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The History of the Gyaru - Part Three

In Part Three of our three-part series on the famed Japanese female subculture (Part One, Part Two), we examine the sharp turn in 1999 from the mainstream kogyaru look to the extreme styles of dark-faced ganguro and yamamba. By the end of the decade, the gyaru would merge with the yankii and become a archetypal working class delinquent subculture.

The Extreme Turn to Ganguro: 1999-2003

By 1998, Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood overflowed with thousands and thousands of high-school girls adhering to kogyaru-inspired trends, who shopped at Shibuya 109, read the magazine egg, worked increasingly with marketers from large companies, and dominated the sexual fantasies of men’s magazines. The female subculture spent most of the 1990s tarred by the enjo kōsai schoolgirl prostitution panic, but with so much kogyaru-driven media in the marketplace in the late 1990s, the group was finally moving closer towards mainstream acceptance.

Full social integration of the style, however, was not to be. At the end of the decade, the gyaru subculture made one of the most radical shifts of any Japanese fashion subculture ever, embracing an eccentric and shocking personal style that frightened and disgusted wider society and turned away regular high-school students who had once looked to the gyaru for their fashion cues. The kogyaru had entered into the era of ganguro — and there was no turning back.

The Gyaru Class Drift Downward and Their New Fashion Look

In 1997, writer Baba Hironobu published a book on kogyaru called Shibuya-kei vs. Kamata-kei, likely the first work that noticed a split growing within the new subculture. Baba well understood the nature of the original Shibuya gyaru — their origin from wealthy Setagaya-ku homes and rich delinquent style of hiked up skirts from prestigious high school uniforms. At the same time, he noticed a growing number of kogyaru hailing from Tokyo’s less affluent neighborhoods such as Kamata (蒲田) in Ōta near Kawasaki and Kamata (鎌田) near the Tama River. As short-hand, he thus calls these new gyaru “Kamata-kei.” These new recruits tanned themselves a much darker color and colored their hair in silver-y streaks called messhu (from the french mèche). The book’s cover shows an almost Jomon vs. Yayoi-esque battle between the two kogyaru subsets — a dark-skinned Kamata gyaru and a light-skinned Shibuya gyaru.

Baba believed that this battle was actually over: In Shibuya, the original wealthy “Shibuya-kei” originators had fled the area and the “Kamata-kei” gyaru were making up the bulk of the actual kogyaru population. And with this change, the fashion started to look cheaper. Baba attributes this to the Kamata-like areas being home to small-to-medium businesses that suffered most from both the burst of the Bubble and the globalization of Japanese economy in the 1990s. Essentially the Kamata-kei girls were lower middle class trying to imitate a wealthy youth subculture, but in the process, they changed the aesthetic and its values. Needless to say, Baba assigns enjo kōsai to the Kamata-kei girls — not the original Shibuya gyaru.

Baba should not be the ultimate authority about gyaru history, but his book makes the critical observation of the class split that transformed the kogyaru subculture. The new breed of gyaru were overwhelmingly from lower-middle class backgrounds and neighborhoods far from Shibuya. They lacked the spending money of the original kogyaru, which moved the fashion into cheaper directions and lowered the “class” (gara, 柄) of the Shibuya streets. At the same time, the kogyaru were no longer confined to Shibuya. Ikebukuro — a much less prosperous commuter hub in North Tokyo — became well-known as a kogyaru haunt — as well as the east side of Shinjuku around the ALTA Building. The gyaru love life changed as well. In gyaru magazines, readers stopped requesting editors to send information about guys at prestigious Tokyo schools and instead asked about the hunks at lower-rung schools (Namba 2006).

Lower socioeconomic status teens had always had their own subcultures in Japan. Starting in the 1970s, Japanese delinquent teens in working class neighborhoods, mostly outside of Tokyo, started organizing into a subculture called yankii that revolved around modified school uniforms and bike gangs called bōsōzoku. Yankii girls followed the concepts of the male style; the sukeban long-skirt look of the late 1970s was basically identical in form to the men’s banchō tinkering of the Prussian schoolboy outfit. Meanwhile yankii women joined biker gangs called rediisu (Ladies/Lady’s) in imitation of their bōsōzoku brethren, adopting the jump suit aesthetic and strict hierarchy of their male peers. The rediisu peaked in 1991, with around 10,000 female bikers across Japan (Macias 37).

Yet once the kogyaru style appeared, the delinquent girls looking for a welcoming social group, who would have joined the rediisu in the past, instead saw something appealing in the kogyaru and headed to Shibuya. Yankii style had always been oppressively masculine, while kogyaru style exaggerated the feminine, cute, and sexy — all things denied in traditional female yankii circles. No doubt many Japanese young women found the gyaru’s female-focus a more attractive path than trying to mimic the hard-ass kōha aesthetics of their boyfriends.

