In Part Two of our four-part series on the famed Japanese female subculture, we look at how kogyaru style took over Japan in the mid-1990s. Before they became associated with their own shopping complexes and magazines, however, the kogyaru first rose to fame through an unfair association with the national moral panic over schoolgirl prostitution.
The Peak of the Kogyaru: 1993-1998
At the end of our last installment, the gyaru movement had spontaneously erupted in Shibuya — but in small numbers. These delinquent private high-school girls with light brown hair, tanned skin, and sexualized uniforms became known as kogyaru in certain circles, but they were still unknown to most of their peers. PARCO’s 1995 anthology of Japanese street fashion Street Fashion 1945-1995, for example, mentions the term kogyaru only in passing and labels a photo of typical kogyaru under the general heading “high school girl style.” Within the next five years, however, the kogyaru’s style innovations would become deeply embedded within high school girl culture and become the default style for all trendy teens across Japan.
Since the days of the Taiyo-zoku and Roppongi-zoku of the 1950s, upper-class delinquent subcultures have spread their influence to the middle classes through the mass media. And in most of these cases, the media first reports on the new culture as a moral panic. The kogyaru followed this same pattern, becoming a personification of post-Bubble anxiety towards the declining national character. Social critics widely denounced the kogyaru for the soulless materialism at the heart of their supposed practice of enjo kōsai (“compensated dating”). Yet at the same time, the kogyaru became the attention of marketers as they took up the reigns of consumer culture while the rest of the country’s economic fears resulted in reduced spending. The end result of all the attention was that high school girls ruled Japanese pop culture by the end of the 1990s, and all high school girls became more or less kogyaru.
From fantasy to moral panic
Japan’s quite expansive selection of shūkanshi weekly men’s magazines, such as SPA!, Weekly Playboy, and Friday, dedicate dozens of pages each week on celebrity gossip, glossy bikini and topless photos, reviews of sex services, and phony stories of naughty housewives. They do not, generally, take much interest in the latest fashion trends for young women.
Yet ironically it was these very magazines that first noticed the kogyaru phenomenon and arguably standardized the subculture’s name as “kogyaru.” Sociologist Namba Koji found what may be the earliest direct mention of the subculture in SPA! from June 1993 in an article called “The Temptation of Kogyaru”「コギャルの誘惑」. The article’s writer breathlessly tells his readers about the kogyaru clan and how they have become his new sexual infatuation. The kogyaru, he describes, are “14 to 18” in age and the “little sisters of Juliana’s girls” (Namba 2006). Rival magazine Friday also started to run similar articles at this time, and by the end of 1993, kogyaru would become a standard topic for the entire men’s magazine industry. This wasn’t Time or The New Yorker doing serious trend pieces and psychological examinations of kogyaru. The shūkanshi intended their reportage as titillation. They had found a brand new sexual object for a new decade — diminutive party girls with short skirts and bare legs in golden brown — and would make the most of it.
The kogyaru emerged just as Japanese men grew bored with the 1980s’ obsession over female college students — the so-called “joshi daisei” boom. Beyond the kogyaru, men’s media were already lowering their gaze to secondary education. The March 24, 1993 issue of Takarajima, for example, ran an article about the purchasing of sexual favors from high school girls, complete with a price guide (Namba 2006). The overall message to male readers was that the new generation of teenage girls had — very conveniently — embraced consumerism and materialism so fully that they no longer felt qualms about selling their own bodies. Further proof of this arrived in a new type of sex shop popping up around Tokyo called burusera, which specialized in schoolgirls’ used burumā, sailor suit uniforms, underwear, and even bodily fluids. Towards the end of 1993, the police started to crack down on these stores and even rounded up hundreds of girls in the supply chain. The shops did not disappear, however, and the news reports of the police busts had the unintended effect of spreading word to schoolgirls that their old clothing and waste products could fetch high prices on the open market.
