Gender and Authenticity in Japanese Popular Music: 1980-2000

Brian Cogan & Gina Cogan. Popular Music and Society. Volume 29, Issue 1. February 2006.


This article will examine the interactions of gender and authenticity in Japanese recorded popular music within the last twenty years. The term “Japanese pop,” usually shortened to J-pop, can be defined broadly enough to include both mainstream popular music such as Puffy and the work of Puffy’s producer, Okuda Tamio, himself a recording artist, and pop/punk bands such as Shonen Knife. In particular, this article will analyze the fluidity of male/female role-playing in Japan and its relation to Western notions of rock authenticity.

Analyzing the intersection of the axes of punk rock, female production of popular music, and gender identity in Japan, this article will first detail the unique position of Shonen Knife, who transgress the boundaries of pop and punk not just ideologically, but in their control over every aspect of the band’s output. We will contrast this with Puffy’s status as a girl group, one whose work is more mainstream than that of Shonen Knife, in order to show, first, that the hierarchical gender relations at work in the discourse on J-pop and idols obscure the active role Puffy’s lead singers take in the production of Puffy as a seamless commodity ready for purchase, while highlighting the gender-related values assigned to different aspects of production. Second, we will examine the constrained role Puffy’s lead singers play in this production, in contrast to the freedom of the women of Shonen Knife, showing how the more active involvement of the members of the latter in songwriting, recording, and production makes its music different from that of Puffy, as well as how the controlling role of Okuda, Puffy’s main producer and songwriter, produces a different interplay of masculinities and femininities in their music than in the work of the all-female Shonen Knife.

These two musical groups were active in the decades between 1980 and 2000. Puffy is the name of the duo of Ohnuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi, a group whose work is situated firmly within the parameters of J-pop and that has had significant mainstream success throughout its career. Shonen Knife is a group founded by three women, Nakatani Michie and the sisters Yamano Naoko and Atsuko. This group makes music that does not fit comfortably within the J-pop framework, but is situated within the punk genre and does not have record sales comparable to those of Puffy.

Puffy and Shonen Knife appear to be members of particular, clearly different genres, J-pop and punk respectively. Despite the apparent differences between them, the importance both groups place on the visual elements of what Grossberg would call the apparatus serves as a nexus for key similarities between the two bands, centering on the independent production of visual elements such as dress, hairstyle, and make-up. These aspects of the two bands are critical for their appeal to their respective audiences. Thus, we maintain that Puffy and Shonen Knife are both “authentic” in a female-centered, visually oriented, poppy, commodified way that, moreover, subverts traditional, male-dominated versions of authenticity. Because women have so often been identified with commodification and consumer culture, authenticity for female musicians comes in different forms than it does for male artists.

Authenticity is a charged term, difficult to define because it can encompass so many different criteria, which change depending on the context in which the term is used. As Auslander notes, authenticity always has an ideological component, insofar as it is a term that can be used to include and exclude, value and devalue. Musical authenticity may seem neutral, but the questions of who gets to define it and who gets to apply that definition are ideological ones that depend on the social position, and gender, of the person doing the defining. Atkins has said that:

authenticity in jazz implies that an artist must possess specific qualitieseducational background, life experience, ethnic heritage, motivations or artistic vision-which confer upon that artist the right not only to work unchallenged in a particular medium, but to establish the standard by which all others working in that medium will be judged. Those who are influenced by such work may be deemed ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ depending … on how closely they adhere to the aesthetic standards established in the original. (“This is Our Music” 33)

In the West, the term authenticity has frequently been used in thinking and writing about popular music, particularly rock, punk, and pop. Rock and punk overlap in valuing a do-it-yourself aesthetic, as well as ideas of creative control, integrity, and not selling out (and the definitions of these are also ideologically based). All of these valued elements of rock and punk authenticity operate in opposition to domination by record companies, which, in this discourse, seek to limit the creativity of the artist and produce a saleable commodity. Both punk and rock discourses of authenticity criticize pop as inauthentic by virtue of its perceived status as a commodity, a music produced solely to appeal to consumers without regard for artistry.

The members of Shonen Knife take advantage of the do-it-yourself aesthetic that is central to any definition of “authentically” punk music to claim a space for themselves as female punk musicians while making music that has much in common with more mainstream J-pop and while crafting visual selves that differ radically from the ones usually put forth by male punk musicians. Moreover, they play with the commodification ideas that are usually put forth as antithetical to the “authentic” punk aesthetic, through the high value they place on the visual, and through the lyrics and subjects of their songs, which include consumer products such as the doll Barbie in “Twist Barbie,” and cleaner in “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme.”

While the work of Shonen Knife seems ideal for an analysis of authenticity and gender, the relevance of ideas of authenticity to Puffy’s work is not readily apparent. Puffy’s music is heard frequently in television commercials, and the lead singers of Puffy have been made into the characters of a video game. Their place in the world of J-pop is firmly on the commodification side of the fence. However, considering Puffy and Shonen Knife together can lead to a new, less dichotomized, understanding of authenticity and commodity. Both Puffy and Shonen Knife use and subvert ideas of authenticity and commodity to form original work. Moreover, the commodification of Shonen Knife and the authenticity of Puffy have both been overlooked, largely because these are female musicians. Observers can miss the authentic quality of Puffy’s pop music because they are not trained to see J-pop as authentic, and they are not trained to see J-pop as authentic because this is a feminized form of musical production.

