The Weirdest Japanese Subcultures
Photo: ronniechua (Getty)
It’s almost a cliche to say it at this point, but Japan is a very weird country. The nation that gave us Godzilla and anime body pillows has a reputation for strictness in their adults, but all that repression has to bubble out somewhere. In this feature, we’ll take a trip over to the Land of the Rising Sun and show you ten totally bizarre subcultures.
Japan and race have an uneasy history — many residents had never seen a darker-skinned person until World War II, and portrayal of people of non-Japanese descent (especially those with richer skin tones in the media) is often a little inappropriate. No subculture illustrates that quite like “Ganguro,” which first rose to prominence in the 1990s. Literally translating to “black face,” the essential ganguro look was insanely deep bronze tans paired with tons of makeup and hair dyed platinum blonde or gray. The trend didn’t last long, but at its peak thousands of girls were copping the look and going to tanning salons with names like “Blacky” to get some color (even though they looked like Snooki and the sunburn-in-a-bottle girls from MTV’s “Jersey Shore”).
Moving in the opposite direction, the “Shironuri” fashion subculture revolves around making your appearance as white as possible. Directly translating as “painted white,” the mostly female members of this group cake on tons of white pancake makeup and dress in flowing white robes. They resemble nothing more than classic Japanese folkloric ghosts, and many shironuri followers incorporate horrific masks and decorations to their outfits.
So everybody knows the Yakuza, those badass Japanese gangs with the cool tattoos and missing finger joints. But did you know that a popular teen subculture consisted of girl gangs (or “girl bosses”) who wanted to show they were just as tough as the guys? The “Sukeban” first reared their heads in the 1960s, but their heyday was in the next decade. One of the most famous sukeban, the Kanto Women Delinquent Alliance, was rumored to boast over 20,000 members.
Fashion in Japan is a constantly shifting thing, with fads coming and going at breakneck speeds. One of the most mystifying of recent years is “Kigurumin,” which is the general term for people who dress up in costumes like cartoon characters or sports mascots or Disneyland performers. Japanese kids started essentially doing so recreationally in 2003, and when the subculture was at its peak it wasn’t unusual to see roving gangs of 40 or 50 teenage girls all wearing department store Pikachu costumes wandering the streets.
One interesting thing about many of these subcultures is that they reflect a desire to be somewhere besides modern-day Japan. Take the reki-jo, or “history girls.” This female subculture consists of women who have an obsession with pre-industrial Japan and choose to spend their time visiting ancient castles, watching mock samurai battles and reading history books. While their male otaku counterparts get obsessed with anime and video games, these young women look to the past for a sense of identity. Some even speak in outdated dialects that were used in their preferred time.
Speaking of looking to the past, one of the most visually unique subcultures in Japan gathers every week in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to celebrate their love of the American 1950s. The look is “rockabilly,” characterized by black leather jackets, tight T-shirts and enormous, cartoonish pompadours — think the Fonz as reimagined by an anime artist. The ’50s were a decade of huge cultural change for Japan, whem the previously insular nation was exposed to the fads of the rest of the world, and the Elvis-led popular music of the era made a huge impression. During these get-togethers, they dance to old rock ‘n’ roll music with intense choreography. It’s a pretty amazing spectacle.
You know those weird stretchy spandex bodysuits that cover your whole face that you see creeps wearing at sporting events? Leave it to Japan to create an entire culture around them. It’s called “zentai,” and it’s creepy as hell. An abbreviated form of “zenshintaitsu,” meaning “full body suit,” the zentai dress up in their skinsuits, often emblazoned with vivid patterns, and go out into the world amongst the normies. Members of the admittedly small subculture feel like being completely covered protects them from the constant judgement that the world puts on their looks, but we question if it’s really worth it.
When I say the word “trucker,” you probably think of a grizzled redneck hopped up on amphetamines driving the lonely American highways, stopping only for chicken fried steak and cheap prostitutes. But in Japan, trucker culture is … a little weirder. Meet the Dekotora, a group of truck aficionados who have just one goal: pimp their rides to the limit. The trucks these dudes drive are chromed out, festooned with dozens of colored lights, and often feature impressive murals on the sides. The subculture was kicked off by a 1975 movie called “Truck Guys” that spawned 9 sequels!
Japan’s appetite for foreign culture has been noted several times on this list, but this next entry takes it to a whole new level. In the mid-90s, a group of Japanese men formed a connection with the “cholo” lifestyle of East Los Angeles and they’ve gone on to found a thriving subculture of Asians mimicking Chicanos. Not only do they import music and faction from American cholo artists, there are even Japanese rappers who dress in top-buttoned flannel shirts and rhyme about lowriders.
Let’s close this with the one Japanese subculture you’re not likely to spot on the street. Hikikomori are a group, rumored to be one million strong, of young Japanese men who decide to completely unplug from society and spend their time with anime and video games. Social scientists think that the appeal of the hikikomori lifestyle has to do with the intense pressures placed on young Japanese people to succeed. Unable to live up to their families’ expectations, they withdraw into a fantasy world for as long as several years.