A review and analysis of Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers’ detailed chronicle of Japanese delinquent female subculture, Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno.
Along with otaku culture and the cognoscenti culture centered around independent music, art, and fashion, Japanese delinquent subcultures form a key component of the “Japan Cool” construct. I use the term “delinquent subcultures” to describe fringe youth groups like the monstrously-tanned high-school Ganguro, raucous Bōsōzoku motorcycle gangs, gleefully-anachronistic Gothic Lolita maidens, FRUiTS-type cutie-punk street fashion maniacs, and Rollers who once danced in Yoyogi Park every Sunday to pre-recorded hits of the 1950s. But unlike other facets of foreign attraction towards Japanese pop culture, these groups offer no products to buy and few individuals to admire; we are simply attracted to their sheer existence out of a Romantic fascination with anti-social organizations costumed in unique and outrageous “style formulas.”
Although foreigners seem to be keen on fashion delinquents and delinquent fashion, Japanese policy-makers and domestic gate-keepers have never had much reason to view these disparate and desperate youth as anything other than vermin. But even without formal invitations to participate in the process of re-branding Japan, delinquent subcultures are still critical to the new narrative. “Cool” may now primarily exist within a commercial marketplace where corporations manufacture goods and chic hierarchies of media organizations spread the marketing word to youth consumers and their elder imitators, but grass-roots rebellion is essential for anchoring cool back to its roots — spontaneous cultural explosion on the streets and deep within the underground.
Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno organizes the female delinquents into three major groupings: Bad Gals (Sukeban, Takenokozoku, Lady’s [Female Bosozoku]), Sexy Gals (Kogal, Gonguro, Manba, Kigurumin, Material Gal), and Arty Gals (Nagomu, Gothloli, Decora). While this coding is succinct and accurate in principle, there can never really be a simple classification system that brings these groups together along geometric lines.
For example, the smiley-faced Heian-era-inspired, E.L.O.-dancing Takenokozoku are included in “Bad Gals,” but they seem to inhabit a completely different aesthetic universe than the general yankii tastes at the heart of the Sukeban and Lady’s. Even now, the “badness” of those two are so obvious that the Takenozoku look like a harmless Sunday drama club outfitted in matching kung-fu shoes. At the time, however, the conservative authorities viewed the relatively tame street dancing in Yoyogi park as another pressing facet of the “youth problem” — synchronized park dancing as potentially dangerous as razor blades, reckless autobikes, or underage drinking.
The “Sexy Gals” grouping, on the other hand, appears at first to describe a mosaic of divisions in the gal/gyaru universe, but the chapter simply tackles the historical progression of the larger gyaru subculture. In an almost perfectly-linear development, the relatively cute Kogal morphed into the frightening Ganguro/Gonguro, who took a more extreme form in the Mamba and went ridiculous for a half-year in Kigurumin animal costumes. In the last few years, the more mainstream members and older graduates discovered the allure of capitalist society and adjusted their styles to score rich husbands and piles of luxury fashion goods.
Although there are significant differences between the three Schoolgirl Inferno segments, they are ultimately closer in spirit to each other than to the alternative: consumer lifestyles. These can be simply defined as youth fashions originating in the mass media or imported wholesale from other countries. To an outside spectator, consumer lifestyles can appear just as “crazy” as delinquent subcultures, but within Japanese society, these styles do not pose any real threat to mainstream taste standards; they are the mainstream taste standards. Sure, there are “Punk” girls in Japan, but as members of a consumer lifestyle, they generally treat the look as an imported and pre-fab form of semi-delinquency, generally sticking close to the style dogma set in 1970s Britain. The Japanese Punkettes probably do very middle class things like go home, bathe, and study for their fashion college exams — which makes them practically princesses compared to the Ganguro runaways living on the crow-infested streets of Shibuya.
Unlike other collections of Tokyo fashion history such as PARCO’s Street Fashion 1945-1995 or the more recent, less theoretical The Tokyo Look Book, Macias and Evers limit their focus to outcast/delinquent styles and ignore the media-dictated and ultimately middle-class consumer lifestyles like Nyūtora, New Wave, American Casual, Ura-Harajuku-kei, Shibuya Casual, and the DC Boom. But Inferno‘s narrow scope makes the point that the most extreme and interesting Japanese fashions have primarily originated amongst social rejects and not elite stylists.
