“There is a case to be made that the kogal image epitomized Japan’s hazily defined crisis of the 1990s at least as well as did layoffs by top Japanese firms,” writes David Leheny in his book Think Global, Fear Local: Sex, Violence, And Anxiety in Contemporary Japan. Although the kogyaru/kogal appeared too late and peaked too early to really sum up the entirety of the Lost Decade, Lehery is right that most would rather visualize the era through wild youth female subculture than gray old men losing jobs in corporate restructuring.
Hell, everyone loves rebellious kids, and the kogals/kogyaru — with their tanned skin, scandalous skirt length, “loose” socks, mysterious argot, and alleged promiscuity — were perhaps the world’s most fascinating youth tribe in the 1990s. For foreigners looking at Japan from abroad, the kogal appeared to be empowered young women forming a revolutionary army against the patriarchal mores of traditional society. Some gawkers came for the the fashion innovation, and and some were mystified by the large numbers, but the kogals’ widespread popularity/infamy came mostly from the unbridled teenage sexuality at the heart of the movement. Maybe this is slightly unfair, but Punk:Music::Kogal:Sex. For many Japanese men, the kogal movement legitimized and updated a latent ephebophilia. When tales of enjo kosai (compensated dating) appeared in the media, it created a narrative where young women were willing participants in the Lolita fantasy as long as prices were high enough.
At this point, so much myth and innuendo surrounds the kogal phenomenon that it is worth going back and looking at their point of origin. According to egg magazine founder Yonehara Yasumasa, the first kogal were delinquent private school students (Aoyama Gakuin and Seikei listed as two main sources by Wikipedia) with rich delinquent boyfriends who cruised in the roving gangs of Shibuya called chiimaa (teamer). Their particular clothing style and gruff speech were intended to scare off lecherous old men.
What is important to remember at this stage is that the kogal were relatively rich and relatively attractive, and they were called “ko-gal (maybe from 子ギャル)” because they were imitating their older “gal” superiors at a precocious age. Their collective reason for rebellion was nothing particularly novel: They were your stereotypically bored (sub)urban rich kids who were ready to be adults but were stuck within the concrete confines of secondary education. So they acted out by having older boyfriends and sexualizing their uniforms.1 The slightly darker skin may also have been a product of a psychological impulse to appear more sophisticated (or based on the natural tan of wealthy surfers) rather than the misconception that they had any association with or interest in African-American culture. The short skirt is also telling, because the previous style of rebellion had been the yankii practice of lengthening the uniform’s skirt — something much harder to pull off and without immediate sexual message. The kogals wanted to rebel, but they also wanted to show a little skin like their elder peers.
By 1997, however, the commercial establishment began to catch up with the kogal movement and spread its gospel of fashion liberation out to the entire nation. Starting around 1995, chapatsu — brown hair — went from an act of juvenile delinquency to a mainstream style. Magazines then created the guidelines for openly constructing the “kogal fashion,” and middle-class girls rushed in to participate. Soon to follow came a less glamorous bunch of young women from the countryside who wanted in on the delinquency angle.
The male-dominated shukanshi did their part to twist the aggressive anti-Lolita of the original kogal look into a masochistic neo-Lolita fantasy. The “oyaji pranking” of “enjo kosai” — where girls would charge men ¥10,000 for a one minute date — became transformed into something more titillating: a slightly less-stigmatized form of child prostitution. The media attention not only sent middle-aged men out on the prowl to find these girls, but also gave many girls from the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder a convenient way to afford the consumer component of the gal lifestyle.
Once the look peaked as a mass trend in 1999, the movement became more and more marked by its late-adopters. The extremes of the style — the ganguro and yamamba — took the slightly provocative “delinquent consumer subculture” (a mix between delinquent subcultures and consumer lifestyles) over the edge to aggressive confrontation. When egg became a consumer lifestyle mag for these delinquent girls, the clear difference in the group’s “morality” became reflected on the pages: issues featured tales of outrageous and casual sexual play and guides to “how to have sex in car” that would never fit in an issue of an-an (a magazine that still asks girls “which celebrity would you like to be bedded by” instead of “who would you like to bed?”) What had been a slightly new style and beauty aesthetic turned into Frankenstein costumes. The extreme character of the kogal movement post-’99 immediately displaced mainstream society’s original feelings of curiosity and lust with something new: massive antagonism.
In her essay, “Black Faces, Witches, and Racism against Girls” in Bad Girls of Japan (Ed. Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley, 2005), Sharon Kinsella identifies and explores this widespread hostility against the late-stage ganguro kogal. Her essay lists quote after quote from the weekly male magazines disapproving of the youth look. Kinsella even finds female writer Nakano Midori (from “Yamamba,” Japan Echo 27, vol 1, Feb 2000) admitting, “In all honesty, I have seen very few girls sporting the style that brings me even close to thinking, ‘Without that makeup, she must be a beauty, what a waste.'” In sum, Kinsella writes that the girls are “an affront to the tastes of male readers.” Indeed.
