Most of the first Western scholarship on “youth subcultures” in the post-War period grew out of work on teenage delinquency. Sociologists explained the Teds, the Mods, Rude Boys, Greasers, the Sharks (vs. the Jets) as working-class youth using their own culture of fashion and argot to separate themselves from mainstream society.
Now that mass culture has fractured into smaller lifestyle segments and minority looks “trickle-up” to high fashion, the word “subculture” does not automatically imply deviance. In the West, there’s no bigger sin than being a “poseur” or having “inauthentic” reasons for subcultural affiliation, and in this context, Western (and often Japanese) critics tend to bash Japanese punks and B-boys for not keeping it “real.” Or conversely, certain champions of post-modernity celebrate these groups for their seemingly intentional depth-less re-appropriations of Western subcultural style.
The truth is, however, that Japan has two different kinds of youth cultural groups — delinquent subcultures and consumer lifestyles — and our failure to distinguish the two means attributing particular intra-group values to Japan as a whole.
The youth cultures recently venerated by Americans are essentially consumer lifestyles. Ura-Harajuku street fashion (A Bathing Ape, Goodenough, Supreme/Silas), Shibuya-kei border-shirt Euro-fetish, Cutie/Spring/Mini daintyness, Fruits extreme Harajuku-cute, hip-hoppers, Rastas, punks, mods, and “mode-kei” fashionistas are society-condoned, media-directed looks with matching music and activities. Before 1988, all fashion was essentially monolithic: There was only one way to dress “well.” But after the DC-boom backlash in the late ’80s, magazines responded by providing a huge list of possible choices — skater-kei, surfer-kei, etc. — each with their own brands, hairstyles, record labels, and leisure activities.
Japanese fashions may be largely based on Western working-class teenage defiance, but in the process of importation and distribution within a retail framework, the political content has all been sucked out — even the most basic ideas of inter-generational rebellion. In the West, parents would freak out over their kids looking like a lyseric baglady, but Japanese parents can cope as long as there stick to the implicit promise to wipe off the goth makeup by the time they leave university and get a job. Questions of authenticity are hence moot. Without specific instructions from magazines on how to put together the fashion code, these looks would not and could not exist. I would guess that a majority of adopters are upper middle-class kids from “good families,” and their participation in these “extreme looks” does not necessarily rule out future involvement in straight society. Actually these somewhat alternative cultures support the employment system by providing “play” before a lifetime of serious dedication to the workplace or motherhood.
Even though consumer lifestyles are the most conspicuous “subcultures” in Japan, there have always been strong delinquent subcultures. These follow the Western pattern closely — using alternative fashions, slang, and other cultural practices to break away from the mainstream. In the late 1970s, the yankii subculture developed from low performing students who bucked the system through wearing bleached permanent-waves and altering their school uniforms. Instead of high school, yankii quickly entered the workforce — an act that fully limited their future employment options to working-class labor. They roved in gangs, proudly picked up girls to gang rape (gombo), stared down kids from rival junior highs, and coordinated runs around the neighborhood on super-loud motorcycles (the so-called boso-zoku). Their fashion choices — yakuza-like short-cut punch perms, long jackets, kanji embroidery, severe sunglasses, women’s heels — were self-determined, not at all media-mandated (although I should note that at this point, Japanese consumer society was not mature enough to target such a small market segment.)
Meanwhile in Tokyo, the yankii-related Takenoko-zoku street dancers and ’50s-inspired Rollers were generally high-school dropouts engaged in smoking (gasp!), lighting firecrackers (gasp! gasp!), and other hankou (反抗), but opposed to the yankii, their culture depended upon a small consumer market tailoring to their explicit needs. This symbiotic relationship between rebellion and consumerism resembled the early Carnaby Street of ’60s London.
The late ’80s meanwhile saw the rise of the Chiimaa — car-based roving gangs of youth who terrorized Shibuya. Interestingly, however, these kids were generally furyou (no-good’ers) from wealthy Setagaya-ku families, and they invented their own sloppy casual style based on a mix of American-style preppie look (think loafers) and L.A. gang style. Their wealthy girlfriends were semi-dropouts from private high schools like Keio, who also developed their own rebellious alterations of school uniforms. But instead of lengthening skirts like yankii girls, they shortened them. The media eventually christened them “kogyaru,” soon famous in the Shukan Post for their rough language and brazen sexuality.
Since the kogyaru spawned at a time when fashion became subcultural, magazines such as Egg and Cawaii! moved in to codify the look and make it into a market. The first kogyaru were from elite families, but the fashion’s rebellious edge became very attractive to lumpen lower middle-class kids looking for an escape. By the mid-1990s, Shibuya was like a female-run Haight-Ashbury, littered with middle-school runaways, grotesque fashion witches (“the Yamamba”), and teenage kogyaru with babies called “yan-mama” (“yan” coming from “yankii”). When news of the kogyaru’s schoolgirl prostitution (enjo-kousai) hit the national consciousness, the first response approached the problem like an extension of classless consumerism instead of lower-class teenage delinquency — “This could be anyone’s daughter!” Perhaps this was true, but when a delinquent subculture had fully become a consumer lifestyle — sexual mores and all — no one knew whether to blame a certain group (like with past youth problems) or advocate society-wide campaigns (“Talk with your kids about compensated dating before your husband’s coworker does!”)
These days, the kogyaru fashion boom is over [Ed. — 2003 was a nadir, but gyaru culture came back strongly a few years later), but the look remains preserved within a small delinquent subculture. They still retain the organs of a consumer lifestyle — stores, magazines, clubs — but a comparison of Egg to Cutie instantly reveals that these are not just different exterior fashions chosen by similar girls, but radically different life-orientations. Egg casually talks about the best way to have sex in a car, while you can even barely find reference to boys in Spring.
Within the delinquent groups, the value system tends towards celebrating “authentic” behavior as a way to show solidarity with the other members. These groups do have a certain political content in so much as they are dropping off the accepted middle-class path. Where Japan differs from the West, however, is that it has never had a large-scale Bohemian-type middle-class, educated artistic subculture like the Hippies or even something like slackers. In an orthopraxical society, there’s no God to justify “dropping out” — deviants don’t leave, they’re forced out, or catch on early that their future opportunities are nil. If the only condoned path to success is an upper middle-class one requiring constant study and delayed gratification, those who don’t fit the mold unsurprisingly choose to make their own reward structures and cultural systems.
The rising number of friitaa could possibly be a sign that those involved with consumer lifestyles have attached a political content to their fashion and cannot easily give up their subcultural affiliation to join the workforce and adult society. We’ve seen that “real” subcultures can become commodified, but can “artificial” subcultures learn how to drop out of society?