So with kogyaru a new style option for delinquent female teens in the mid-1990s, high schools across Japan saw ruptures in delinquent aesthetics between girls who became bikers/aligned with classic yankii values and girls who became gyaru. The former kogyaru interviewed on Tokyo Damage Report notes that when she took up gyaru fashion, the style contrasted starkly with traditional working-class yankii style. She explains that the yankii girls “hated us, because they were the old trend, and we were the new trend.” By the end of the 1990s, however, there were no more rediisu left — they were all gyaru now. The interview subject continues: “A lot of junior high yankii girls turned gyaru, and soon the remaining yankiis were totally outnumbered.” There was no coincidence that the classic rediisu biker magazine Teen’s Road stopped publishing in 1998. That entire subculture had essentially vanished and been absorbed into the gyaru. (As further proof of this, many former rediisu dress in a classic 2000s oneekei gyaru style.)

So as these girls started to join the gyaru ranks, they added their basic cultural DNA to the pool. Former Editor-in-Chief of egg said “The source [of gyaru style] was surfer clothing and accessories, but then people who would have been called yankii a decade ago mixed into that. Gyaru style is the clothing of a certain type and also a reaction against society” (Namba 2006). Even Queen of the Gyaru Hamasaki Ayumi would openly admit that she spent her teen years as a “yankii.” The two cultures had merged.

And with this new hybrid gyaru-yankii culture around 1998, the kogyaru movement started to move away from its roots. The first round of style evolutions had the air of conscious divergence from the base material but stayed overall in line with the summer-obsessed principles of gyaru fashion. Accompanying the aforementioned mèche streaky or bleach blond hair came color contacts in blues and greens — all on top of much deeper shades of salon tan. Most famously the new gyaru started to take up enormous platform boots, inspired mostly by Amuro Namie, but taken to extremes and much maligned in the wider culture. Not only were the boots gigantically high and caused the girls to walk in an awkward hunch, they were thought to be deadly: A woman driving in platform heels crashed her car as her shoes got stuck in the pedals (Ono/WSJ). Moreover, the platform boots bucked the traditional idea that women should be diminutive in both attitude and physical size (Namba 2006). But these men-repelling boots were just the tip of the iceberg — the entire gyaru style began to move away from being sexy and uke (“attractive to boys”) and into an anti-uke style meant to impress female peers more than possible boyfriends.

Between these style changes and the rise of central community magazines such as egg, the new girls in the movement understood that they were no longer just imitating the 1990s look but creating something of their own. So they voraciously rejected the term kogyaru and rechristened their style with the original term “gyaru.” Kogyaru would be reduced to an dead slang term that would only refer to a historical period of 1990s female fashion.

And with so many girls clustered in Tokyo’s commuter hubs, hanging out in the streets, it was inevitable that groups of guys in the same age range would rush to their side. Called gyaru-o (ギャル男), these young men intentionally dressed in a masculine version of gyaru style — with the intention of hitting on the gyaru. They looked like Kimura Takuya-lookalikes: shoulder-length brown hair and caramel salon skin. They were also called V-o (V男) due to their love of V-neck sweater vests, mostly worn over T-shirts (Namba 2006). To the outside world, they appeared to be clubbing lethario types in Gucci loafers and baggy dark clothing. But in their pursuit of the darker-faced gyaru, these men started to take on stylistic aspects of the female subculture — especially the tanned skin. The end result was a women’s fashion look influencing a parallel style in men’s fashion — rather than the other way around. The traditional man → woman influence seen in yankii and rediisu had been reversed. The gyaru style did not just take over female fashion but also strongly influenced men too.

Ganguro — “Black Face”

As ridiculous as the giant platform heels looked, this would be a relatively minor step in the gyaru style evolution. Attention soon turned from wild clothing to extreme transformation of the face and hair.

Around 1999, the gyaru started to take on a deep tanning and make-up style pejoratively called ganguro — a term written in katakana but literally meaning “black face.” This took the light surfer tan of the original gyaru and pushed it so far it became an unnatural, deathly shade. The ganguro look required either long hours at a tanning salon or just slathering on very dark face cake base make-up (see tutorial here). With skin so dark, the standard gyaru make-up would no longer be visible, so the ganguro gyaru started wearing white or otherwise bright make-up, thus creating a “panda”-like reversal of skin tone and highlights. Girls also started attaching fake eyelashes to draw more attention to the eyes. This facial look was then added to lightly-colored orange or silver hair, thus suggesting an almost photographic negative of the normal face. With ganguro, the original kogyaru aesthetic had gone Frankenstein.

For as extreme as the look was, it caught on quickly in the community and became a standard part of gyaru culture. The magazine Da Capo did a survey in August 18, 1999 and found that 99.5% of egg readers were ganguro (Namba 2006). With ganguro being so far removed from other female fashion looks, being a gyaru now required shocking style choices rather than just adding a few Shibuya trends into an otherwise cutesy high-school wardrobe.

Ganguro was not the furthest point, however. An even more daring version became known as gonguro — a style which Patrick Macias in Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno describes as looking “burnt beyond all recognition.” Then developed the most far-out faction, the yamamba — “mountain witches” — with pitch black faces, Halloween white make-up, face stickers, and rainbow-colored stringy hair. If ganguro were taking the natural aspects of surfer style into unnatural places, yamamba was full costume with almost no relations to mainstream style. One of the most outrageous aspects to develop in the yamamba look was white streaks painted on the nose, which had more in common with tribal warpaint than the entirety of post-war Japanese fashion.