In the case of Shonen Knife, this article will examine how their adherence to a Western punk notion of authenticity enables them to subvert gender roles in contemporary Japan. We will also investigate the ways in which the very commodification of the women in Puffy, and their use and subtle subversion of this commodification, adheres to ideas of pop authenticity. This does not imply that any discussion of Japanese culture is not problematic; as E. Taylor Atkins argued, “Japanese culture is an artificially coherent and monolithic category of relatively recent pedigree, contrived to suppress the very real differences, variations, complexities and conflicts that have driven modern Japanese history” (“This is Our Music” 14). Similarly, neither pop nor punk is monolithic, a point we hope to highlight in this article.

A Pop Summit

The evening of 30 June 1999 is remarkable for a summit between disparate currents in Japanese pop music, when Yamano Naoko of Shonen Knife made a guest appearance on the television program PAPAPAPA Puffy, hosted by Ohnuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi of Puffy. Her purpose was to announce the imminent retirement of longtime Shonen Knife bassist and co-founder Nakatani Michie who was leaving the group after 18 years of recording. This demonstrates that perhaps the parameters of J-pop, as well those of acceptable female behavior, are more fluid than many, particularly in the West, had originally assumed.

For example, many Western music critics regard Shonen Knife as affiliated with the punk movement and therefore more authentic than Puffy, a band seen as producer-controlled, producing commodified popular music, but perhaps these conceptions are too simplistic to encompass the contradictory impulses inherent in the music of each group. Karen Schoemer of the New York Times writes of Shonen Knife that “[tjhree young Japanese women wearing square-patterned patent-leather jumpers and playing Ramones-style punk rock may seem like a band out of a David Lynch movie, but in reality they make up Shonen Knife” (Schoemer C16) However, even in this estimation of Shonen Knife as a group that plays punk music, there is an awareness that this is unusual enough in the world of punk to warrant a comparison to a David Lynch movie, making Shonen Knife a curiosity on a par with a severed ear on a neat lawn.

Yet, this estimation grants the women of Shonen Knife some agency. In contrast, Mark Lasswell says in People magazine: “If the character Hello Kitty leaped off a first grader’s backpack to front the Ramones, Shonen Knife might have a rival. But for now there’s nothing like the delirious reimagining of power pop by this trio of Japanese women” (Lasswell, quoted at Andy B.). Here, the critic misses the band’s self-identification as punk artists, despite his recognition of their similarity to the Ramones, and characterizes their music as power pop. While this may be accurate, insofar as Shonen Knife’s music does have affinities with pop, this critic takes away the agency of the members of Shonen Knife by comparing them to Hello Kitty, a female without a mouth.

One would expect this kind of assessment of Puffy, given that the agency of Ohnuki and Yoshimura is much less recognizable at first glance than that of the women of Shonen Knife. Unsurprisingly, what is noteworthy to Western critics about Puffy is the input of Ohnuki and Yoshimura, seemingly rare in the world of J-pop. Thus, in a biography of Puffy on the Bar/None records website, Michael Hill can say of Puffy that “all of their singles have been licensed for high-profile commercials for such products as motor scooters, cosmetics, computers, and soft drinks. It might all seem crass if the music didn’t tell a different, even subversive, story about alternative culture meeting the main-est of the mainstream”. The commercial aspect of Puffy the advertisements and video games-strikes this Western critic as “crass,” and seems to stand in contrast to the music, which is the “authentic” kernel surrounded by the commodified marketing in this view, rather than one aspect of a whole in which there might be authenticity in commodification. It is clear that the dichotomies of women/ punk artists and commodity/authentic expression need to be rethought in relation to Japanese women musicians.

J-Pop and the Commodity Form

Much has been written about the commodification of pop music and punk rock in general, from the work of the Frankfurt School to studies taking a modern cultural studies perspective. While many works on this subject have concentrated on gender and authenticity and the ways in which music has become a contested terrain for negotiating these issues, the majority of this work has concentrated on Western music. For example, the typical cultural studies treatment of punk rock characterizes the genre as a distinctly class-based phenomenon particular to Britain. However, this model is European in origin and ignores the relationship between punk and pop in Asian cultures, missing many possibilities for exploring its nuances. This is especially relevant because terms frequently used in a Western context such as “gender” and “authenticity” can take on very different meanings in the context of Japanese culture, even as the current Japanese discourse on pop accepts Western definitions of authenticity.

The category of pop music in Japan is broad enough to include both the mainstream and the avant-garde. Thus, music that Western critics might categorize as “pop/punk,” such as Shonen Knife, can be included within the broader category of Japanese pop music along with Puffy, whose musical style shows strong affinities with what Western critics categorize as the Brian Wilson/Big Star-influenced pop avantgarde. Moreover, some musical forms and production styles that would barely make a dent on the American charts are seen in Japan as mainstream pop music. The reverse is also true, as Japanese bands that find success in America, such as Pizzicato Five, are often “not the ones that Japanese labels understand” (Jenkins 5). Many foreign acts do not reach a wide audience in Japan, due to their lack of access to commercial and television show tie-ins, in which a band provides the theme for a television commercial or program, gaining a much wider audience for their music and correspondingly larger record sales (Greenfield 194).

In addition, gender plays a key role in Japanese pop music as the long history of Japanese female idols indicates, insofar as these well-known women influence notions of what it means to be a woman in Japan. Like many other scholars, Hiroshi Aoyagi has noted that gender is a performed construct, “a mode of enacting the received norms that surface as the styles of the flesh” (152). And, although there are certainly Japanese women who contest traditional gender roles, according to Aoyagi, “many Japanese women do not contest this gender image but rather find comfort in conforming to it more or less” (162). However, as Karen Kelsky has noted, unmarried female office workers in their twenties take advantage of their conformity to the role of “office lady,” or OL, to behave independently (18). This demonstrates that the roles of Japanese women depend on age and class, and are not uniform.

