admission, “I find it hard to enjoy these shows, like, in earnest anymore.” White socks, businessmen in Tokyo, and skirt hems pulse and fester at the back of my mind. Still, Magical Asian Schoolgirls are a comfort for me. I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow it completely.
When I let myself be dramatic and self-indulgent, I wish to go back and pause at the precipice of growing up. But then, I remember how it feels to be told to tug my skirt down and wear only neutral bras. I remember how cloying it feels to be polite all the time while everyone tells me what to wear, how to act. And it’s freeing now to wear whatever I want. I can walk around and not wear a symbol of inexperience, innocence.
Besides, the best part of the uniform was always taking it off. Unzipping the skirt, rolling down the knee socks, I’d inspect the marks it left on me. Indents the socks left that circled just under my knees, the red ring around my waist. After graduation, I took off the uniform for the last time and watched the marks disappear.