This was also an era when a new suite of communication technologies provided greater independence to young women — playing right into many of the men’s magazine fantasies. Tokyo high school girls in the early 1990s, especially those in kogyaru circles, started carrying around primitive pagers called pokeberu (“pocket bell”) to send numerical messages to friends. Pager usage went from 1.1% of high school girls in 1993 to 48.8% in just four years (Namba 2006). At the same time young women were calling into terekura “telephone clubs” in greater numbers. Terekura are physical spaces, usually around train station hubs, where men pay to connect into party lines that young women have also called into. Based on anecdotal reports, girls of this era mostly called to prank the guys with ridiculous conversations and to set up fake dates for which they did not show up. While girls may not have started using pokeberu and terekura primarily to set up paid liaisons with older men, both services greatly facilitated these kinds of transactions. The end result was that men could now easily contact younger women still living at home, going easily around the parental supervision that would have stopped this kind of interaction in the past. And with kogyaru becoming well known for their pokeberu adoption — an episode of 1993 TV Asahi late-night show M10 titled “The Kogyaru Night” had the provocative subtitle “pokeberu and bare legs” (Namba 2006) — the new subculture became the face of loosening schoolgirl morals.
By the mid-1990s, these threads crystallized into the greatest moral panic of the entire decade — enjo kōsai. The term, meaning technically “compensated companionship,” became a widely-used euphemism for teenage prostitution and a buzz word of the era. Former egg editor Yonehara Yasumasa claims that enjo kōsai began as a mischievous but relatively innocent way of playing pranks on middle-aged men. Girls would accept ¥10,000 to go on a three-minute “date” with an older salaryman — and then leave promptly after three minutes in the restaurant. SPA! and Friday, however, distorted the truth in their faux reportage to play into the aforementioned narrative that kogyaru were spearheading a new generation with no qualms towards selling themselves. Soon the mass media started a full-fledged freak out over enjo kōsai, giving the impression that high school girls from all corners of life — especially upper middle class ones — were rushing to Shibuya and having sex with men in karaoke boxes just to buy luxury goods.
This unfortunately became a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more the media reported on the shocking phenomenon, the more that the small percentage of girls who were looking to sell themselves ended up flocking to the streets of Shibuya and finding buyers. There is no doubt that many schoolgirls did prostitute themselves in this era, but it remains unclear today how widespread the phenomenon was. There certainly had been changes in sexual mores among youth during the era; girls who had lost their virginity by the end of high school went from 12.2% in 1984 to 34% in 1996 (Namba 2006). At the time sociologist Miyadai Shinji made news with his estimation that 8% of all schoolgirls were involved in the sex trade (Reitman/WSJ). On the other hand, police in 1995 only picked up 5,481 girls under 18 for prostitution — a 38% increase from 1993, but not exactly “every other girl” in a country of millions (Reitman/WSJ). A 1996 survey found that 4% of all junior high school girls had taken money for some sort of “date” but that does not reveal how many of those ended in sexual transaction (Kristof/NY Times).
Nevertheless enjo kōsai became the defining issue of the era. Academic David Leheny later wrote “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.” Conservative moralists used the trend as evidence that society had become overly materialistic and that society was decaying rapidly. On the opposite side, radical voices and feminists saw the young women as cleverly negotiating their own position in a male patriarchal world. Sociologist Miyadai Shinji told The Guardian in 1996, “[Young women] know that they’ll be discriminated against in the workplace, but also that they are desired. So they try to take advantage of that demand. The adult male symbolises in their eyes a hypocritical society that is there to be manipulated” (Pons). Writer Murakami Ryu likened enjo kōsai to revolutionary action: “Unconsciously, these high school girls are involved in a kind of movement. To use a bit of hyperbole, they’re spearheading a movement whose message is, ‘Do you really think everything is as it should be in Japan? Don’t be so complacent, all of you.’” (Japan Echo).
