"History Girls" (reki-jo) are young women distinguished by their love of visiting historical sites and lectures, their interest in history texts and an immersion in their favorite periods. (No relationship with the history-and-homoeroticism-heavy Alan Bennett play.) Indeed, since the phenomenon took off in the past year, sales of historical texts (especially those dealing with war-lords) have gone up. And while this may sound like the purview of nerds, it's not: the "face" of the movement is model "Anne" (one Madonna-style name), a popular lecturer, and reki-jo can now claim a bar and a respectable place in pop-culture.
The movement is thought to be an outgrowth of the comics-and-online world of otaku — indeed, some women became interested through historically-based video games, which are popular. And there are, it's true, optional outfits involved. Reports NPR,
On a Wednesday night, the reki-jo head down to Ryo Watanabe's bar to talk about warlords, sieges and assassins. In her metal-studded leather attire, Miyuki Miyamoto is dressed more for a mosh pit than a history seminar. And she's proud of it."I like to be called a reki-jo," Miyamoto says. "Ten years ago, I had a negative image as a serious, isolated girl who likes history but has few friends. Now I feel more recognized as one of a group."
Whatever the start of the phenomenon, the movement could be seen as a way to preserve Japan's historical heritage — even if their history is, at times, selective. (Many self-described history girls, for instance, enjoy ancient-style sword-fighting, which would have been a man's purview.) There are different theories as to the phenomenon's popularity. Some are quick to ascribe it to the contrast with today's "emascualted" men (an argument we've heard applied to Mad Men) — while, for others, the identification is more immediate. According to one piece in the Mainichi Daily News,
"In general, men relate battles and the management styles of warlords back to their own corporate environments, and try to use whatever they lessons they can to improve their own work lives," says Tetsuo Owada, a professor emeritus at Shizuoka University who has written over 100 books on the Warring States period. "But for women, it's more about the admiration they feel towards the warlords' approach to their lives." Owada adds that this may be a backlash against what they see as the selfishness of political and financial leaders today.
One persistent trend is for media to reduce the trend to a wide-ranging schoolgirl crush. "For Japanese Women, The Past Is The Latest Fad," says NPR. "New wave of 'history girls' wooed by warlords' masculinity," reads the Mainichi Daily News headline. And, as Caitlin Kelly titled a post on True/Slant late last year, "Japan's ‘History Girls', Fed Up With Today's Guys, Turn To Men Of The Distant Past." Said the BBC, "Japan is a country of fads and obsessions, and the latest among young women is an interest in history."
And yet, the pieces all go on to describe young women who have turned this into a serious and informed interest. Yes, some have crushes on historical figures — but I can think of much worse things, especially if it leads to an interest in learning about one's culture and, hopefully, exploring its facets and implications. Perhaps it's a trend, and may not last, but it shouldn't be dismissed for that, and the patronizing "Japan and its crazy trends!" tone is jarring. A lot of people get interested in history from movies or American Girl — that's why they're made accessible. Would we discourage such a "fad" on our own shores? I really hope not.
'History Girls' Become Latest Japanese Trend [BBC]
New Wave Of 'History Girls' Wooed By Warlords' Masculinity [Mainichi Daily News]
Japan's ‘History Girls', Fed Up With Today's Guys, Turn To Men Of The Distant Past [True/Slant]
For Japanese Women, The Past Is The Latest Fad [NPR]