Needless to say, the entire Japanese media went completely insane over the ganguro and yamamba. The most angry may have been the men’s magazines, who had coddled the kogyaru over a decade as new sex objects only to have them move their style into direct confrontation with the male libido. In her essay, “Black Faces, Witches, and Racism against Girls” in Bad Girls of Japan, scholar Sharon Kinsella collects quote after quote from the weekly male magazines disapproving of look, especially as ganguro girls started to appear in pornographic films. Female critics were not any more kind: Kinsella finds a 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.’”

Kinsella believes the root of ganguro-loathing exists in the racist underpinnings of Japanese society. She writes:

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.

While this may certainly have played a part in setting the parameters of the discussion, the girls deserve much more credit for having intentionally engineered the ganguro look to frighten off anyone not in gyaru circles. They may have unconsciously tapped into long-standing racial and skin color prejudices to settle on a darker skin, but their goal was extremity rather than racial reference itself.

Ironically, however, the ganguro brought a close to the moral panic of the kogyaru age — when everyone worried about the daughters of good families drowning in the moral ambiguity of the Bubble era. The kogyaru looked plausible as “normal girls” gone bad, but the ganguro were clearly an anti-social subculture in the classic mold, who Kinsella hears constantly described as “dumb, dirty, and ugly.” There was social wrath and disgust towards the ganguro, but they were essentially ignored as common deviants.

Viewed within the context of Japanese fashion, however, the ganguro phase of gyaru style was fairly radical — especially in its complete detachment from classic or contemporary American or European styles (Namba 2006). While the original gyaru style was loosely tied to American casual and Hawaiian surfer looks, ganguro blew these signifiers so far out as to make their fashion completely home-grown. Certainly the gyaru had a vague desire to transform themselves away from being “Japanese,” but the style itself grew straight out of the Japanese streets. One had to travel to Shibuya or Ikebukuro, not London or New York, to see “authentic” gyaru. No one may have noticed at the time, but this was a concrete step in Japan finding pride in its own domestic, non-designer fashion — overcoming the constant dull pain of an inferiority complex towards style originators overseas.

The gyaru also had freed themselves from the subtle class anxieties at the heart of mainstream consumer culture. In his 2001 book My Homeless Child, sociologist Miura Atsushi writes, “From a class perspective, ganguro girls did not think at all about looking like the people who belonged to the class above their own. In that way, this was an epoch-making fashion” (Namba 2006). At the same time, there were no celebrity models for ganguro. The gyaru had become almost completely free from the pressures of fashion’s classic authoritative groups — foreigners, the rich, celebrities — and instead only looked horizontally to their peers.

Why Did Gyaru Style Go Extreme?

Despite the normally quick fashion cycles in Japan, the clothing choices in the kogyaru subculture stayed relatively stable for the first five years. Why then did gyaru style suddenly go so extreme around 1998 and 1999 — from a relatively palatable light brown tan and slightly altered schoolgirl uniform to scorched faces, costume makeup, monstrous rainbow hair?

There are many causes to this dramatic shift, but they all link back to the explosion of the kogyaru population in the late 1990s. First and foremost, the growth of the gyaru had created an environment of negative attention from the rest of society — especially older men. The early kogyaru took up gruff speech as a defense mechanism against the constant sexual propositioning from older men, but as the enjo kōsai media boom filled Shibuya with even more men looking to pay teens for sex, the sexy kogyaru style — originally meant as a way to attract boyfriends of the same age — became a major liability. Hence girls had a immediate reason to move from a uke/mote style meant to please the opposite sex to the ganguro style that naturally turned men away. Dark skin and tall boots irked graying salarymen, which essentially solved the central problem of gyaru’s existence.

The speed and intensity of the changes in gyaru style, however, would not be possible without a centralized media to propagate fashion, and by 1998 girls across Japan could read egg, Cawaii!, and Popteen to see what was happening in Tokyo. In the early 1990s, an era with no specifically “gyaru” magazines, interested parties had to either go to the Shibuya streets or study short glimpses of the girls on TV. Gyaru magazines on the other hand focused on the most extreme aspects of gyaru style and made their dokusha amateur models into folk heroes. This propagated the most hardcore aspects to a large group of dedicated readers across Japan. Before there was a certain nonchalance to the gyaru style, but now the gyaru could study and copy the latest trends thanks to magazine blueprints. So not only were girls able to learn gyaru style in manuals, those manuals offered a more and more extreme style recipe.

As the gyaru style turned deeply inward, there was naturally going to be a desire to mark off the subculture from mass culture. And since mainstream style had already absorbed the basics of kogyaru fashion, more extreme looks like ganguro would be necessary to create the distinction. In other words, almost every high school girl looked like the original kogyaru in 1998, so gyaru who moved to Shibuya to be “gyaru” had to push the look in new directions to create a difference. This is a classic social dynamic — people are forced to create new signifiers to make distinctions between the in-group and out-group when their old signifiers are appropriated. The kogyaru interviewed on Tokyo Damage Report noted a huge shift from “new girls” who entered the look in 1999:

They’d been reading the magazines and studying the gyaru since they were 13, so they had basically passed through their “gyaru” phase while still in junior high. By the time they got old enough make a debut on the Shibuya streets, they were already past the “gyaru” phase! Everything was superlative — darker skin, shorter skirts, brighter colors, more extreme dieting…

In other words, gyaru who reached the peak age were not just fighting against the mainstream kogyaru style but also looking to move into new directions from their own past.