So by the mid-1990s, Japanese male sexual culture became obsessed with high school girls, the mass media became obsessed with schoolgirl immorality, and right in the middle of this, a brand new sexually-styled delinquent subculture had shown up in Shibuya. Kogyaru were “wild and sexy” before the enjo kosai moral panic, but the media swell made them the obvious image when society talked about the pliant and immoral young woman indulging in paid sexual adventures. Writer Kuronuma Katsushi’s 1996 work Enjo Kōsai of course had a girl with loose socks, tan legs, and penny loafers on the cover.
Yet it is becoming clearer now that despite twenty years of stereotypes, the kogyaru were not the core practitioners of enjo kōsai. Famed sexual health doctor Akaeda Tsuneo, who has spent his years giving free consultations to teen girls in Tokyo, explained to Takarajima in February 2008 that “The girls called gyaru had too much pride and weren’t the ones doing enjo kōsai” (Kurihara). Yes, the kogyaru had sex with their boyfriends but they weren’t the primary ones having sex with older men for money. Akaeda identified the girls who engaged in enjo kōsai as lonely outsiders (ハズレ者).
The gyaru’s style, attitude, and Louis Vuitton bags, however, made them fit the stereotype, and they faced both the wrath of moral authorities as well as the constant advances of older men in the streets. A former kogyaru interviewed on website Tokyo Damage Report noted that “You’d get old guys who would say, ‘How much for sex?’ Some would hint, some would just start negotiating without any pre-amble. It’s the damn media — they give people the idea we’re down for whatever. [...] If you had blond hair and loose socks, everyone looked at you like you were a teenage prostitute.”
This battle against the media and adults ended up changing the gyaru subculture in many ways. The aforementioned Yonehara Yasumasa believes that the kogyaru’s constant harassment from older men is what led to the development of their famously gruff and masculine speech. They turned inward — sexy to their own group, but angry and intimidating to outsiders. And as we will see in the next installment, this move away from open sexuality focused the gyaru on impressing fellow subculture members with extreme dress rather than wearing “cute” things to attract boys.
While the enjo kōsai controversy certainly tarred the gyaru subculture for years to come, at least by the mid-1990s, every single person in Japan had heard of it.
Kogyaru as fashion market
While the country debated the morality of schoolgirls, the schoolgirls themselves were busy shuffling into Shibuya and taking up influence from the kogyaru’s approach to dress. The Shibuya style may have been simple to replicate — chapatsu light brown hair, slight tan, hiked up school girl uniform, loose socks — but the original subculture also depended upon a certain social position and attitude. Since the kogyaru descended from an actual group of people and not the direction of the fashion industry, they were not instantly imitable.
So how would a new kogyaru recruit figure out how to properly dress in the style? When the kogyaru reached mass consciousness in the mid-1990s, there were still no dedicated “gyaru” magazines that worked with “gyaru” brands to show a step-by-step guide on becoming a “gyaru.”
There was, however, a shopping complex with increasing centrality to the subculture. In the early 1990s, both kogyaru and their older paragyaru-type tanned party-girl big sisters had patronized a store called Me Jane in a generally-ignored fashion building called Shibuya 109. Known later in gyaru circles as just “maru-kyu,” Shibuya 109 opened in 1979 but never achieved any level of popularity in its first decade. Fashion business analyst Kawashima Yoko described its early days as “Like Marui, but worse.” With Me Jane, however, the building finally started to attract a dedicated clientele. Soon kogyaru moved beyond Me Jane and started hanging out next door in a clothing store Love Boat and in the shoe brand ESPERANZA (Kawashima 178). The brands all focused on a sexy, summery style, with shirts, for example, that showed off the belly button.
Shibuya 109’s owner Tokyu noticed this sudden interest in their flailing complex and decided to do a “renewal” of the building in the mid-1990s, asking more stores of the kogyaru fashion variety to become tenants. This turned 109 into the gyaru shopping mecca we know today. As kogyaru wannabees poured into Shibuya, they made a beeline to 109 and essentially understood any store in the building as selling “gyaru” clothing. In this period, Me Jane saw double digit growth every year, ultimately making ¥700 million a year in Shibuya alone (Namba 2006).