The subcultures in Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno all formed within loose or defined social outcast groups. The girls have been rejected from their immediate social hierarchies, whether it be from “inappropriate” behavior, “improper” personal interests, or most importantly, unappreciated physical appearance. The stronger, more cohesive organizations on the fringes thus provide a solution to solitary exile. Tokyo Schoolgirl Inferno quotes Tomo Machiyama, a former editor of Takarajima Magazine, on the Nagomu girls: “They were usually short and chubby. I never once saw a tall Nagomu Girl. And they were not so cute.” The styles may change, but the fundamental principles remain; the eyebrow-less readers of Zipper today could be described in identical terms. The burnt ragdoll make-up schemes of the Ganguro make perfect sense once you understand the desire to completely cover-up their natural physical features. The makeup and ultraviolet damage are not fundamentally attractive, but at least, they say something other than just a simple “busu.”
Socioeconomic class may be another fundamental factor behind group formation: although there are a few exceptions, the core members of the Bad Gal and Sexy Gal subcultures generally came from Japan’s working classes.2 In his landmark book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige suggests that punk, mod, and the other UK subcultures are comprised of working class youths who adopted their own uniforms in order to gain “relative autonomy” they cannot attain in middle-class society. The same mechanics are at work in Japan, and the diversity of styles in Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno demonstrate that any fashion innovation works as long as it fulfills the basic goal of deviation from the strict rules of either direct authorities (school handbooks) or indirect authorities (mainstream fashion magazines). The lengthened school skirts of the Sukeban and other yankii girls seem “traditional” viewed through the prism of sexual mores and rising hem lengths, but this style choice was not about sex. The long skirt (which was very difficult to alter in this manner) was a direct protest against the educational authorities who tightly regulated skirt length. The Kogal short-skirt, on the other hand, did move upwards in youth imitation of sexy bodicon dresses and more open attitudes towards sexuality of the late ’80s/early ’90s club scene. The original Kogal look, however, became inadequate as a more serious subcultural code. The working-class girls behind the more extreme Ganguro exaggerated the teachings of the original (upper middle-class) Kogal style codex into disturbing and intentionally-unsexy visual signifiers once normal everyday middle-class girls started hiking up their skirts and wearing loose socks as part of a mass trend.3
If the Japanese fashion world is ultimately split between delinquent subcultures and consumer lifestyles, we should have no illusions about which ones have the most influence in society. The CanCam girls enjoy a solid plurality today that vastly dwarfs any possible subcultural developments. This has almost always been true. In the 1970s, the good girls of the An-Non Zoku greatly outnumbered a tiny minority of Sukeban. In 1980, PARCO’s marketing magazine Across identified eight key fashion looks of the era — Ivy, Preppie, Hamatora (Yokohama Traditional), JJ, New Wave, Takenozoku, West Coast, and ’80s.4 Out of these, only Takenozoku could be considered to be a delinquent subculture. The sole group in the Inferno that can claim to have had any mass support would be the early stage of the Kogals. But in their case, the look was essentially an upper middle-class private-school girl trend filtering down to the masses with the help of the mainstream media. Otherwise, the book’s subcultures have always been marginal and have relished in their own intentional self-marginalization. The styles would not be functional as delinquent wardrobes if they were possible for mass adoption.
Essentially, most Japanese young people adopt magazine-derived styles to look good, whereas the Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno delinquent subcultures all intentionally want to look bad. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but monolithic and oppressive social standards of beauty and style gave the girls on the fringes no choice but to completely remove themselves from the mainstream and build a new system of standards and criteria in which they have a possibility of attaining positive valuation. The CUTiE reader and egg reader probably do not get along in real life, but the central intention of visual disfigurement brings them closer together than to the CanCam or ViVi set. Needless to say, none of the Inferno girl fashion looks are specifically constructed to be attractive to the opposite sex. These girls may find true love in allied male delinquent subcultures — Gyaru-o for Ganguro and Bōsōzoku for Lady’s, etc. — but the style agenda is not primarily romantic.
