The “regent” pompadour has been the go-to hairstyle for Japanese delinquents for more than eight decades. W. David Marx looks at how the infamous coiffure got its pseudo-English name and morphed from slick imitation of British royalty to fluffy blond biker parody.
In Japanese, the riizento (リーゼント) — written in English as “regent” — describes a men’s hairstyle where the sides are slicked back and top is left long and put up over the head in a pompadour. The term encompasses anything from the refined look of Ginza cocktail bartenders to the wild do’s of Hamburg-era Beatles and the exaggerated quiff of Kishidan’s Show Ayanocozey. But whatever the particular example, the regent has always been a powerful symbol of social defiance in Japan.
Despite the regent’s long-standing infamy, the hairstyle’s history is mostly undocumented in Japan. Many mysteries remain. First there is the origin of the name. The consonants in the katakana — “riizento” rather than “riijento” — suggest a pre-war coinage. Then there is the process of the regent’s evolution: How exactly did it go from a pomade-heavy gentleman’s look to the favorite of motorcycle gangs festooned with right-wing slogans?
The following essay hopes to explain the regent’s storied history, and in the process, get a glimpse into how delinquent culture developed in Japan during the post-war period.
The Pre-War Regent
During the late 1920s, the streets of Tokyo’s modern Ginza neighborhood swarmed with stylish youth. The mobo (“modern boy”) wore stylized suits with wide-leg pants, and their moga (“modern girl”) companions who mixed Western and Japanese dress. For their coiffure, the mobo slicked hair back with pomade in a look called the “all-back” (ōru bakku).
In 1933, Tokyo’s modern barbers hunted for the next look for modern gentlemen. An enterprising hairstylist in Ginza came up with a style where he slicked back the sides to the back of the head and then pushed the front up like a traditional takashimada bride. Looking for an exciting foreign name, the barber called it “the regent.” (1)
There are multiple theories of why the barber chose the word “regent.” Most believe it referred to “Regent Street” in London — either standing in for the spirit of British commerce or because the curve of the street resembled how the hair curved around the side of the head. The question is whether a Japanese barber in 1933 — a time when only the country’s very elite traveled overseas — would have known that Regent Street is curved.
Another theory is that the hairstyle is modeled after Edward VIII, who was not technically a “prince regent” but often performed the duties of his ill father George V. The Japanese regent did echo Edward’s hair relatively well. Further evidence of this link is an article about the regent in a 1936 issue of the Japanese barber periodical Nihon Riyō Tsūshin that includes a photo of Edward VIII upon his ascendance to King.
Whatever the case, the word “regent” — which pre-war katakana turned into riizento — played with an idealized vision of high-class British style. The hairstyle was the favorite of modern boys at dance halls as well as celebrities such as singer and comedian Kenichi Enomoto. Ginza barber Masuda Ekikichi further perfected the regent by iron-perming hair to better lay flat after being slicked back.
As the war with China amplified in the 1930s and Japan descended into military dictatorship, the Imperialist government prescribed short, battle-ready hairstyles for the nation’s young men. The regent became a target for suppression — not just for its length and wasteful use of pomade but also for its foreign name. Posters went up in barber shops requesting, “Gentlemen, please stop wearing long regents. Let’s appropriately cut out the excessive fuss. The conservation of supplies comes first!” (2). The true deathknell of the regent, however, was not government mandate but wartime scarcity. Once pomade became unavailable in the early 1940s, the look completely disappeared.
Japan emerged from the war in 1945 as a devastated, impoverished country occupied by a foreign army. But at least men were free to wear whatever hairstyles they pleased. As imported pomade appeared for sale in black markets like Ameyoko in 1947, the regent came back in style — the favorite of jazz musicians, bartenders, and gangsters.
A few rebellious teenagers sick of short-cropped hair and army buzz cuts also adopted the regent. They wanted to look like the glamorous stars they remembered from their youth. Called pejoratively apure (from the French term for the post-war, après-guerre), these teens dressed in imitations of American soldiers — un-tucked Hawaiian “aloha” shirts, rubber-soled shoes, and General MacArthur-style aviator sunglasses. Parents hated the ideas of teens regent not just due to its associations with the demi-monde but also for the idea that young men would waste money on expensive black market pomade rather than buy food for their families.
The timing of this 1947 revival is most interesting for the fact that the Japanese regent predates both the British “quiff” popularized by the Teddy Boy movement and the American boom for the pompadour accompanying Elvis Presley and James Dean’s stardom.
When Ishihara Shintarō’s hit novel and then film Season of the Sun brought the Sun Tribe (Taiyō-zoku) into vogue in 1955, affluent young men started wearing their hair shorter in imitation of Ishihara and his brother Yūjirō. The greasy regent managed to stay alive, however, in lower class circles — the “mambo” dance scene of 1955, hosts at night clubs, and yakuza. Similar groups in the countryside learned to love the regent when the Rockabilly fad of 1958 put Mickey Curtis, Masaaki Hirao, and Keijiro Yamashita on TV. Their floppy, vertical imitation of Elvis’ pompadour re-established the regent as a more wild look — and broke it out of its origin as a flat, slick hairstyle.