Typical views of women’s music groups in contemporary Japan are similar to those of the West prior to the 1970s. Japanese female groups and solo artists are stereotyped with the view that they are controlled by male producers, analogous to the control exerted by American producers such as Phil Spector on girl groups such as the Ronettes. This is not to say that male groups cannot be similarly controlled. America’s N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys and Japan’s SMAP and the Kinki Kids are also examples of this trend, but there are distinct differences in Japanese culture based on traditional gender roles where an expectation that women will not control their own musical production still remains strong (Auslander 5).

Puffy and Shonen Knife can be seen as illustrating opposing points on this spectrum of perceived control. The members of Shonen Knife write their own music, play their own instruments, and also create the clothing they wear. On the other hand, the women of Puffy are not the controlling forces behind much of the production of the group. They are not the primary musicians in the group, and a variety of artists have written many of Puffy’s songs. However, to characterize Ohnuki and Yoshimura in this way is to miss what they do contribute to Puffy besides their distinctive singing, namely the production and presentation of the visual aspect of Puffy. They have also written music and lyrics for many of their songs, after their first album. For both Shonen Knife and Puffy, the visual is an essential element of the presentation of their art as a whole. Shonen Knife’s band production is more easily recognized, because it fits neatly into the punk aesthetic, whereas the contribution of the various members of the Puffy team to Puffy as a whole is obscured by issues relating to gender and pop groups, so that the contributions of Ohnuki and Yoshimura are devalued.

Shonen Knife

Shonen Knife (usually translated into English as “boy’s knife”) was founded in 1981 in Osaka by self-described “bored” schoolgirls shortly after graduation, by longtime friends Yamano Naoko (guitar and vocals) and Nakatani Michie (bass and vocals), who then recruited Naoko’s younger sister Atsuko (drums and vocals) to complete the line-up. Modeling themselves after American and British pop/punk bands, they soon gained notoriety with their combination of layered harmonies over buzzsaw guitars after the fashion of their stylistic heroes the Ramones and the Buzzcocks.

In addition, the subject matter of Shonen Knife’s music is apparently cartoonish. Songs such as “Flying Jelly Attack,” “Fruit Loop Dreams”, and “Catnip Dreams” evoke the pleasures of youth and shopping for clothes, and display an obsession with food and with escape from the grind of everyday life. After several independent releases, Shonen Knife developed minor notoriety in Japan and a major cult following in America, where they were championed by tastemakers such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and the MacDonald brothers of the California punk band Red Kross. A testament to this, the tribute album Every Band Has a Shonen Knife That Loves Them, was released in 1989 and featured contributions from several dozen major American alternative and punk bands. This mutual admiration has been reflected in various Shonen Knife songs that make reference to American bands in titles such as “Red Kross” and “White Flag.” The connections between Shonen Knife and the American punk scene have been considerable, but to categorize Shonen Knife as simply a punk rock band is limiting when one considers the band’s pop appeal and the context of punk rock in Japanese culture.

The term “punk rock” itself is highly charged; most of the major works on the subject disagree on several fundamental issues, although most agree that a key aspect of punk rock was what Simon Frith refers to as its “do-it-yourself ethic” (“Music for Pleasure” 56) or the idea that control of the production and distribution of rerecordings is a key indicator of punk authenticity. This is not to say that lack of talent is a predictor of one’s inclusion in the category of punk. As Roger Sabin noted in the introduction to the anthology Punk Rock: So What?, “punk was/is a subculture best characterized as being part youth rebellion and part artistic statement” (2).

The geographical and ideological boundaries of punk are also in dispute. Critics like Sabin and Hebdige regard punk as a British phenomenon loaded with class issues, while critics like Heylin, McNeil, and McCain see punk as an offshoot of American bubblegum pop, garage rock, and ’60s proto-punk such as the Stooges. Whatever its origins, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, aspects of punk, including zines (both homemade and professional ones such as Maximum Rock and Roll and Flipside) and the flexibility and inexpensive nature of the preferred format (7″ vinyl singles) allowed punk to become a global phenomenon by the early 1980s. However, globalization did not necessarily mean increased involvement across other, more disputed, boundaries, such as gender.

While there is a history of punk rock in Japan, as demonstrated by bands such as the Blue Hearts and the Boredoms, men dominate this history, as they do the story of punk rock in general. Most popular and scholarly accounts of punk correctly reveal it as a boys’ club of sorts. Much of mainstream punk culture in the West and Japan has served to marginalize women. This is not to say that women’s voices have not been heard in punk rock; as Frith pointed out, women were allowed more expressive space in punk rock because “punk rejected both romantic and permissive conventions and refused in particular to be constructed as a commodity” (Frith Sound Effects 242).

However, much of punk’s attitude towards women is as regressive as that of most of popular music. In the case of Japan, punk rock, like many Western musical forms, was adapted and made uniquely Japanese and therefore largely conformed to postwar Japanese constructions of gender. Apparently no one bothered to inform Shonen Knife of this fact, as for the last two decades they have consistently kept to their own course, writing their own music and producing their own material, despite expectations of appropriate behavior based on gender. Although they do not play the kind of music known as enka, ballads popular through the 1960s, the songs of Shonen Knife provide many of the same functions, and, as Christine Yano has noted in regard to enka, “provide a counterpoint to the ‘good wife, wise mother’ model for women upon which the modern Japanese nation is said to have been built” (73).

Shonen Knife straddles the line between punk and pop, between traditional and modern, between authenticity and inauthenticity, between what can be considered Japanese and what can be considered Western. Their punk rock incorporates elements of pop music and is thereby different (in both style and perceived meaning) from the more aggressive punk rock of the Blue Hearts and the Boredoms. This difference enables them to be more subversive than those groups in several categories.