Besides the financial success, the establishment of 109 as a legitimate location for kogyaru style meant that the brands inside were now pumping out thousands of new garments that could be used to build a “kogyaru” outfit. No longer did girls need the uniform — they could wear mid-riffs from Me Jane and ESPERANZA platform sandals. Hardcore adherents wore “flare mini-skirts from surfer brand Alba Rosa, bustiers, blue mascara and pink rouge” along with the standard chapatsu and salon tan (Okamoto quoted in Namba 2006). In expanding the look, the kogyaru unwittingly opened up their growing subculture to girls who were not in the proper Tokyo social status to participate before. Anyone who shopped at Shibuya 109 could now potentially become a kogyaru, making the style open to non-Tokyo girls and the middle classes.
Even now Shibuya 109 is the main fashion instigator for gyaru style. One of the reasons for the complex’s enduring success has been the brands’ innovation in retailing methods, namely creating strong relations between customer and shop clerk. In the late-1990s, many of the original kogyaru started to get jobs at 109 shops, and they became authoritative figures of the movement. Referred to as “super charisma clerks” (スーパーカリスマ店員), these 20-something workers took their responsibilities far beyond mere in-store transactions and acted as spokespeople in the media for their brands. The word “charisma” here does not necessarily indicate “charm” like its English root; it denotes something like “authoritative power,” which in the retail context means the ability to influence the purchase decisions of fans and followers. Young kogyaru would come into the stores, ask shopping advice of the super charisma clerks as big sisters, and then buy whatever was recommended to them. The clerks then became featured in magazines as the brand spokespeople, leading to even more fans from across the country coming to 109 to meet them and buy whatever they recommended. The stores smartly knew that the clerks were important business assets and listened to them for tips on merchandising and marketing — leading to a bottom-up type of business that exists to this day. The 109 brands are known to make quick product changes based on the gyaru’s preferences.
So while Shibuya 109 marked the mediation and commercialization of the once organic kogyaru style, the retail structure helped keep the actual girls in control of setting trends — rather than big brands and magazine editors.
Gyaru culture goes mainstream: Amuro Namie, purikura, and choberigu
In the second half of the 1990s, kogyaru style finally broke into the mainstream. The look itself still carried delinquent overtones, and the girls dying their hair chestnut brown did so because of the act’s rebellious nature. Other parts of kogyaru style, however, became less controversial decisions in the consumer space and dominated the pop culture of the time.
Amuro Namie is a perfect example of “safe” gyaru culture — a kogyaru-like singer who became the most popular female artist of the 1990s before the rise of Utada Hikaru. The exotic looking, Okinawan Amuro had spent the early years of the decade as the leader of an unsuccessful singing-dancing unit called The Super Monkeys, but after joining burgeoning Eurobeat-influenced J-Pop label Avex Trax and working with super producer Komuro Tetsuya in 1995, Amuro achieved one of the greatest strings of hit singles in Japanese music history. The 1990s already saw incredible growth of the Japanese music market itself, and Amuro was J-Pop’s quintessential star of this era.
Although Amuro was not an actual kogyaru nor ever made any direct associations with the Shibuya movement, Amuro became the first gyaru icon in broader mainstream culture. Her hair and skin color appeared to be an almost natural version of the kogyaru’s artificial look. And whether accidental or stylist-planned, her outfits became increasingly linked to the trends coming out of Shibuya 109. This not only further moved hardcore gyaru style away from its schoolgirl roots but also created a new style tribe called amuraa (Amurers) who dressed in imitation of the star. The amuraa were lumped in with gyaru style and soon the two groups melded together. The July 1996 issue of egg, for example, dedicated two pages to “Get!! the Amurer,” canonizing the style as straight shag hair, a navel-showing top, and high boots.