Her final analysis, however, takes a seriously wrong turn when she begins to blame the roots of the antagonism in profound racial prejudice. She objurgates, and boy does she objurgate:
Furthermore, commentary about the race, tribe, and skin color of girls, was sometimes entwined with a derogatory and pseudo-Darwinian commentary about dark-skinned girls, which implied that they were a kind of species or animal. Classified as dark-skinned primitives and animals, girls daring to wear black face and witch outfits sometimes became subject to a racist assault on their humanity.
Kinsella provides a couple of neat examples of this “racial assault” — Spa calling the kogal’s lack of morals a “Latinization” of Japanese culture, for example. But her analysis fails to recognize all the other reasons to dislike the late-stage kogal that likely have nothing to do with latent racism.
First, the charge that these girls were “dumb, dirty, and ugly” seems to match certain pre-existing conceptualizations of the girls’ placement within the standard high-school hierarchy. The girls who became the main recruiting base for the extreme kogal were not rich delinquents who dressed in designer bags, snuck out to clubs, and had college boyfriends, but those (lower class) girls who would be viewed as losers in the prism of their environment — neither smart enough to hold college aspirations nor cute enough to attract boyfriends or popular pals. The ganguro look offered them an escape from the hierarchy, in which they had already realized they were destined to fail, by letting them hide their true identities in costume and bond with girls in similar positions and values from all around the country. Commenting on the late-stage kogal costume, Kinsella guesses that “the main effect… is to frighten” and brings up Dick Hebdige‘s theory of subculture as “intelligent style”: Girls have invented their own uniforms in order to mark themselves in opposition to the values of mainstream society. But she is angered that, “society just merrily misinterprets [the look] as a form of animal coloring or tribal decoration.”
If the look is Hebdigian in form, however, the goal is precisely anti-social, and the kogals ended up winning the desired effect — total enmity from the mainstream.2 Why Kinsella thinks society should respect the “intelligence” of the uniform, however, is unclear. More importantly, the early, mass-friendly kogal had provided older men a three-dimensional sexualized spectacle upon the streets of the city and tantalizing myths of easily acquiring their flesh for a small lump sum (where the girls themselves were understood to graciously remove moral boundaries and replaced them with market prices). The ganguro girls took the rebellious-yet-sexy movement of the original kogal and robbed it of its mass aesthetic pleasure. Kogals now looked scary, and to a certain degree, were less likely to be the “normal” daughters from private schools and more likely to be the “unwanted.” The kogals stole back the style from the fantasies of fathers and made it once more about themselves. To see where the conflict lay, Kinsella quotes a men’s magazine headline complaining about the infiltration of the ganguro look into their precious porn videos.
Knowing the intentional struggle manufactured by the fashion look, why would men’s magazines be supportive of the ganguro kogal? Adding in the obvious socioeconomic and regional bias — the new girls were neither urban nor urbane — these girls had absolutely nothing going for them outside of their subcultural participation. Kinsella oddly projects the responsibilities of academic anthropologists upon the Japanese media — organizations that clearly see themselves as arbiters of “conventional” values rather than sympathetic social analysts. While men may have felt robbed of convenient sexual fantasy, women on the other hand remained unimpressed with the girls they always saw beneath them in the classroom. Even now, I ask a Japanese female about the types who became late-stage kogals, and she answers, “The dumbest (一番バカ) and ugliest (一番ブス) girls in the class.” The word “dirty” (汚い) also comes up. Kinsella finds the same sentiment — “The allegation that witches and black faces were ugly and stupid, circulated widely and formed a base stereotype” — but then crams it into her shaky narrative — “underlying more intricate considerations of their hygiene and racial origins.” Do we dislike them because their skin color goes against traditional ideas of Japanese beauty and colonialist concerns? Or is it that many have misanthropic feelings that they are merely ugly, dirty, and dumb girls in outdated and unflattering makeup?
The ganguro today still exist, of course, although relatively marginal and have not been “cool” for a decade now (at least, as dictated by the domestic fashion authorities.) They have boiled down to their most hardcore delinquent/leftover element.
1 The original kogal strikes me as fitting well in the “rich kid delinquent” archetype that Ishihara Shintaro and the Taiyo-zoku Sun Tribe set back in the 1950s and carried on through the Southern All-Stars surfer of the 70s.
2 This puts the ganguro kogal in the mold of the normal yankii working-class rebellion archetype.