On the surface-in dress, attitude, and demeanor—the women of Shonen Knife could be seen as analogous, or at least similar, to the male-produced and controlled female idols that have dominated modern Japanese music. This similarity strikes some critics as bordering on parody. Karl Taro Greenfield sees the music of Shonen Knife as an ironic mockery of “the Japanese idol sound with intentionally silly lyrics” (187). Other critics see this similarity as evidence that the work of Shonen Knife is closer to the idol aesthetic than it is to Western notions of punk rock, and that the band members write the lyrics they do “because they idealize their lost girlhoods, not because they want to be ironic rebels” (Brasor and Tsubuku 64).

The question of irony aside, however much the members of Shonen Knife may visually resemble typical idols, a key difference is that they write their own music, design their own costumes, and otherwise have a greater degree of autonomy than is usually available to female musicians in contemporary Japanese culture. The concept of an all-female band that controls its own destiny is subversive enough within the context of Western music and even within the supposedly more “free” space of punk rock. This can be seen as still more subversive within the constraints of both Japanese popular music and post-war Japanese culture, where the influence of women has been regarded with some ambivalence. As D. P. Martinez noted in her article “Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Culture” in The Worlds of Japanese Pop Culture, “women might always be said to be dangerous Others’ even when they are domesticated as wives and mothers” (8). And, as popular music is usually associated with youth culture, the relative youth of Shonen Knife (at least in their early years) must have seemed subversive as well (Frith Sound Effects 7). It may well be that, as a band of young female musicians, free of male control, Shonen Knife is inherently more subversive than most pop or punk bands.

This of course begs the question of whether this subversiveness is part of the process through which audiences (especially female, punk, and otherwise marginalized audiences) are engaged in the process of listening. As Cheryl Harris noted, “some individuals may seek to express their otherwise silenced identities through a common interest in a symbol, icon or text” (Harris 5). Although they do not fit into the concept of the idoru per se, it is not simply their music that matters. As Hiroshi Aoyagi has noted, much Japanese pop does not merely provide entertainment but helps to “develop and offer a repertoire of themes, perspectives, characters, relationships, stories and outcomes that can be used by the public to make sense of their world” (324).

This does not imply that all fans are affected in the same way, merely that the opportunity does exist for devoted fans to use the music in this fashion. The image of Shonen Knife, as artists independent from the control usually associated with female bands, may serve symbolically to challenge the audience’s conceptions of what a “pop” band should be. As Susan Napier asserts, “images of women in popular culture have served on one hand to reinscribe traditional roles in post-war Japanese society, and on the other hand to offer visions of escape from them” (91). The very simplicity of Shonen Knife’s music may also serve to demonstrate two contradictory images to two different audiences. To male audiences and the dominant power structure, Shonen Knife may appear as “cartoonishly cute” (Jenkins 6) and to female audiences may appear as something else entirely. Susan Napier has written that certain texts, songs for example, “resist the ideology of the patriarchal Japanese superstate” and “work to problematize it if not actually subvert it” (91).

The hidden complexity in Shonen Knife’s seemingly simple songs about food products and “baka” boys may actually speak in a dynamic way to their largely female Japanese fan base. In an interview in Guitar Player magazine, Yamano Naoko said: “Our songs are like an M&M candy…. There is a serious statement, like an almond, and we cover it with a chocolate pop melody” (quoted in Crisapolli 19). In addition, Theodore Gracyk noted that “there is no contradiction in combining simple rock songs and a complex ‘adult’ sensibility if there is a community of musicians and listeners who embrace that contradiction” (17). Mary Harron has also noted that “no pop artist can be successful at the wrong time by running counter to the popular mood” (211). Hebdige identifies this trend as symptomatic of youth culture in general and of the need to “contest and aggress” dominant constructions of identity (86).

Even though American-style rock, and especially punk rock, was “the last music to be recognized as Japanese music,” according to Yuhi Kuniko (211), as Tagawa Tadasu noted, any genre of music can be regarded as “affirming reality” for its listeners (363). This is especially true for the marginalized female audience for popular music in Japan. To a specific audience at a specific moment in time Shonen Knife represent for fans what it means to be a certain kind of female in Japan.

In interviews, the members of Shonen Knife have acknowledged that they see themselves as role models for young Japanese women (Sharra E3). They have a carefully crafted, consistent image (their distinctive look is designed by the drummer, Atsuko) and that image is presented not just in their music, but in their videos, album covers, magazine articles, etcetera. Yet this image is only one part of the presentation of Shonen Knife, albeit an important part of their appeal both at home and in the West, where their critics often (mis)construe their innocence and look as pure kitsch. Brasor and Tsubuku noted in Japan Quarterly that the “most salient characteristic of mainstream J-pop is a carefree childlike sensibility” (64), but, unlike the case of most idols, this image is chosen by the band itself, not forced upon them as a marketing ploy. Unlike Puffy and the majority of the idols whose look and nuances are controlled by men, the female musicians of Shonen Knife construct their own gender signifiers in their own terms.

The use of a Western idiom, punk rock, even in a form that comes close to mainstream pop, not only subverts both the conventions of the musical genre (converting pop to punk and vice versa) but situates them in a context that is quintessentially, and paradoxically, Japanese and Western at the same moment. In this way, Shonen Knife can operate within the acceptable conventions of both J-pop and Japanese constructions of gender and femininity. However, as female performers independent of male control, they are both transgressive and reaffirming at the same time and can arguably be viewed as “a source of danger to the norm and the very means of resisting that norm” (Martinez 7).

