A three-part series on the famed Japanese female subculture and its the evolution from a summery look of rich delinquent high-schoolers to an extreme set of working class styles. [2019 Note: There was supposed to be a fourth part about the post-ganguro gyaru revival, but never got to it.]
The Japanese understand their own history of street culture as a constant succession of youth “tribes” who dominate the landscape for a few years with a specific style and then disappear just as quickly as they arrived. The tribes were often useful as a human representation of the era’s zeitgeist — for example, the Futenzoku hippies in the late 1960s or the Bodicon girls of the Bubble era — but sometimes were not much more than historical quirks — e.g. the preppy Miyuki-zoku who only existed for a few short months in the Summer of 1964. Regardless, Japanese cultural taxonomy requires the tribes to quickly rise and fall as to make room for the next set.
With such expectations of ephemerality, what are we to make of the long-lived gyaru subculture? Starting in the early 1990s and hitting a new peak around 2010, gyaru have existed in one form or another for two decades. Although the style has changed dramatically multiple times and splintered into distinct factions, a few principles have remained stable: hair dyed anywhere between chestnut and deep blond, sexually-provocative clothing, an embrace of youth, chronic shopping in Shibuya 109, and a generally “wild” attitude.
Many have seen long-term gyaru dominance as a symptom of a depressed Japanese economy’s inability to invent and push new styles. Looking closely at the actual changes in fashion and cosmetics, however, the gyaru of 2012 look almost nothing like the gyaru of 2000 let alone those of 1992. Gyaru, in other words, have not actually been a single tribe or subculture, but instead, something like a “style stream” — with each incarnation influencing the next but radically changing along the way. The gyaru look has shifted from the relatively natural kogyaru schoolgirls of 1995 to the shocking ganguro of 2000 to the koakuma glamorous blondes of 2008. While very different, they all understood themselves as “gyaru” and were understood in wider society as “gyaru” as well.
This ability to evolve with the times may be the gyaru movement’s core strength, but the transformations have not simply been a superficial shift in fashion. Most critically, the class composition of gyaru has changed over time. Gyaru style started as a delinquent look for rich girls at top Tokyo private schools, but ended up as the new face of yankii non-urban working-class delinquent style, blending seamlessly into preferred aesthetic of kyabajō “women of the night.” The gyaru thus provide a perfect case study to understand how style in Japan often trickles down from the affluent to the middle classes through the mass media and then is co-opted and re-conceptualized by the working classes.
This four-part series attempts to look at the origin of gyaru style, the nature and mechanisms of its style changes, and the shifting social context of each historical stage. And hopefully these essays will clear up a few of myths surrounding gyaru along the way.
The Origin of the Kogyaru: 1991-1993
There is no exact date or even year when the gyaru first appeared on the streets of Shibuya. Their arrival was both gradual and unexpected. As former egg editor Yonehara Yasumasa told me in 2008, “The gyaru totally came out of nowhere.” But sometime in the early 1990s the nation began to notice a swarm of high school girls with brown hair, short schoolgirl skirts, and slightly tanned skin clutching European luxury bags and wearing Burberry scarves. And eventually they were known widely under the name kogyaru (コギャル).
In the past, most youth fashion tribes found their look by following instructions from the media. The Shibuya gyaru, on the other hand, were virtually sui generis — the fashion style just bubbled up organically from a few sources. Indeed, kogyaru culture was the grand culmination of four prominent late 1980s trends: namely, “gal” party girl culture, Shibuya’s rise as a fashion and nightlife spot, chiimaa party event organizer gangs, and schoolgirl uniform pride. This piece will examine what each of these streams contributed to the formation of kogyaru culture.
|Note: Before the arrival of the kogyaru, the word “gyaru” (ギャル) represented a completely different segment of females, and while they are related, as I explain below, current gyaru culture should not be confused as a direct descendent of the pre-kogyaru version. In order to make a clear distinction, I use the English word “gal” for instances of ギャル in Japanese texts before kogyaru, and “gyaru” for anything after. This is admittedly an arbitrary difference in translation/transliteration and certainly there are no differences in the original Japanese words. Differentiation, however, is necessary to understand the nuance of the word’s contemporary usage.