Nothing made a bigger impact on the values of late 1990s gyaru style, however, than the aforementioned influx of lower middle class and working class delinquent teens from the Tokyo suburbs or outside of Tokyo. There has always been a marked difference in values within Japanese upper class delinquent teen subcultures like the Taiyo-zoku, Roppongi-zoku, and chiimaa and lower class delinquent teen subcultures mostly based around the yankii and bōsōzoku. Rich teens can abdicate middle class responsibilities of study since their economic advantage and social connections guarantee a bright future. Working class teens, on the other hand, traditionally experience a period of rebellion in their mid-teens as they drop out of a college-oriented high school system. They, however, quickly “grow up” to take on manual labor jobs in their late-teens. These are two very different modes of teenage rebellion, and with the change in class composition of gyaru, the group slowly shifted from the former to the latter through the 1990s. Gyaru took on the typical values of working class rebellion and lost the original aspects of affluent dereliction.

In his book Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan, sociologist Sato Ikuya researched working class bōsōzoku living in Kansai during the 1980s and found a certain number of psychological drivers to the subculture. First and foremost was the desire to ”stand out” (medatsu). The bōsōzoku were unexceptional students destined for a life of unglamorous manual labor, and they used the brief flirtation with extreme costume and delinquency as a way to grab their local community’s attention. The easiest way to do this was through a shocking uniform that openly violated social norms — bleached hair, punch perms, work clothes festooned with right-wing slogans, and loud, chopped bikes. egg editor Yonehara Yasumasa explains this more simply, “Yankii are perfect examples of how Japanese people have the tendency to go too far with things.” Hence we should understand working class delinquency as a desire to push values into extremes.

More broadly speaking, however, working class yankii misfits were creating their own society, one in which they decided what is excellent and beautiful instead of being constantly told that they were failures. This links to American criminologist Albert Cohen’s subcultural theory that gangs have a “compensatory function.” As Dick Hebdidge summarizes, “working-class adolescents who underachieved at school joined gangs in their leisure time in order to develop alternative sources of self-esteem. In the gang, the core values of the straight world — sobriety, ambition, conformity, etc. — were replaced by their opposites: hedonism, defiance of authority and the quest for ‘kicks’” (Hedbidge 76). The yankii have been the Japanese youth subculture that most closely followed this typical global pattern.

So as yankii types drifted into the gyaru subculture, these new recruits changed gyaru style to fit their needs and inherent group values, imbuing the community with a rebellious and anti-social edge that would flip mainstream values on their head. The look thus got pushed into extremes within the old yankii context of “standing out.” Furthermore, yankii and rediisu had traditionally been strongly homosocial — in other words, bōsōzoku hung out with other guys, rediisu hung out with other girls. This orientation further contributed to the fashion being increasingly meant for fellow gyaru and not potential suitors.

In this, the yankii and ganguro gyaru adhered almost perfectly to the archetypes of subculture outlined in Dick Hebdidge’s landmark study Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdidge looked at British youth subcultures from the 1950s to 1970s, starting with the Teddy Boys whose interest in historical and fantastical outfits stemmed from being “effectively excluded and temperamentally detached from the respectable working class, condemned in all probability to a lifetime of unskilled work.” Ultimately Hebdidge saw subcultural style as an attempt to intentionally separate from society: “[the fashion looks] are obviously fabricated. They display their own codes or at least demonstrate that codes are there to be used and abused … The communication of a significant difference, then (and the parallel communication of a group identity), is the ‘point’ behind the style.” (Hebdige 101).

While Kinsella perhaps overplayed the racial elements (ganguro, for example, was not intentionally meant to imitate the look of African-Americans), she does correctly identify that the blackened skin itself worked as a naturally anti-social signifier, marking the ganguro off from not just straight society but other female subcultures. And once freed from need to attract men and look at least somewhat respectable, the girls entered into an echo chamber of the Shibuya streets and egg magazine. The reward structure favored intensity rather than modesty. As the ex-kogaru from Tokyo Damage Report says:

Maybe, if you are cute, but everyone around you is also cute, you want to stand out from them. And once you stand out, everyone else has to take it to the next level to stand out from you. It wasn’t so much an anti-society thing, it was more like an oblivious-to-society thing. All they cared about was out-doing their immediate circle of friends, and maybe getting in a magazine.

The rest of society may have watched on in horror, but the ganguro girls were getting exactly what they wanted out of the gyaru subculture: their own society, values, and fashions in which they were celebrated and rewarded.

The End of Gyaru?