Another question raised by Shonen Knife’s autonomy is that of creative control and the process of gender construction. Can issues of creative control in music be regarded as gender issues? This is especially relevant in Japanese culture where “female rock bands that follow their own path are just about unheard of (Gray 15). Hence, in Japan, and sometimes America, creative control is most often associated with masculinity. Another question that will be considered in the second half of this article is whether Japanese and American “boy bands,” such as N’Sync and SMAP, can be seen as symbolically feminized by this control.

Part of Shonen Knife’s transgressive appeal is that they retain a greater degree of creative control than most female pop artists in Japan and therefore may be regarded as symbolically taking on traits associated with masculinity. However, the dichotomy may also be extended if we regard pop music (and its supposedly inherent inauthenticity) as feminine, and rock, or punk rock, music as symbolically masculine (and authentic) due to its contrast with the commodified, feminized nature of pop music. As Philip Auslander noted, “the ideological distinction between rock and pop is precisely the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic, the sincere and the cynical, the genuinely popular and the slickly commercial, the potentially resistant and necessarily coopted” (5). Simon Frith has noted that pop “commodities can be both transgressive and reactionary” (Performing Rites 35). So whether or not the commodity form symbolically allows those with greater control to be considered more symbolically masculine, in a Japanese or a Western sense of the word, is a question worth considering at greater length.


Shonen Knife negotiates a difficult path between what is considered authentically punk and authentically Japanese and somehow manages to straddle the line more successfully (as least as far as overall fan base and global and Japanese popularity is concerned) than male bands that have worked within the same genre have done. Japanese culture also contains a tradition of (what in the West) would be considered amateurism embedded in genres such as karaoke. Punk rock presumes a lack of professionalism, or a more open terrain for audience participation, and hence is regarded as more “amateurish” than regular pop music (despite the forms and conventions they both share).

Thus, even punk bands such as Shonen Knife that tend towards the pop end of the spectrum, where professionalism is valued, can wear the title of inspired amateur as a badge of honor. Through association with punk’s categorical amateurism (even though they are more professional and musically adept than most critics of the genre allow), Shonen Knife automatically participates in punk’s perceived authenticity. In punk, a lack of musical acumen and a surplus of enthusiasm mark participants as authentic. However, pop is usually associated with inauthenticity and, as Frith has noted, authenticity is a fluid word that can be applied to genres that are themselves inauthentic (Performing Rites 71). Pop music, then, can have its own criteria of authenticity, which Shonen Knife may also meet. The criteria of pop authenticity, while global, also have local meaning and, as Auslander has also noted, the creation of the effect of authenticity in music is “a matter of culturally determined convention, not an expression of essence” (11).

Even if authenticity is a motif in discourse about pop music in Japan, it might not matter to current fans of Shonen Knife and of subcultural music in Japan. Alternatively, fans and the band might define authenticity in a different way than it is defined in Western versions of pop-punk. The question of how authentic the work of Shonen Knife is compared to other products of Japan’s punk and pop scenes is an ongoing issue that cannot be easily resolved. Perhaps it is safe to say that, although the members of Shonen Knife engage in transgressive behavior through their resistance to dominant power structures, they also operate within the boundaries of mainstream commodity forms and therefore the overall question of how “authentic” they are is ultimately up to the way the audience negotiates issues of authenticity on an individual basis.

Other Questions for Further Research

Shonen Knife’s American influences deserve more attention than an article of this scope can provide. The music of Shonen Knife more closely resembles an amalgam of classic “girl group” bubblegum pop, as epitomized by the work of legendary American music producer Phil Spector, as well as the buzzsaw pop riffs of the Ramones (a major influence on Shonen Knife’s sound) and the American pop/punk scene in general. This is in sharp contrast to most male Japanese punk bands, such as the Blue Hearts, who slavishly reproduced the sound of British working-class heroes the Clash, or how the Boredoms look to industrial noise and consciously artistic American bands such as Sonic Youth (also paradoxically friends and mentors to, and collaborators with, Shonen Knife). This is consistent with American punk’s roots in bubblegum music, what Bill Osgerby calls the “purest manifestation of the American teen aesthetic” (59) and provides a reason for why Shonen Knife can be seen as primarily a pop band in the truest sense of the word. Because they were inspired by punk’s more carefree, and resolutely American, pop aesthetic rather than the harsher punk drawn from British working-class alienation, they can still comfortably be categorized as part of the J-pop movement.

Likewise, the place of Shonen Knife and of Japanese pop on a global scale deserves further attention. Shonen Knife takes traditional Western forms and subverts them within the context of Japanese culture, but by singing in English on about half of their songs and by working with Western musicians, they show a more distinct American influence than their contemporaries who lean towards a less bubblegum-influenced punk aesthetic. This could be a representation of the global influence of punk in general, but, considering Martinez’s assertion that Japanese women often serve as “mediators to the outside world,” women in Japanese music such as Shonen Knife might have greater roles in the globalization of Japanese culture than many in the West would assume.

At the same time that the work of Shonen Knife reflects global influences, the evidence in that work of their creative reflection, re-production, and appropriation of those influences shows them to be uniquely Japanese. Shonen Knife might be seen to represent the ultimate impermanence of concepts such as gender roles and authenticity. Whether they are more authentically Japanese or more authentically pop or punk is perhaps less important than whether their identity itself is fixed. Ultimately, the audience is responsible for “fixing” Shonen Knife’s identity as any of the above. However, Shonen Knife is not the only or the most symptomatic representative of J-pop. Other bands in the pop pantheon invite similar questions and represent different conceptions of masculinity and femininity, of authenticity and gender. In the next section we will examine the conflicts epitomized by Puffy, one of the top J-pop bands in recent years.


