「交換」(koukann) in Japanese means exchange, and 「日記」(nikki) means journal. Together they mean exchange journal, although, in fact, it is more of a sharing journal than anything else. In Japan, girls in the later years of elementary and early years of middle school often participate in a game of sorts, where a group of about three or four pass around a journal amongst themselves. One girl would have it in the morning, write something about her day, and give it to the next girl during lunch, who would pass it to the next girl after-school, and so on.
My informant has spent her entire life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa, among other things, is known for its stationary residents; my informant barely knows anyone that has moved houses at all in their entire lives. Because of this characteristic, she said, she spent her school years, from elementary to high school, with approximately the same group of people.「グループきつくて、友達とかも大変だったよ」are her exact words, which translates roughly to, most times, friendships were (for good or bad) claustrophobic and exclusive. In this environment, which perhaps mirrors the environment of most Japanese schools in an intensified form, my informant had 交換日記 with two of her best friends.
The 交換日記 was used mainly to tell secrets they were too afraid to say out loud, or to refer to inside jokes and stories that cemented them closer together as a group. For instance, said my informant, one of her best friends only ever openly gushed about the boy that she liked in the 交換日記, never breathing a word about it out loud. That was an unspoken rule about the 交換日記, in fact–the journal and real life existed, essentially, in two separate realms, and by some unwritten law they all knew that they couldn’t actually talk about anything that was mentioned in the journal, unless the person who wrote it brought it up herself. There were a lot of unspoken rules like that, my informant said, to make them feel like they were participating in something secret, a covert organization of some sort, although every girl around them was doing the same thing.
The style and content of the 交換日記 were highly ritualized, she said. The journal was always the same standard, seventy-page school-use notebook, the one that basically every Japanese student used, and still uses. The cover was always decorated to the utmost; in their case, they had glued sequins and glitter all over the front, and an applique of a butterfly, making it shiny and girly and unrecognizable (the butterfly, she said, was because they had inside joke about it which she has since forgotten). On the inside of the cover they had written down the rules for the 交換日記, as all exchange journal groups did. Their rules dictated that each girl had to at least draw one picture of something detailing their day in their journal entry, no girl could withhold information about a crush or a potential crush, and each entry had to be at least a page long. The most important rule consisted of having to hide the actual physical exchange of the journal from all others. Other groups made other rules, but these were theirs, and it defined their 交換日記. My informant went through six notebooks with the same group of friends before they decided to stop. She said, however, that she knew girls who would get in fights with their friends because they were participating in more than one 交換日記 with different groups of friends. The one thing about the 交換日記, she said, was that it exhibited all the drama and self-consciousness of being a pre-teen/teenage girl in Japanese society.
The 交換日記 is indeed largely reflective of the school life of girls in their elementary and middle school years. My informant grew up with the same group of people, and for the most part, the same group of close friends, as do, it seems, most Japanese children still. The 交換日記 illustrates the girls’ desire to define themselves away from the rest of the school population, to create a distinct, close-knit little society governed by its own rules. It also indicates precisely how claustrophobic the school environment can be; with these close-knit groups and their secret journal societies, how is a newcomer supposed to integrate into the school? My informer said, in fact, that it must have been very difficult to be any kind of an outsider. Get on the wrong side of your friends, and you were out–and being out meant you had to find a way into another group, which was always extremely difficult, especially with girls, my informant said, who were very territorial about these kinds of things. This seems to make sense in a homogeneous society like Japan’s, where students, eager to distinguish themselves from the crowd, create friend groups as foundations for their identity, relying on these friendships to set them apart because, in all other aspects, everyone is usually relatively similar. There were prestigious 交換日記 groups that everyone wanted to be part of, for instance. And then there were ones like the my informants’, created merely for fun and for advancement of their friendships, but still possessing an intense, intimidating undercurrent of exclusivity.