Associate Professor, Department of English and Writing Studies, Western University
In 1972, Stanley Cohen used the term “moral panic” to describe the process by which “moral entrepreneurs” employ mass media to create a discourse on deviancy that identifies bad actors (which he called “folk devils”) through specific and stereotyped images. Cohen argued that this discourse in turn produces a demand in mainstream society for a response that is characterized by disproportion (the measures are extreme in relation to the harm caused by the problem) and volatility (the panic erupts suddenly and then disappears in relatively short order).
Cohen’s doctoral research and the book that resulted were an intervention in the fields of criminology and the sociology of deviance. Arguing against an absolutist understanding of deviancy, he drew on symbolic interactionist approaches to assert that such criminality was “transactional,” reflexively produced by the creation of social rules and boundaries to behavior. Deviance is political: Power decides what is deviant; social norms are reinforced when their flaunting is punished. Although, from the beginning, Cohen insisted on the sociological conditions that define different groups, his analysis emphasized “dramatalurgical” ( 2002, 21, 162) scenarios of provocation and response that referenced the work of Erving Goffman and even R. D. Laing’s antipsychiatry. He noted how policing strategies created a public spectacle of the accused delinquents, a “dramatization of evil” (ibid., 102) that was then amplified by the mass media.
Cohen’s main example of a moral panic was the response to incidents of fighting and vandalism at British beach resorts in 1964. He analyzed newspaper reports and sentencing statements to show that the delinquency was understood as gang violence between two youth subcultures of “Mods” and “Rockers,” who were identified as a threat to the established social order and punished accordingly. He argues that the actual behavior was much less extreme than its description, that the disciplinary reaction created more unrest than “more effective and more humane” (ibid., 232) strategies, and that the mass media reduced the general understanding of the working-class youth involved to a stereotyped folk devil.
For Cohen, it is the mass media outlets that exaggerate, distort, and symbolize social actions in ways that invite powerful reactions. Hyperbolic descriptions and tendentious interpretations culminate in simple images that condense anxieties about social change. Class relations and economic phenomena such as the growing affluence of postwar youth culture, are symbolized by images: As Cohen argued, “a word (Mod) becomes symbolic of a certain status (deviant); objects (clothing) symbolize the word; the objects themselves become symbolic of the status (and the emotions attached to the status)” (ibid., 37).
Cohen’s work became an important touchstone for the emerging field of cultural studies, in particular for studies of deviance and transgression that emerged from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham. The title phrases from his book entered the general vocabulary of the field and are referred to in dozens of book titles and hundreds of books and articles. However, the psychological and seemingly opportunistic (“moral entrepreneur”) aspects of Cohen’s theory were sometimes criticized in early CCCS publications that, under the influence of neo-Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, were committed to broader structural understandings of hegemony and ideology (cf., Hall et al. 1978; Hall 1971; Clark and Jefferson 1973).
In later editions of his book, Cohen acknowledged some of those criticisms and stepped back from his early commitment to theories of labeling and amplification (that social groups have no solidarity before they are named as such and that delinquent behavior is only a reactive consequence of police actions). Although his work is often used by progressives to critique conservative social policies, Cohen recognized that moral panics are a strategy to overcome moral indifference and that concepts such as “disproportion” are subject to competing discourses on the severity of harms and what responses are appropriate. In other words, sometimes the “panic” is justified. He also acknowledged that the mass media are more fragmentary and moral panics more frequent than he first thought. Still, he sees news media as defining what is “new” and therefore as able to translate a general climate of anxiety into sudden spasms of outrage.
Perhaps we can approach Cohen’s “comparative sociology of moral panic” ( 2002, xxvi) by considering a scandal in 1956 Japan that in some ways matches Cohen’s examples of British moral panics, such as the controversy surrounding Teddy Boys in the early 1950s and Mods and Rockers in 1964. In July 1955, Ishihara Shintarō published a novella, Season of the Sun (Taiyō no kisetsu), in the literary journal Bungakkai. The novella presented, in a hard-boiled style, the immoral actions of bored, rich youth in the resort town of Hayama, where Shintarō lived. In a controversial decision, it was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for best first novel in January 1956, sparking comment that extended beyond literary journals to the general magazines (sōgō zasshi) and the increasingly popular weekly magazines (shūkanshi). When the novella was released with several other of Ishihara’s stories in March 1956, it became a best seller. The label “sun tribe” (taiyōzoku) was coined during this period on the model of the “setting sun tribe” (shayōzoku) of nobility, whose titles were abolished after World War Two. This word was also constructed by adding the character for tribe (zoku) to the name of a novel (in this case Dazai Osamu’s best seller).
