Late last year Shima, a city of about 50,000 located 100 miles east of Osaka in Mie Prefecture, unveiled a new municipal mascot. Intended to attract tourists in anticipation of the city’s moment in the global spotlight when it hosts 2016’s G7 summit, the character is inspired by the city’s famous ama divers, who for centuries have been diving for clams, seaweed, and pearls without snorkels or other breathing equipment. The vast majority of ama divers are women, and according to Japan Times more than 100 of them have signed a petition calling on Shima to drop the mascot character, named Aoshima Megu, in objection to her overly sexualized appearance. “The character is obscene,” Shima resident Isako Utsubo, whose mother is an ama diver, told the Times. “I believe it verges on child pornography.”
The official backstory of Aoshima Megu is that she is a 17-year-old aspiring ama diver on the lookout for a boyfriend, but with enormous respect for her grandmother, a master diver. Developed by the company Maribon, the offending mascot has its own blog, Twitter account, and a popular line of stickers. It exists in two different versions: one a smaller, child-like figure, the other a more adult take, with Barbie-like features.
Many Japanese cities have recently sought to rebrand themselves and appeal to tourists and younger residents through such moe (adorable) mascots. “Most of the reaction we’ve received from the public so far has been positive,” a Shima tourism official told the AFP. “We may consider changing the mascot’s design to avoid hurting some people’s feelings. … But at this point we have no plan to retract our official approval for the character.”
However, those calling for the character’s removal object not only to its sexism, but also its inaccuracy. Aoshima Megu wears a traditional ama outfit, a far cry from the costumes favored by contemporary divers. The character’s age is also misleading, as most of Shima’s divers are in their 60s or older. “Ama in our city are all risking their lives to dive. In the past, some have died. It’s that serious, being an ama,” Utsubo told Japan Times. “It’s for the honor of those who died that I’m fighting. My mom is angry, too.”
While the Aoshima Megu character’s unseemly mix of infantilism and sexualization is undoubtedly offensive, it is hardly the first time that the ama divers have been portrayed in an exotic or erotic manner. Arguably Hokusai’s most famous ukiyo-e woodblock print, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (1814), shows a diver sexually entangled with two octopi, and many historical photographs of the divers — most notably those taken by Yoshiyuki Iwase — portrayed them in an overtly sexualized way.
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