As the streets of Shibuya “swarmed” with gyaru in the mid-1990s, the area brought to mind a Japanese version of London’s swinging mod Carnaby Street of the 1960s — a commercial area alive with a new youth fashion. By 2000, however, the rise of ganguro made the area more like late 1960s Haight-Ashbury — a meeting ground for the nation’s lumpen, middle-school drop-outs, and runaways. A new word developed o-gyaru (汚ギャル)— o is the on-yomi for “dirty” — to describe the ganguro types who partied all night, lived on the streets, used magic marker to paint on their eyebrows, and generally did not bathe, brush their teet, or change their underwear. The o-gyaru may have not been large in number, but they increasingly symbolized Shibuya style. (Personally I remember hanging around the streets of Shibuya in 2000 after the last trains and randomly being introduced to emotionally-scarred middle-school runaways.)

The neighborhood also filled with gyaru-mama – young single mothers who dressed in the gyaru style and brought their babies in strollers to hang out in Shibuya. This was another shock for the typical consumer culture of the neighborhood, where middle-class youth go to shop precisely because adult responsibility for work and family are very far away. Gyaru-mama brought the consequences of sexual activity and the typical life-pattern of non-urban, working class women too far to the forefront.

Throughout the 1990s, Japanese high school girls had been infatuated by the upper-class and confident kogyaru, but needless to say, the new Shibuya breed inspired much less imitation. In just a few years, the gyaru style had become an extreme and non-aesthetically pleasing costume with which “normal” girls did not want to associate themselves. The population lost new recruits from anyone other than yankii-types, thus starting the decline of gyaru style. egg stopped publishing for a few months in 2000. In April 2001, Spa! already noted the falling numbers in an article called “Where did all the ganguro platform boot gyaru go?” (Namba 2006). Upon my own moving to Tokyo in 2003, I had noticed that gyaru were basically non-existent other than tiny groups of hardcore hold-outs moving around Center-gai. In just a decade since their initial appearance, the gyaru were on the verge of extinction.

Things looked grim for gyaru style, doomed to be forever remembered in its most terrifying yamamba state. Yet things were far from over. Gyaru style would forever again be linked to heavy makeup and the yankii strata of society, but the next generation of gyaru would work incredibly hard to redeem the subculture from its anti-social nadir and raise the community’s social standing in wider society. As we will see next time [editor’s note: this follow-up piece never happened], gyaru style was about to experience an unexpected resurgence in the mid-2000s. Not only would the gyaru become the most important female fashion subculture in the 21st century, they would essentially take over pop culture.


Baba, Hironobu (馬場広信). Shibuya-kei vs. Kamata-kei (シブヤ系対カマタ系). Bunkasha, 1997.

Hebdidge, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1981.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Black Faces, Witches, and Racism against Girls.” Bad Girls of Japan. Ed. Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

“Kogal Interview.” Tokyo Damage Report. March 19, 2009.

Macias, Patrick, and Izumi Evers. Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno. Chronicle Books, 2007.

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.

Ono, Yumiko. “These Boots Aren’t Made for Walking But for Taking Stands” Wall Street Journal. November 19, 1999.

W. David MARX
June 6, 2012

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

The History of the Gyaru - Part Two

In Part Two of our three-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” 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 women 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.

W. David MARX
May 8, 2012

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

The History of the Gyaru - Part One

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.

W. David MARX
February 28, 2012

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

The Japanese Diet vs. Popteen

On January 2, 1983, the Japanese Diet called upon the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association’s Ethics Committee Chairman for a frank chat about the conspicuous increase of sexual content in young women’s magazines. In particular legislators were concerned about Gal’s Life (Shufu no Tomosha), Kids (Gakushu Kenkyusha), Elle Teen (Kindai Eigasha), Popteen (Asuka Shinsha), Carrot Gals (Heiwa Shuppan), and Maru Maru Gals (Toen Shobo). These were relatively popular titles at the time, with Gal’s Life selling a half-million copies a month and Popteen right behind it at 350K.

The publishing industry did little in response, and so in February 1984, Mitsuzuka Hiroshi, the Deputy Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, spoke out in the middle of the Lower House Budget Committee, complaining about the plague of explicit sexual articles in girls’ magazines, which he called “instructional classes on sex.” Mitsuzuka took the struggle from the Diet floor to the media, appearing on TV shows to further indict the publishers. Prime Minister Nakasone also weighed in: “There’s a worry that the sexual depictions in certain magazines for young women may lead to crime” and then hinted that he would be open to legislative or otherwise administrative action against the publishers.

Results were swift. The day after Mitsuzuka’s Diet speech, publishers Heiwa Shuppan and Gakushu Kenkyusha announced they would discontinue Carrot Gals and Kids, respectively. Gakushu Kenkyusha was in a particular bind as it had a huge business in another highly regulated field: educational text books. Popteen meanwhile pledged a new editorial direction. Gal’s Life changed its name to Gal’s City to escape the increasing social stigma and took out all the dirty articles. This was apparently not what readers wanted, however: Sales dropped so violently that Shufu no Tomosha put the title out to pasture one year later.