Ishihara Shintarō was treated as the “voice of his generation,” giving interviews in which he criticized the existing government and claimed that, under the influence of his teacher at Hitotsubashi University, Minami Hiroshi, he was interested in contemporary social structures and, if he voted, would vote for a left-wing socialist party. The taiyōzoku label applied not only to Shintarō but also to the rich, bored, and vicious characters in his novella—privileged youth who would gather in their family villas at beach and mountain resorts. By extension, it referred to the Japanese students and young workers who aped the lifestyle of that privileged bourgeoisie, camping out at the same resorts during the summer months away from the supervision of their parents. Rather than villas or Japanese inns, these kids slept in tents and “bungalows” (tents or plywood erected over a wooden base). Those poor relations of the taiyōzoku were given comic labels such as “bungalow tribe,” “B-class sun tribe,” or “satellite tribe” (eiseizoku; since they revolve around the sun). As one of the weekly magazines described the taiyōzoku (in English) at the time, “these young people in their teens or early 20’s seek action before reason and are keen about the pleasure of the flesh” (cited in Raine 2001, fn1).
This was the real target of the moral panic: not the decadent bourgeoisie but the prospect of a postwar generation led astray by the loss of wartime morality, the introduction of coeducation, and the exuberant economic growth that was popularly understood to mark the end of the “postwar.” The taiyōzoku panic was just one example of a global anxiety about a postwar generation seen by its elders as excessively violent and sexual. Like the Teddy Boys in Britain, the blouson noirs in France, and the Halbestarker in Germany, the taiyōzoku threatened the existing moral order. The outrage extended to behavior that seems mild in retrospect. For example, Shintarō described the “Ginza golden time” after work when young male and female office workers would hang out in cafes and flirt, unsupervised (Ishijara, Ōya, and Fujishima 1956). As Cohen argued, whatever “moral entrepreneur” came up with the label (some argue it was cultural commentator Ōya Sōichi), it was the mass media that generated the reflexive frenzy of a moral panic. The sex and violence that Shintarō described among his acquaintances was applied by the newspapers and weekly magazines to a whole series of crimes in the summer of 1956, from the grotesque (a young women held captive and sexually exploited for a week) to the titillating (on-the-spot accounts of policemen searching with flashlights for fornicating teenagers among the bushes). Some were called “yakuza with gold buttons” (kinbotan no yakuza)—in other words, university students wearing their signature dark uniforms and buttons with the school insignia who behaved like common criminals.
The taiyōzoku panic was fueled by weekly magazines. Weekly magazines had existed since the 1920s, published by each of the main newspapers. But in the 1950s, and especially in 1956, publishing companies responded to the rising disposable income of Japanese consumers by expanding and intensifying the genre. For example, Shūkan shinchō appeared for the first time in the spring of 1956 and immediately took up the taiyōzoku scandal as its dominant topic. In the summer of 1956, almost every week brought new cautionary tales of young hoodlums terrorizing seaside resort towns with their switchblades, young women forced into sexual slavery, and lewd behavior among male workers on vacation. Like Cohen’s Mods and Rockers, the taiyōzoku were contrasted with other putative youth cultures of the time, especially the “mambo tribe” (mambōzoku). Youth labeled as taiyōzoku were also “symbolized” as deviant—identified by the word itself and by tell-tale clothing and hair styles, such as sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts and the “Shintarō cut” (short back and sides but longer on the top). These objects then became symbolic of the emotions that general audiences attached to the label as a result of the moral panic over taiyōzoku crimes.
“The taiyōzoku meets fifty years later on the beach at Kamakura.” Source: Mainichi gurafu, August 12, 1956: 12.
