6 Japanese Subcultures That Are Insane (Even for Japan)
Japan is to crazy what the Middle East is to oil: sitting on quantities that can supply the rest of the world for decades. Of course, we say that with nothing but admiration. Their mind-blowing and often unsettling subcultures have faced the pressure of high expectations and stifling social codes, and responded by taking rebellion to new, terrifying places.
When lots of Americans picture Japan, they're picturing Tokyo--one big Blade Runner-esque city. But take the subway out of the city, past the endless suburbs and there's a Japanese heartland just as rough and tumble as the deepest parts of the South. There are even Japanese truckers.
But unlike American truckers, who spend their off hours doing meth and hiring inexpensive prostitutes, Japanese truckers spend their free time--and thousands of their yen--turning their trucks into something out of an extremely flamboyant, musical version of The Road Warrior.
Known as dekotora (a combination of the English words "decoration" and "truck") these guys add amazingly elaborate spoilers, lights, boxes and elaborate murals to their rides.
A dekotora truck can have a Cadillac bumper, illuminated chrome side-running boards, paper lanterns, luggage racks that light up like Christmas trees, detailed murals featuring dragons, samurai and cartoon characters, and even metal tubes shooting off the front that serve no purpose at all.
Amazingly, most of these trucks are actually used to transport goods. Sure, the guys may only turn on all the lights when they're showing the cars off to their buddies, but they also work in these things. It's like the FedEx guy coming to pick up your package in a neon David Lee Roth jumpsuit and a pink feather boa. Awesome, in other words.
Named for the English word "gal," gyaru are young girls who dye their hair sickly shades of silver and blonde, get fakey tans and slather the makeup on thicker than Bugs Bunny in drag. They can be found hanging out on street corners in almost every major city, but the movement was born (like almost every freaky Japanese style) in the ultra-hip Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo.
There are all sorts of subgroups of gyaru, and each successive generation gets weirder than the last.
First came the kogyaru, high school girls who wore sexualized versions of their school uniforms (supershort skirts and incredibly saggy socks) and dyed their hair blond. Once that style peaked, some girls started to go off the rails. Known as ganguro, they slathered dark makeup on their faces, painted their lips white and attached shiny stickers to their faces.
Don't look it in the eyes!
Some of the ganguro, however, weren't satisfied with looking like panda hookers and went one terrible step further. Calling themselves yamanba, which means "mountain hag" in Japanese, these girls made themselves look as ridiculous as possible, and wore makeup that would make John Wayne Gacy sleep with a nightlight.
On the Internet at least, the word "lolita" conjures up images of sweaty middle-aged dudes who hang around schoolyards and get their hard drives confiscated by the FBI. But in Japan, lolita refers to another bizarre subculture. Unlike their gyaru contemporaries, who cake on the makeup and bare as much skin as legally possible, lolita's dress up in clothes so modest, Queen Victoria would tell them to loosen up a little.
Clad in petticoats, high-collared dresses, bonnets and wielding fluffy parasols, they walk the Bladerunner streets of Tokyo looking like graduates of The Tim Burton School for Girls. There are all kinds of lolita's, each with their own variation on the theme, but they all share a love of women's fashions that died out before their grandmothers were born.
And these aren't just outfits they wear to special clubs or garden parties. You can see grown women in these full Victorian doll costumes on trains, in book stores and wolfing down cheeseburgers at McDonald's.
Why, you may ask? It has something to do with the rejection of male-created beauty standards and sexualized dress. Yes. In Japan, to express their rejection of oppressive cultural stereotypes and proclaim their independence, women dress like creepy school girls from 200 years ago. That sounds about right.
Gyaruo style, which started out as male versions of gyaru, is the weapon of choice for the young dudes who want to look cool. They wear expensive clothes, gallons of cologne and sport Rod Stewart haircuts. Male Hosts--men who make their livings drinking with older women--are at the pinnacle of this trend.
Like the gyaru, they keep their skin tanned and their hair an unnatural shade of dirty blond. By dirty, we mean it looks like they haven't washed their hair for a very, very long time. But unlike the gyaru, who ended up looking like mountain hags, the gyaruo took it up market and some of them have been raking it in ever since.
Not all men who dress like this are actual hosts, but the ones who are make large sums of money in specialized clubs all over the country. And what do they do for these women? Nothing; except sit with them, drink with them and slip them a romantic line every once and a while.
That's it. And since they were smart enough to figure out a way to make money drinking and talking to women in bars, they set off a trend among young Japanese men. Because if you can't actually get women to cough up their hard-earned money just to watch you get drunk and hear your lame pick up lines, at least you can look like you do.
The closest thing Japan has to white trash, yankii, (a corruption of Yankee) are young men and women who dye their hair blond or orange, wear trashy clothes and smoke, drink and have children before they're out of high school. They are famous for being loud, rude and refusing to take part in the strict manners of Japanese culture.
There is some overlap of the subcultures here, as the yankii borrow some of their style from gyaru and gyaruo, but their clothes and hair aren't what set them apart. Less a style of dress than a social phenomenon, the yankii have long been the boogeyman of contemporary Japanese culture and are regarded as a symbol of how far the country has fallen from its glory years. When the yankii started to appear in the late 80s and early 90s, Japanese media quickly whipped up a frenzy, predicting an Akira-like lawless Tokyo full of bad mannered punks with bad haircuts terrorizing little old ladies and not doing their homework.
Of course that only happened in cool Japanese manga and kickass movies like Battle Royale. Instead, yankiis turned out to be nothing worse than young people with bad taste in hair and sloppy manners. The yankii girls wore too much makeup, got married too young and ended up as really old looking 35-year-olds. The guys all end up as construction workers for some reason.
Japanese pop music is widely regarded by experts to be terrible. Doing nothing to dispel this reputation is visual kei, a term that represents both a style of music and a particularly insane style of dress that both the bands and fans embrace with frightening gusto. The music itself is largely forgettable, warmed-over 80s hair metal. But the costumes look like the aftermath of an orgy between lolitas, goths, vampires and anime characters where everybody had to hurriedly get dressed in the dark.
The result is an unholy hodgepodge of teased hair, industrial drum-fulls of white makeup and more lace than a doily convention. It would be crazy enough if all they did was wear this stuff to concerts and nightclubs, but like the lolita, they aren't afraid to strut down public streets in clothes that Prince would find undignified.
Aspects of visual kei style have even infiltrated regular fashion, as regular young Japanese women wear flouncy scarves in their hair and young men wear ass-hugging jeans. Yes, in about five years, real-life Japan will look exactly like a Final Fantasy cutscene.
Follow Geoff at Twitter and he'll promise not to dress like a Victorian school girl. Except for special occasions.
Do you have an idea in mind that would make a great article? Then sign up for our writers workshop! Know way too much about a random topic? Create a topic page and you could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow!
For more troublesome trends from the fashion world, check out 5 Clothing Innovations That Will be Annoying You Soon and 6 Popular Fashion Trends (That Killed People).
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 06.04.10) to unsee the horrors you've just witnessed.