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.