One further twist to that mass media reflexivity was the cinematic adaptations of Shintarō’s novellas. If Shintarō was the voice of his generation, his brother, Ishihara Yūjirō, was his film stand-in. The critic Kokura Masami further developed the figure of a generational divide, arguing that Yūjirō’s persona of tough independence was the result of his “postwar personality.” There is a large gap, Kokura claimed, between this postwar generation and the older generation whose experience of war is “ingrained in their bodies” (Kokura 1957, 35). Yūjirō appeared in the film adaptation of Season in the Sun and starred in Crazed Fruit, the last of the taiyōzoku films released in the summer of 1956. Along with Gyakkōsen (written by Iwahashi Kunie, the “female Ishihara Shintarō”) and Daiei’s adaptation of Shintarō’s Punishment Room (Shokei no heya), the films sparked a debate about the malign influence of cinema on Japan’s youth. Regional housewives’ groups, PTAs, and other guardians of social order picketed the cinemas and demanded that the films be censored or banned. While the weekly magazine reports on the phenomenon are characterized as much by titillation as disapproval, the attacks on the taiyōzoku by newspapers and magazines such as Fujin kōron produced results. Eirin, the film censorship body, was reformed, and film studios announced that they would make no more taiyōzoku films—instead, they would cooperate with the Ministry of Education in making films that encouraged moral behavior.
All the stages of Cohen’s “moral panic” are clearly visible in the taiyōzoku scandal of 1956. Opinion leaders mobilized an anxiety about a newly, and only relatively, affluent younger generation aping the decadence of their Westernized “betters.” They identified the taiyōzoku as the most egregious symbol of that danger, created a consensus across a range of media that something must be done to control the phenomenon, and produced an exaggerated response such as expelling students for watching the films and making major changes in the Japanese censorship system. And yet the scandal was also volatile: Once Nikkatsu announced that it would not adapt Shintarō’s Grey Classroom (Haiiro no kyōshitsu), almost all mentions of the taiyōzoku disappear from Japanese mass media.
We can also see some of Cohen’s revisions to his ideas in the taiyōzoku phenomenon. For example, the mass media is more fragmented than Cohen at first thought: newspapers and weekly magazines used the taiyōzoku for critique and titillation, not social change; Punishment Room was advertised with taglines from the newspapers that called for it to be banned. Also, the harms from the hidden sexual violence were real, so it is difficult to say to what extent the taiyōzoku scandal was “disproportionate.” Countercultural forces even tried to use Ishihara Yūjirō’s post-taiyōzoku celebrity for progressive ends during the Anpo struggles of 1960. After Kanba Michiko was killed during the protestors’ attempt to shut down the National Diet proceedings on June 15, placards with the slogan “Is it OK to kill Yūjirō too?” (yū-chan mo shinasete mo ii?) tried to incite something like a “moral panic” to protest the strong-arm tactics of the Japanese government. Originally an attempt to identify and resist authoritarian manipulation, the concept of moral panic has come to identify a common rhetorical intervention made possible by modern media cultures.
As Cohen reports in his book ( 2002, 249), the phrase “moral panic” had been used by a colleague, Jock Young, in an anthology Cohen had edited in 1971. He speculates that they had both picked up the phrase from Marshall McLuhan, though McLuhan uses the phrase in a quite different sense. ↑
From an interview with Ishihara Shintarō in Asahi shinbun on June 25, 1956. ↑
For one among many anonymous examples, see “Gozen niji no shakokai” in Shūkan Shinchō, August 20, 1956. ↑
Cinemas in Kanagawa “voluntarily” banned juveniles from the screening of taiyōzoku films (see Asahi shinbun, June 30, 1956). ↑
Kokura Masami. 1957. “Taiyo eiga igo no kōdōsei.” Eiga geijutsu 5, no. 8: 34–36.
Raine, Michael. 2001. “Ishihara Yūjirō: Youth, Celebrity, and the Male Body in late 1950s Japan.” In Word and Image in Japanese Cinema, edited by Dennis Washburn, Carole Cavanaugh and Washburn Dennis, 202–225. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.