In game after game, comic book after comic book, manga after manga, there they are: characters with glasses. And Japan is totally gaga for them.
Of course, glasses fetishism is not unique to Japan as it's widespread in the West as well. Universally, glasses represent intelligence as well as authority, giving rise to stock characters in popular culture like the brainy geek or the school teacher. Take Sarah Palin, who was able to elicit a certain degree of glasses fetishism during her vice-presidency bid with reporters inquiring what type of glasses she wore.
Yet the connection between Japan and glasses is strong. In fact, the type of glasses Palin wore were made in Japan and designed by Kazuo Kawasaki, a Japanese industrial designer. John Lennon's glasses? They were also made by a Japanese designer, Hakusan. Japan didn't invent glasses (thank the Europeans for that) and didn't get its first pair until Francis Xavier brought them from Spain in the 16th century, but the country was a quick study and has since mastered the craft. Spectacles are embedded into the Japanese subconscious, becoming not only a trope, but an object of desire themselves.
In Japan, they're called "meganekko" or "girl with glasses". The meganekko is a stock character in Japanese animation and games. According to Patrick W. Galbraith, a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo, nobody quite knows when the first "girl with glasses" entered the Japanese pop culture zeitgeist. "Glasses were kind of was always around, like the animal ears in Tezuka Osamu manga, and slowly took on special meanings," says Galbraith. In Japan, glasses have different meanings for both male and female characters.
When male characters wear glasses, says Galbraith, they are a dominant character. They are in control. But, when a female character wears glasses, it can also means she is shy or a wallflower. "If the female character takes off the glasses, however, she tends to be stunningly beautiful," adds Galbraith. "This is straight out of shojo manga, which provides many of the archetypes for contemporary otaku fetish characters." The construct exists in the West as well, but it occurs in a higher degree in Japan. The reason for that is simple: glasses are shorthand - a cheat sheet, if you will. Gamers or anime viewers can look at a meganekko and immediately size-up the character. There are already embedded connotations, making characterization "easy". According to Galbraith, "This might have to do with the large casts of characters, the need to distinguish characters easily with a relatively rudimentary set of tools, the relative dependence on still images and the need to make them visually interesting."
Of course, there is the same "hot teacher" connotations that exist abroad, as evident in the video game character Bayonetta. The character's glasses were present from the earliest stages of design as Platinum Games were formulating her personality, Bayonetta game designer Hideki Kamiya tells Kotaku. "I felt they were necessary for accentuating the appeal of an intelligent, noble, mature woman." Her glasses, Kamiya continues, make up an important part of her allure. "For instance, let's say you're in high school, and there is a new teacher on staff," says Kamiya. "Everyone can understand hoping for an extremely beautiful, sexy female teacher in glasses, right? Same thing with Bayonetta and her glasses." The character design is universal, which might be why the title (and Platinum Games) continue to find success in Japan and abroad.
There is something distinctively Japanese in how glasses are fetishized, however. Sure, it could be the fact that pin-up models not only often appear in wearing glasses, but wearing glasses while in, for example, swimwear. The notion that one would logically remove glasses while wearing a bikini goes out the door, because it's not only the model's body that is the object attention, but her face - namely, her eyes. She is a girl with glasses, a feminine four-eyes. Maganekko.
Japan even has a "glasses idol", 23 year-old Ami Tokito. The idea that Japan has a glasses idol is hardly unusual, considering there have been a retro game idol, a computer idol and, yes, even a natto idol. Dubbed a "megadol" by fans, Tokito sings pop songs, appears in pin-up pics and cosplays, scoring a fair amount of success in Japan and singing in video games like Rhythm Heaven. Whether she's wearing a bikini or dressed up as Miku Hatsune, one thing that's always constant: she's wearing glasses. The glasses that made her famous, however, are a prop. Tokito's publicly admitted that her specs are "datemegane" or "glasses for show". The model started wearing them to protect her eyes from camera flashes during photoshots, and in highly competitive world of Japanese pin-ups, they ended up being her selling point.
The fact that Tokito doesn't actually need the glasses are besides the point. She's just one of many celebrities with good vision who wear glasses. Glasses are an accessory, and there are even countless speciality shops throughout Japan that specialize only in datemegame, offering customers frames and lenses with UV coating.
Glasses now fall in the realm of moé, explains famed game and character designer Akiman, known for his work on Final Final and Street Fighter II. Moé, of course, is slang used to describe the warm, fuzzy feeling otaku get from characters, situations, costumes, etc. As illustrator Noizi Ito told me, there's no real way to define moé because it's different things for different people. But for many Japanese otaku, glasses (and the girls that wear them) are definitely moé. And glasses-wearing characters, like Mari Illustrious Makinami were brought in to otaku-friendly franchises to capitalize on meganekko appeal.
In Japan, Akiman points out, it's thought that the reason people wear glasses is because they read too much or play too many video games or watch too much TV. According to Akiman, "The moment that someone puts on glasses, even if it's Superman, they take on the appearance of being an introvert like me." The reason why girls who wear glasses are appealing is that they thus appear to introverts, and it's easy for fellow introverts to relate to them. As Akiman says, girls with glasses become "one of us". Thus, the glasses themselves become an object of fetish. "Japanese people are basically introverted," says Akiman, "and I think that's why this fetish has grown."