What was this sexual content that the Liberal Democratic Party were so concerned about? Essayist Sakai Junko remembers Gal’s Life as chock full of “juicy stories that covered the rawer parts of girls’ lifestyle.” Gal’s Life provided a stark contrast to Magazine House’s olive — a title that imagined all Japanese teenagers wanted to imitate the “good sense and elegance of Parisian lycéenne.” While digging through old issues of Gal’s Life, Sakai discovers these article headlines:

  • “Takada Namie’s Girl-Fight Dojo
  • “‘I’m sorry, baby’ — Abortion Experiences”
  • “The Exciting Vacation Before We Got Secretly Married”
  • I’m not a prostitute! The Lifestyle and Outlook of Miho, who works at a Shinjuku massage parlor”

There are few images of Gal’s Life available online, and this cover from 1980 has much less controversial headlines (although it does sport the amusing promise “You won’t be an ugly girl (busu) if you read Gal’s Life!”) The general sense, however, is that the magazines had a constant stream of salacious articles for young women on sexual topics, all blanketed in a general atmosphere of “documentary” reporting.

In his book Sōkan no Shakaishi (The Social History of Debut Magazine Issues), sociologist Namba Koji mentions a few articles in Gal’s Life such as “Gal Sex Report”, “Document: Love with a Man who Has a Wife and Children”, and “Comparison of Sex from Girls All Across Japan.” He then makes the obvious but crucial point that these are exactly the kind of articles one can expect from men’s magazines.

Framed this way, it is hard to understand the LDP’s crusade against “gal” magazines in the 1980s as anything other than patriarchal sexual hypocrisy. The issue is not “sexual content” itself in the market but who is partaking. As we all know, Japan does not have traditionally puritan attitudes towards sex, and conservatives had traditionally been the staunch advocates of legalized prostitution (against a coalition of women’s groups, socialists, and Christians who worked to outlaw it.) While the 1980s LDP may have been mostly removed from those particular 1950s battles, Mitsuzuka and company did seem bothered with idea that young women — maybe even from good families! — were speaking frankly about sexual experiences and trading tips.

To the LDP’s credit, 1984 was also the year the police started to crack down on an explosion of new sexual services. And perhaps the LDP was most concerned that these magazines explicitly targeted minors and intentionally or unintentionally worked to normalize sexual experiences outside of middle-class social expectations — dating married men, getting eloped, having abortions, working in the sex industry.

Most likely, however, is that the LDP were confused by a different principle all together: the rise of working-class yankii narratives in popular culture. Titles like Popteen and Gal’s Life were not intended for the ojōsama princesses of CanCam or the demure aesthetes of olive. In fact, these magazines built huge audiences by ignoring the slightly imagined, internationalized consumer world of good taste. Instead they spoke to the “real” lives of lower class yankii girls. While the data is not presently on hand, we can assume that working class teens in Japan — who have tended to marry at younger ages, are less busy with schoolwork, cram schools, and extracurriculars, and have less parental supervision — had more sexual experience than their Tokyo upper crust peers. This at least is the message that yankii women have tried to create for themselves in their own media. Starting with these 1980s magazines and carrying all the way to egg and Koakuma Ageha, there have been more explicit sexual articles in yankii/gyaru magazines rather than “good girl” magazines like an•an, non•no, With, or More. And moreover, the most salacious part of the magazine was often the “reader’s column” — where girls told endless and exaggerated sob stories of rapes, bullying, sexual promiscuity, dead boyfriends, and abortions. (I remember reading an issue of egg in 1999, right in the peak of the ganguro movement, that offered a guide to “How to Have Sex in a Car” as well as a particularly graphic reader about group sex in the ocean that involved sea shells.)

Without much perspective on these class-clustered sexual mores though, one can understand elitist politicians seeing gal magazines lined up equally on a bookstore rack with those proffering middle-class consumerist values, easily falling into the hands of a girl who would otherwise read about Chanel suits and marrying guys from Todai. She would be ruined forever! This is almost the virgin-whore complex grafted onto government policy. Interestingly, however, one of the main readerships for the controversial gal magazines was likely normal middle-class girls who liked to giggle at the sex stories and make fun of the yankii narratives. Nakasone and Mitsuzuka may have not known that these titles also inspired mockery from the very girls they hoped to protect.

In the end, only Popteen survived the 1984 gal magazine massacre. The editors promised to clean up the content but then slowly brought back articles about sex techniques and teenage delinquent life when the Diet had moved on to other problems and scandals. It may have also helped that society went through a “sex boom” right after the Diet hearing. Akimoto Yasushi’s mass idol group Onyanko Club was suddenly on TV every afternoon singing about how “being a virgin is boring” and how high school girls needed to have sex with their math teacher to get good grades.

In the mid-1990s, however, Popteen eventually dropped the delinquent lifestyle stories and became a pure style bible for the kogyaru army. This may have ironically been key to the magazine’s longevity. Whether advertiser pressure or consumer demand, there seems to be less desire these days for Japanese magazines to do anything other than provide excessive product details on the latest clothing. Even when Koakuma Ageha takes up frank talk about domestic violence and hostess lifestyles, the idea is dealing with harsh realities rather than sensationalizing for girls who want to fantasize about adult activities.