The fun-loving gals
The word “gyaru” (ギャル) — a Japanese pronunciation of the English word “gal” — first entered the Japanese language in 1972 as a sub-brand of Wrangler jeans. After prominent mention in a 1979 Sawada Kenji song title, “gal” eventually came to designate young women who were highly socially active and relatively superficial (Namba 2006). Compared to the fussy, snobby ojōsama types from good families and always worrying about social protocol, the gal were easy-going and fun. In an 1989 survey uncovered by sociologist Namba Koji (2006), young women defined gals as “those who don’t care if their guy is from money or a good family; they go for trendy looks, clothing, behavior, and are cheerful.” In other words, gals were party girls.
In the 1980s, magazines like Gal’s Life, Carrot Gals, Popteen, Kids, and Elle Girl came to target and represent this gal sector, offering more salacious and realistic stories about teenage sex than one would find in upper middle-class consumerist lifestyle magazines like JJ, CanCam, and olive. While not explicitly based on yankii (i.e. non-urban, working class delinquent) aesthetics, the magazines did offer a more down-to-earth and inclusive view of Japanese teenagers that, unlike their more well-funded and prestigious rivals, did not constantly demand Japanese women reenact American and European lives. But when the Diet singled these magazines out for bad influence on youth in 1984, the “gal” became further stereotyped as sexually promiscuous, and the term took on generally negative connotations (Namba). Men’s magazines amplified this nuance by using gal to describe the young participants on the era’s sexually provocative TV shows All Night Fuji or Onyanko Club’s Yūyake Nyan Nyan.
As Japan entered the Bubble era, the term gal started to represent a specific consumer segment, mostly made of young office ladies (OLs). The gals were personified in the media as those wearing bodicon (“body conscious,” i.e. tight fitting) outfits and dancing on raised platforms at mega-disco Juliana’s. In 1993 journalist Yamane Kazuma wrote an entire book called The Structure of Gals that tried to explain and celebrate this new generation of women obsessed with the nouveau riche nightlife and wanton materialism. For most of society, however, the word “gal” became known as the party girls at discos, and from here we finally discover the direct link to modern day usage.
The term kogyaru — “ko” being either for “small” (小) or “child” (子) — is said to have started as jargon among bouncers to designate the high school girls who tried to sneak into clubs and look like their older peers. These “little gals” formed the core of the first modern gyaru movement, and even when the “ko” was dropped in later years, the term “gyaru” came to represent their descendants.
The rise of Shibuya as the fashion center
Shibuya is now famous as the birthplace and mecca of modern gyaru style, but the neighborhood was not always a breeding zone for Japanese fashion. As a commuter hub with ample options for entertainment and shopping, the area attracted lots of visitors throughout the post-war. Then when wealthy Baby Boomers began to construct new upper middle-class neighborhoods in Meguro, Setagaya-ku, and Suginami-ku on Tokyo’s West side, their teenage offspring gravitated towards Shibuya as the most convenient central urban location (Chimura). This influx solidified Shibuya as a hotspot for youth culture.
Harajuku had been the main youth fashion center for Tokyo since the 1970s, and from 1985 to 1988, national style centered around the “DC boom” for “designer and character” brands mostly located in the interconnected areas of Harajuku, Omotesando, and Aoyama. During this period, teens slavishly followed media advice from glossy fashion magazines, flocking to exclusive labels like Comme des Garçons and Y’s to buy highly-designed and avant-garde outfits.
