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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 April, 2004, 00:16 GMT 01:16 UK
Japan's race queens
By Jonathan Head
BBC correspondent in Tokyo

As one of the word's top car-making countries, driving is something of a passion for many Japanese.

With little space on public roads though, real boy racers head for the tracks, where they can test their skills at the wheel in highly-tuned versions of regular road cars. But cars are not the only stars at these events.

No Japanese race is complete without a parade of race queens, long-legged models in daringly skimpy costumes adorned with the colours of their team and its sponsor.

Ayu Suzuki epitomises Japan's concept of female sexuality

The race queens attract a lot more attention than the cars, attracting devoted fans who jostle to snap photographs of their idols.

Race queens embody the cult of 'kawaii' or cuteness, which you see all over Japan, peddling an image of doll-like beauty and unobtainable sexuality.

But there is no stigma attached to being a race queen in Japan. In fact it can be the quickest path to a more glamorous career as a TV actress, or as a 'campaign girl', used to promote the products of one of Japan's top corporations.

High profile

Take Ayu Suzuki, for example, who has just been voted one of the country's top three race queens. Now 23 years old, she studied at the Kunitachi College of Music, one of Japan's most prestigious music academies, and is an accomplished pianist.

"I tried out being a race queen," she said "and it just felt right, like the kind of job I was comfortable with."

Apart from regular attendances at the race track, Ayu's job involves modelling swimsuits, some corporate work, and photo-shoots with her most loyal fans, or "otaku", who follow her up and down the country, taking photographs which they post on dedicated "Ayu websites", helping keep her profile high.

Ayu admits that at first her parents were not happy with her choice of career.

"My mother used to hide the magazines with more revealing photographs of me from my father," she said.

But they have both grown to accept what she does.

"When I go out in front of all those lights, I become a different person," she said. "In private I hate being photographed, but professionally I have no problem."

Photo shoot for Ayu Suzuki
Fans, or 'otaku', pay thousands of yen to photograph Ayu

The job gives her plenty of spare time.

Every two weeks she attends evening classes her agency Face Network gives to its race queens to brush up on skills like, well, walking and holding the ubiquitous team umbrellas with as much grace and dignity as a young woman can be expected to muster while dressed in a lurid green plastic micro-dress.

Loyal fans

But there are useful tips too on how to fend off the unwanted attention of over-enthusiastic fans.

Ayu also takes time to answer the emails sent by her otaku. She treats them with courtesy and respect, even though their affection for her can border on the obsessive.

Every time I photograph her, I feel like I'm in love with Ayu
Ayu fan

Otaku, weighed down with expensive camera equipment, regularly gather to photograph the race queens, who change into a succession of alluring costumes, in which they pose seductively.

The otaku, who pay up to US$300 for the privilege, treat their subjects with shy politeness and formality.

Ayu's most dedicated otaku, who did not want to be named, explained his feelings for her.

"Every time I photograph her, I feel like I'm in love with Ayu," he said. "It's as though we are having a real relationship just through eye contact."

He's a local civil servant who devotes all his spare time and money to following Ayu around Japan and promoting her image.

It seems an odd relationship, but one which both sides are comfortable with.

"I know that in some ways I provoke strong feelings in them", said Ayu, "but my fans treat me so well it also inspires me."

Ayu knows she will only have a few years as a successful race queen. After that she dreams of doing something with her music talent.

For her fans, she offers a few hours of fantasy in the company of a woman whose aura of innocence, with just a hint of sexual promise, are qualities cherished by many Japanese men.

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