Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The lost girls of Shibuya

What makes us free? According to liberals it is our liberation from whatever might impede individual choice.

But this is a definition which takes us in odd directions. Take, for instance, the views of Jessica Brinton, who recently wrote an article on the young women of Tokyo ("Maid in Japan", Herald Sun, not online).

The article was intended as “a snapshot of a culture where radical fashion, sexual bravura and cultural weirdness are finally beginning to liberate its women.”

So what is the evidence that young Tokyo women are being liberated? First, there is a changing attitude to work,

Now, to be part-time (or freeter) is the chosen career dream ... you work three days a week in shops and spend the rest of your time chasing creative dreams. The real energy goes into doing what you want, when you want ...

But what exactly is this “doing what you want, when you want”? Well, this is how Jessica Brinton describes the lifestyle choices of the girls of the Shibuya district of Tokyo,

They congregate inside the auditory bedlam of the Shibuya department store 109. Or outside McDonald’s, where they occasionally pick up older men for a few hundred yen (the extra cash goes towards the latest Chanel handbag). Aggressive, self-empowered and sexy, they dress as they want – from orange tans, razor sharp stilettoes and microskirts, through Victoriana to extreme punk – shop as they want and behave exactly as they want.

You see - the more outrageous the behaviour of the girls, the more “liberated” they are, as it only shows how far they will go to “behave exactly as they want” and to be “self-empowered”.

It’s the same when Jessica Brinton discusses what young Tokyo women are choosing to read. She notes approvingly that,

Girl manga or shojo – which features cross-dressing boys, characters who magically change sex, brother-sister romances and teenage girls falling in love with 10-year-old boys, among other things, sells fast in Japan.

Obviously, these manga (comic books) are breaking taboos. They are portraying a world in which there are no restrictions at all placed on either sexuality or gender. For Jessica Brinton, this is liberating because it is an assertion of free choice against traditional moral standards. Later in her article, she describes such manga as “part of a rich and complex sexual landscape in which almost everything is allowed”.

Jessica Brinton concludes that the behaviour of young Tokyo women promises great things. She writes,

In a country where women comprise only 7.7 per cent of managerial positions, it’s clear that popular culture is outpacing the business world. But who knows? The freedom, creativity and ingenuity these girls are exhibiting make it clear that today’s freeter or Shibuya Girl might just be tomorrow’s economic leader.

For conservatives, there is a much different conclusion to be drawn. It is obviously not enough to define freedom as the state in which you can choose to do what you want when you want – where there are no restrictions on your choices and “almost everything is allowed”.

Such a definition makes the Shibuya girls seem progressive, liberated, cutting-edge and therefore admirable. But the truth is that they are lost souls, whose lives are limited to smaller things like shopping and fashion, and whose sexuality is coarsely promiscuous.

If this is freedom it is worthless.

So what, then, might be a better way to define freedom? I don’t know if I can put it the right way just yet, but I don’t think you can really understand freedom if all you recognise is the individual and his will.

A better understanding of freedom is only possible in a society which still recognises a set of “goods” external to the individual (often called transcendent goods because they transcend the individual and his will). We are then ‘free’ when we are able to live according to such goods.

For example, an Englishman might declare himself “free” if he is able to live as part of his national community. If, on the other hand, his country were overthrown by conquest, he would no longer enjoy this freedom.

Similarly, if we live in a society which recognises objectively existing moral goods, then we are free to pursue a moral life within a community. But if our society only recognises as a good what the individual will desires, then we lose this freedom to pursue or practise the moral virtues as part of a community.

Again, if masculinity is something of “transcendent” value, then men are most free when they achieve a masculine adult personality and when they are able to enact this personality via the institutions and social roles of their own community.

I could go on. But the basic point is to consider what really inspires a sense of freedom. Liberals like Jessica Brinton seriously believe that it is the Shibuya girls who are free, because they aggressively assert the idea of doing what they want when they want.

I can’t accept this because I know I would not feel free in Shibuya. I would feel dismayed.

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