The burgeoning generation of rich kids who hung out in Shibuya, however, spurned this designer-driven approach to fashion, preferring a laid-back preppy vibe. When the Harajuku fashion bubble collapsed in 1988 and the DC boom petered out, all eyes turned towards the emerging Shibuya style, which came to be known as shibukaji or “Shibuya Casual.” Suddenly every lifestyle magazine had forgotten the idea of high-concept fashion design and started singing the virtues of traditional basics like Polo Ralph Lauren navy blazers, Levi’s 501s, and loafers. The upscale Shibuya girls meanwhile carried Louis Vuitton and Chanel bags but in a casual and non-fussy way. The overall atmosphere was moneyed nonchalance — having the right, conservative brands but not looking like you actually paid attention to the fashion world. In the heady Bubble days of wealth accumulation and socially-condoned avarice, these wealthy kids convinced the nation’s young that they were the best style leaders around.
Soon, however, middle-class kids from across Japan became experts on shibukaji thanks to tutorials in magazines like Men’s Non•no or Hot Dog Press, and their influx into Shibuya brought organic changes to the look. The “American” influence quickly moved beyond classic East Coast staples and brought on ethnic, Native American, and West Coast influences as well. And with men, the style split into two camps — a kirekaji “clean” version, and a more rebellious look that mixed in silver jewelry, surfer influences, and a bit of Guns’n’Roses Sunset Strip edge. The latter became well-known as the signature look of “teamers” who started ruling over the neighborhood.
Teamers / Chiimaa
Starting in the late 1970s there had been a long-tradition of university clubs at top private schools holding intermural disco parties, often with the strong backing of the venues and even advertising sponsors (Arai 33). As Shibuya became the social destination for Tokyo youth in the late 1980s, elite college and high school students began to capitalize on the neighborhood’s popularity by throwing parties at Shibuya clubs. Events became branded as the latest party from regular “teams” of party throwers, and the kids in these groups became known as “teamers” — chiimaa, in Japanese. The team members generally came from affluent backgrounds but clearly had a delinquent streak as they were spending all their times organizing nearly-underground dance parties rather than hitting the books (Arai). When not party-organizing, they hung out in Center-gai — the main strip of Shibuya built up with fast food joints — or drove around in their cars roaming for girls.
All of this minor delinquency was generally tolerated until the chiimaa started finding themselves more and more involved in territorial clashes. The most violent members caused a series of notorious incidents from 1991 to 1992 that left a college student and a homeless man dead and put many others in the hospital. Law enforcement started to crackdown in response, and clubs became less lenient about underage party promoters. The entire chiimaa and Shibuya movement started to take on a highly negative reputation, and the parties themselves slid into oblivion.
The chiimaa were ultimately a temporary movement, now forgotten as a blip on the timeline of pop culture, but ironically, their girlfriends, who played little part in this male-dominated world, would be the ones with a lasting influence. The girls who grouped around chiimaa spent lots of time at tanning salons and baring their browned mid-riffs. They loved the style of Los Angeles and wore LA Gear sneakers. PARCO’s Across marketing guide ended up calling these girls paragyaru — gal who tried to maintain a “paradise” (i.e. beach-oriented) lifestyle all year round. The paragyaru were never a mainstream nor well-known subculture, but these they helped bubble up the surfer-girl elements that would come to mark kogyaru style (Namba 2006).
More importantly, the very first kogyaru were some of the younger girls in chiimaa circles. Former egg editor Yonehara describes the original kogyaru as “girls from Keio and other private high schools who hung out with the bad boys (chiimaa).” To wit: the first Shibuya kogyaru were essentially chiimaa girlfriends.
Schoolgirl uniforms reformed
The previous trends explain why rebellious girls in Shibuya preferred tanned skin, Louis Vuitton bags, and a slightly sexy approach to clothing, but the most important style innovation of the kogyaru was certainly their embrace of the schoolgirl uniform. In the subculture’s most stereotypical incarnation, the kogyaru wore a pleated plaid schoolgirl skirt hiked up to an extreme mini length, matched to standard issue weejun loafers and bulky white “loose socks.” The look mutually emphasized their bare thighs and young age, thus titillating the nation’s significant base of lecherous old men.
