A Guide to Japanese Fashion Subcultures (Podcast Recap! S1E7)

Published February 26th, 2021

In our seventh episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we chatted about an interesting topic: Subculture Mania. Basically, all about the various subcultures in Japan. Anyone with an interest in Japan will definitely have seen pictures online of all the weird and wonderful fashion out here: from girls dressed like 18th century toddlers to guys that look like they walked right off the set of the musical Grease. Contrast that with the sea of business suits you’ll see in every train station during rush hour, and it’s easy to see why their eccentricity stands out so much. Generally speaking, the more conservative the culture, the weirder and wilder kinds of nonconformism you’ll find on its fringes. That’s why when it comes to subcultures in Japan, you either go big or go home — a touch of hair dye and a couple piercings just ain't gonna cut it. We looked at five different unique subcultures to find out who they are, where they came from, and what they wear. This article is a summary of what we talked about in the podcast, so if you find this interesting, check out the full episode on Apple Podcast or Spotify!

1. Lolita

Image Credit: Stereometric

The first on the list has got to be the prominent Lolita subculture — all about the “kawaii” aesthetic, which basically means trying to appear childlike and innocent, while sticking to traditional Japanese modesty at the same time. Yep, those girls you might have seen draped in lace, clutching parasols and speaking in voices so high pitched they could smash a glass. How lolita came about began in the trendy neighbourhood of Harajuku — give episode 7 a listen to find out! I’ll briefly describe the lolita fashion: the unorthodox fashion style of Lolita is mostly influenced by the Victorian and Late Baroque periods of Europe, often mashed up with more modern design elements from other influences like punk and goth. Throughout the decades, Lolita has branched out into a couple of other sub-styles under the umbrella of the original. Want to know what they are? Yup, you guessed it — the full episode! Ever heard of Harajuku Girls? Lolita was brought into the collective consciousness at large when singer Gwen Stefani released a song called “Harajuku Girl” in 2004. Gwen Stefani had four backup dancers for her music video, and these girls were dressed in full Harajuku style, donning Lolita-esque babydoll dresses. The term soon became a byword for the quirky and vibrant trends of women’s style on the streets of Harajuku. Lolita does stand for something more than just the dressing — check the episode out where we explained the unspoken notion this subculture stands for.

2. Visual Kei

Image Credit: May S. Young

Visual Kei was primarily a musical genre that combined punk and glam rock with kabuki (a type of traditional Japanese theatre). The distinctive visuals of these Visual Kei bands — comparable with the aesthetics of the likes of Motley Crue — soon became the primary image of the subculture. The pioneers of this music genre/subculture are said to be a heavy metal band called X Japan, formed in 1982. This subculture is known to bend the rules of traditional masculinity, promoting androgyny and straight-up crossdressing. Need a visual description of exactly what makes a Visual Kei aesthetics? We went into detail in the podcast! But the key point is glam — lots and lots of glam. You’re always guaranteed to be one of the most flamboyant people in the room. Both shojo (a manga genre aimed at teenage girls) and Visual Kei celebrate the idea of the ‘beautiful man’ — in a very feminized sense which is quite at odds with the tastes of a lot of North American and European women. This idea of the unattainable perfection of a young pretty guy is what draws in hordes of screaming fans towards Visual Kei bands. Although they might look a bit like Marilyn Manson, the overall effect is more similar to One Direction. The whole idea of Visual Kei is to be different — and very noticeably so. Similar to Lolita, Visual Kei stands for something more — a movement of individual expression and exploration, through the means of dramatic performance as well as their everyday appearance. If you want to know more about Visual Kei, episode 7 has all you need to know about them!

3. Yankii

Image Credit: keatl

Every country has its own counterpart to Japan’s Yankii, who are basically teenage tearaways. The Yankiis are kind of closely related to Japanese gangsters: the yakuza. Think of them as a younger, softer, less threatening version — Yakuza-lite, if you will. There’s a whole story behind the name Yankii — it’s a secret that’s only revealed in the podcast! Usually, working class youths still in school (or gakkou) make up the Yankii subculture — that’s why Japanese society connects Yankii with juvenile delinquency. These teenage tearaways started their campaign of rebellion after World War II, when life was chaotic at best. The history of Yankiis go way, way back — a summary wouldn’t do it justice, so I suggest listening to the full episode. From the Yankii heyday of the 1980s to now, the image has included seifuku (school uniforms) that have been modified — shorter skirts for the girls and extremely baggy pants for the guys. In recent decades, there’s also been a swing away from motorbike gear, towards hip hop culture instead. But what remains consistent in pretty much every iteration of this rebellious youth demographic from the 50s until now is the hair — often dyed in blonde or red. The hair plays quite an important role in the look, as the 80s Yankii believed that a tight perm was a symbol of pride. Yankii members form a close-knit community, in which they stick together from school all the way through adulthood. Why this loyalty? I won’t tell you — but you know where you can go to find out why.