Puffy has been around for only about a quarter of the time of Shonen Knife, but in that brief period they have had a significant impact on the Japanese pop scene. Puffy first came into public view in May of 1996 when they released their million-selling debut single “Ajia no junshin,” produced by Okuda Tamio (Hit and Run Home Page). The duo, consisting of singers Ohnuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi, began when Ohnuki found herself a solo act after the break-up of Hanoi Sex, the band with which she was signed to a Sony-affiliated management company. Yoshimura had been signed to the same company, Hit and Run, after winning a Sony-sponsored talent contest in high school, and the two decided to work as a duo. Andy Sturmer of the American pop group Jellyfish gave them their name, and Okuda was recruited to produce their work (Page Puffy).

Since their debut, Puffy has toured Japan several times, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. As of 2000, they had made six albums, including a remix and a “best of album, and had released many singles. In March of 1999, Puffy starred in a video game for Sony Playstation. Ohnuki and Yoshimura have appeared as guest hosts on television and radio programs and, in 1997, PAPAPAPA Puffy, a half-hour variety show hosted by Ohnuki and Yoshimura, debuted.14 Although not nearly as ubiquitous as the members of SMAP, Ohnuki and Yoshimura have, to date, appeared in numerous television advertisements, most featuring their songs (Page Puffy).

Idols, Pop Culture, and Authenticity in Japan

Puffy came to prominence riding a wave of transition in J-pop. In the early 1990s, the popularity of traditional-style idols waned, while bands boomed. A few of these performers weathered the change intact and some new idols emerged. For example, SMAP went from the 1980s to the 1990s with no decline in popularity through hosting their own television shows and appearing in dramas and innumerable commercials (Schilling “SMAP” 230). A newer duo, the Kinki Kids, have achieved success through a similarly multi-faceted strategy. Amuro Namie, a singer produced and managed by Komuro Tetsuya, gained mega-star status in the late 1990s not just from her songs but from the appearance of those songs in television advertising campaigns, as well as her distinctive look, which was copied by young women all over Japan (Schilling “Tetsuta Komuro” 98). Ohnuki and Yoshimura of Puffy have frequently been contrasted with Amuro, due to their different styles of dress (that of Amuro is more overtly sexy), but similar marketing strategies ensured the success of both Amuro and Puffy.

In J-pop, idols have been around since the 1960s, coexisting with other trends such as the New Music movement of the 1970s. This genre, an elaboration of the folk scene of the 1960s, marked a change in Japanese popular music production. Hewing closely to the do-it-yourself ideology of authenticity developed in Western rock during the 1960s and ’70s, not only did New Music artists write and sing their own songs but four prominent musicians started the first independent record label in Japan in 1975 (Schilling “Yuming and the Birth of New Music” 309). Two of these musicians, Yoshida Takuro and Inoue Yosui, continued to perform through the 1980s and ’90s, and both have close connections to successful contemporary idol groups-Kinki Kids and Puffy, respectively.

Producers and Artists Dichotomized

One of the most persistent tropes of Western authenticity discourse is the insistence that to write, produce, and perform one’s own music constitutes authentic performance. In the discourse of pop music in Japan, as in the West, there has been a split between managers and producers-the people, overwhelmingly male, who direct and control the course of an artistic production-and the singers and managees, male and female, who are used by the artist/manager to express that person’s vision of the band and sing or otherwise present that person’s music.

Puffy is, on the surface, a classic example of this kind of split, both in roles and in the discourses that surround those roles. Okuda Tamio is portrayed as the genius producer, the songwriter and driving creative force behind the band who is conceptualized as a talented musician and artist. Okuda is always referred to by his family name. In contrast, the name “Puffy” stands for the two female singers Ohnuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi. As the producer, Okuda is not included in this corporate identity; he stands above or behind it. Further, Puffy the band can be seen as having a personalized identity as well. It is referred to on fan sites as “Puffy-chan,” an intimate and affectionate form of address. Ohnuki and Yoshimura, too, are often called “Amichan” and “Yumi-chan,” as if the reader knew them or they were children. Okuda is not referred to as “Tamio-kun,” which would be the corresponding nickname for him.

The different ways of talking about Puffy, Yoshimura and Ohnuki, and Okuda underscore the gulf between Okuda’s role as the manager/artist/producer and Yoshimura’s and Ohnuki’s roles as the singers under his direction. The discourse that surrounds them is not about their talent or their ability, but about their personal lives and hobbies, their cuteness, their appearance and their personalities. This stands in sharp contrast to the image of Shonen Knife in Japan and the West, where they are discussed both in reference to their artistic talent and creative control and to their appearance and singing ability and relationship to their fans.

According to Ted Friedman’s analysis of the Milli Vanilli lip synching scandal of 1990, one of the reasons the two members of the band were pilloried was because being a performing tool, as they were seen to be, is a feminized, devalued, and inauthentic role in rock and pop (3). The Ronettes, for example, were not hailed as geniuses, while Phil Spector was. Although they were praised for their singing ability, they were not seen as the driving creative force behind the music, but as instruments used by Spector. For Milli Vanilli to be exposed as not even the vocal tool of the producer, but the video-acting, concert-performing tool, was for them to be revealed as ultra-feminized.

Given that Japanese pop discourse has adopted some of the standards of authenticity of Western popular music discourse, we can see that idols in Japanese pop groups are similarly devalued and feminized insofar as they are placed lower in the hierarchy of talent and are seen as passive members of the creative enterprise. In contrast, Shonen Knife, by adopting a punk aesthetic, has made music without having to go through the strong-manager route to artistic expression for women in Japan.