Meanwhile another innovation from gyaru culture became ubiquitous in Japan: purikura. Short for “print club,” these were small instant photos that could be taken within booths set up in game arcades and malls. When the machines went on sale in July 1995, the original intention was for salesman (or female night workers) to be able to take small face photos and put them on their meishi business cards. A year later, however, they began to take off within high school girl culture, with girls taking photos and then trading them with others (Namba 2006). These later became an integral tool for gyaru expression, with pages and pages laid out in gyaru media such as egg. Certainly purikura were not limited to gyaru or Shibuya, but they were one of the first products where mass diffusion started with high school girls in Tokyo as the early adopters. The 1990s became the school girl era — for much wider swaths of society than just lecherous men. Marketers camped out in the Shibuya streets trying to get schoolgirl opinions of new products.
This idea of gyaru cultural leadership also spread to the linguistic realm. A new set of slang words, attributed to the kogyaru, became the talk of Japan. Specifically, the term cho beri gu — meaning “super good” — or cho beri ba — meaning “super bad” — became some of the most talked about new phrases in the mid-1990s. Gyaru certainly had started using the slightly unusual superlative cho (超) in regular speech, but the whole suite of cho words did not spread directly from the gyaru but went mainstream from use in TV shows such as Kimura Takuya drama Long Vacation. It is unclear whether kogyaru ever actually used these terms with any sort of frequency, but the words combined with the rise of Amuro and enjo kōsai to suggest that the kogyaru subculture went beyond a mere style fad and represented a greater shift in female values. The kogyaru looked, spoke, and acted differently than previous generations.
Namba (2006) uses these linguistic clues to place the peak of kogyaru style in 1996, as “Amurer”, “cho beri gu”, “enjo kōsai”, and “loose socks” all made the top ten in the annual Ryukogo Taisho slang awards (流行語大償). By the end of the 1990s, the original kogyaru subculture of delinquent private school Tokyoites suddenly reached almost every teenage girl in Japan — whether in style or language.
The Birth of egg and the Gyaru Media
Just as kogyaru style started to mix with the mainstream, more and more girls became attracted to the core gyaru subculture situated in Shibuya. But just like with any great influx into an established small culture, the original class purity of kogyaru style became diluted as time went on. The new kogyaru masses were mostly middle-class — perhaps from private schools but not necessarily from the most affluent families in Tokyo. Younger and younger girls also started wearing the kogyaru style, leading to a new term mago-gyaru (grandchildren gals) for middle schoolers. More importantly, teenage delinquents from outside of Tokyo, who in the past would have likely joined female-only motorcycle gangs called ladies, started showing up in Tokyo. (Tokyo Damage Report had an excellent interview with one from Shizuoka.) The end result was that gyaru had taken over Shibuya. They swarmed in huge numbers around Shibuya 109 and in the Center-gai area.
Despite the growing numbers, none of the Japanese publishers were rushing to create new magazine titles intentionally targeted towards kogyaru. Members of the subculture had always read the surfer girl mag Fine, but it wasn’t a “kogyaru” magazine per se. A few titles started showing up in the 1990s, including Tokyo Street News in 1994 and Cawaii! in 1995 but neither made any serious social impact nor became the official mouthpiece of the movement. (Cawaii! later became an important part of gyaru culture but early issues did not cover the more hardcore kogyaru).
