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  • Imperial Media MixJapan’s Failed Attempt at Asia’s First Transnational Girl Group
  • Mei Mingxue Nan (bio)

On September 30, 2017, the Formosa Vintage Museum Café in Taipei opened for its last day. The walls of the café were crammed with old photos, advertisements, and movie posters from owner Lin Yu-Fang’s private collection of more than ten thousand items from Taiwanese media history.1 Among the myriad images and artifacts, an advertising poster (Figure 1) was particularly eye-catching. According to Lin, the poster was printed and circulated in 1940 for a tea exhibition in Taiwan. Four flags flutter in the background. These are the national flags of Japan, Manchukuo, and the Republic of China, as well as a triangular gold flag that reads “Anti-Communism and Peace.” A medium close-up image of three pleasantly smiling young women is placed in the foreground. From right to left, they appear to represent singer-actresses Okuyama Saiko (b.1916), Bai Guang (1921–1999), and Ri Kōran (1920–2014), members of a short-lived 1940 transnational girl group called Three Girls Revitalizing Asia (興亜三人娘) (hereafter Three Girls).

Representing Imperial Japan, Okuyama Saiko wears a kimono with a floral print of chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms. She holds a tea set engraved with hydrangeas to advertise Taiwanese tea, a top export for the Japanese colonial government. In the middle, Bai Guang represents the Republic of China and wears a blue China dress with the floral print of Formosa lilies endemic to Taiwan. Finally, the one who takes up the most poster space is Ri Kōran, who represents Manchuria and wears a bright yellow China dress with dark blue dragons. On the top right corner, the big red slogan reads: “A cup of green tea / the force to revitalize Asia,” evoking the name of the group.

Although many scholars have written on Ri Kōran, given her legendary stardom, none of these studies have provided a detailed account of this girl group and their eponymous debut song released in 1940, which sits near the beginning of her media career. Nevertheless, phonograph records and promotional materials still circulate in vintage markets across East Asia, gaining a life of their own as the remains of times past. Situated at the intersection [End Page 79] of East Asian media studies and cultural history, this article investigates the forgotten effort to package and promote Three Girls, Asia’s first transnational girl group, by Columbia Records in collaboration with the Japanese Empire in the 1940s.

In this article, I first examine the context from which Three Girls emerged by comparing two different “modes” of what I call the imperial media mix: the Nichigeki mode and the Manchuria mode in the 1930s. I then trace the debut and disbandment of Three Girls, highlighting the tensions between mass mobilization and mass entertainment, and explain how Japan’s imperial expansions both enabled and necessitated the production of a transnational girl group as part of its campaign to promote pan-Asianism throughout the Empire in the 1940s. Finally, I turn to a third “mode” of media mix, one that is based on Ri Kōran’s individual star image. Specifically, I analyze how Ri Kōran—the central member of Three Girls—became her own Ri Kōran media mix, exceeding and even conflicting with the imperial media mix that produced her.

My concept of the imperial media mix is inspired by Ōtsuka Eiji’s discussion of media mix mobilization in 2017.2 Originally a Japanese industry term meaning a strategy to disperse and coordinate content across various media forms, media mix was first taken up as a theoretical framework by Marc Steinberg in Anime’s Media Mix. Steinberg’s monograph examines the formation of the character-driven media mix in postwar Japan, dating it to the 1960s, when the food company Meiji Seika distributed stickers from the TV animation series Astro Boy with its chocolates.3 Drawing from Steinberg’s theory, Ōtsuka proposes the notion of media mix mobilization to revisit Japan’s wartime media ecology from 1931 to 1945. He frames media mix mobilization as an attempt to reconsider the totality of wartime propaganda as a media mix...

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