For example, the dominant image of idols is of singers who are not expected at all to write their own songs or to contribute to the production of their music. One of the most powerful and influential managers in Japan, Johnny Kitagawa, was investigated in 2000 for allegedly having sexually abused many of the young male aspiring idols who entered his talent-grooming program, which produced such superstars as SMAP and the Kinki Kids. Such abusive behavior would put the young boys in the position of victim, and as such more feminized. If we can speak of masculine and feminine behavior as extremes of a continuum, than the behavior of Johnny, the manager, epitomizes the control the producer has over the idol (Sims 12).

Idols and Commodification

Friedman also argues that producing commodities for mass consumption has a gender division in Marxist theory, with masculine, active workers producing goods for passive, feminized consumers (3). In pop, it is often hard to tell whether the band or the idol is the commodity. If Puffy is seen as the commodity under production, and if we view Ohnuki and Yoshimura as identical with the band, then they too are commodities. Rey Chow notes that one of the primary techniques in the West for oppressing women has been their consignment to visuality and their objectification as things to be looked at (59). J-pop is a site for the inscription of a primarily visual identity on idols, concomitant with their commodification. Schilling notes that Kitagawa’s agency is known in Japan as a bidanshi fakutorii, a “Pretty Man Factory,” implying that the pretty men are themselves the commodity under production and not participants in the process (“SMAP” 232). This makes them seem even more passive and inert than they might otherwise be and misses many important aspects in the pop production process. However, examining what Ohnuki and Yoshimura do to promote and perpetuate Puffy-singing on records, appearing on record covers, touring and presenting themselves to the fans in stadiums, performing on television, performing in music videos, being interviewed, being displayed in magazine fashion spreads-it becomes obvious that, while they may be objectified and commodified, they are not commodities alone. They do participate actively in the production of Puffy.

Friedman argues that parts of the commodification process, such as packaging, marketing, fashion, and image creation, are seen as “parasitic, wasteful, nonreproductive, fetishistic mediation blocking an unalienated ‘authentic’ relationship between producer and consumer” (3). These are precisely the aspects of Puffy that Ohnuki and Yoshimura are responsible for, a prime factor in the devaluation of their contribution to the success of Puffy. Shonen Knife, however, is responsible for all aspects of their band, and so is seen as more authentic, especially in the West, but even so, the discourse that surrounds their work discusses the packaging and fashion aspects as cartoonish or cute rather than analyzing them seriously.

Visuality, Gender, Authenticity

Visuality is an important part of what Ohnuki and Yoshimura do. For example, most of their activities listed above pertain to the visual, which is entirely consonant with Chow’s thesis. They appear; they present themselves; they are the face and body of Puffy. According to Auslander, a certain form of visuality is an important producer of authenticity in Western pop. Live performance is one way to display the authenticity of a performer through demonstrating that he or she can play and sing in the same way as on the recorded performances (Auslander 10). Re-evaluating the role of the visual as the devalued female sphere, and thinking about its relationship to the discourse of authenticity, brings to the fore new possibilities of visual authenticity beyond musical competence, ones that, in a pop authenticity, would value the contributions of women as visual. Ohnuki and Yoshimura can be seen not just as authentic singers, but as authentic fashion leaders and authentic young Japanese women. This function of producing the authenticity of Puffy not strictly related to music is ignored in most Western discourse about J-pop (Brasor and Tsubuku; Amith). Thinking about authenticity in this way can also explain the attention paid by the members of Shonen Knife to the visual aspects of their band. They appreciate not only traditionally masculine spheres of production such as songs, but feminine ones such as style. It can also explain why Western critics do not take up these aspects, except to compare the band members to Hello Kitty (Lasswell quoted at Andy B.).

Lawrence Grossberg has explained the role of the apparatus in understanding Western rock. An apparatus, he says, “brings together musical texts and practices, economic relations, images (of performers and fans), social relations, aesthetic conventions, styles of language, movement, appearance and dance, media practices, [and] ideological commitments.” The rock apparatus, he says, functions “by transforming the affective geography of the everyday lives of its fans” (101). It can provide the opportunity to resist hegemonic constraints on gender and to restructure the body as a source of pleasure and power. This conception appreciates the totality of the rock text or commodity and the visual aspects of this totality. It underscores the contribution of Ohnuki and Yoshimura to the Puffy apparatus as well as the possibilities for resistance inherent in their location in this sphere. Further, as Ian Condry has noted, “the language of likes and dislikes, ‘real’ and ‘commercial’ are a way of debating the appropriate uses of commodified culture” (273).

Ohnuki and Yoshimura have multiple roles in Puffy. They are simultaneously commodified objects and producers of a commodity that can be said to be authentic and which can also be identified as part of an apparatus. They remain responsible for their own visual performances, not just in concerts but on television, where their humor and personality take center stage and they act spontaneously, taking charge of interviewing their guests and performing in games. Judith Butler’s pioneering work has shown how it is possible, in the midst of cultures where a rigid binary gender distinction is created and enforced through interpellation, to take advantage of the gaps and inconsistencies in the dominant discourse to subvert it, undermining dichotomy and expanding the horizons of the thinkable. Puffy is flouting the conventions of traditional Western rock authenticity, creating a pop, commodified, feminine authenticity that, while it does not directly challenge gender roles, does speak to its female audience in ways that have heretofore gone unnoticed in writing on J-pop.

Idol-Producer Dichotomy Problematized

As we have seen, traditional discourse about idol bands dichotomizes the roles of producer or manager and idol. Idols do, however, participate in the production of the band as commodity, but in ways that are not usually recognized. Instead of an all-ornothing split, it might be more fruitful to think of a hierarchical division of labor, in order to understand in a more nuanced way the ways in which hierarchy and gender can function within a band to subvert those very things. For example, if we look at Puffy neither as the creation of Okuda Tamio, nor as Ohnuki and Yoshimura qua two cute girls singing, but as Okuda, Ohnuki, and Yoshimura plus all the other producers and musicians involved in making albums and touring, we can see how Puffy is the site of a much more complex interplay of gender roles, hierarchy, and authenticity than traditional dyadic rhetoric would indicate. As noted above, Shonen Knife avoids this dichotomy by performing all the roles themselves, embracing the egalitarian ideal of punk.