By the early 1960s and the start of middle-class youth consumer culture, the regent died off; it too vividly symbolized post-war delinquency. Yet the look re-emerged around 1966 as the leading hairstyle of the sukaman (“Yokosuka mambo”)— lower-class youth who hung around with American Navy seamen in Yokosuka and Yokota. With most rural white soldiers in buzzcuts, the sukaman found inspiration in their regents from black soldiers and soul musicians like James Brown. This resurgence only tarnished the regent further with a low class reputation: Go-gos and dance clubs in Tokyo proper explicitly called out on posters “No sunglasses, no regents .” The sukaman found this inconvenient but this only reinforced their own preference of the look for its clear power of defiance.
Bikers and rock’n’roll
In 1972, musician Yazawa Eikichi formed the back-to-basics rock band Carol inspired by the Beatles’ days as a workhorse R&B band on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. Also conscious of the Roxy Music-inspired 1950s revival in the U.K., Carol guitarist Johnny Ōkura dressed the band in menacing black leather jackets and leather pants — as well as hair in greasy long regents. Carol used a similarly-attired biker gang called Cools as security at their concerts, who later formed their own musical group.
Trendy members of the Tokyo creative classes loved Carol and wore their hair in regents in the vein of British Teddy Boy-revival counterparts. Once the brand Cream Soda set up shop in Harajuku to sell Fifties fashion in 1975, teenagers from across classes congregated in the neighborhood dressed like extras straight out of the film American Graffiti. The most extreme were the Rollers — men and women who dressed up in Fifties gear and danced around a boom box to “At the Hop.” Men wore regents — mostly refined into ducktails in imitation of 1950s Americans — and they wore them high and greasy.
In the countryside, Yazawa had an even greater influence on culture. He became the main fashion inspiration for early bōsōzoku teenager biker gangs. These working-class delinquent teens liked perms and did not go for precision combing, so their attempts at regents ended up using very little pomade. The slides were slicked back slightly but the top just went up and flopped around. As bōsōzoku became a national phenomenon, this new evolution of the regent became a useful symbol of illegal youth behavior. (The best visual reference on the web for this early look is the documentary God Speed You, Black Emperor.)
“When you imagine ‘yankii hairstyle,’ the first thing that floats into your mind is the regent, right?’ asks 2009’s handbook for provincial delinquent style, Yankii Daishūgō. The word “yankii” describes the wider subculture of working-class delinquents — essentially, bōsōzoku without bikes. As rock’n’roll fashion disappeared from Harajuku in the early 1980s, the regent remained in Japan exclusively as a yankii hairstyle — floppy and high, not greasy and flat.
During the early 1980s, yankii fashion had a moment in the spotlight between the popularity of band Yokohama Ginbae (“ツッパリHigh School Rock’n Roll”) and the Nameneko cats. The regent was the signature style. Compared to the pomade look of Fifties revival types, the yankii would use a hairdryer and a skeleton brush to tease up the hair into a V above the head. For further defiance of school rules, teens would bleach their regents into an ochre shade. The regent’s height above the head defined social status among delinquents; No one dared have a regent higher than the banchō head bully. (3)
This hardcore yankii look faded into obscurity by the mid-1980s, but manga such as Be-Bop High School canonized the regent as the yankii’s most definitive symbol. With subsequent revivals of bōsōzoku and Rollers, the regents kept getting higher and higher. At this point, any links to the original regents of 1930s Ginza gentlemen had been completely lost — it was simply an element of teenage rebellion. When the band Kishidan emerged in the early 2000s, leader Show Ayanocozey wore one of the most exaggerated regents ever to both celebrate and parody yankii culture.
Today, the yankii regent casts a long shadow over the hairstyle’s history, but this allows it to retain its status as the clearest marker of youth rebellion. For outside observers, the regent acts as a useful metaphor for how foreign culture enters and evolves in Japan. The original term hoped to imitate upper-class British style, but now the regent has become disembodied from its source. Those who wear regents most often connect it to Japanese style leaders like Yazawa and yankii bosses rather than London businessmen, the Beatles, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. The regent’s roots in the West are now irrelevant — it is perhaps Japan’s most original hairstyle.
(1) Masuda, Eikichi. Rekishi kara Mita Gendai no Heā-Fasshon (Contemporary Hairstyles as Seen From History). Zenkoku Riyō Kankyō EIsei Dōgyō Kumiai Renḡokai, 1972. p.71-72
(2) My translation of a quote from a placard in Tokyo’s Barber Museum.
(3) Yankii Daishūgō (Big Yankii Collection). East Press, 2009. p.55
• Mabuchi, Kōsuke. “Zoku”-tachi no Sengoshi (The Post-War History of the Tribes). Sanseido, 1989.
• Nanba, Kōji. Yankii shinkaron (The Evolution of Yankii). Kōbunsha, 2009.
• Yankii Bunkaron josetsu. (An Introduction to Yankii Studies). Ed. Tarō Igarashi. Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2009.