TOKYO (TR) – One by one, they approach the front. From a crouch, the knees, or standing fully upright, they aim and shoot. Then it’s a quick dash to the back of the pack to reload or regain composure.
Their target this time is a young, slim form in a yellow bikini, a thin white jacket, black strap high heels, and an eternal smile. In rotation, she coos, purses her lips and winks.
Nearly every motion by her is a personal signal to one of the photographers, the majority of whom are amateurs enjoying their primary weekend hobby. After he nods or lowers his camera in acknowledgement, she moves to the next. Maybe this time it will be a raise of the left flap of her jacket. Or perhaps a slight shift of her practically bare hips. Whatever she offers, shutters click, flashes pop and digital cameras whir. Oh, and yes, hearts pound.
Today’s event includes in total four “race queens,” a generic phrase used to describe the fine figured, often umbrella-hoisting beauties who add a female element to Japan’s racing circuits, auto shows or other motor-related events with their highly revealing skin-tight costumes. Sub-groupings, like “image girl” or “event companion” are also used depending on the occasion. But definitions aside, under any name they are often the main attraction for many of the attendees.
“Some guys just want to practice taking pictures,” says Kimiyo Shirakawa, 23, who has been in this business for about four years. “When I am posing, I am not just smiling; I try a lot of different poses because these guys are trying to be artists.”
For a race queen, the occupation can be a pit stop to future media celebrity — at least, that is the hope. These shoots are a complementary activity away from the moving pistons and burning rubber of the track, and can be seen as a girl’s time in the trenches, a time for exposure, or a way to enhance her image. And the photographers at these events are more than happy to assist in any way they can.
“Rotate!” booms Kazuya Toriumi, a manager with Style Corporation, the company hosting this satsueikai (photo shoot). The photographers retreat to their camera bags and our lady in yellow switches from one temporary studio of reflective screens and lights to that previously occupied by her similarly dressed cohort (though in marbled blue and white) nearby. A single partition separates the studios. During the change, brief chit-chat between the photographers and the ladies ensues. It is a bit awkward, yet light and breezy.
The location is the basement of a building near a seedy area of love hotels and hostess clubs in Tokyo’s Gotanda district. Exposed cinder block walls and ventilation ducts can be seen behind the two photo studios. During breaks, some girls can be seen warming their hands on the lights illuminating each studio. “The idea is for these guys to be able to capture these girls in various settings or stages,” says Kazuya.
Style Corporation hosts these events every weekend. Typically the day is broken into four 90-minute sessions, each costing 7,000 yen. Total attendance on this day numbers around 30. The majority of the male-only participants, aged in their 30s and 40s, stays for two or three sessions but a handful participate in all four. The first two sessions will typically be in a park or other bucolic setting where the girls will don street clothes. The secluded confines of the basement allow for swimwear and jean shorts.
Variety is a key selling point. At the end of each session, the colored backgrounds of each studio are changed to allow each shooter a different backdrop, lighting, and setting. Girls change what little clothing they are wearing frequently. Fuzzy white carpets and chairs are used as props by the models to give that home-style feel.
The mood is always upbeat. A steady blend of dance and hip-hop tracks fill the room from a sound system behind the autograph table in the corner. A small lounge provides crackers, tea and smoking opportunities for the men as they pause to chat, wipe a sweat-moistened brow, or swap information.
Many of these amateurs are veterans of the race queen satsueikai scene, arriving completely prepared. Kneepads cushion the blow when attempting shots from ground level. Stamp-sized sticker photos from previous sessions adorn the outsides of cameras and lenses like animal skins after a hunt. Camera bags are filled with recently snapped photos of the girls in today’s session, extra film, and other random bits of equipment.
The use of the images from these sessions is for the photographers’ personal use but Style Corporation is quick to protect its rights, halting any moneymaking enterprises immediately. “As a hobby, it is fine,” says manager Hiroyuki Umeda. “But if guys start selling DVDs, then we’ll get a lawyer.”
Still, it would be a stretch to say that these photo shoots are simply a chance for amateur photographers to sharpen their skills; there’s indeed some lust living behind those lenses. “For many, the purpose is the ability to meet a race queen,” explains Kazuya of these regulated opportunities to interact with gorgeous girls.
Fetishes are a part of the interest. Some will sometimes focus on anything from lips to armpits. And with all this exposed flesh being flaunted, it would be logical to assume that things could boil over — passion-wise — on occasion. This, however, is not the case; the photographers tend to police themselves, cautioning anyone who might cross the imaginary barrier separating them from their target. In fact, the sessions proceed in a business-like manner.
But substantial interaction with the girls is possible at the end of each session. With their Minoltas and Canons slung over shoulders and gifts in hand, lines for each girl form four- or five-deep at the table. It is autograph time.
Full-page glossies from previous sessions, notebooks, or freshly printed baseball card-sized photos of today’s action are all fair game to receive signatures. Banter is short but the pile of wrapped gifts each girl receives is not. Wine, sake, and bouquets of roses are common presents. Suitcases are used to cart off the booty. Promotional magazines, DVDs and even canned race queen tea are given away to the photographers in return.
Less than five years ago, these shoots were not common. Kazuya says that a “race queen boom” began within this span, spawning great demand for these events. The reason for the increase is not clear, but many will point to the transition of Miho Yoshioka from race queen to talk show celebrity at around that time.
Supply has increased accordingly. Kimiyo is a part of Yamato Nadeshiko, a group of queens who promote the Super Taikyu Series racing circuit. For this group, 1,200 girls auditioned for the five spots.
Race queens hope that the industry will get them across the finish line of super stardom. “Now these girls view being a race queen,” Kazuya explains, “as a way to get their foot in the door to becoming a true celebrity.”
Kimiyo, like Miho, has dreams of one day swapping her umbrella for a microphone and hosting her own talk show. But for now Kimiyo is having fun. “If they can take a really nice picture, I feel happy.”
Note: This article originally appeared in February 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.