On the surface it may appear that the concept of teenagers as a specific social age group does not exist in Japan.  There is no native Japanese word for teenager as there is in English, only vague or and all encompassing words such as “youth” or “children” exist to describe teens.  And the qualities that American’s typically associate with teenagers, such as rebelliousness and independence, are noticeably lacking in Japanese teenagers.  It is, indeed, this comparison and description of Japanese teens in terms of social qualities Americans associate with teens that leads to the illusion that teenagers do not exist in Japan.  While the concept of teenagers may be somewhat new to Japan, it most certainly exists.  In fact, not only do teenagers in Japan exist as a social group, but they exist as a social group that is expanding as a result of the ‘rules’ Japanese society and of a highly commercial culture. 

            The most obvious sign of the existence of teens in Japan is that they are a consumer market.  In fact it was the commercial industry with first introduced the word ‘cheenayja’ as a description for marketing group of people who were not adults, yet not children.  The consumer market for teens in both Japan and America is characterized as a market separate from that of adults and children, with fast moving trends and an emphasis on following a current fashion (although this is more true in Japan than in the United States).  It is this economic prosperity and consumer industry that allows teenagers to exist, as:

Young people over the past twenty years have been increasingly able to purchase, and it is consumer industries, the media, the marketers, who have given them an image and named them cheenayja. [1]  

The modern teenager is a consumer in a market all his own, and is shaped as part of a social group by that market.  Without affluence and a good economy the market for teens cannot exist.  Before the economic boom, children were an economic and social age group who relied solely on their parents to provide them with essentials, and adults were a social and economic age group who had sole buying power and who were responsible.  One went through a process of being a child to becoming an adult by entering the work force and starting a family of one’s own.  Teenagers are a result of economic prosperity in that they are children who have money like adults, but are not forced into the responsibilities of adulthood, and children cannot have an income unless the economy is good enough for adults to have a surplus of money. 

            While the economic roots that have given rise to teenagers as a social class are similar in Japan and the United States, the qualities associated with teenagers differ culturally.  In the United States the time between youth and adulthood is stereotypically a time fraught with confusion of identity and a time of rebellion against parents and older society and a breaking away from the family into the independence associated with adulthood.  The main cultural difference between Japanese teenagers and American teenagers is the concept of independence.  Where in American society teens strive for the freedom associated with independence and adulthood, in Japan independence is nowhere near such an important quality of either teens or adulthood.  This difference reflects the Western emphasis on “intergenerational conflict and Oedipal rifts, while Japanese have emphasized nurturance, [and] dependency…” [2] Where in Western culture the myth of Oedipus, a man who kills his father and sleeps with his mother, prevails and is used to show how a child must leave his family in order to become an adult, in Japanese culture the popular myth of Ajase depicts a son who at first is at odds with his mother, but later forgives her and they “remain forever entwined in a bond of mutual forgiveness” [3] Thus the cultural differences between American and Japanese teens in some ways reflect differences in social ideologies.

            As a result of this difference, teenagers in Japan are without many of the negative social connotations Americans typically associate with adolescence.  While Japanese teens may rebel against their society, they tend to do so in non-threatening ways (at least in comparison to the violence often associated with American teenaged rebellion).  Lacking the many of the stereotypical negative attributes associated American teens, the time period of social growth in which one is neither an adult nor child becomes particularly attractive and enticing in Japanese society.  While in America the stage associated with the most freedom is adulthood, this is not true in Japan.  In fact, when adults were asked to give their impression of adulthood:

Adulthood was directly understood to mean society, and vice versa; it was not viewed as a source of freedom or independence, it was viewed as quite the opposite, as a period of restrictions and hard work.[4] 

And while childhood is idealized in both cultures, it not regarded as a time of great freedom in either.  In Japanese society the stage associated with most freedom is not adulthood or childhood, but rather the time between- adolescence. 

            The attractiveness of adolescence as a time of freedom from strict social rules is characterized in the immensely popular and uniquely Japanese Kawaii style.  This style, which idolizes ‘cuteness’, may at first glance seem to be promoting a notion of freedom in childhood, yet on a deeper level what it is really promoting is the notion of an adult who has the responsibilities of a child.  It is important to note that cute style originated not with younger children nor with adult marketers, but rather with teenagers; becoming most popular with high-school aged students.[5]  It is also important to note that the “…highly commercial nature of cute culture.”  And that cute “…seem[s] to be accessible exclusively through consumption.”[6]  By associating cuteness so strongly with consumption, it once again becomes linked with teenagers and the concept of “…dokushin kizoku, or “bachelor aristocrats,” [who] are young people with money and the desire to buy: before the responsibilities of adulthood set in…”[7] Kawaii style does not have the same connotations as the Disney-style cuteness of Western culture.  Disney is for children and it idealizes childhood innocence, Kawaii style is for teenaged and adult consumers and it idealizes the appearance of childlike innocence.  In many ways Kawaii style is an expression of rebellion against growing into the social obligations of adulthood, yet to say, “Cute fashion idolizes childhood because it is seen as a place of individual freedom unattainable in society.”[8] Is to misunderstand the message.  Childhood is not a time of individual freedom; it is a time in which one is forced to learn the rules of adult society.  Adolescence is the time of freedom, in which one is free to make adult decisions as a consumer, but at the same time is unburdened by adult responsibility. 

            It comes as no surprise that “Young women were the main generators of, and actors in, cute culture.” [9] (243) It is:

Young women pushed outside mainstream Japanese society [who] are associated with an exotic and longed-for world of individual fulfillment, decadence, consumption and play.[10] (244)

 Who have exactly the sort of social freedom that those who embrace cute style long for.  These young women are outside of the sphere of social obligation, and thus are allowed individual freedom associated with being neither responsibly adults nor powerless children.  

            In conclusion, while teenaged consumption may seem like a sign of the decaying moral values of today’s youth, it was, in fact, the commercial marketing sphere that first defined teenagers as a social group.  The very ability to consume while being free of adult responsibility is an important part of what makes teenagers a group in the first place.  In Japan, in specific, adolescence is a stage of life marked by freedom from social constraints and obligations.

[1] Merry White, The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America, (Berkeley: CA,

University of California Press, 1994), p. 48.

[2] Ibid, p. 29.

[3] Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in

Japan, (Westview Press), p. 137.

[4] Lise Skov, Brian Moeran, ed., Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, Sharon

Kinsella, “Cuties in Japan”, (Honolulu: Hawaii, Curzon Press, University of Hawaii Press), p. 242.

[5] “Cuties in Japan”, p. 224.

[6] Ibid, p. 245.

[7] The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America, p. 105.

[8] “Cuties in Japan”, p. 242.

[9] “Cuties in Japan”, p. 243.

[10] Ibid, 244.