Seventeen-year-old Mana wasn't in school. Heck, she wasn't even in her school uniform. Wearing a white bikini, the student-by-day, idol-by-night took the stage earlier this month at the Sofmap in Tokyo's geek district, Akihabara.
Holding her "image DVD" titled Kiss Me, one in which the DVD's maker says she "takes off a lot", Mana posed for the photographer pool. She didn't just smile, she pursed her lips together in a W-shape. She made her signature move, what's considered her charm point and what's known in Japan as "ahiru-guchi". Literally, she made a "duck mouth".
The ahiru-guchi is both sexy and cute, it's both exaggerated and expressive. As Patrick W. Galbraith, a researcher at the University of Tokyo and co-editor of an upcoming book on idols, recently told Kotaku, yes, the "duck mouth" might be seen as a rough equivalent to the "pouty face". It serves much of the same purpose, namely emphasizing the mouth and the cheekbones.
For Galbraith, the "duck mouth" is a continuation of stylized posing that's so popular in Japan—such as the "dinosaur walk"—with toes pointing inward—that was so popular among teenage girls a few years back. "It seems to me that the uniqueness of the duck mouth is its patent artificiality," continued Galbraith, who is hosting an idol conference next month at University of Tokyo. "The pose draws attention to itself, hence all the talk about it in the media. So it is not meant to be 'natural' like a pouty face, but unnatural, almost a parody of traditionally defined beauty that is both funny and cute."
For young Japanese women, ahiru-guchi has fast become the facial equivalent of the peace sign. It's become so pervasive that women who make ahiru-guchi might not even realize it. "Unconsciously, I guess I make ahiru-guchi," cosplayer Omi Gibson told Kotaku. "Maybe I do it because I'm lonely, and I want guys to be nice to me," she added, wryly.
There is something very primal about the act of making the duck mouth, like how birds show plumage to attract mates. "I once heard that even after apes evolved into clothes-wearing humans, they still continued to use their lips to show affect to interest in mating. So, I'd imagine it's not that different for when women make ahiru-guchi for men."
The pouty look has become the default pose for many when posing for pictures or simply when trying to look cute. Like the peace sign, the origin of the duck mouth is cloudy.
"Maybe I do it because I'm lonely, and I want guys to be nice to me."
As DannyChoo.com pointed out, the peace sign began in Japan might have began when actor Jun Inoue flashes the peace sign in a Nikon commercial during the early 1970s.
Even now, Japanese people continue to use the V-sign when posing in photos—several Japanese women have told me that they use the peace sign not because they're tree-hugging hippies, but because holding their hands out actually makes their faces appear smaller, a desirable trait, in photos.
Likewise, ahiru-guchi's origin is difficult to pin-point. Within the last few years, it's become en vogue, making a big splash in 2005~2006, when it started appearing in Japanese dictionaries. Last year, as pointed out by CNNGo, a book title Twitter's Explosively Popular, Widely-Beloved Duck Mouth was published. But duck mouth, known in Japanese as "Donald Duck lips", began appearing in the 1990s. Japanese schoolgirls, never ones to shy away from the cute, made the face while posing for snaps. The label was used to describe pouty popstar Ami Suzuki when she made her debut in 1998.
Yet, there is an aspect of since everyone else is doing, I better do it, too. "Right now, it's because Tomomi Itano from AKB48, Japan's most popular group, and pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki do ahiru-guchi," popular model and actress Emiri Okazaki told Kotaku. Young girls see Tomomi Itano or Ayumi Hamasaki make duck faces, and copy them. It's a look, unlike designer threads, they can pull off free of charge.
Though, in recent years, lip gloss makers have tried to cash in on the ahiru-guchi craze, either promising "cute ahiru-guchi" or simply saying, "get duck mouth". There are ahiru-guchi make-up tips, and plastic surgeons now offer ahiru-guchi procedures. Apparently, patients are even asking doctors to give them duck lips like AKB48's Tomomi Itano.
"So it is not meant to be 'natural' like a pouty face, but unnatural, almost a parody of traditionally defined beauty that is both funny and cute."
However, unlike the derisive English term "trout pout", which refers to collagen injections gone horribly wrong, "duck mouth" is not rude or derrogatory. Nor does it necessarily involve plastic surgery. At its most base element, it's a goofy pose.
Duck mouth might be sweeping the country, but it hasn't quite caught on with Japanese dudes, like the peace sign did. Some famous male singers, notably rocker Masaharu Fukuyama, can pull it off—and without the irony of the Western male equivalent. Japanese website Rocketnews24, tongue planted firmly in cheek, attempted to see if a guy could pull off ahiru-guchi and look, coming to the conclusion that, um, no. Just no.
Instead, ahiru-guchi remains a signature of some Japanese women. Pulling it off can involved, but doesn't require surgery. It's a special move, used to be appealing, used to be cute, and, you bet, used when standing on an Akihabara stage in a bikini.