Yet there appears to be latent demand in Japan for female-oriented stories of sexual exploits and tragedies, as evidenced by the rise of the keitai novel — which writer Hayamizu Kenro has linked directly to the “confessional” narratives of yankii ladies biker mag Teen’s Road. The Diet may have temporarily killed off the teenage delinquent narrative industry but they could not stifle all the curiosity.

Bonus trivia: When Mitsuzuka held up Popteen in the Diet, the page was open to an illustration by now famed media critic Miura Jun.

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.

Sakai, Junko. “Girls’ Yankii Spirit.” An Introduction to Yankee Studies. Ed. Taro Igarashi, Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2009.

W. David MARX
January 24, 2012

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

2011: Thirty Years of CanCam

The end of 1981 saw the debut of a new women’s fashion magazine in Japan called CanCam. The name was curiously derived from the phrase “I can campus” and nominally targeted at female college students. Publisher Shogakukan created CanCam as a response to the popular magazine JJ from rival Kobunsha, which had arrived in 1975 and ushered in the “new traditional” (nyutora) boom in women’s fashion.

2011 thus marks the 30 year anniversary of that fateful January 1982 issue of CanCam, and while the magazine has seen a major decline in sales after the departure of iconic model Ebihara “Ebichan” Yuri, it is remarkable that this particular magazine of conservative Japanese fashion has stayed alive and relevant for so long, especially in lieu of recent days’ intense media churn.

Since CanCam put together a 30th anniversary issue and I got my hands on the debut issue for ¥105 in Nakano Broadway, I thought it would be useful to compare the two and see what has changed in the last three decades for the nation’s ojosama.

January 1982
The front cover, just as today, screams “Come On, Join Us!” — yet at the time, this call to arms was meant for an extremely limited set of women. In 1982 CanCam was not a media guide for a specific “consumer lifestyle” or fashion sub-group, but arguably, to an elite social class.

The issue’s main article “New City Formal ‘82 Manifesto” jubilantly suggests that readers dress in formal suits not just at “ceremonies” but as daily wear. Young women were expected to master the Louis Vuitton bag and a ¥480,000 Chanel suit — or its cheaper clone — as a complement to Western-style hotel lunches, airport visits, club house invites, theater, and something called “trad parties.” These idealized CanCam women do not just eat at hotels with other rich women once in a while but have a deep connection described as a “hotel life.” There is also an entire section on “what to wear to your après-ski disco party.” And these female college students apparently should know how to cook a Christmas chicken and other ultra-American dishes.

Yet despite CanCam‘s culture of the young madame, there was a certain level of cultural sophistication expected that you would never see in today’s likeminded magazines. There is an interview with former Happy End singer and “city pop” icon Ohtaki Eiichi as well as Chinese landscapes from famed photographer Shinoyama Kishin.

The overall effect is a magazine full of 21 year-old women who look middle-aged. At the time, Japan had spent a few years in the aforementioned nyutora boom. This was the country’s answer to American “preppie,” directly reflecting the culture and style of the nation’s most wealthy residents. The idea was to dress like women from good families in Kobe or Yokohama, shopping at their small shinise stores that had clothed the elite for decades. The initial issues of CanCam offered a guide to this unadulterated upper class dress, with absolutely nothing that could be considered “subcultural” influence. The magazine’s men meanwhile look like they were shipped in from a Spring semi-formal at Cornell: navy blazers, gray flannels, and red rep ties. If all fashion is indeed costume, the idea here was to look wealthier and older than your years — although not in a vulgar nouveau riche way. (A reminder: This is a few years before the Bubble economy.) The title of the issue’s hair guide could not make this message any clearer: “I want to look like an adult.”

This all boils down to the age-old “traditional” clothing ethic of TPO (time, place, and occasion) — coined by Ivy League-style instigator Ishizu Kensuke. But in this, CanCam connects its consumer focus to broader society. The editors were saying, you need to buy these things in order for you to properly participate in these activities at these locations with these worthwhile people. Not all the readers could necessarily replicate the lives of Japan’s affluent, but it says a lot that Old Money was the aspiration of the time.

By the middle of the first issue, however, CanCam suddenly admits that the fashion pages were a parochial fantasy, and that real women of the early 1980s dressed in a more casual and gaudy style. Suggestions for winter coats involve a “surfer” (?) variant that is just a varsity jacket. There is an article about vintage shopping in Osaka, where people are, gasp, wearing sweatsuits and bold primary colors. These glimpses of the real Japan show the degree to which the CanCam world was mostly imaginary, or at least, idealized and extrapolated from a tiny set of existing college students at the top private schools.

Ironically, this magazine, openly obsessed with Western culture, sees its biggest style antithesis in the actual American college students the editors encounter during a visit to “American campus life.” Every single student is in jeans and sweatshirts, co-habitating with their long-haired boyfriends in ragged apartments. (Surprise appearance from one time punk rocker, one time Harvard freshman, and now radio host Morley Robertson!)

