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Japan's Unmarketable Delinquents

Page history last edited by Jeff Harris 10 years, 9 months ago

Japanese Youth Subcultures: From Marketable to Dangerously Deviant


Japanese youth pop-culture has seen a steady rise in popularity in the west since the late 1980s, perhaps starting with music subcultures that ranged from bubblegum-punk bands such as Shonen Knife, to much harder punk bands like G.I.S.M., and eventually emerging into the American mainstream in the form of manga translated in English, the “cute” aesthetic which now permeates much of the west’s more colorful youth fashion (think Hello Kitty meets Vivienne Westwood).




The Marketable


Many westerners between the ages of 15 and 40 have at least passing knowledge of some of the more colorful aspects of certain Japanese youth subcultures.  Japan’s loli-goth has infiltrated not only goth fashion in the west, but has also spawned a full fledged Lolita style that is based purely on Japanese Lolita style. Hairstyles and clothing styles from Harajuku and manga see their direct descendents in the look of American "emo" styles. 




These (mostly fashion) subcultures in Japan often run counter to western stereotypes that Japan is a homogenous and straight-laced society with little tolerance for cultural deviation, and at least some part of the west's admiration for these finds its roots in the odd cognitive dissonance caused by these differences. There also seems to be an acknowledgment that at least some of this non-mainstream Japanese youth culture is, to put it simply, cooler than its western counterpart, partially for purely aesthetic reasons, but also, one can assume, because it is so unexpected given the western stereotypes. Subscribers to this notion have bought into what is often referred to as “Japan Cool,” which mines Japanese delinquent subcultures for fashion cues and cultural trends. This is the sort of thing that Japan is happy to export, and while not an economic driver, it has the effect of giving Japan a certain pop-cultural cache that it might not otherwise have -- a fact which is not entirely lost on the establishment.



There may also be some substance to the idea that in the past decade, possibly due to new socialization modes made possible by the Internet, the ideal of the private individual has eroded somewhat, and the social structures and youth cultures of Western societies have found more in common with Japanese youth, and more to be admired in the culture -- at least inasfar as the aesthetich output is concerned. But whatever the reason, the west has increasingly become a target for fashion marketing as regards Japanese trends.


A perfect example of this type of marketing of youth subcultures across cultural borders, albeit in reverse direction, can be seen in the "amemura" punks in Osaka, who pay hundreds of dollars for outfits resembling early UK punk fashion, with holes pre-cut in trousers and t-shirts, and with safety pins already arranged on leather jackets. 



Joi Ito illustrates this sort of punk thusly: "When punk rock came into Japan and you could bump into a punk kid who wore a "fuck off and die" button on his shirt, that looks pretty rebellious, there was still a significant difference. You bump into him on the street, he's going to say 'excuse me, I'm sorry.' And that doesn't change, you see."


Punk culture —from which the button’s attitude comes — came to Japan through mass media (especially magazines) in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and was mostly marketed to and read by the upper middle classes.  Thus, the notion of "punk" in Japan was by default a consumer “fashion,” rather than any sort of organic phenomenon that manifested as a result of rebellious attitudes. The very media which spread and promoted this aesthetic did not advocate any sort of political stance or otherwise "real" outlook or stance. "Punk" kids in Japan have always been primarily drawn from the consumer classes,  the net effect of this being that any kind of authentic punk attitude has a real social risk for those most likely to buy punk fashion. The same may well be true of the west now, as it becomes more enamored of some of the more outlandish Japanese trends. However, for the most part, the true cultural fringe in Japan does not lend itsel well to marketing.


Japan's "Real" Punks: Yankii, Bosozoku, and Yamamba


Japan’s real punks — the yankii, the bosozoku, and the hardcore yamamba (a subset of gyaru) — are not a part of this consumerist world and embrace a “punk” attitude as part of their lifestyle. They would not bow to you if you accidentally bumped them. So the reason that “rebellious-looking” teens follow the set rules is because they have imported a “rebellious” look as a look. Otherwise, their values are aligned with other members of middle-class society. This explanation that “punks are really polite,” however, only accounts for middle class teens. Working-class delinquent teens, who are not officially パンク系 but are punks in the broadest sense, are less likely to follow social rules.





