The trend was a decisive turn in alternative fashion that happened in Tokyo from the late 1990’s until the mid 2000’s- a small yet dedicated group of girlies who flaunted their rejection of traditional Japanese notions of beauty all over the streets, idolising the western blonde-bombshell-from-California aesthetic and getting RIGHT into it.
I’ve only just found out about it recently (it would appear I have a lot of pop culture to catch up on), and it’s opened up something within me that I can’t quite put my finger on. Having some knowledge of the traditional values ganguro pisses all over and the history of Japan itself brings a pretty interesting depth to the whole concept, especially when I have fairly strong feelings about the values of western culture too. I could get really epic with this. But I’ll try to refrain, my brain is already hurting from the pressure I’m putting on myself to get out something that adequately surmises the weird respect I feel for this group of image obsessed girlies, and the melancholy that surrounds it.
Given that American television and cinema could have been the biggest and most important aspect of human culture in the 1990’s, it makes perfect sense that young Japanese ladies were inspired by the glamour and fun and sexiness they saw coming from the other side of the Pacific. Experiments with makeup and hair colour ensue, and from that comes the “gyaru” look- an extremely feminine fashion style that is still very prominent, based on images of Western beauty. Contact lenses and make-up trickery abound, skin tones become progressively more tanned, and the look that became known as ganguro was born- an intense Japanese version of being a young, sexy American girl which enabled them to be all “FUCK YOU” to their school dress codes (yes, this is all the work of teenagers).
Ganguro can look pretty weird, yes, but that is nothing. It wasn’t long before more girls caught on to the idea and started to push it. Like, really push it. Push it all the way over the edge of sanity, into the land of Manba and Yamanba, where it looks like the girls have photoshopped their own faces, and your average western viewers starts to feel more than a little uncomfortable.
THAT LAST ONE IS PARTICULARLY CONFRONTING RIGHT? The first time I saw that image I couldn’t help letting out a yelp. Black face fucks with people, but these girls were eagerly darkening up to the extreme and making a statement with it that had nothing to do with race, and only had to with confronting accepted society, whether they meant to or not (I’ve come across a few poignant statements by yamanbas in interviews about their stylistic choices, but never have I come across any hint of intellectualisation).
And that is what I find so fucking interesting about it; they couldn’t help themselves.
Japanese society was completely cut off from western influence for 200 years, and when the ports finally reopened to the rest of the world in the mid to late-1800’s, traditional Japanese society and culture was adamantly maintained, as best it could be under the circumstances. In 1945 the country became a democracy, modernization properly took hold and by the late 80’s, Japan’s economy had exploded- but the old world values were still at play in society. We’re all familiar with the extreme Japanese work ethic- which we as westerns are maybe a little threatened by- and the high suicide rates among high school students and salary-men as a result of intense pressure to succeed and to avoid bringing shame to one’s family etc. It’s an attitude the rest of the world struggles to understand, because the context of Japanese modernization is so different from our own.
It is this difference that Japanese youth in the last 20 years have taken as inspiration for their explorations of identity. Western youth culture has solid sub-cultures and genres that are quickly turned into commodities by magazines and record labels and fashion designers etc, and the product that would reach Japan when all this commercialisation of youth culture was in it’s formative stages was the image, the sounds, but none of the context left over after all the hoo-ha. The Japanese would pick it up those images, get REALLY into it, and create the Japanese version of the genre.
Japanese heavy metal:
And I can’t find any photos, but a friend of mine told me that when he and his band played some shows in Japan a few years ago, the guys in the other psychedelic bands they were playing with were FULL on psychedelic- really, really really long hair, patchwork pants, paisley print, tassels, all of it. And they were apparently the tightest musicians my friend had ever seen. I really wish I could have a photo of that.
But yeah, you’ve seen it all before; you’ve been impressed by those quiffs and giggled at how silly and repetitive J-pop is. But in the society they live in, with so much repression and pressure, it’s no wonder that J-versions are so intense, or that their porn has a tendency to be really weird (tentacles, school girls, demon rape). So much pent up shit needs to come out, and after generations of distrusting foreign ideas, the youth started to fucking WORSHIP of them. A large percentage of the population don’t identify as belonging to a particular religion, so my statement probably isn’t so far from the truth.
It’s exciting in a way, but given that my childish idealism often lends itself to being sad that the world isn’t a nicer place, I can’t help the melancholic feeling I get when I think about Japanese youth sub-cultures and the western sub-cultures that informed them. Western society has so many latent fuck ups within it- the role of women, the role of men, plastic surgery, marketing (and on that note, the sexualisation of EVERYTHING), irresponsible business practises, inadequate mental health care; hell, just file it all under colonisation plus capitalism equals broken. J-versions kind of freak me out, because all the bad parts of western culture are amplified when they’re taken out of context, but the kids fucking LOVE it, and thanks to the internet the J-versions are fed back to western youths and then they fucking LOVE it and we find ourselves with suburban white girls who dress up as Japanese girls who dress up in distorted sexy French maid outfits, and it’s this big confusing circle that doesn’t really mean anything but a few people out there are probably making A LOT of money from it all.
Ganguro was around long enough to shake Japanese girls (and guys I guess) from the notion that in order to be considered beautiful you must have pale skin, jet black hair, and be as demure as humanly possible, blending into the furniture until it’s time to mate. Ganguros were loud, obnoxious, and reminded everyone how cute they were constantly (“KAWAII!!!”) http://30.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l9wnptS8UK1qe3yapo1_500.jpg , hitting it home that self expression is an important part of being human. Since the 90’s, it has become totally normal for Japanese women to have lighter hair, dress casually in short skirts and tall boots, fuck around with their make-up, all of those things- which is great! But such intense focus on the image, especially when it’s based on looking like a Caucasian girl, or a doll, leaves me feeling weird.
I’ve leave you now with this video, I hope it makes you giggle as much as my housemate did when she caught me watching it.