Some bonus anachronisms:

  • A brand called “Gay togs” — Jeans for Gals
  • A call-out for Boz Scaggs’ Hits!
  • The inside cover ad is Shiseido using a model who looks like a Flash Gordon extra — thus predicting the techno-pop future that Japan would subsume Japan in the mid-1980s

January 2012
The January 2012 issue of CanCam (out in November 2011, natch) celebrates thirty years of publishing from the time of the fateful first issue. Although it spends most of its time celebrating the cult of CanCam rather than the lives of CanCam girls, there is enough material to see stark comparisons of how dramatically things have changed in the last 30 years.

First and foremost, the CanCam look has taken on heavy elements from gyaru culture. The style of CanCam has been known recently as o-nee-kei — “big sister style” — after the original 1990s kogyaru who grew up and became older, classier role models for the younger gyaru. These were the kogyaru who came primarily from upper to upper middle-classes — before the great “yankii-fication” of gyaru that happened in the late 1990s with ganguro. Yankii references, however, have slipped into any style related to gyaru aesthetics, so the pure upper-crusty-ness of the original CanCam has taken on lots of new signifiers that would have made the young madames of 1982 blush red like the beets in their New Otani salad.

This is most obvious in the preferred hairstyle — a pleasant golden brown — which would have gotten you expelled from private school back in the day. The Chanel-inspired tweedy suit still makes appearances, but alongside gaudy leopard print and phones bejeweled within every centimeter of their lives. Bags have teddy bears attached. The good news is that no one would confuse these women for being 40. They look their age, and more importantly, they look like they are having fun.

The original CanCam oddly spoke of a “campus life” while showing all the things women should be doing off-campus at hotels, airports, and private establishments. The new CanCam, however, has completely dropped the pretense that the readers are college students. The audience does include college students, but is mostly young Tokyo clerical workers of various class backgrounds. Most importantly they are not women living in the pockets of their parents, and so prices are more down-to-earth than the Chanel obsessions of 1982. In fact some of the clothing choices are actually cheaper than those presented in the original issue, despite 30 years of nominal inflation. The main section has entire outfits for around ¥20,000, which would have only bought you the left shoe of an Italian pair thirty years earlier. Tiffany & Co. makes an appearance but it’s jewelry for daily wear — not a single suit you’re likely to only put on once every few weeks.

CanCam also ceased its over-reliance on Western associations to create value and meaning. Although the typical CanCam-like magazine tends to use Tokyo’s more Western looking backgrounds for photoshoots, this particular 30th anniversary issue puts the models in intentionally Japanese places — a sento bath house, the downtown Asakusa neighborhood. They do visit Northern Europe as part of a Tintin advertorial, but the girls have been relieved of the impossible mission that everyone in Japan needs to suddenly become American.

Ultimately CanCam has given up being a newsletter for a specific social class in Japan, but instead, a highly welcoming consumer lifestyle that anyone can join. The issue’s front pages do the neat trick of dressing up idols from different genres, such as Momoiro Clover Z and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, into the CanCam style. The girls, despite their usual personas, look utterly plausible as mini-Ebichans, thus emphasizing the degree to which anyone can arbitrarily choose to buy into the style. There are no barriers to entry.

As a trade off, however, the magazine had to completely drop all reference to wider society. The clothing is suddenly an end to itself, rather than specific tools to fit with certain times, places, and occasions in a social calendar. Perhaps there is greater economic incentive to turning a magazine into a shopping catalog rather than a manners manual, but this also reflects the degree to which all girls in Japan now can find their styles on a magazine rack and their clothing in a major shopping complex. When everyone is invited to the consumer market and aspirations towards old wealth are over, explicit elite codewords and narratives get in the way and must be removed.

This is fine, of course. But one worrying thing is that the de-emphasis of “occasion” seems to also have removed the men from the magazine. CanCam in 1982 is full of guys in Ivy style, loitering around at some parent-funded disco party. In the modern CanCam, however, men almost never appear. The January 2012 issue does have a “Xmas date” section but you barely see the men. Christmas feels like complete obligation: Oh that day every year where I have to go out with my boyfriend. (Interesting the men look like members of EXILE rather than A students.) Meanwhile there are triumphant images of a flamboyant “kirakira” party scene and a year-end bonenkai that feature no men at all. The CanCam world has become almost exclusively homosocial — perhaps another influence from the yankii-fication of gyaru culture.

During the 2005 Ebi-chan — the peak of Japan’s second wave nouveau riche culture — CanCam did promise its readers that they could meet a doctor if they only wore the right shade of peach. But when no one ended up meeting doctors or tie-less entrepreneurs who would carry them over the threshold of Roppongi Hills Residence, that particular dream imploded. Hence came the rise of magazines ViVi and Sweet — style for girls who want to impress other girls. CanCam now reflects this slightly depressing sexless present, and maybe it has to. Japan’s lack of children stems from a lack of marriage which stems from falling salaries and job prospects for young men. The idea of over-promising an easy path to marriage with affluent men has become a cruel hoax. So the editors dropped the whole “men” thing and now celebrate those years when young women can be young women. “Come on, join us!” — just don’t expect to meet any guys.

W. David MARX
December 30, 2011

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.