4. Japanese Rockabilly — Yoyogi Greasers

Image Credit: Wally Gobetz

The Japanese Rockabillies subculture might draw their cultural inspiration from the 1950s, but they’re very much alive and well in 2020 around the Yoyogi area in Tokyo — dance, music and amazing quiffs. Paying homage to the classic greasers of the 1950s, the Yoyogi greasers have formed an official dancing group called the Tokyo Rockabilly Club, who make a dance floor out of Yoyogi Park every Sunday. It all started back in 1955 when the song “Rock Around the Clock” made its way to Japan, dominating the charts. Back then, you could sit by the radio for hours waiting to catch your favourite songs, buy the released record itself, or follow local performers who played covers. Generally that’s how this subculture came to be — but we explained the history in detail in the podcast! The Japanese rockabilly subculture is committed to the aesthetics of the classic greasers — always in black leather, from top to bottom. Some of them kind of look like a crazy caricature of the Fonz, rather than a bona fida American rockabilly. They also take the iconic pompadour hairstyle toneweights (literally), greased up to a comically big peak, and combed slickly at the sides with a ducktail at the back. As for the girls, their take on rock and roll culture can be a little more colorful. While some of them don all-black leather like the guys, other sport 1950s poodle skirts — polka dots and all — presenting themselves as swing dancers. A revival of a fell-out-of-favor music genre through lively dance routines and dramatic visuals, the Yoyogi Greasers are definitely worth knowing about — no fights, no rebellion. Just music.

5. Gyaru

Image Credit: alex de carvalho

We also talked about the gyaru subculture — derived from the English word “gal”. Emerging largely out of the blue in the 1990s, the “Gal” culture seeks to defy the traditional beauty standards of Japan, where fairer skin and dark hair are the definitions of beauty. The gyaru girls of this subcultural movement get heavy tans (hiyake in Japanese) for a much darker skin tone, and contrast this with bleach blonde or similarly light-toned hair. Short skirts and lower-cut cleavage make an appearance too, as does extensive make-up. Generally that’s an image of a Gyaru. While the Yankii subculture has members from the working class, the Gyaru subculture started off with girls from the middle class and above. How and why, you ask? We revealed it all in the podcast! Basically, the subculture screams: “I can do whatever the hell I want!” This rebellious fashion movement didn’t just stick to the world of the wealthy, and as the subculture became bigger and bigger with more participants, sub-styles were formed. Some of these substyles were hardcore — we went through a few notable ones in the podcast — because the original Gyaru image that greatly resembles Western standard of beauty, they became the target of the very kind of attention it was trying to shake off. That called for greater extremes, with fake tans extremely dark, hair colours becoming bright neons, and the make-up became basically full-on face painting. So now it screams, “Do you think I’m sexy now, huh?”

Vocab Recap

If you’ve listened to episode 7, this is a compiled list of the Japanese vocabulary that we used throughout the episode. Kawaii (かわいい) - cute Hime () - princess Wanpisu (ワンピス) - a word for everyday dresses, jumpsuits and other similar clothing Doresu (ドレス) - a word for fancier dresses Kei (ケイ) - style Kabuki (歌舞伎) - a type of traditional Japanese theatre which became really big in the Edo Era Manga (漫画) - Japanese comic Shojo (少女) - a manga genre targeted at a female audience Oshare (おしゃれ) - fashionable gakkou (学校) - school Seifuku (制服) - school uniform Fuku () - clothing Mura () - village Riizento (リーゼント) - a classic pompadour hairstyle Jaketto (ジャケット) - jacket Tebukuro (手袋) - gloves Ongaku (音楽) - music Dansu (ダンス) - dance Utsukushisa (美しさ) - beauty, from the adjective utsukushi, to mean beautiful Kessho (化粧, 仮粧) - make-up Meiku (メイク) - the common slang word for make-up Hiyake (日焼け) - tan


These 5 subcultures just scratched the surface of the subculture scene in Japan. And this summary is barely an introduction to them all — do yourself a favor and listen to one of our most popular episodes to date: Episode 7 — Subculture Mania. From mahogany-toned feminism, to high school biker wannabes, to crossdressing rockers, the subcultures here are undoubtedly some of the most unique in the world.