While most social analysis until now has fixed upon the kogyaru’s sexualized transformation of the uniform, it’s worth asking a more basic question: Why were trendy high school girls wearing their mandatory school clothes rather than changing into their own individual outfits?
In the early 1980s, high school girls were quick to abandon their sailor suits every day before heading out into the town, whether by choice or to comply with school rules. This essentially hid the fact that they were still high school students while they shopped or partied.
By the end of the decade, however, most of the top private schools in Tokyo started to face serious competition in light of declining birth rates (Across Editorial Desk 236). School boards came up with a grand solution: hire top designers to redesign the uniforms and make them more akin to modern fashion. Thus was born the School Identity (SI) movement, which took off nationwide around 1987 and saw schools dressing their young women in blazer-type ensembles rather than the traditional and slightly infantile sailor suit look (Namba 2006).
The students evidently loved the change and began to see their uniforms as a proud piece of personal clothing rather than mandatory attire (Across Editorial Desk 236). They then flocked to Shibuya in the afternoons or on weekends still wearing their school clothes, and this changed the overall look of the neighborhood’s fashion. But also, by wearing their uniforms, high school students were embracing their youth rather than hiding it. This streamlined into a general social trend — the “high school girl boom” (女子高生ブーム) — where the ideal age for a woman in Japan, both in women’s own estimations and in the male gaze, hovered around 16.
With most early kogyaru coming from the top private schools, the burgeoning subculture built upon the base of a well-designed school uniform and then added a few rebellious touches. Following the paragyaru’s summer-friendly style, they hiked up the skirts to make a knee-length dress into a mini-skirt. And the “loose socks” were another personalized touch, influenced by both American sport socks and kushu kushu socks from the French casual boom of 1992 (Namba 2006). In further defiance to authority, the kogyaru dyed their hair from rulebook black to a subtle reddish chestnut color known as chapatsu. They essentially took the best parts of the uniform and then broke it down to make it their own.
Interestingly school uniforms have always been the primary look for delinquent teens in Japan. The most famous example is the extra-high Prussian collar (gakuran) of yankii in the late 1970s. Working class delinquent girls of the past also openly violated their school’s uniform policy, but the sukeban girl would lengthen her skirt beyond the required hemline, rather than making it shorter. This actually took much more effort as you had to find matching materials and know how to sew.
Kogyaru on the other hand, in their affluent delinquent nonchalance, just hiked the whole thing up to give it both a light air of defiance as well as a nod to sexy Shibuya style. This small touch was easy to do but radical enough to give birth to what became known as kogyaru style.
The initial kogyaru were high-school girls partying in Shibuya with chiimaa boyfriends, adding summery style cues from older girls into their uniforms. While certainly “bad girls” in society’s eyes, the gyaru were well-to-do for the most part — attending private school and hanging out with other rich delinquent kids whose parents and pedigree would get them to a good college or job without much effort. What is also interesting is the fact that no magazine or media invented this look, but instead it grew organically within this small subculture of rich delinquent teens.
By 1993, there were enough kogyaru on the streets of Shibuya to notice a new “trend” but it was hardly a mass style. In the next installment we look at how the kogyaru became mediated in mass culture — moving seamlessly from sexual objectification to moral panic to nationwide fashion trend.
Across Editorial Desk. Street Fashion 1945-1995. PARCO, 1995.
Arai, Yusuke. Gyaru to Gyaruo no Bunkajinruigaku. (The Cultural Anthropology of Gyaru and Gyaruo) Shincho Shinsho, 2004.
Chimura, Michio. Post-War Fashion Story 1945-2000. Heibonsha, 1989.
Namba, Koji. “Concerning Youth Subcultures in the Postwar Era, Vol. 5: ‘Ko-gal’ and ‘Urahara-kei,’” Kwansei Gakuin University Sociology Department #100, March 2006.
Namba, Koji. Sōkan no Shakaishi (The Social History of Debut Magazine Issues) Chikuma Shinsho, 2009.