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Violent Image Becomes Radical Chic

After drawing criticism in the US, provocative logo finds favor in Japan

A few years ago, a southern California entrepreneur named Sal Rocco Jr. introduced a new line of skateboards and sportswear. The brand's logo featured figures of a man and a woman, rendered in the geometric style sometimes used to identify restrooms.

The male figure points a pistol at the head of the female. Above the scene is the word ''bitch.'' The logo drew criticism from Americans upset about its violent implications, and for various reasons it is no longer being marketed in the United States. But a Japanese company, which licensed the logo and began selling the goods here in late 1994, has encountered no such opposition.

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''It's a big hit,'' proclaims the amiable Fusahiko Yoshino, managing director for Crown F. G. Company Ltd. His target customers are Japan's junior high school and high school students, who have been avidly buying T-shirts, gloves, mechanical pencils, and other items emblazoned with the logo.

Retail sales last year were $50 million and should reach $70 million this year, he says.

Sitting in an office whose floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a downtown Tokyo intersection packed with snowboard and sportswear shops, Mr. Yoshino explains that the label had a better first year than any other foreign brand he has handled, including the popular British label Kangol.

The only complaint has come from an American woman who saw an advertisement in a Japanese magazine in New York, he adds. Despite copious advertising in magazines, the wearing of these items by tens of thousands of young Japanese, and the appearance of the clothing in a similar number of laundry hampers in Japanese homes, no one else has complained about the logo to Crown.

The word is of course indecipherable to most Japanese, who see it as just another bit of English. Clothing manufacturers frequently use English words and phrases to embellish their goods, and the meaning of the words is usually inconsequential to the look they create.

The significance of the diagram in the logo may be lost on many wearers, since young Japanese, unlike young Americans, grow up in a comparatively crime-free society with few guns.

The contrast between the responses of the American and Japanese publics to the logo says something about the differences between the two societies. Just what it says is open to interpretation.

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The lack of opposition here suggests that the Japanese are not as uptight as Americans are about the power of certain words and images to offend people. To put it another way, political correctness has not gripped public discourse.

Neither is there a tradition of individuals engaging in loud protest. Like many countries in East Asia, elders and rulers in Japan have claimed the responsibility for maintaining order and equilibrium in society. During Japan's feudal era, those who wanted to complain to a ruler sometimes had to prove their sincerity by committing suicide.

Generally speaking, individuals do not take it upon themselves to right perceived social wrongs - it is understood that the government is constantly on guard.

At the same time, however, the logo case may be an indication of how Japanese society is moving away from this age-old order. Yoko Tajima, a feminist and social critic, looked aghast as she examined the logo for the first time. ''It's shocking,'' she says. ''I hate it.''

Sitting with two of her students in a lounge at Tokyo's Hosei University, where Ms. Tajima is a professor of English literature, she asks the two young women what should be done. They say they will write letters to the company. Tajima says she will devote one of her newspaper columns to the logo and perhaps raise it during one of the television talk shows on which she frequently appears.

News reports that appeared in the US after Mr. Rocco created the logo in late 1993 said he intended it as a response to a rival brand called ''girl.'' At the time, Rocco was working for an El Segundo, Calif., firm called World Industries, according to his brother Steve, a former professional skateboarder who now runs the company.

Steve Rocco said in a telephone interview that World Industries ''never had anything to do with'' the logo and that his brother is no longer associated with the company.

But Yoshino, the brand's Japanese marketer, says ''there is a contract between Crown and World Industries'' concerning the label. He would not say whether World Industries was being compensated as part of the licensing arrangement.

Yoshino denies that the logo denigrates women. Crown's advertisements explain the logo by saying it means, ''I love you so much I want to kill you.'' ''I don't mean anything offensive to women,'' the executive adds.

''We Japanese don't take the word seriously,'' Yoshino argues. Asked if the logo would succeed if some equivalent to the word were written in Japanese, he shakes his head with a smile. ''It would be a 100-percent failure.''

''I wouldn't wear it in the US,'' says Momoe Takeuchi, a graduate student who owns a T-shirt with the logo. ''But in Japan we are very careless about the language we use.''

In 1988, for example, Americans became incensed over the popularity of certain goods in Japan - such as dolls called ''Sambo'' - that featured thick-lipped, wide-eyed representations of black children.

Ms. Takeuchi doesn't miss the implications of her T-shirt. A doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo who attended the women's conference in Beijing last year, she considers it a wry, sarcastic take on ''straightforward ideologies like feminism or human rights.''

Takeuchi surmises, however, that she is not a typical buyer. Indeed, most are teenagers impressed by the brand's aura of skate- and snowboard-inspired radical chic.

''Everyone in high school knows about these products,'' says Yuki Kojima, who sells clothing in a shop geared to young people in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.

In another store, saleswoman Naomi Saito offers an explanation for the appeal of the logo: ''There are no guns in Japan, so it's unusual for us.'' Ms. Saito insists she herself wouldn't wear the logo - but says a teenage friend of hers likes the clothing because it fits in with his grunge style.

A customer in Saito's shop examining a sweatshirt with the logo says she hasn't thought about its violent message. Likewise, the saleswomen don't appear at all perturbed by the products.

This lack of concern, argues Tajima, the feminist professor, is caused by a dearth of education about women's issues in Japan. Japanese women, she says, ''don't understand how humiliating this [logo] is....

''Discrimination is a culture, it's everywhere. In order to point it out, you have to be sharp, you need an eye, and that eye has to be taught.''

Masako Omori, who has learned about discrimination in her work at a women's shelter, had to search for words when she was shown some advertisements featuring the logo from popular magazines.

''I can't understand why anyone would create this,'' she says. ''I wonder what the kids' mothers think.''

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