The latest internet meme to hit the Japanese subculture Gals, or gyaru, is the hairsmile. Simply turn your head to the side, flash a peace sign with a friend, and you’ve got the look #hairsmile.
In Japan, many subcultures fall under the umbrella category of gyaru or Gals, but most can be characterized by big blonde hair, dark tans, and long sharp glittery nails. Hair Smiling might not just be a way to to show off that big hair and those glittery nails; maybe it’s actually a form of revolt, a fuck off to the camera. Gals have always rebelled against the conventional standards of Japanese beauty: pale skin, black hair, conservative dress – and against the pressure to prioritize housewifery over their careers.
The gyaru style arose in the early 2000s when more Japanese women began choosing career-driven single life over marriage and child rearing, and maintained a youthful zeal for outrageous fashion into middle age. Around 70% of Japanese women leave their jobs after having their first child, and marriage is the quickest route to career instability, as employers often assume that it infers motherhood will follow suit. Japan is consistently ranked as one of the worst countries for gender equality at work, and a law that protects gender equality in the workplace only passed in 1985. Still, maintaining a career throughout motherhood remains difficult, and those that do are often referred to as oniyome, or “devil wife.”
As a result, many Japanese woman opt for single life. According to Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security, 90% of young women think that remaining single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.” Birth rates are declining rapidly and in 2012, adult diapers outsold baby diapers for the first time. The media calls this “celibacy syndrome” and the government fears the situation is so severe, extinction is an actual threat. The rigid, gender coded family model is no longer working in Japan, and while social norms may be slow to change, Japanese fashion trends hint at a more progressive attitude.
Almost 99% of people living in Japan are Japanese, and poverty almost doesn’t exist. In such an homogenous culture, those hoping to differentiate themselves do so by wearing clothing that associates them with particular subcultures, many of which are appropriated from the West. In Japan, most punks have little interest in anarchy or disobedience, and rockabilly refers to a historical style that has no local history. Those sporting the looks are the first to admit that their affiliations are superficial; styles that may refer to particular ideologies or attitudes in the West are worn purely as fashion statements in Japan.
But perhaps the most startling stylistic appropriation is that of African-American culture, which for some Japanese women, is more than skin deep. “Shoop” is one of many stores that sell “black” looks. Shoop sells jackets that say, in English, “Strong Black Woman” or “Black for Life”, and cater to those who wish to express stereotypically “black” notions of self. When journalist Rebecca Mead of the New York Times asked a 19 year old high school student about her style, she explained she had been black for 3 months, after abandoning her kawaii look in hopes of projecting a strong and sexy attitude.
Ganguro, a subculture within the Gals group, literally translates to “black-face.” Dark tans, bleached hair or colorful wigs, platform shoes, gold bling, neon spandex, and rainbow colored outfits define the look. Manba and Yamnba are styles that developed out of Ganguro in the early 2000s, and include pearlescent white makeup above and below the eyes, white or pastel shaded lipstick, and even darker skin tones. Synthetic dreadlocks and pink hair extensions are common accessories, as well as 3D appliqué nail stickers and stuffed animal jewelry.
In “Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion in Japan”, author Sharon Kinsella offers a theory as to how this style began. In the early 2000s, we saw the rise of female pop stars that, at least aesthetically, blurred racial boundaries. Stars like Lil’ Kim, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera had similar hair colors and skin tones yet differing ethnic backgrounds. Caramel colored skin and blonde hair became signifiers of the transracial, offering Japanese (and the world) the notion that race is mutable rather than fixed, and that manipulating one’s complexion could mean transgressing Japanese homogeny.
What may have started with the intention of relating to global trends and celebrity styles, the ganguro style is now definitively Japanese. (Though some Westerners have adopted the look.) Ganguro and gyaru fashion represents more than a desire to participate in Western trends; it is a form of social revolt, a defiance of traditional Japanese norms that situate women within the household, hidden from the public eye, and denied a voice.