These groups offer no products to buy and few individuals to admire; we are simply attracted to their sheer existence out of a Romantic fascination with anti-social organizations costumed in unique and outrageous style formulas. As evidence, a

 a snippet of conversation between Mark Allen and Ed Shepp at a WFMU Holiday Party:


Mark: Gyaru girls are...remember years ago those teenage girls in Osaka and Tokyo that dressed in that elaborate goth-futuristic-new-romantic-kind-of street style, and were photographed in magazines like FRUiTS and stuff?

Ed: Yeah.

Mark: Ok, well that whole scene faded away and now they all want to look like Paris Hilton.

Ed: Really?

Mark: Yea, but it's this really catawampus version of Paris Hilton, like California beach bunnies by way of Witchiepoo or Leigh Bowery. Just nuts, like I can't even describe it.

Ed: Oh my God! I've seen that! Don't they have long hair, and white block shapes on their eyes and are tan...like super-tan?

Mark: Yeah, like blackface! It's been going on for a while. There's whole armies of them over there...armies of blackface Witchiepoo Paris Hiltons attacking from Tokyo.

Ed: Oh my God! When do they get here?




Beyond Fashion: More Than a Look


Although foreigners seem to be keen on fashion delinquents and delinquent fashion, Japanese policy-makers and domestic gate-keepers have never had much reason to view these disparate and desperate youth as anything other than vermin. They are seen not as modern Japanese culture worthy of exportation, but as serious nuisances, and are an embarrassment and a danger to the civil code. Many ganguro gyaru are homeless runaways, and various street drugs are a large part of both Ganguro and Bosozoku life (club drugs for gyaru, and shabu -- a form of crystal meth developed by the government for kamikaze pilots in WWII -- for bosozoku). hese kids are generally not nice Japanese kids with a fashion veneer of defiance. Make no mistake, they are delinquents:






Delinquent in Japan Does Not Equate with James Dean Style Rebel


In spite of their total rejection of mainstream Japanese homogeneity, these groups expect a high degree of conformity from their constituents. There are rules strict rules for bosozoku gangs, and an official code of conduct for certain ganguro tribes. 


The homogeneity of both vehicle and the ritualistic and almost orchestrated movements of the vehicles in this video belie a root culture that demands submission to the group:




In the world of ganguro, there are strict divisions among types, to the point that even an outsider can quickly spot the difference between different tribes:


Ganguro gyaru (ガングロギャル) - a gal with an artificial deep tan and bleached hair. Kogyaru - generally a high school student (高校生 kōkōsei).




Gyaruo (ギャル男) - the gyaru's male counterpart:



Oyajigyaru (オヤジギャル) - from oyaji and gyaru. A gyaru who behaves in a masculine way, who drinks beer and uses rough language. Onegyaru (お姉ギャル) - a gyaru who has graduated from high school, and thus become a more mature onee-san (literally "elder sister" but, here, "young lady"). The style is more sophisticated. Ogyaru (汚ギャル) - a dirty or disheveled gyaru who may forsake daily baths or takes little care in her behaviour and dress, even by gyaru standards. Gyaruo (ギャル男)



Manba (マンバ) - deep tan and contrasting white make-up. Their hair is usually pastel-coloured or blonde, and very long and back-combed. Their clothes are neon and layered:



Kigurumin* - wear kigurumi, - a type of pajama-suit that resembles an animal and sometimes cartoon characters.



(note that kirigurumin style actually does lend itself to marketing, but it's possibly just a little too weird to make it to the west)


Props to:


All non-Japanese who have ever gone to Japan and had the wherewithal to take picturesand post them on the Internet (something I really wish I had done -- I never even owned a camera when I lived there).


W. David Marx, cultural critic.  If you enjoy reading post structuralist cultural critique targeted at liberal arts post-grad types, his blog about Japan pop and art culture in Japan is the ticket: http://neojaponisme.com/


Joi Ito: http://joi.ito.com/weblog/ (another blog that does not constitute light reading -- always very interesting though)


WFMU (New Jersey/ New Yawk City -- the only radio station I know of that had one of my records in heavy rotation for two months running!)


This is also just too weird to not post: http://i663.photobucket.com/albums/uu353/iogl/IMG_6171small.jpg


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