Interestingly, these female subcultural groups ask their members to make similar personal pledges of group dedication as seen in more large-scale, mainstream and socially-acceptable Japanese organizations. As an illustration of the social order within the Ganguro groups, Macias and Evers include the “manifesto” from gyaru group Angeleek:
1. You must go to a tanning salon four times a week.
2. You must be a devilish, strong, and gon gal.
3. You must be totally black, so black you cannot be seen in a nightclub.
4. You must love only Angeleek.
5. You must be polite.
6. You must not have a smelly pussy.
7. You must be easygoing and make a fun atmosphere.
8. You must be able to dance Para Para.
9. You must look like a gorilla.
10. We also welcome people with bodies like pro wrestlers.
Here we see orthopraxy in action: as in Islam, for example, believers/members must only follow a simple set of instructions in order to demonstrate dedication. This manifesto also gives a hint towards self-ideology. The last entry’s embrace of girls with a traditionally non-feminine body type reads like an updated version of “The New Colossus” — accepting those who have been shunned elsewhere. Judging from the other demands, proper membership in Angeleek requires the mild self-disfigurement of constant tanning salon patronage to an extreme where girls become large primates in the daylight and totally invisible within the nightlife. Rule #6, however, is an odd directive — almost an internalization of age-old mysogynistic degradations. I find it hard to imagine that a men’s group would make a similar demand about their members’ members, and regardless, vaginal hygiene is probably not something that interferes with social intercourse in the gyaru community.
We cannot ignore the general disdain Japanese society has shown these girls over the years. If not outright scorned, they are abused and exploited as sensationalist scandals and cautionary tales. The sex and violence of the Sukeban became perfect B-movie fodder. In the 1990s, the Kogal offered similar titillation as the little wenches who flouted morality in pursuit of Gucci bags. They had a double-value for patriarchal society: middle-aged men chided these girls during the day and propositioned them during the nights. They have always made good punching bags and living billboards for the “decline of Japanese society.”
The delinquent fashion looks themselves, however, cannot be said to be a huge fashion influence on the styling of fashion magazines. At best, they help set the borders of good taste. The Ganguro magazine egg helps ViVi find a compromise between “wild & young” and “trash.” CanCam may grab its readership from gyaru graduates, but the conservative “mote-kei” (モテ系) hardly owes anything to gyaru fashion innovation.
For the most part, the Inferno fashion looks have focused around independent and niche media sources. Egg started as a gravia magazine for men, before the maniacs took over the asylum. CUTiE does come out of the relatively mainstream publisher Takarajima, but perhaps the independent magazine FRUiTS has always been more reflective of the real Decora extremes that Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno wants to highlight.
Foreign fashion designers from Jeremy Scott to Karl Lagerfeld to Paul Smith often claim to find great inspiration in the Japanese streets, and I have no doubt that the intensity of fashion obsession among young people makes Japan an extremely unique and important environment for the style elite. In Japan, however, these delinquent subcultures have not seemed to greatly influence the higher tier of domestic designers, precisely because the elitist fashion world hopes to create their own unique wardrobes that create distance between themselves and these uneducated bottom feeders. Foreign designers are far enough outside of Japanese social concerns to worry about which groups they may imitate and create associations with, but at the same time, I find it hard to believe that the individual elements of delinquent uniforms in Japan have really led to mass influence on the Western fashion world. I am sure a few collection shows have played on loose socks, gothic lolita, and Neo-Orientalist fantasies of 22nd Century Japan, but I am still convinced that the “energy” of self-organized fashion looks in Japan is more inspiring that its actual accouterments.
Surely, however, the foreign appreciation has bounced back to Japan and led to a new look at the delinquent subcultures of the past. The rock’n’roll dancers of Yoyogi have been in cigarette ads, and Kishidan revived classical yankii pageantry for the contemporary middle class music fan. Ganguro, however, still needs twenty or so years to be appreciated as something other than the uniform for “dirty” girls — mostly because these girls continue to squat in the streets of Shibuya. The Ganguro’s accomplishments in widespread loathing, however, is the mark of true subcultural success. If the media is immediately able to co-opt the look, it couldn’t have been that good anyway.
1Are these groups really “schoolgirls”? I suspect that this word was less of an accurate descriptor and more of a marketing ploy on the part of Chronicle — playing into that international techno-sexual fantasy of Japan’s teenage females being the “most advanced gadget consumers with the world’s shortest skirts.” Works for Wired.
2Ignore Higa Nobuaki’s misinformed quote in JSI that “Japan is a place where it is easy to form tribes. Maybe in America you have to overcome a lot of racial and economic barriers before something like that can happen. But in Japan, it is easy to unify with others.” I am not sure that sodachi ga ii rich girls in Ashiya or Jiyugaoka are running to hang out with Ganguro wenches in from Gunma for the night just because they are the same “race.”
3The Arty Gals may lack roots in the non-urban working classes, nor have backgrounds as actively delinquent as the other two groups, but they too adopted a mysterious fashion code incomprehensible from the outside.