The kogyaru finally got their own central media source, however, with the rise of egg. Founded in August 1995 and subtitled “Get Wild & Be Sexy,” egg began its life as a magazine for men interested in the not-so-wholesome 20-something party girls at clubs and on the streets of Shibuya. In its original incarnation, the magazine focused on new B-grade tarento, race queens in bathing suits, and party girl snaps, but was not particularly interested in kogyaru or the emerging new Shibuya high school style. Editor Yonehara Yasumasa, however, convinced the mag that the real “wild and sexy girls” were the kogyaru in Shibuya. Yonehara started running pages and pages of the kogyaru in a gritty documentary style — polaroids, home-shot photos, and later, purikura. The girls mugged, stuck out their tongues, mooned the camera, and generally showed themselves up to no good in trains and other public places. While guys may have gotten a kick out of the photos, the girls were clearly taking the shots for themselves. Although more streetwise and vulgar, the photos resembled the “girls photography” art movement spearheaded by Nagashima Yurie and Hiromix — giving both men and women the chance to gaze into the private space of teenage girls.
By 1997, Yonehara’s focus on the gyaru had taken over egg, and the editors decided to fully flip the magazine to being a female-focused title with its April 1997 issue. The June 1997 issue, for example, is pages upon pages of polaroids and reader-submitted photos with overlaid hand-drawn illustrations. The magazine retained some of its older attributes — how-to guides for less common sexual practices and lurid testimonials from girls about their own experiences. With egg making the transition, a host of other gyaru mags also came into existence — Heart Candy (Toen Shobo), Pretty Club (Core Magazine), Happie (Eiwa Shuppan), and Street Jam (Bauhaus). Namba (2006) notes that almost all of these publishers normally printed erotic titles. Despite the mainstreaming of gyaru style, no major publisher would touch the look with a stick — or at least believed it could build a mainstream publication that attracted top tier advertisers and brands.
In the five years since its emergence in Shibuya, the kogyaru style took on massive changes — a shift from a privileged to a mainstream audience, an expanding retail network, and with egg, a clubhouse newsletter. Yet viewing the kogyaru in egg from the late 1990s reveals that the style itself had not changed much. The standard look was still a private school uniform with Burberry scarf and loose socks. The Shibuya core adherents may have started to developed their own style and understood as increasingly charai — an adjective meaning cheap and superficial. Yet the kogyaru were not yet associated with the traditional working class yankii lifestyle. Kogyaru dated surfer-tanned urban guys in long hair who liked to go to dance clubs and wear V-neck sweaters — not ridiculous bikers in giant regents. Yankii types may have been moving to Shibuya to become gyaru but around 1998 there was still much class ambiguity about who the kogyaru were and were becoming.
With the low-culture egg as the main media and an increasing influx of delinquents from around Tokyo into Shibuya, however, the kogyaru look was primed to combine with the long-standing yankii cultural stream. This would happen at the very end of the decade with what we will look at next time — the intentionally shocking style called ganguro.
Across Editorial Desk. Street Fashion 1945-1995. PARCO, 1995.
Kawai, Hayao. “The Message from Japan’s Schoolgirl Prostitutes.” Japan Echo. Vol. 24, No. 2, June 1997.
Kawashima, Yoko. Tokyo Fashion Buildings. Nihon Keizai Shimbun Shuppansha, 2007.
“Kogal Interview.” Tokyo Damage Report. March 19, 2009.
Kristof, Nicholas D. “Tokyo Journal; A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac.” New York Times. April 2, 1997.
Kurihara, Masukazu. “25sai ni nattemo nukedasenai ‘moto enkōshojo’-tachi no kurayami.” Takarajima. February 2008.
Leheny, David. Think Global, Fear Local: Sex, Violence, and Anxiety in Contemporary Japan. Cornell University Press, 2009.
Marx, W. David. “Interview with Yasumasa Yonehara” MEKAS. January 29, 2009.
Namba, Koji. “Concerning Youth Subcultures in the Postwar Era, Vol. 5: ‘Ko-gal’ and ‘Urahara-kei,’” Kwansei Gakuin University Sociology Department #100, March 2006.
Pons, Philippe. “Schoolgirls pander to the Lolita Fantasy.” The Guardian Weekly. Dec. 8, 1996
Reitman, Valerie. “Japan’s New Growth Industry: Schoolgirl Prostitution.” Wall Street Journal. October 2, 1996.