Puffy and Gender

Puffy takes advantage of its position as a non-threatening J-pop group “just like” many other bands to present a multi-gendered identity. Ohnuki and Yoshimura take on “masculine” aspects through the presentation of Okuda’s music, singing compositions that differ from other idol bands’ songs in their musical sophistication and through their connections to other artists perceived as authentic, both Western and Japanese. They also use their position as the visual focal point of Puffy and producers of apparatus material to subvert traditional ideas of women’s activities in Japan.

Okuda’s work with Puffy, though, is the main locus of gender role subversion. He quotes or refers to famous Western rock bands in his songs, ones like the Who and the Beatles who have great prestige and authenticity as pioneers and musical geniuses. It is not Okuda who sings them, though, but Ohnuki and Yoshimura, and Puffy ends up being, in effect, two females singing songs in the Who and Beatles traditions. The juxtaposition of the idol tradition with some of the most venerable, male, Western, rock music puts Ohnuki and Yoshimura in the same song, literally the same sphere (or disc) of discourse as these eminences grises of the rock world. We cannot take this for granted nor can we ignore the message it sends to listeners that young Japanese women can and do sing songs like the “classics” of Western rock, infusing them with the power, authority, and legitimacy of singers like Paul McCartney and Roger Daltrey. Similarly, the women of Shonen Knife appropriate the power of punk through playing in that vein, but they have a much richer field for the subversion of rigid gender constructs through their lyrics, either directly or indirectly through satire and irony, or through the use of tropes that are usually coded as female in transgressive ways.

One result of this juxtaposition is to blur the lines of male and female in the songs. Ohnuki and Yoshimura can be seen as appropriating masculine aspects through their performance of Okuda’s songs. Conversely, Okuda can, in some cases, be thought of as taking on feminine aspects through his work with Yoshimura and Ohnuki. Choosing them as singers and presenters of his work, Okuda puts forth his musical ideas in a feminine, non-threatening guise, reaching an audience that might not buy his solo albums.

It is highly significant that, on their album Shopping, Okuda and sometime collaborator Inoue Yosui do a song that sounds remarkably like “Be My Baby,” by none other than the Ronettes. On his “masculine,” “authentic,” “not-mass,” “personal” album, Okuda puts himself in a position analogous to a female singer. Through overlap and intertextuality vis-à-vis both Western classics and his other projects, Okuda undermines the dichotomy between the pop, mass, idol world, coded as female, and the world of prestigious singer-songwriter-producers, coded as male. The fact remains, though, that, as a producer and thus as a high-status member of the pop production process, Okuda has a great deal more freedom to express his ideas, both musical and about gender, than do Ohnuki and Yoshimura, who remain constrained by their low-status roles. They do, however, write the words and music to some of the songs on their recent album Spike, indicating, perhaps, a turn towards greater parity with Okuda (Zappy, 55).

If we ignore Ohnuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi’s contribution because we are trained to see them as commodities, we miss connections to the forms of resistance practiced by less famous Japanese women, who do not openly challenge the way things are, but take advantage of the situation they happen to be in to resist the dominant ideology of what women are supposed to be. Karen Kelsky studied OLs, or office ladies, who find themselves in a loophole of Japanese society and its expectations for women. They have low-pressure, well-paying jobs, and, because they live at home, virtually all of their income is disposable, giving them power in a commodity society. They use this power in a consumerized way, spending money on clothes and travel, but their independence from men, who would otherwise pay for such things, enables them to delay marriage and express their resistance to traditional roles (Kelsky 18). Puffy’s audience consists in part of these women. Like the OLs, Ohnuki and Yoshimura accept the larger system of Japanese consumerism, and are limited in their ability to control their destiny-much of their visuality is directed by others-but they inject their personalities into the process, and, without seeming to, change the image of what it is to be a Japanese woman. Yet, ultimately, perhaps because they are benefiting from the system, as it exists, they do not reject it in any final or overt way.

Still, they do present a model for Japanese women, and, while commentators may overlook the collaborative, collective nature of the work that goes on in Puffy, the audience, in hearing the “cute girls” sing “musically authentic” pop songs, in the context of one particular pop apparatus that values the usually female world of visuality and consumerism, gets a message about the possibilities for expansion of gender roles that go with the creative collaboration and the totality of Puffy. This juxtaposition of girl and song occurs as well in karaoke, where women sing their favorite songs, perform them as they perform their gender in miniature, and yet, while they can choose a Puffy song and choose to collaborate with Okuda themselves, that song, with its musical references to the history of Western rock, puts them, like Ohnuki and Yoshimura, in a masculine position, while the cuteness of the two singers prevents this assumption of masculinity from being total or threatening. This is in accord with what Rey Chow has noted about the resistive power of karaoke and its ability to reconstitute the codes that determine women’s bodies and physical beings in Japanese society (157).

This article is only the bare beginning of an exploration of gender and authenticity in Japanese pop. Much more work needs to be done, especially on Japanese conceptions of the relationship between commodities and the discourse of authenticity. Additionally, ethnographic studies of Japanese fan communities involving both pop and punk music should be undertaken. While we do not want to imply that all audiences receive and interpret the work of Shonen Knife and Puffy in the same ways, nonetheless, the complex ideas of gender and authenticity that play out in these two disparate groups do provide opportunities for varied modes of interpretation.