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For Japanese Women, The Past Is The Latest Fad

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For Japanese Women, The Past Is The Latest Fad


For Japanese Women, The Past Is The Latest Fad

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Japan, there's been a recent surge in visitors to shoguns castles, samurai battle re-enactments and history bookstores. Besides being history buffs, many of these visitors have something else in common: They're women.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo on the rise of the history girls.

ANTHONY KUHN: One of the more public faces of the reki-jo, or history girls, is a fashion model named Anne. She's the daughter of actor Ken Watanabe, and she goes by just one name. She's carved out a niche for herself writing and speaking about history and history buffs.

Reki-jo all have their favorite historical periods and characters. Speaking in a Tokyo cafe, Anne says hers is the Shinsengumi, the elite swordsmen of Japan's last shogun.

Ms. ANNE (Fashion Model): (Through translator) The Shinsengumi is popular among Japanese girls because its members were all young, in their teens to early-30s. They changed Japan. The interesting part of their era is that we can see some photos of them, so we can imagine them better and feel closer to them. This history gives courage to young people today.

KUHN: In TV dramas, the Shinsengumi are all played by popular, young male actors. The reki-jo history girls idolize these historical figures like rock stars.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Ryo Watanabe, no relation to Anne, is one of the media and marketing entrepreneurs who have helped build the reki-jo phenomenon. He created this music, a Web site, TV shows and a bar for reki-jo to congregate. Watanabe explains that history girls populate both virtual and actual worlds.

Mr. RYO WATANABE: (Through translator) The virtual ones just play games and follow individual characters. The real ones start with games, but they also do research, read books and visit historical sites. These are the real history girls.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Anthropologists who study such things say that the reki-jo are actually a kind of otaku, a nerdy sort of fan of Japanese comic books and video games, such as this samurai sword-fighting game, which is a reki-jo favorite.

Otaku nerds build identities for their favorite characters choosing, for example, kimonos, hairstyles and weapons and giving their characters attributes: three points for strength and four for charisma.

Patrick Galbraith is a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo and author of "The Otaku Encyclopedia." He says that the reki-jo history girls signal the rise of the female otaku. And what do male otakus do?

Mr. PATRICK GALBRAITH (Student, University of Tokyo): They are really kind of focusing on what types of women they're interested in, and they create this kind of fantasy discourse about the female, and they consume these fetishized fantasy images. And women also have been doing this for a very long time, but it's always been kind of below the surface.

KUHN: People in Japan increasingly define themselves through the media they consume rather than work, family or school ties. Of course, this is true elsewhere, but Galbraith says the 1990s decline of Japanese corporate culture has pushed the country's hobby culture into the mainstream.

Mr. GALBRAITH: Now were seeing more and more people who are making connections through consumption, through shared media, through shared patterns of social existence, and maybe reki-jo is one example of that, because really they are, I think, people who share an interest but almost nothing else.

KUHN: It's Wednesday night, and the reki-jo history girls head down to Ryo Watanabe's bar to talk about warlords, sieges, assassins and the like. In her metal-studded leather attire, Miyuki Miyamoto(ph) is dressed more for a mosh pit than a history seminar. And she's proud of it.

Ms. MIYUKI MIYAMOTO: (Through translator) I like to be called reki-jo. Ten years ago, I had a negative image of the serious, isolated girls who like history but has few friends. Now I feel more recognized as one of a group.

KUHN: Observers note that even in the 19th-century Edo era, Japanese grouped around pop culture experiences as a way of coping with the anonymity and solitude of urban life. The observers' point is that otaku culture's roots run deep in Japan and that perhaps there's a little otaku in all of us.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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